3D Audio And Sound Design With Gareth Owen

Last week we sat down to chat with sound design guru, Gareth Owen. He is a six time Tony and Olivier Award winning/nominated sound designer. Gareth is an industry leader in musical theater and he took some time to talk to us about his career and the future of 3d audio.

Gareth's first audio related job was in his teens at a night club in doing live mix downs. He then went on to mix some pretty big bands in the rock ‘n’ roll scene. Eventually Gareth came to realize that the real challenge he wanted to pursue was musical theater sound design. 

How would you compare a theater sound designers role to that of film or gaming?


It’s probably easier to compare theater sound design to rock 'n' roll sound design. In rock 'n' roll the person behind the mixing desk is the person who is making all decisions about how the show is set up. That isn’t the case in theater because the requirements for mixing shows are so complicated that you can’t have a person behind the mixing desk who is concentrating on the details of the sound.

They’re too busy worrying about getting the right microphones on and off at the right time – they’re too busy making sure that the sound effects are in the right place - they’re following the script, and they’re watching the action on stage. They are deeply immersed in the mechanics of making the show work, and those mechanics are a full time job. 

What you end up with in theater is what’s known as the sound operator. Their job is to run the show and maintain what the sound designer has decided on. The sound designer sets up the show and then leaves it in the hands of the sound operator.

(Check out the video below for a better idea of what a sound operator does)


It’s a very different job in comparison to games or movies because once a game or movie is done - it’s done and finished. In theater the show is open, the audiences are watching, and the live show goes on. The sound design can change in 5 days if a cast member has a cold or a violin player drank too much vodka the night before. A sound designer’s job is never finished - even if they have moved on to their next show


What are some challenges you face When Trying To Create An Immersive audio Experience For Your Audience? 

I think the big problem with immersive sound in theater is getting all the speakers that you need in the right place. Getting surround sound speakers in places in and around the theater where you’re getting good and even coverage so that everybody is hearing the same sound can be quite difficult.

If I could ever convince a director to put everybody in 3D audio headphones it would make my job a thousand times easier.


Would accurate 3d audio headphones have an impact on your workflow as a sound designer?

One use would be to somehow do a show where the audience is actually wearing 3d audio headphones. If you could do that, then the sky’s the limit. I think you could convince directors and producers for the occasional show to put 3d audio headphones on everyone in the audience. But I think that will be the exception rather than the rule.

What I see a lot more use for is designers and engineers using them as a tool to better prepare ourselves for how we’re going to make things sound when we get in the theater.

At the moment if I’m sitting on an airplane and I want to program something in surround sound, I can’t do that. Instead, I put on my headphones and I mix in stereo. With 3d audio headphones I can mix in surround sound while I’m sitting on an airplane so that when I get into the theater I have a better idea of how things are going to sound.

At the moment it’s virtually impossible to really judge what a show sounds like unless you’re actually there. You listen to the recordings of the show and they are probably made from the outputs of the mixing desk. All that tells you is what is coming out of the speakers. It doesn’t tell you what the show actually sounds like.

I’d imagine you can get a much better idea of what the show actually sounds like if you use 3d audio microphones to capture the real sound in the theater and play it back out using 3d audio headphones. That will be useful to me because I have to keep an eye on what my shows sound like. It would be much more practical if I could just put on a pair of headphones and get a realistic rendition of what I would hear if I was in the theater.


Where do you see the future of audio and what gets you excited?


I can only really answer this question from the point of view of theater sound design. I think that lots of theater sound is outdated. There seems to be this standard in theater where everything should feel like it’s coming from the stage, and everything should feel like it’s coming from the orchestra pit. It shouldn't be too heavily amplified and it should all sound very natural. 

Although I think there is a place for that in theater, I also think the world has moved on. You go to the movies now and you get hit in the chest by the timpani and explosions that vibrate the floor. Or you can even just put on your tiny earbuds and get fully immersed in music.

The thing that excites me is bringing theater sound in line with the rest of the world. Not in terms of technology but in terms of expectations and what people think is good or bad theater sound. The thing that excites me about theater sound is making it more cinematic and less boring.


When Do you See This Cinematic Vision Coming To Life?

I actually feel that there is very little sound engineering as a whole can do to make a dramatic difference with one big step. I have this theory that I call “Gareth’s Rule of 1%”. Which is that there is no one thing you can do to sound that makes it 10% better but there are 10 things you can do to sound to make it 1% better.

Rather than one big technological leap that will allow cinematic audio in theater to happen, I predict lots of little things that will move it in that direction with small steps.

Besides theater, what other productions would you want to work on?

You know what, to be honest with you, I’m pretty happy to be doing what I’m doing. Theater sound to me is the thing that I want to do. I don’t think there is another. I don’t think there is anything else I’d rather be doing.

A big thanks to Gareth Owen for the opportunity to learn more about sound design in musical theater. Make sure to check out his website and Facebook page to stay up to date on his work!

If you enjoyed this interview, check out some of our other interviews with industry leading sound designers and audio engineers!