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The Soundographer: Lindsay Jones Designs Audible’s Production of A Streetcar Named Desire

Michael S. Eddy • January 2021Sound Design • January 6, 2021

Sound designer Lindsay Jones, who has a long working relationship with director Robert O’Hara, was supposed to design the sound for O’Hara’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this past summer. With the pandemic shutdown, Williamstown partnered with Audible to present a series of audio plays including Streetcar. Jones, who has been nominated for two Tony Awards for his sound design and music composition for O’Hara’s Slave Play, took some time to speak about designing for radio plays and how he thinks sound can paint a whole world for the listening audience.

Talk about designing for an audio play and having almost total design control over the audience’s perceptions.
It was an incredible opportunity. The more that I work on audio drama, the more excited I am about the possibilities for it. I’m honestly hopeful that even when live theater comes back in full strength, that there will still be a focus on audio drama that theaters and producers might be interested in, because I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential there. 

If you think about it, when you go to see a play in a theater, you walk in and you see the set. You already know, looking at the set, that it’s not a functional piece of architecture; it’s just a suggestion. What you do as an audience member, is you immediately engage your imagination and your creativity to fill in the world that you can’t see that surrounds the production. When I listen to audio dramas, I have that same experience, I’m filling in what I can’t see with my own creative imagination. It feels similar to the experience of live theater in which I feel like I buy into the experience. I immediately connect with the story because, as a listener, I’m part of the collaboration that allows me to engage creatively as part of the process.

Take us through some of the challenges and solutions for Streetcar.
I was very fortunate to partner with Audible in recording this entire experience and putting it together. Thankfully, Audible has some terrific resources and background knowledge, since their entire business is focused around getting great recordings of artists. Each actor was sent their own individual computer and microphone—with instruction from Audible’s engineers—so that they would be recording directly into that computer; it would be a high-quality audio recording. Their software was able to be monitored by Audible’s engineers, remotely. 

The actors set up and created their own recording studio. They’d locate a room in their house that was the most acoustically quiet and acoustically friendly. That was usually a clothes closet, because being surrounded by clothes helps deaden the room and helpfully insulates a certain amount of outside noise. The actors connected through their own computers to Chime, Amazon’s proprietary video conferencing software. They would listen and monitor the other actors on the call through Chime and then act into the microphone that would record into the Audible computer.

Once all the takes were recorded, they were compiled by Audible’s engineers. All those individual actor tracks were spliced together to create the script from beginning to end. That was a lengthy process as we recorded several takes of each scene, so we had to decide, ‘what’re the best lines? What’s the best sequences?’ Then it was sent to me. I slowly went through that entire collection of voices and created original music, where we needed it, for transitions and underscoring. I also created the full audio soundscape that would surround the voices.

There’s lots of interesting challenges, because there are specific moments where the characters are in relationship to each other on the stage, which would be obvious if you were watching it live in a theater. In an audio setting, you have to also specifically work with audio plugins and tricks to get people to understand the distance away from one actor to another. So, for example, if they’re supposed to be on the street, I changed the quality of their voice with reverb plugins to make them sound like they were outside. Or if they’re upstairs having an argument, I’m using EQ to make it sound like they’re being heard through a wall or a floor. 

It was a huge process to create music, sound environments, and specific Foley effects so that you could understand what the actors would be doing if you could see them. Then of course, to affect the actor’s voices specifically so that they could be perceived in location to one another in this imaginary environment. On top of that, also make sure that it sounded like all the actors were speaking in the same room because they weren’t recorded in the same room. 

Because the dialogue edit took much longer than anyone anticipated, the process I just described took place in about three weeks; an insane three weeks of work. It was really, really hard, but basically there was a preestablished deadline, and we made it!

Clockwise from top left: Ariel Shafir, Carla Gugino, Robert O’Hara and Audra McDonald in rehearsal via Chime for the audio production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

What software, or plugins, did you use to create the spatial relationships?
It was a combination of several things. Logic from Apple was my overall sequencer. After that, I used iZotope RX to work on the actor’s voices to get them to sound approximately equal in terms of where they were in the space. Then I used Altiverb, a reverb plugin from Audio Ease, which was instrumental for exotic location sounds. For example, where Blanche is speaking as if she’s in a bathroom while everyone else is out in the main part of the apartment, I used Altiverb extensively. 

The audio environment of the space was that this apartment was in a busy part of New Orleans. It’s hot, summertime, the windows and screen door are open all the time. So, the outside, is a constant environment that we hear, the hustle and bustle of New Orleans. That was an incredible assistance to me, because anytime there were audio differences in terms of room tone from one actor to another, a lot of that could be blurred or obscured by this gentle ambiance of outside New Orleans sounds filtering in. I created my own room tone, which was the sound of outside to cover up the room tone of where people recorded.

Talk about layering in the sound effects and Foley effects.
A good portion were effects that I already had, that I’ve either recorded or are from commercial libraries that I own. But there were moments where I had to record things. There’s lots of sequences of people playing cards, people pouring drinks and then drinking them, activity with bottles, and stuff like that. Doing them myself was more accurate than trying to build them for several hours out of other people’s effects. There was one piece of music from a music library; a five-second piece where a rumba comes on the radio, that I found in a commercial music library. There were several pieces of music, most of which I was able to make myself, but the rumba was the one piece where I just went to the music library.

What would you tell another sound designer about audio plays?

I’ve been talking to a lot of sound designers about audio drama because this has been the pivot, not only for theaters, but the pivot for many sound designers to, hopefully, be able to continue earning a living by creating these worlds. The first thing I would say is give yourself a lot of time; it’s more intensive than you might think. It is significantly a more extensive amount of work—and a more detailed amount of work—than you would do even creating sound design for theater. 

Make sure that theaters understand that it’s going to take more time. I think theaters are very used to establishing a timetable that’s based upon their experience of working in live theater. What you quickly learn is it’s not the same! There’s more time, there’s more effort, and there needs to be more resources dedicated to the audio. The thing is the sound designer in this case becomes all the designers; they help you to understand everything from what the set is, to what the mood is, to even what the costumes are. I certainly, on Streetcar, spent a significant amount of time making sure that clothing sounds were a part of the experience. So, if you hear two people hug, you hear their clothing, or if you hear a person sit down, you hear their clothing. That makes it feel more realistic.  Once you hear those sounds, subconsciously, you’re just able to hear them and then accept them and you immediately see them. I think that’s the big discovery, that everyone is understanding that in this case, the sound designer, for all intents and purposes, is the designer of the whole thing.

You’re the soundographer?
Yes, the soundographer, exactly. It’s my hope, honestly, that as theaters experience this new way of doing theater for themselves, that hopefully their understanding of what sound design is—and what it can be—will become more extensive and deeper. That they’ll be willing to continue that level of support to sound designers when we go back to live theater. Because I think sometimes sound design in live theater, either is not understood or it’s maybe taken for granted. This is an exceptional time in which everyone is coming to understand the great storytelling power and resources that sound design can provide; how it can really illuminate understanding and depth of emotion. I’m hopeful that theaters will take these lessons and hang on to them in live theater so they can take advantage of the incredible power that sound design has in their live productions as well.

Any other thoughts about working on Streetcar?

The cast is terrific! I have to give them a tremendous amount of credit because what they were asked to do was an extremely complex and difficult emotional performance while crouched in a clothes closet. I mean, it’s just superhuman what they did. I think their performances are amazing and I’m just so grateful to them for their willingness to really throw themselves completely into this project and do something that is probably very unnatural to them, but to come up with these performances that are incredible.  

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