Sound by Design


Prof. Dave Mickey working with students in the Sound Studio

The immersive experience of theatre relies heavily on visual cues –costuming, set design, lighting, not to mention the actors on stage. But while it may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to theatre, sound design may very well be its unsung hero. Imagine not hearing anything but dialog, watching TV or a movie on mute or not listening to the radio. Sound heightens the impact of the theatre-going experience and transforms it in both subtle and obvious ways using music, whistling gust of wind, slammed door, chirping bird, or ominous tone creates a dynamic and layered environment to help tell the story. Music, tones and sound effects can change how the audience interprets the story. Would a scary movie still be scary on mute or does the sound creates the tension and anticipation of what’s coming next? Music or sounds can change the mood of a scene. Would you still be scared if you heard circus music during the scary scene? As Department of Theatre & Dance Production Sound Engineer, Jeff Polunas, puts it, “Sound is the only design element you can’t see.” Professor Dave Mickey, Head of Sound Design, and Mr. Polunas have been instrumental in the technical and artistic evolution of sound design for campus productions.

In 2011, the sound design program underwent something of a phoenix-like transformation when new hire Professor Mickey removed outdated CD and MiniDisk players from the theatre spaces and replaced them with QLab (a media playback software) and iMacs allowing a more dynamic and immersive sound design. With a $10,000 grant from the CA-lottery, Professor Mickey updated the analog Sound Mixing Board to current digital, industry-standard sound mixing board for musical theatre. With the help of Mr. Polunas and a local Guitar Center store, the department upgraded the University’s outdated analog equipment for current digital sound mixing boards, one for each theatre space. More recently, the sound department received an $80,000 grant to update the musical theatre sound system with all new Meyer Sound Speakers and a Yamaha CL5 soundboard. The students are now able to learn current hardware and software that is used on broadway NYC, regional theatres, and theme parks.  As a working USA-829 (Theatre Designer’s union) sound design professional, Professor Mickey and professional sound designer Mr. Polunas advocated for these updates in order to enhance the learning environment and provide students with a model for what they would encounter in their professional careers in theatre.


By converting from analog to digital, the Theatre & Dance department sound program has become more portable, nimble, and responsive to the sound needs of each production, all of which are helmed by students in the design and technical production program. Instead of being tied to the controls of a soundboard which are hard wired into the theatre space, students now have the ability to make immediate audio adjustments remotely from a laptop or iPad. The technology allows for the student designer to be in the space to hear the sounds and to be an active collaborator with the design team. This encourages a more creative and collaborative approach and promotes a high-impact practice that enhances the learning experience. Digitalization also enables sound designers to save soundboard settings, something impossible to achieve with analog equipment. If settings were accidentally moved, it meant hours of time resetting each dial and switch.

Sound design is not only about the tools, but about the art. The tools help the sound designer to tell the story of the show. Students learn about how art and technology works together to tell a story. In summer of 2015, the advance sound lab recording studio saw upgrades with current sound design software. With these updates to the lab, students are able to record songs and voice-overs for productions and class, compose music, and create sounds or effects with the latest software. The core focus is on how to tell a story with only sound. Because what do they do in theatre? We tell stories.

Professor Mickey and Mr. Polunas also offer hands-on training to students as mentors by providing internship opportunities outside of the classroom in professional theatres across the United States. “During my Spring semester of my Freshman year, I took Dave Mickey’s Beginning Sound class, and I fell in love. During the course of that semester, I asked Dave what else I could do to learn more about sound,” explains theatre arts major, Devon Swiger, “That fall I interned with Diablo Sound at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. I have continued working at Halloween Horror Nights every year since then.”

Professor Mickey and Mr. Polunas also raises money to keep the sound  department up-to-date through fundraising. Nearly $14,000 has been raised over the last three years, and the department continues to modernize its sound equipment and sound design with the help of these funds. Since technology is always improving and changing the sound department needs to change and update to teach current standards.


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