Sound Demon: In Conversation with Sound Designer Kate Marvin

by Howard Sherman
Wives at Playwrights Horizons
Wives at Playwrights Horizons

Sound Demon. Sounds like the name of a comic book supervillain. The Sound Demon versus The Incredible Hulk. But sound designer Kate Marvin is one of the few people who can lay claim to having that title bestowed upon her, and not for nefarious, world-subjugating reasons. Post-college, when she said theater wasn’t much on her mind, Marvin worked at Target Margin Theater as assistant director on a workshop of a project about Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan. When the project was complete, she met with director David Herskovits about additional opportunities. Based on her musical skills—Marvin plays an array of instruments including piano, guitar, ukulele, banjo, and mandolin—Herskovits proposed she become the company’s new “sound demon,” following in the footsteps of Target Margin company member, Diana Konopka. “She was running sound for the group in a kind of performative way,” explains Marvin. “She was onstage mixing cues live. David said, ‘You have a sort of musical sensibility, and because it’s so performative and requires good timing and creativity, you should try doing this.’ I took over for Diana as she was transitioning out, moving on to Clubbed Thumb, and I loved it.”

Jumping in at the Deep End
Marvin didn’t know how to use any of the technology involved in the Target Margin process when she began, and credits Konopka with giving a crash course. Marvin said it was a guerrilla style of design—that she misses—now that most of her projects don’t require her to be—or afford her the opportunity to be—in the rehearsal room from the beginning.

Cataloguing the myriad tasks of a sound demon, Marvin describes the tools. “I had a MIDI keyboard in front of me that had faders on it, but it also had black and white keyboard keys,” she says. I had a sort of hacked version of the graphic programming program Isadora, programmed to kind of look like Ableton Live. So, I had multiple columns of sounds and I could play perhaps eight different things at the same time; I could layer all these different sounds. The company had a huge collection of sounds and loops, which I would bring in. All of the white keys on the keyboard were things like door slams, boings, or whip sound effects.”

Marvin says that the design process at Target Margin began right alongside the actors, in an improvisational fashion. “I was like a DJ in rehearsal. David Herskovits is really invested in the sound design of each of his shows and he’s really collaborative with his sound designers. He and I developed this way of communicating with one another that involved hand signals. We would sit down and listen to sounds together and name them. Then he could request different sounds. The rehearsal room was a safe space to just try anything and see how it affected the movement or how it affected the text.”

Going Back to School
With that kind of experience following her undergraduate years at Vassar, where she majored in Russian studies and graduated in 2007, and even with a number of professional credits, Marvin chose to go to graduate school at the Yale of School of Drama. “I felt like I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about sound engineering,” Marvin recalls. “I felt like I often needed to design my own systems, because especially when you work in small theaters, sometimes you end up designing your own system and hanging all of the equipment. I didn’t feel like I could be my own engineer, so I wanted to learn those skills.”

“I was really attracted to all of the cool stuff they had at Yale, but then I went to visit some classes, and I just loved the students, I loved the community, and I loved talking with [Yale sound design professors] David Budries and Matthew Suttor about what they were all about. Marvin says she gained the engineering knowledge she sought at Yale but came away with even more valuable lessons. “I learned a lot about collaboration,” she says, “I learned a lot about how to function in high-stress situations, which I already knew a fair amount about, but I think that’s everyone’s experience of grad school.”

She also credits Suttor’s one-on-one sessions with students for bringing out her composing skills. “It’s like music lessons, music therapy, music support,” she enthuses, “and they’re catered to each student really specifically. He asked ‘Do you consider yourself a composer? Do you consider yourself a musician? What kind of things are you interested in writing and working on? Or do you just want to learn music theory?’ He’s there for all of it. He’s there to support you in any way you choose, and to advise you. So, I ended up writing all of this music that I never thought I would write because of him.”

Expanding Her Network
After graduating from Yale in 2016, Marvin said her established networks helped her get work. In addition to Target Margin, she had worked with Anne Cattaneo at the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab where she met numerous early-career directors, not just nationally but internationally, and also had the relationships with other students with whom she overlapped at Yale. But she gives particular credit to Wendy C. Goldberg, Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center with offering her an opportunity not only to expand her network but to expand her conceptual process as resident sound designer—in a process where design is never actually fully realized.

“There’s the dream design process, or a series of design meetings,” she enthused. “You sit on the porch and talk with designers, the playwright, and the director. You talk about, ‘In an ideal world, what would we do with this play? Or what could we do with this play? What would be fun? What’s a dumb idea? But what’s also a brilliant idea?’ I think those were good lessons. I learned a lot about dramaturgy in grad school, but I also learned a lot about dramaturgy from that summer.”

In terms of a sound design’s impact on an audience, Marvin describes the work, which needless to say is wholly aural, in more physical terms. “One of the things I play with is what kind of learned reactions people have to different kinds of sounds. We respond certain ways to a low rumble or stabbing strings—the Psycho music. I think culturally audiences have learned responses to specific kinds of sonic gestures,” she says. “So, I think understanding what those are, as a sound designer, is important and fun. And you can play with those gestures. I also think it’s really exciting to kind of tickle people where they’re not expecting to be tickled.”

Indispensable Technology
Like any sound designer, Marvin has her favorite pieces of technology. “I use Ableton Live a lot,” she says. “I used to use it to actually run shows, but I use it to create music. I also use [Apple’s] Logic Pro, and obviously [Figure 53’s] QLab® is totally indispensable. I would add to those the Novation Launchkey Mini MKII, which I use as a portable composition tool, as well as the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32.”

“Sometimes I record myself, or record other musicians, she continues. “And I have [Shure] KSM44 condenser microphone, and an Apollo Twin audio interface. And I found both of those pieces of equipment to be really, really great. But sometimes you just record yourself on your phone, and you work from there. I also have a Roland RD-2000 keyboard at home. Some of my favorite sample packs are Imogen Heap’s “Box of Tricks” and Ableton’s pack, “Spectral Textures.”

Regarding techniques and gear that she finds particularly interesting, Marvin enthuses, “Bobby McElver is an innovative sound designer I’ve been following for years and really admire. The work he’s doing with Wave Field Synthesis—a spatial audio rendering technique that places virtual sound sources in real space—is pretty thrilling. I experienced the overhead version of the array that he and Andrew Schneider implemented for AFTER, which was at The Public Theater as part of its Under The Radar Festival; it was truly awesome.”

Amplifying Voices
It has been widely noted that theater has historically been less open to women designers. How does Marvin perceive the field? She says that, since she began in 2007, she’s seeing a lot more non-male identifying sound designers getting work. “Over the past few years, I have noticed that many of the directors and theater companies I work with are making an effort to widen the range of voices they amplify,” she says responding with a sound designer’s metaphor. “I like the term: ‘amplifying voices.’ There are many different kinds of voices and perspectives in the theater community, but, historically, cisgender white men have been the ones holding the microphone. So, here’s one thing I think we can do to keep making progress—if you have the microphone, share it and pass it! Directors and producers have a lot of hiring power—designers also have the power to create opportunities for other designers through hiring assistants and associates and through our ability to recommend one another for jobs. We all need to use our power to pass the microphone.”

Collaborative Research
Marvin says she finds pleasure in collaboration as well as in research. Pointing to the recent production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s Wives at Playwrights Horizons, set in multiple locations and multiple time periods, Marvin says, “One of the most fun things about it was that my research included the music of 16th century France, Ernest Hemingway’s Idaho, the 1920s and present day—and also the universe. I love working on pieces where the research is expansive and less focused.”

With a range of recent credits including Indecent at The Guthrie Theater, Grounded at Westport Country Playhouse, and Sweat at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Marvin says that in addition to her ongoing theater work, she’s interested in working on podcasts and doing sound installations, the latter a call back to her graduate school thesis. “I would love to do more installation work,” says Marvin. “I think it’s exciting work and there are a lot of people in that world who I really admire.”

Recalling her earliest experiences in theater, Marvin reminisces about tagging along with her father, musical theater and opera composer Mel Marvin, when she was just a child. “I spent a lot of time in his rehearsal rooms, and in tech when I was a kid and I loved it,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is how it should be between humans.’ I think it was an example of really positive collaboration between humans, and people treating each other with a lot of respect, but also being incredibly playful with one another, which I really valued as a kid. And I thought, ‘Well, if you can grow up and get to play as an adult’, that’s the dream, right?”