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Technology as an Extension of Your Imagination: Master Teacher David Budries on Sound Design

Howard Sherman • January 2020Perspectives • January 5, 2020

When David Budries began working in the field of sound, he was cutting and splicing reel to reel tape. Today, the technology has advanced from that analog state to widely accessible digital tools. But he makes very clear that when it comes to sound design, the tools come second. “If you are led by the nose and manufacturers, I think it’s a really, really difficult thing to stay focused on your art. If you let the art lead you, then you find the tools to do what you need them to do.”

Budries has developed his sound design aesthetic and techniques over a 40-year career, which has ranged from sound designs across the country to the establishment of the sound design graduate program at the Yale School of Drama, where he chairs the sound design department. But he began his design career almost by accident. After having attended the University of Hartford, he started out professionally in the mid-’70s doing sound reinforcement for a variety of musical performances and events in the Hartford area. A call from Hartford Stage in 1981 set him on a new path.

You’re a Sound Designer

“I got a call from the production manager, Jack Conant, saying ‘Hey, would you be willing to act as a consultant for us? We’re doing our first musical [Is There Life After High School?], we’ve got bids from New York companies for doing the sound, and we don’t know how to evaluate them.’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help.’ I looked at all of the bids and said, ‘How about we look at another option?’ I gave them an option that would be me renting them some stuff, which is not what they asked me to do. But it included them buying $4,500 worth of equipment that they would own and keep, and they really liked the idea of turning some of that expense into hardware that they could continue to use. So, we put a sound system together.”

Was that the moment Budries became a sound designer? “Ultimately, yes,” says Budries, “but I didn’t know those two words at that point. I designed the system. I hired a crew to install it. I found them a mix engineer to run the show. We developed some new ideas about how to do sound reinforcement; not with wireless microphones, but with aerial microphones.”

Budries began to regularly work with Hartford Stage on sound, but it was after he had worked with artistic director Mark Lamos on The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. a couple of years in that Lamos came to him and said, “You don’t know what you’ve done for this production. You’re a sound designer.” Budries worked at Hartford Stage with Lamos, and numerous guest directors, throughout Lamos’s tenure at Hartford Stage, spanning from 1981 to 1997.

Of Lamos, Budries says, “Mark was my mentor because he was so musical, and just figuring out how to please him, relative to his interests and needs, was really all I was about. I didn’t think any of it, this idea of working in that environment, other than having him say, ‘I want to try to do this.’ I would think, ‘Whoa, what does that mean? OK, we’ll try something. We’ll see what works.’ It really was not any more complicated than that – the idea that there was a need for the production and there was a potential solution. What were the possibilities? Go ahead and put that together.”

Call to Teach

At the same time as his design work at Hartford Stage was developing, Budries was also running his own recording studio, Sound Situation, and leading the music production and technology program at the Hartt School of Music, his alma mater. Then another phone call would add another key platform in his career.

“Ben Sammler [technical director] at the Yale School of Drama reached out to me,” Budries recalls, “and he was very generous, saying that he appreciated the work I was doing at Hartford and would I be interested in teaching a class. I immediately felt there was no way I could teach in this institution, because I didn’t know anything. I’m an impostor in that context. I perceived at the time that they were this very elite institution, and that they were either just desperate or making a big mistake.”

“Long story short,” he continues, “I was convinced to give it a try – and I loved it. I loved teaching these kids. This was not in the design program at that time, but after teaching one class in 1984, it became two classes the next year, and three classes after that. Then they asked me if I would be head of sound and teach these classes. Lloyd Richards [dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Rep] had questions about whether or not sound design was a design discipline. He believed wholly that composition was, but he did not see sound design as a compositional task. A lot of the work I did early on was convincing him and Ben Mordecai [managing director of Yale Rep and head of the Arts Management program at Yale] that there was a legitimate field of art to pursue and that there was a curriculum that was design-oriented, that could be taught. I am not sure that I ever really convinced them, but they didn’t stop me. They let me do what I was doing. They let me explore and learn.”

Budries multitasked between Yale, Hartford Stage, and the Hartt School until 1999, at which point Victoria Nolan, who had succeeded Mordecai as managing director, made it possible for Budries to work full time at Yale.

David Budries with Michael Costagliola (seated) at the Yale School of Drama in 2017. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.

Both Teacher and Student

“From that point on,” he says, “I continued my freelance work and continued teaching, reinventing every year, figuring out what’s the better way to do what I’m doing. Being a teacher and being a student was something that actually made sense to me, was important to me. I still have the feeling, after 36 years of teaching at Yale, that I’m as much of a student as I am a teacher, that I continue to try to reinvent and to make the program better, more relevant.”

Budries credits the community of composers and musicians with helping him to build his design sensibility, particularly Mel Marvin, who was a regular composer of work at Hartford Stage during the same period Budries was designing there.

“Watching their process of composition,” Budries explains, “the selection of musical instrumentation for a particular moment, the development of scenes and ideas musically, had a direct resonance to the work I was doing in what at that point I started to call conceptual sound design. That’s not a widely accepted term at the moment, a companion to sound reinforcement design, which is the kind of design we typically see on Broadway. Conceptual sound design is really a compositional task using anything in the auditory world which then becomes a potential instrument in the world of sound design. It’s not just traditional instrumentation, but anything and everything that has the potential to make sound is now part of the artist’s palette for a sound designer.”

Budries points to his 1987 design for A Place with the Pigs, written and directed by, and featuring, the South African theater artist Athol Fugard, as a key step forward. Using a then-new technology called a sampler, Budries created a sound score, including compositions between scene changes, all based in pig sounds he had collected. He was determined to find a way to make the pigs laugh at Fugard’s character and, when he played the results, Fugard’s response, according to Budries, was, ‘David, I think you’ve got something there.’ Budries notes, “That started, I think, for the first time at Yale, an understanding that there was a way to make sound musical and confirmed this idea that sound design was actually something that was executable. It was a real entity and it was also teachable.”

Ear Essential

With Yale only accepting three graduate students in sound design a year, what are the particular qualities, skills, and experiences that Budries looks for in deciding which applicants to accept? “It’s hard to quantify in a series of check boxes,” he says. “The way I frame this program is that we look for a composer, a musician, a performer – that’s one category. We look for an engineer, a technologist, a person who’s more technically oriented. Then we look to the middle, a person who has the synthesis of these two things. If I can get people who are oriented in roughly that direction, they, if I got completely out of the way, would learn from each other.”

Budries goes on to say, “Everyone has to have an ear. They have to be able to hear and have some language – the more language they have describing what they hear, that helps them to be able to communicate. The ear is something that is hard for me to train. It has to be there. They have to have already developed that; have a natural ability. Then, of course, having some familiarity with the tools is really helpful. Then that all comes together between the ear, the language, the understanding of tools of music, of musicality, and the willingness to learn the engineering parts as well as the design part. There has to be a generosity to share whatever you bring to the table, a sense of civics in terms of what they work like as an ensemble; a sense of collaboration.”

Budries notes that there has been, for many students, a democratization in terms of the accessibility of tools for many students, given what is available on most computers and tablets nowadays. He says that students are increasingly more aware of technology and less afraid to try and adapt to new software and equipment. Yet he says that overall, his own thinking about sound design hasn’t changed a lot. “There are some people who are going to think through tools and some people who are going to think through stories,” he observes. “At the School of Drama, we try to think about people who are storytellers, who understand that the tool is an extension of your imagination, of your body. They are not the thing that drives a particular design forward. They’re simply the solution to ideas that you have about how to tell that story better.”

Looking Forward

While he clearly prioritizes conceptualization over tools, Budries does cite certain technologies that he feels are advancing the field. “I think most people would agree that advances in playback technology, such as the software QLab, is one of the most important changes in the past 10 years that have really helped to facilitate the delivery of ideas accurately with both flexibility and repeatability.” He goes on to cite digital audio workstations and the tools associated with them, saying, “They allow you to do pretty much anything your mind’s ear can imagine, and if it isn’t quite there, it’ll probably be there soon.” He also speaks of the future in holophonics – three-dimensional and even four-dimensional sound environments, through imaging software and developments in loudspeaker technology.

Ultimately, Budries credits the students at Yale as exciting him the most. “These new people, quite frankly, are smarter than I am, faster than I am, more dynamic than I am,” he says modestly. “Watching them come in, watching them learn, giving them opportunities to explore. What I have that they don’t is those years of experience that I can provide to them. What they’ve got is the kind of dynamism, of both the contemporary vocabulary for the issues that are important in our society and a willingness to engage and to shape and to tell these stories, and to get people to think. That is partly why I have elected to change my balance to do fewer shows on the road and spend more time with these students. That somehow makes sense to me. I still will obviously want to keep learning from professionals and bring it to the school, that’s the objective of a conservatory environment. But now I find joy in watching these people grow, developing, doing things that are so remarkable in their own exploration of this medium.”  

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