Nicola Chang: Top Tips From A Sound Designer

1 March 2023

Award-winning composer/sound designer Nicola T. Chang, who is working with our Young Company, shares her top tips about starting out as a sound designer for theatre.

TARA THEATRE: What does the role of the sound designer entail?

A sound designer effectively takes care of an audience’s entire audio journey: what they hear, what they experience, and ultimately how that makes them feel throughout the whole piece.

TARA THEATRE: What first inspired you to become a sound designer?

My journey into sound design actually started in film and performance! I’ve always wanted to write music for film and began my theatre career as a performer, and hence my sound design/composition career sort of met in the middle. I started in small pub/fringe theatre shows and gradually worked my way to where I am now.

TARA THEATRE: What has been your personal journey into becoming a sound designer?

I grew up in Hong Kong and moved to this country on a one-way ticket 8 years ago… I secretly wanted to audition for STOMP and didn’t tell anyone! Once I got into the show, I started to look more into composing and sound designing on the side, as one of my career goals was to be a film composer. I started out in pub and fringe shows whilst balancing my day job and occasional STOMP performance, and then slowly worked my way to the projects I do now. At the moment, I spend about 90% of my working year composing/sound designing for stage and screen, and 10% of the year performing either as a stage musician or a musical director.

TARA THEATRE: Who does the sound designer work most closely with during a production?

Creatively, designers work closely with the director (for overall vision), other designers (to achieve said vision together across all elements, such as lighting, set, projection), venue technicians and production sound engineers (to create and solidify a design best tailored to a particular space), cast (to work towards vision of production and understand whether the design is helping or hindering them), stage management and crew (to execute said design and vision in a most predictable and efficient manner across all performances), and many, many more people!

TARA THEATRE: How is sound design for theatre different from design for film or TV?

I work across theatre, film, TV and audio drama so this is an interesting question for me. Theatre is live and unpredictable: actors drop lines, people might not be able to perform, a swing is called up… all of those might happen in any given show, and therefore my job as a sound design is to ensure that anything I design is still replicable despite uncertain factors. While this might sometimes mean design constraints, it also allows for more abstract design ideas to be used in a show.

The timeline of theatre is also different from that of film. In theatre, you tend to be in a room with your whole production team for a few weeks, working closely together to produce a piece of work, whereas in film/TV you often work independently after receiving a final edit/final cut. This is a big factor to consider when thinking about how you want to work and what schedule you’d like to follow in your career!

TARA THEATRE: What are the top 3 skills that a good sound designer should have?

  1. Good mastery of software for personal use – whichever software you use to create your music/sound effects, make sure you know it well and can make it work well for you
  2. Qlab
  3. Good understanding of audio effects, signal flow and audio editing.
  4. And (sorry to add a fourth one) excellent people skills!

TARA THEATRE: What are some steps emerging sound designers can take to improve their skills?

Always upskill and network relentlessly. Attend zoom conferences and online classes on various technologies, watch tutorials on using particular software packages, and continue to hone your speciality. Watch other shows and films if you can – it gives you and a potential collaborator something to talk about in your conversations, and also gives an insight into design trends. 

TARA THEATRE: What are some of the ways you can get started as a sound designer?

On an everyday basis, practice intelligent listening. Listen out for how music and sound makes you feel in your favourite TV shows, films, theatre shows, and in different environments. On a fundamental level, sound designers understand the power of sound and music to aid storytelling and to immerse audiences in environments.

To find out whether this might be for you, reach out to sound designers whose work you admire (email might be best – not everybody likes DMs!) and ask whether you might be able to shadow them on a job, or even have a coffee if they have the time/capacity.

To find collaborators, network with directors, producers and theatre companies – they are the looking for sound designers, and your careers will grow together! Join various networking platforms (Artsjobs, Mandy, Twitter etc.) to find gigs, and make sure you have an audio portfolio ready to go (Soundcloud is a good starting point). If something you made doesn’t get used in a show, shelf it – you never know when it’s useful for another show down the line

Training – there are many schools that offer courses in sound design and technical theatre. Find the one that’s right for you: find out whether they let you design student productions and whether there are any external freelancers who mentor students. Networking and having a portfolio of work is always crucial.

Join mentorship and apprenticeship schemes: various theatres have a version of these, such as the National Theatre to Jermyn Street Theatre.

TARA THEATRE: Where do you find inspiration?

I find a lot of inspiration in film, theatre, live music performance and galleries, and I make an effort to experience whatever a director uses as a jumping off point for a production, whether it’s the Greenwich Observatory, a Rothko exhibition, a Gaspar Noé film or an Arcade Fire album (yes, these have all been given to me by different directors as points of inspiration!)

TARA THEATRE: In what ways are you making your practice more sustainable?

From a personal point of view, I’m looking after myself more which in turn allows me to go further – there’s no way I can develop my career if I’m not also sustaining my health! I’m trying to “protect my peace” and set firmer boundaries in the workplace, and walking away from unkind and unfair situations. I also choose projects that align with my ethos and make every experience as fruitful and rewarding as possible. From a practical point of view, I aim to purchase all my equipment second-hand/refurbished, and opt for reusable items as much as possible (e.g. batteries).

TARA THEATRE: In what ways can sound design be radical and political?

NICOLA: I think sound is a very efficient design language that brings in the outside world and situates us within the politics of a piece. Audio footage, historical recordings, verbatim theatre, and live streaming are great examples of techniques that one can use. One of the greatest things sound design can do is magnify the politics onstage  – a protest can be made a thousand-people strong or an altercation made a thousand-times more horrific – by choosing what audiences hear.

TARA THEATRE: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out? / What is one thing you wish you knew when you were making your first steps into a design career?

NICOLA: One piece of advice is to “find your crowd” – find the people you want to work with, find a community that has your back, and find artists whose work you admire and reach out to them, so you can all grow together. I wish I knew more business skills when I was starting out – how to position myself in the industry, how to grow a brand, basic accounting and finance skills, joining a union, and how to continuously adapt to a changing market.

Nicola T. Chang is an award-winning composer/sound designer. She was the Composer/Sound Designer on the 2020/21 Old Vic 12 cohort and a current BAFTA Connect Member (Film Composer). She was a co-winner of the Evening Standard Future Theatre Fund (Audio Design) in 2021.

Selected credits include Top Girls (Liverpool Everyman), Kerry Jackson (National Theatre), My Neighbour Totoro (RSC/Barbican), Of the Cut (Young Vic), For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy (Apollo Theatre/Royal Court/New Diorama), All Mirth and No Matter (RSC), Dziady (Almeida Theatre), White Pearl (Royal Court), The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs (Soho Theatre), The Death of Ophelia (Shakespeare’s Globe), and Little Baby Jesus (Orange Tree Theatre/JMK Winner 2019).

As a performer, she currently plays Keys 2/Percussion in Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, and has previously appeared as Deputy MD/Keys 1 in SIX! (West End) and as a cast member in STOMP! (West End/World Tour).

The Tara Theatre Young Company will perform their original devised show on 18-22 April. Find out more and book below.