As some of you already know, I had a beef with the performance of Million Dollar Quartet I saw last month at the Goodman’s Owen Theatre.

Loosely based on the day in 1956 when Sun Records stars Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis jammed together at Sam Phillips’s studio in Memphis, Million Dollar Quartet works as a revue and has a terrific cast. But the accompaniment at the real Memphis jam consisted mostly of a single acoustic guitar, and the tape Phillips ran during the session is startling now in the directness and simplicity of its sound. Many of the two dozen classic songs in this revue, however, were delivered at teeth-rattling volume.

I’m not suggesting that Million Dollar Quartet try to reproduce the old sound—that’s not what its producers are after. But the show was a tipping point for me, and I posted a rant on the Reader‘s Onstage blog about overamplified sound—not just at that show, which wasn’t the worst offender I’ve witnessed, but at an increasing number of musicals, especially in smaller theaters. And I railed on what I thought must be the source of the problem: “the tyranny of the great and powerful—and probably deafened—guy in the sound booth.”

Among the usual responses pointing out that I’m an idiot came a fascinating and funny takedown from the actual guy in the sound booth. His name is Nick Keenan. He’s the number two sound engineer at the Goodman, and he, like others—including the Reader‘s Albert Williams—took issue with me for blaming the wrong person. “I LOVE being accused of tyranny,” Keenan wrote, but “it is never the sound engineer’s responsibility to make a decision such as ‘let’s be really loud during this show.'” The sound engineer’s role is “simply to effectively execute and maintain a consistent mix over the course of the run.” He added that he’d like to start “a meaningful dialogue about why shows are getting so loud,” and included a link to his blog,

Turns out there’s nothing more complex and thorny in theater than sound, especially since the technical capabilities for producing it have recently taken a huge bump up. On his blog Keenan notes that “sound engineers will remain the public whipping boys and girls” for everything wrong with this mix of technology and art until the public has a better understanding of the highly collaborative process of determining what sounds just right. “You would not believe how hurt and hurtful people are made by sound that makes them feel uncomfortable... whether too loud or too quiet,” he writes.

In the chain of command Keenan lays out, sound engineers—those poor schmucks on the front line—are at the bottom, just carrying out orders. Above them are the sound designers, “responsible for translating the aesthetic desires of the director and music director into a technical configuration” within the bounds of what’s physically possible. At the apex are the producers, who foot the bill and “often have to make wildly unpopular decisions.”

And those are just the official bosses, Keenan says. Everyone else, from choreographer to costume designer, is likely to weigh in as well.

The basic problem with sound, Keenan maintains, is that everyone hears it differently, and no one really knows how to talk about it. Even so, audiences generally fall into two groups, he says: a “THX- soaked public” that “adores their iPods and needs to feel their sound,” and “a community of theatrical purists who react violently against amplification.” Old-school classical fans, for example, “want to think intellectually about their sound and have a very active listening experience,” he told me when I called him last week. The increasing noisiness of our world in general affects theater, which has to “compete for the same audience that film and CDs are getting.”

CDs, too, are much louder than they used to be, thanks to the overuse of compression, which sacrifices dynamic range for uniform loudness. (The so-called loudness war was the subject of a column by my colleague Miles Raymer in September.) Take “people like Britney Spears,” Keenan says. “One of the signature styles of their sound is there’s no difference in volume; it’s all flat.” It’s designed to sound good on a car radio or an iPod, “as background noise.” As a result, “the audience starts to expect everything to sound like background noise. They don’t come into a show ready and willing to actively listen.”

Thanks to technological advances, theater sound engineers are now more like studio engineers, “controlling every sound, every word,” Keenan says—and using compression to compensate for performers who don’t know how to project. Ironically, as earphone-addled audiences get deafer, performers are getting more soft-spoken: high schools buy expensive wireless mikes, he contends, rather than train students to make themselves heard.

According to Keenan, good theater sound merely “reinforces” what the performers are doing. There are three basic amplification thresholds, starting with “transparent reinforcement, where you’re not hearing the sound system even though it’s there.” This is done a lot, he says, even—shhh—in opera. At the next threshold, the sound “bounces up,” and you’re aware that everybody’s miked. Somewhere above that is the “threshold of pain.” All three will move around, even in the same theater, from night to night, depending on performer antics and how many people are in the audiences, which act “as big bags of water that suck up sound.”

Sound is the newbie among theater professions. Keenan, who was a theater undergrad, learned his trade by doing, and says most of the sound engineers in Chicago theaters trained in apprentice programs. He notes that there’s a shortage of sound designers here; he’s designed about 100 shows himself in the last five years. At the same time, there’s a growing understanding that sound can be a more creative part of the theatrical process. “The new generation of sound designers is using sound as set, as part of the world of the play,” Keenan says. “You’re getting a lot more underscore, a lot more texture.” And it’s cheap, he adds: “I get hired a lot when there’s no money for a set.”

Keenan’s boss, Goodman Theatre audio supervisor David Naunton, teaches at DePaul, which launched an undergraduate major in sound for theater this year; Kai Harada, the New York-based sound designer for Million Dollar Quartet, was Keenan’s virtual tutor. A decade ago Harada put his professional bible, Kai’s Sound Handbook, online, free for the taking. Keenan says it was invaluable. Now Harada cites the difficulty of dealing with differences among individual audience members as well as generational differences among both audiences and creators. “Younger audiences don’t know how to listen,” he says, and “younger creative teams equate ‘energy’ or ‘funny’ or ‘better’ with loud. If they’re not getting a laugh on a particular line during a show, they say, ‘Turn it up.’ What people don’t understand a lot of the time is that we can pull things back.” Not in Million Dollar Quartet, though. With its rock score and onstage band, Harada says, “there’s a baseline already on that show that’s quite high.”v

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