Tony Award-nominated sound designer Kai Harada is a sonic wizard with 20 Broadway credits to his name. But “The Band’s Visit,” the hit new musical that whispers rather than roars and boasts mobile musicians creating diegetic sound, posed new quandaries, even for this technological veteran. Harada spoke with Backstage about jumping into the gentle tuner after its Off-Broadway run, the trick he employed to ensure the show’s actors could hear its onstage musicians, and the one thing he tells all aspiring designers in his field.
What do theatrical sound designers actually do?
For a Broadway musical, the sound designer is responsible for delivering a sound experience to everybody in the theater, making sure all the words are heard and all the music is heard. Even though physics dictates that it’s not possible to make it sound exactly the same in every seat, we want everybody to have a really good sonic experience. We use microphones and speakers in different places—and a really good engineer.
“The Band’s Visit” is a highly unique musical. Did the sound design process reflect that?
I had never really done something like this before, so I tried to cover my bases in as many ways as possible. That meant putting a lot of speakers in a lot of different places. The second thing was try to use methods to make sure the music always sounds like it’s coming from the onstage musicians, no matter how loud we make them. There’s a specific piece of equipment that I used for the first time on “The Band’s Visit” that enabled us to do that in a much easier way than some of the older technology that’s out there.
Did the live musicians in “The Band’s Visit,” specifically, pose challenges?
I have done shows with musicians onstage, but not in this very mobile way that they are in “The Band’s Visit.” It was strange for me coming in, having not done the show Off-Broadway, but the music team gave me a lot of great information about who plays what instrument where, the kind of feel we’re going for, and that all helped immensely. When the musicians need to play with the orchestra downstairs or a pre-recorded sound cue, they’re wearing ear monitors and they hear all their cues.
How did you ensure the actors onstage could hear the music throughout?
One of the challenges that I heard about from the downtown production of “The Band’s Visit” was the cast’s inability to clearly hear the music in different parts of the stage. That was something I went all out on: I put speakers anywhere I could, including inside the stage in coordination with [set designer] Scott Pask, to make sure that no matter where the cast was, they could hear whatever music they needed to hear.
Generally speaking, how closely do you work with actors?
We always have a dialogue. Maybe next to costumes, we’re the second-most in their face. We have to mic them up, we have to figure out where to put their microphone, where to put the transmitter. Sometimes I have to sort of subtly help them say a word better, get some good clarity out of them. Sometimes I can rely on the director for that, but no matter what, we do have quite a close relationship with actors.
The sound of “The Band’s Visit” is so desert-evocative. How much research went into it?
I did a fair amount of research, just to make sure that the sounds I was using were appropriate for that region. We had many meetings over the summer between all the designers with [director] David Cromer, filling me in on things like the sound of wind, the sound of crickets, or just sounds to evoke different moods. The mood of this show has a lot of texture, sound-wise. We wanted to do some of that, but not get in the way of anything.
Is there a huge distinction between sound design for musicals opposed to plays?
Sound design for plays tends to be a lot more about sound effects and creating soundscapes and even in some pieces, composing music for transitions to serve as an underscore. My job as a sound designer for musicals is to reinforce what has already been created. I don’t create music, I just make it louder. They’re not totally mutually exclusive; obviously, a play can have microphones in it that reinforce the sound and a musical can also have sound effects. Generally speaking, sound designers fall into one of the two categories. We are almost two different animals.
How did you get into sound design originally?
I was trained as a musician. I loved music and I loved technology. In junior high, theater became an option as something to do, and I learned that you could do sound for theater. I did everything else: lighting, stage management. Sound for theater, I think we can be more subtle than rock ‘n’ roll sound. There is always something different because it’s a live performance, so I’m not staying in a recording studio, which is one thing I thought I might do when I was younger. There are just so many more levels of fun we can have in theater.
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring sound designers?
If someone really believes this is what they want to do, go for it and don’t be afraid of reaching out and sort of bothering other people higher up in the industry. Study music, study psychology, because a lot of what a sound designer has to do is interact with other people—collaborate with designers, with the director, with musicians, with actors. I’ve said this to people that I hire: I can teach sound things, but I can’t teach you how to be a human being.
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