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A Conversation with Sound Designer Joshua D. Reid

Michael S. Eddy • March 2021Sound Design • March 3, 2021

This story can be read below or in our March 2021 digitial edition

sound Designer Joshua D. Reid

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joshua D. Reid, an award-winning theatrical sound designer based in New York City, designs for musicals, plays, concerts, and special events on and off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally. In the Fall of 2020 he remounted his award-winning sound design for the Jefferson Mays’ tour de force one-person Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, originally produced at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles but during the pandemic was filmed in NYC and streamed as a benefit for several theaters. [Read more about this project in the January issue of Stage Directions magazine.] Reid also frequently lectures at sound design master classes and at university theater programs. He’s a member of both USA829 and IATSE and holds dual citizenship with the U.S. and Canada. Reid has a BA in technical design & production from Western Michigan University. We thank him for taking the time to talk with Stage Directions about his design career, mentors, and old school outboard reverb equipment.

Tell me a little about your path to being a sound designer?
I ventured into high school theater and discovered that I was a horrible actor, but I had a very good mind for the technical aspects. There was a void in the sound department at my high school and therefore that’s where I decided to plant my roots. I went to Western Michigan University to pursue theater and ended up with a scenic design emphasis, but I was still doing a lot of the sound designing. Back then they didn’t have a BFA program in sound design; they just had a BA in design and production. I started venturing out and trying to find different opportunities to expand myself professionally. In my junior year I got involved with the Sound Master Classes in New York City where I met Abe Jacob who took me under his wing and started mentoring me. When it came time to decide whether I wanted to go to grad school or go out to work professionally, both Abe and David Budries at Yale recommended that I move into the professional world. 

Looking for positions in New York, Abe put me in touch with the Lincoln Center Festival and from there things started rolling. Abe was starting his last Broadway production—Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles, and I was his assistant designer on that. And from that show I got to know Jim van Bergen, Craig Van Tassel, Nevin Steinberg, and Mark Menard; sound designers within the New York community. That’s where I started planting my roots and I haven’t turned around since. I was Dan Moses Schreier’s lead associate for several years; technically I still am, but I’ve been venturing into my own sound designs within the last four years.

What are some milestones that stand out in your career?
A lot of the productions that I worked on as an associate, I’m extremely grateful for. I’ve gotten to work with people like John Doyle, James Lapine, and Stephen Sondheim. I don’t mean to name-drop, but I feel lucky to have gotten to work with them very early on in my career. They’ve really advanced my understanding of not only the industry, but our art form. 

The Royal Family of Broadway at Barrington Stage Company

What’s a show you’d love to design?
I have soft spots for Spring Awakening and Ragtime. I love doing new musicals though, because there’s an element of doing something new that’s very exciting; where you’re problem-solving while you’re trying to deliver a product. When you’re reincarnating pieces, it also comes along with inherent baggage of what problems they had already solved and what problems still exist within the piece. It’s much harder to solve some problems with a show that’s already been developed and you’re just reincarnating it. On a new show I can sit down with the orchestrator, composer, or the music director and we can all look at a list of problems and go ‘okay, this is my problem. This is where I can’t help. This is where I can help. Should I help solve this problem? Or do you want to leave it in your domain?’ That’s a very fluid and very engaging conversation that I love having when developing a new piece. 

What’s some old-school technology you still rely on?
Outboard reverb engines. There’s a move these days towards digital plugins and the flexibility that they allow, but it’s very, very difficult to emulate the old reverb engines that are still out there. Like the [TC Electronic’s] TC6000 and Lexicon PCM 91; those are still my favorite units. They give you a lot of options, but also give you the warmth and flexibility that you just don’t necessarily get with plugins.

Jefferson Mays in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

What’s some newer technology that really excites you from the last couple of years?
Digital multitracking of the show. That was a big key on A Christmas Carol. The ability for sound designers, or engineers, to record the inputs before they come into the desk. That really gives you the opportunity to diagnose whatever problems you may have. In tech you can go back and see what caused your problem, because you can replicate the problem as opposed to waiting to run that sequence again to pick out what it is. It’s much more efficient. The flexibility to diagnose and replicate problems on your own is really valuable. 

What are some changes in process or workflow that have improved your design process?
Sound is one of the areas where we don’t have a dedicated workflow for paperwork. Every designer is a little bit different. There’s no standardized program; there’s no Lightwright for sound. But we’re starting to move closer to a more standardized understanding of how to do paperwork and how to translate it. We’re starting to get closer to one program every sound designer uses, whether that’s Vectorworks or a FileMaker template, or Excel. But yeah, sound designers need to take a giant step forward with paperwork and understanding of how information needs to get from one person to another. The difficulty with that, so far, is that as soon as we start to approach a standardized form of working, the technology shifts and the standardization can’t keep up. Even during the timeframe that I’ve been working in New York City, it’s moved from network systems to optical systems. It’s starting to now expand within the optical market. Anything we do needs to take into account both; and there may be something that comes down the pike that replaces both of those systems. We don’t know so that is part of the challenge.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Tuacahn Center for the Arts

Besides Abe Jacob, who else has been a mentor or influenced your work?
Dan Moses Schreier, for sure, has been a massive mentor to me over the last 10 to 15 years. He really showed me the ropes around the New York theatrical community. Jonathan Deans and Nevin Steinberg have both been mentors to me, as well as John Shivers. Like all great mentors, they are all people that I can pick up the phone and call with any problems that might be popping up; I can ask for their opinions. And they’ve called me to say, ‘Hey, I’m encountering this problem. Have you run into it on any of your shows?’ It’s a small, tight knit community of people in the New York sound community so we all can bounce around ideas and rely on each other.

The Louder We Get at Theatre Calgary

 

 

Is there a piece of advice you got at the start of your career that you still find applicable today?
The best piece of advice that I ever got was in college from a senior sound student. In my freshman year he said to me, ‘don’t let your ambition become your liability’. Meaning you can be ambitious; you can be eager to learn, but make sure that you know when to ask questions. Understand what those questions are and understand the environment that you’re asking those questions. If the person doesn’t have the time, or the capacity to train you, then that’s not the time to be asking. That’s been really key for younger people that I work with as well. I want you to benefit and to succeed within this career, but if your ambition gets in the way of either of us doing our job on the production, then your ambition is a liability that will hold you back.

What is a piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out in theater?
Be yourself. Also the more understanding that you have of the other fields that we work in—or even fields that aren’t theater specific—the better; those are tools that make you stand out.

Has there been anything that surprised you about your career path?
The amount of trust—the amount of blind trust—that producers and directors put in their design teams. There’s a lot of people that I’ve worked with where it very much becomes about a vision. Then the execution of that vision amongst the design and creative team, is very much done in the blind without the director or the producers having oversight. Yes, we do touch base with them and say, ‘This is what we’re doing. Are we moving in the right direction?’ The positive communication between the different departments, different members of the creative team, I think that’s something that’s invaluable in terms of becoming part of the collaborative process. Pushing the boundaries, trying to find out the different visions, or the creative idea that everyone can bring to a show. I like to have frequent conversations as a creative team about each other’s ideas. The only reason that we can have those conversations is that we have trust in each other to talk about our ideas and be collaborative without judgement. That leads to everyone doing their best work.

Learn more about Joshua D. Reid’s work at his website: www.ReidSoundDesign.com.

 

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