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Careers in Sound: Leon Rothenberg

This week on the blog, we begin a new series: Careers in Sound. We have the honor of starting with Leon Rothenberg. Leon is a Tony award-winning Theatrical Sound Designer (if you don’t know what the Tonys are, they’re basically the Oscar for the theater). Leon got a Bachelors of Music (and a BA in Computer Science) from Oberlin College, a MFA in Theater from CalArts, and has taught at CalArts, the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Bennington College. He currently teaches at UCLA. More to the point of today’s post, he’s done sound design on Broadway, for Cirque du Soleil (making Kris swoon), and for productions all over the globe. We are especially excited to have him here to talk about using modular synthesis in a sound-design context. After talking to people in a variety of industries, we know it’s extremely common, but it remains a bit of a secret weapon.

Credit: Laura Baranik, Michael Crane and Lori Laing in Dracula by Kate Hamill. Photo by James Leynse.

Before the world went bonkers, Leon was working on an Off-Broadway production of Dracula. For your Halloween pleasure, we’re presenting you with some of the cues from the show, and talking to Leon about the barebones of theatrical sound design, modular, and how he overcomes the sometimes unrepeatable nature of modular synths in a theater context, where things need to be highly repeatable. Also, some Halloween puns.

Kris: Hi Leon, thank you so much for doing this! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up here...and also what exactly sound design in theater actually is.

Leon Rothenberg: I design sound mostly for theater, but also for special events, immersive spaces and games. I started out as a composer, studied computer science and then returned to theater after working as a coder for awhile. I got into sound from composing because it was more fun to be in a collaborative environment than to sit alone at the piano all the time.



As a sound designer in theater I’m responsible for all the sonic elements of the show. That includes all the content: sometimes music creation or curating, but also all the technical communication systems and the sound system. I like to think of this part as the “space” that the sound inhabits. To me that is what makes sound design for live theater unique: that sound exists in live space and can’t be separated from that. So whether it’s a play, an immersive experience heavy on content, or a musical, theatrical sound design is about creating space with sound. Sometimes you are planning and building sound systems, sometimes in the studio, but much of your time is spent working and mixing in the theater itself because each experience is custom tailored to the space it is in.

Although I still get to compose from time to time depending on the project, the compositional process, the idea of telling a story over time and how to craft that, has been a defining factor in how I approach sound. It fits well with the additional dramaturgical element that is the crux of theater: storytelling.

KK: I love the idea of telling the story through music. Can you talk a bit more about how you approach this?

LR: In theater, everything comes from the text, so the first step is to read it--of course--and then get together with the other collaborators and designers and talk about what the production is going to look and feel like. We all take part in trying to figure out how we want to tell the story, which translates into how the space is treated scenically, costumes, lighting, are there projections, and how the sound does its part to support all that. I have the responsibility of making sure everyone is heard (sometimes using mics, sometimes not), and then deciding what else I can do with sound to support the point of view that the production has. One of the first questions I usually ask, especially when doing an oft-produced piece like Shakespeare is, “Why this, why now?” And answering that question starts to create a point of view, a reason for doing it. Then we all just sort of riff off that until we come up with some cohesive whole.

KK: So this sounds like a bit more of an iterative process. This makes me realize that I don’t really know anything about how theater is made. Can you walk us through the skeleton of a show?

LR: So yeah, there are 3 big parts to any production. Well, 4 if you count performances, which we probably should. First is the creative-design phase, where the team figures out what the show is and how to support that in each design area. Then it moves “into the room,” and while the director, stage managers and actors are busy with rehearsal, the design people are busy with pre-production: furiously making stuff, building sets and costumes, or putting together and testing the lighting and sound systems. Then as rehearsal winds up, we load the technical elements into the theater. Then we start “Technical Rehearsals,” where we put it all together. This is a slow and arduous process, but it’s really where the production gets made, so this is a really fun and creative time. “Tech” is where I spend most of the time at my job, generally 14-hour days, six days a week. We have preview performances where we open up to the public and continue honing and crafting the show. On opening night my job is done: there’s an operator whose job it is to run the show. On a musical, or anytime the actors are mic’ed, that operator is also mixing the mics live. Finally there is an official press opening, we have a party, and move on to the next one!

KK: Ok then once you have everything designed, the show...must go on (yeah yeah, I crack myself up). How is designed sound implemented along with the show?

LR: For theater that is not improvised or devised (which describes the process of making theater in a group that “discovers” the final piece as a collective) repeatability is key. QLab is the standard for theatrical playback, so everything--sound and music--is chopped up to be delivered in real time during the performance. This means cueing the soundscape to follow the action on stage, but also to cut it all up into stems so that different elements can be sent to different speakers to create an immersive environment. It’s got to be repeatable without hassle, like, just pushing a button, so QLab provides a lot of that automation.

KK: So you have had a pretty busy and successful career with composing and sound designing. What made you decide to get into modular synthesis?

Modular is like making sculpture with wet sand—it’s messy and unpredictable

LR: I got into modular as a departure from my work actually. It can be such a messy, hands-on process that it was a nice change from the highly controlled nature of my professional work. In sound for theater, you strive to control every element of everything that you can because there is so much that you can’t. So structuring your work to be predictable and repeatable is really important. But modular is like making sculpture with wet sand—it’s messy and unpredictable and a nice creative meditation on sound making. I have begun to integrate modular into my professional work and better understand it so it can be more predictable, but I still always get very quickly lost in all the ideas that are sparked by the act of making something, and always end up very far away from where I thought I was going.

KK: I feel like that’s pretty common, whether it’s sound design or music. Sometimes it feels like modular has a mind of its own and it decides where it wants to go! I imagine that it’s a challenge to use something like modular synth in a theater setting where everything needs to be so tight. How have you adapted to using it in your workflow?

LR: Because theater sound is so tightly controlled and because the schedule can be quite fast and pressured, I have found that the best way to integrate modular is to be able to work with it beforehand, generate a bunch of content, then chop it up and get it ready to use. Invariably once I am in the theater working, it will have to be modified or be something completely different, so in that case I’ll try to approximate something in the moment and then go back and refine it, try to build another patch or just go with something different. But the big benefit to modular in theater design is more ephemeral--it has changed the way I think about sound creation in lots of new and exciting ways. It’s a great tool to use and get good with, but it also makes for really exciting and creative ways of thinking.

More traditionally, theater sound design is done inside the box with DAWs and SFX libraries or recordings. This makes things like VCV Rack really useful in a pinch because it provides a greater chance of repeatability. But the truth is that I have started to build things in a DAW (Reaper) in more of a modular way, treating tracks like modules and routing control information (either sound or MIDI) through the tracks in ways that resemble a patch. That’s really a lot of fun and I am enjoying using a DAW in a different way.

Interested in more on Leon? Check out his Instagram for his non-theater modular meanderings. His website has more on his professional life and check out some of his sounds on soundcloud at syntheophyte and at klaxson.

Do you have an unusual career in sound? Have an idea for someone you want to do a post? Get in touch!

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