17 March 2018
While Andy Trithardt is an actor whose exciting and varied work has been visible on Toronto stages for awhile now, he’s also become increasingly relied upon for his sound design, which has become almost ubiquitous in indie Toronto theatre over the last few years. It’s not unusual to see him credited for both performing and sound production, as seen in plays like Talk is Free’s Offline and Convergence Theatre’s The Unending. For Theatre Inamorata’s darkly satirical Gray, a female-centric update of Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, Andy contributed a rich but unobtrusive soundscape and earned a nomination for Outstanding Sound Design. We talked to him about working on that show, as well as how he fell into the world of theatre sound design, the tedium of being in tech as both a performer and an actual tech person, and his favourite tracks on Logic Pro.
This is the first time we’re interviewing you not as an actor but as a sound designer, work you’ve been doing more and more over the last few years. Was sound design always in the back of your head as something you wanted to do in the theatre? Was it always something you were working on? How did that percolate, even outside of theatre?
You know, I started playing guitar when I was eighteen, and about six months later I just immediately got myself four-track. I’ve always been less interested in playing live than I’ve been profoundly interested in recording and writing. I’ve always been writing songs, but they’re not really songs. I love texture, and I love sound. So because I was playing guitar at the time it’s always been guitar for a long time, and then very recently I’ve discovered the whole world of synthesizers. Just all that stuff. And I think it’s played into what I do really well which is – when you’re doing something for theatre you don’t have to write a song, it doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle end, and a bridge, you just need a mood. You need a thing that probably loops until it ends and your transition’s done or whatever. And so I’ve really enjoyed taking those skills that I had before and using them in this.
So when was the first instance where you said, “Oh I could do this for you guys,” or somebody asked you to make sounds for shows?
Yeah, people started asking me. People knew I recorded music and knew music really well, so they just started asking me to do their indie shows like, eight years ago-ish. But then it was just picking songs that would play in transitions, or if you need a doorbell or knocker or something like that – putting in sound effects.
And would these be shows that you were already involved in?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Do you remember what the first one was?
It was crazy. The first one that I did was for Queen’s University. I got in touch with the director, and then I think he must have asked me? I forget how we got connected. And I couldn’t even be there, for any of it. Like this was my first thing, I had no idea what to do, I didn’t know how it worked. And so he sent me a cue sheet of everything they needed, and it was sixty cues or something crazy. And you’d need a lot of music written for it. I was just completely lost, and so I had to start from the ground up, and figure out where to find sound effects, like how to source everything. I just didn’t know anything. [The play] was like a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead version of Macbeth. Fleance was the main character. And so I had to write a bunch of music for it, and then send a bunch of files, and I didn’t know what QLab was at the time, how to create a QLab file, and the stage manager had to build everything there, and I never saw the show. It was completely bananas that I did that. But that was the first one.
And you enjoyed it?
I did enjoy it. I found it extremely stressful. I had to write so much stuff in a really short period of time. But it was fun.
And I imagine if you’re working on on your own, which it sounds like is what you prefer, you’re not really accountable to other, say, musicians in the same way. You don’t have to explain it to people. Is that attractive to you?
For sure. I’ve never for any real length of time played in a band or anything. It’s always just been me in my bedroom fiddling around with a computer and with 4-tracks.
The whole idea of performing live by myself also stresses me out, just because there’s so much planning involved, and, work. I’m just kind of lazy when it comes to that. Because I’m an actor, I get that from that.
And there’s been some shows where you’ve done both acting and sound design. One was Offline.
Yeah Offline I did last year, at Talk is Free. It was a collective creation, and there was eight of us. We wrote a musical – – Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal did the music and the lyrics. And then we as a group wrote the book and the story, and I was the sound designer for that too. They sort of cast everybody in the show to have a special skill. So for instance Rose Napoli was in it and she’s a writer and so she and Jakob Ehman took care of writing a lot and I was brought on as the sound designer as well. So I kind of filled in all the little holes in between the songs and the atmosphere of music that we needed. So that was fun. It’s always a little more stressful. Not a little more, it’s always quite a bit more stressful to do both, because tech week is just like – you’re expected to be onstage, and then you have to run up to the booth. I’ve never gotten very good at liaising with the tech to do the stuff for me while I’m onstage. I need the stuff to be hands-on and just go do it myself, so I’m just running back and forth all day.
Is that partly a language thing?
Partly, I guess. It’s a trust thing too, like I don’t want someone to go in and change the wrong level of something and then we don’t figure it out until a run and it’s like, “The level of that last cue is off.” I’m just a bit of a micromanager when it comes to that. Although I guess it’s not micromanaging when you want to do it yourself. When I sound design a show, and I’m only the sound designer, that’s what I do, I sit there during tech week and I put my whole brain into that.
So with something like Gray, what stage do you come onboard? Are you looking at a play that’s already somewhat on its feet?
Yeah, generally speaking. I would be really interested actually to come in earlier. I’ve never had that experience. Except for Offline. And I couldn’t really take a step back and think of the show as a sound project. Or how I could help the show just exclusively in terms of sound. It would be fun to be involved really early. I haven’t done that particularly. I did a show with Nik Beeson and Fides Krucker who did a semi-play/opera amalgamation two years ago. I was brought on as . . . they called me the “Sound Dramaturg”, which was really fun and bizarre and interesting. Because all of the sound already existed. They had recorded everything. I was in every rehearsal which was very fun, because that rarely happens since no one has any money. And I can’t afford to be in rehearsals all day. But they paid me to be in rehearsal, and anytime something came up where they said “Hmm, this needs to transition into that more quickly,” or anything like that, I could just do that right away in rehearsal. It was just a ton of fun. And it was really fun be involved early on in the process. I think it’s hard for companies to do that. You’re alway welcome to come to rehearsal, but it’s a time and money management thing to be able to have that time to go in.
Right, it’s about priorities. Because I imagine that even though digital soundscapes aren’t that new, it’s still new enough where it’s kind of a novelty.
Yeah. It’s probably been easy for ten, fifteen years to just have the stuff in the room. If the company needs to try something in the rehearsal hall, you can just come in and try it and scrap it or whatever. You can rehearse with sound pretty easily now. With Gray I actually refused to let the actors hear any of the sound stuff until we were in tech, because I thought it was kind of awesome, and it really helped what they were doing. Especially for Tennille [Read] – – she had such a hard job where she had to do like seven monologues to this statue, with really dense text. And that’s hard man! That’s a super hard job. And I knew what I was doing was going to help her. But as soon as you hear it’s going to be apart of the performance, it’ll help you out, so I want to keep it as hard for you the performer as possible and I want you to be as comfortable as possible doing this super hard thing until tech, and then I think you’ll feel relief when the sounds come in.
From what I remember of the music and soundscape in the show, particularly in the first half, was that even though the show has a more comic and satirical tone, the music kind of set you up for the dark path it goes down. Was that at all deliberate?
It was all done in the same vein, kind of. So all the songs or pieces that I wrote which were more melodic — there was no drastic shift. But certainly it got a lot darker as the show went on. But the seeds of those things and been planted earlier in the show. So I don’t think it was jarring for the audience to have the nicer things to fade away as we went further and further into Dorian’s mind.
So what’s the discussion like with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster? Is there a lot of talk between you guys, or does she just say, “Do what you’re going to do”?
That’s kind of what it was. It was the first time we’d worked together. Right from our first meeting, she liked all of my ideas and I liked all of her ideas. We were both as curious and confused by the play as the other, and both open to any ideas. So that’s always fun, when a director is that open. Danny Pagett has this great quote: “It’s always yes until it’s no.” Just keep bringing more stuff in, they’re never going to say “No, don’t try that.” Bring in lots of stuff. And I don’t have any memory of Courtney ever saying no to anything. So it was a lot of fun.
Can you talk about the kind of software that you use?
I’ve been using Logic Pro for a long time. I really like it because it comes with a ton of sounds. There’s a digital audio workstation for everybody, depending on what you like to do. Like Ableton is better for people who play live. And I’ve tried Ableton, and I guess just because of the way it’s set up, and because I’ve used Logic for so long — it does not make any sense to me. I’ve tried, and probably I could get into it, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, so I go back to Logic Pro. Logic has a bunch of different sounds, textures and synths, and I don’t really use many plug-ins. It’s all there. And I also have a hardware synth that I use as well. It’s mostly Logic.
Are there composers that you have in mind when working? The most superficial comparison I can think of is Brian Eno, just in terms of soundscapes.
Yeah, what am I into lately? There’s a great electronic artist called Keith Fullerton Whitman. He’s sort of in the intellectual concert series genre of electronic musician. And Jóhann Jóhannsson. He does all the stuff with Denis Villeneuve [this interview was conducted just before Jóhannsson’s death in February]- Arrival, Sicario.
I imagine some of the appeal of sound design as opposed to acting is simply that it stimulates a different part of your mind.
Did you feel while you were acting that there was more you wanted to be doing in the theatre world?
Not really. It just happened. At the beginning, it was just making iTunes playlists for people. And then I started learning QLAb, which was a steep learning curve, and there’s still a ton of stuff I don’t know about QLab. I think if more companies knew how easy QLab was they might hire fewer sound designers (laughs). It’s a fantastic little program. But I kind of just fell into it. And I’d been doing that kind of stuff on my own for awhile. I have a bunch of self-released albums. When I’m involved in a play, when I’m acting in a play, I frequently think of the whole thing in terms of music and sound anyway. That’s always helped me as a way into characters. So it just made sense.
What’s one thing people don’t know about the world of sound design?
A lot of sound design is sound effects based, like a doorbell, and I just find that profoundly boring. I think more and more people are becoming more aware of how influential sound can be for a piece. And how it can help you do what you want to do. It can move things along so much faster than just not having it. I think it’s so helpful, and such a useful tool. And it’s just become so easy to do with computers. I find it profoundly fast – to be able to throw something together like that. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it’s easy to make a blueprint. And then refining it takes a lot of time and a lot of “This worked, this didn’t, can it be this, can it be that?” The speed at which I can do stuff is really amazing. I was talking with someone yesterday about how with my hardware synth – to record on it, it’s basically an audio signal, so it’s like recording a guitar or something. I have to actually know the part that I want to play and I have to play it perfectly if I want it to be perfect. I have to practice it. And I’m so annoyed by that frequently because I just want to be able to play on my midi-controller board, and then go in and fix the notes afterwards. It’s become such an accelerated process that something that takes fifteen minutes or half-an-hour longer just becomes this chore.
It’s a different skill.
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t spent any time practicing my instruments. My whole thing is getting into the software and editing it around and manipulating it, and that to me is what’s really exciting, and what I want to spend my time doing. I’m not a musician.
Do you adjust based on size of the apace that you’re working in? What’s the biggest space that you’ve done sound for?
Probably the Mady Centre in Barrie. I’ve done Factory Mainspace a couple of times for Next Stage. And I’ve done the Theatre Centre Mainspace. But I’m not really a sound technician, my brain doesn’t really think that way. I just did Cloud at the Artscape Sandbox. That was really fun because we had a long tech week, and we had two techs that were there all the time, and they had four loudspeakers and a big sub, and they were just like, “Where do you want it, do you want it hung?” And I just said, “Yeah! Let’s point them at the audience.” There are a lot more scientific sound designers who really understand where sound should go and how it’s most effective, and I’m definitely not that. Most of what I’ve done has been in indie theatre, where it’s more just a process of throwing speakers up and seeing what we can get.
What’s coming up next?
I’m doing sound for the Howland Company’s production of Punk Rock at the Crow’s space. And then I’m doing Judith Thompson’s new show at Soulpepper called After the Blackout. That’ll be in the spring. And that’s about it. Those are the next two sound projects. I had a nice long break between Cloud and Punk Rock, so I’ve been working on a new album, which has been really fun. I had a long string of sound design projects, and it’s just a different headspace, because you’re just thinking of what this story is and what this story needs. It’s still all my stuff, it all vaguely still sounds like me. It sounds very distinct to my ears – anyone else would probably just be like, “Yeah, sounds like Andy.” But it was really fun for me to go back in and not be serving a story anymore. Just exclusively making myself happy, and finding out what I’m curious about or interested in and what sounds are going to sound good here or there. So that’s been really fun – – I’ve got six songs that are ongoing. And I’ve got an album on iTunes called Grand Mal, released that last April I think.
One final question: what’s your most used instrument or track on Logic?
Let me think. I try not to use too many of the same ones so I don’t get too boring or similar from show to show. But there’s one – what’s it called? – it’s in the ‘Environments’ section- Something Clouds [laughs]. There’s a lot of movement to it, and it kind of almost sounds like dripping. And it’s just a really nice thing to put behind a drone or behind something else that’s happening that just gives it a really nice texture. I went to that a lot for a few years and I’ve kind of told myself not to for a while. I think I even put it on Grand Mal, the last album, and then I decided “O.K., I can’t do that anymore.” For the new album, I’m really trying to stop using guitar. I frequently want to reach for it. I’m definitely not proficient at it, but it’s too easy to create a melody on the guitar, and I’m trying to challenge myself to find a different way through songwriting. Just different sounds. Different ways to fill the space. And I have a real problem with putting too many tracks into each song. So it’s also about learning that restraint, of trying to let something breathe, and be – – to let there be empty space where you could put in a guitar. So that’s what I’m challenging myself with lately.