Mar 23, 2009

USITT: Sound Design Discussions

This last weekend, I was at the annual USITT convention. This year, it was in Cincinnati. USITT has two main components: a floor expo and panel sessions. It was a great event this year, and I thought this might be a good place to identify some highlights.

USITT stands for the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and as you might imagine, a bulk of the convention's focus is on non-sound issues. The expo floor had booths from many companies, including Rosco, Cirque, ZFX, and Wenger. Universities were also represented, and there were a lot of high school and college students looking around for good programs (undergraduate and graduate) to consider for the next step in their training. My university had a booth last year, but for various reasons, we elected to not have one this year.

Sound-wise, on the expo floor, it was a bit of a smaller showing this year. Shure was there, talking about microphones. A couple of com companies were there, including Clear-com. d&b audiotechnik were there, showing their new T-series (HOT) and the standalone version of their arraycalc software. Timax was showing off version two of their system, which looks great (and, for $17,000 for a top-end 16x16 box, better be great). Meyer, which had been there in the years past, took a year off, but they did send a couple representatives who were very visible in the sessions. I wish Meyer had brought a booth, but since my school decided, for similar reasons, not to bring our own booth, I suppose I can't be so upset.

The real meat of the conference, however, was in the sessions themselves. The Sound Commission (a subset of the larger USITT organization) has a very intensive series of seminars that particularly relate to sound. Every day, there were three or four seminar sessions, each dealing with a different topic. You can check out the topics by looking at the embedded Google Calendar here (make sure you scroll back to look at the week of 18 March 2009). Many of this year's seminar topics had to do with sound technology, but there were a few that focused primarily on the artistic side of sound design.

The Guerilla Sound Challenge is one of the sound commission's more popular events. A few hours before the session starts, the participants are given a stimulus. Their challenge is to, in those few hours, create a cohesive sound piece based on that stimulus. They are not allowed to use any pre-recorded material; everything they use has to be recorded on-site. At the session itself, the panelists present their piece and engage in a discussion about techniques and strategies for creating their design.

Joe Pino (Carnegie Mellon University) led a great talk on rhythm in sound design. He started by going back to the root definition of rhythm, identified different ways that rhythm can be affected and manipulated, and then extended those ideas to show how we can use them in sound design. He had clearly done a lot of thinking about his topic, and while he didn't have all of the answers, he encouraged us to find solutions in our own work.

Two of our sessions were student portfolio presentations. These were led by Mike Hooker (U. California-Irvine), and allowed both undergrads and grads to present their portfolios to a room full of sound designers. Each student had 15 minutes to present an entire show (of their choosing), from conceptualization to paperwork to design to execution. Then, the floor opened up for 10 minutes of q&a. Some questions were about the production & design, some were about the presentation format, and some were about related issues. After all students had gone (we had three presentations in one session, two in the other), each student was paired up with a professional designer/educator for 20 minutes of one-on-one discussion about the presentation. I got to talk with students on both days, both graduate students from small programs. We spent some time talking about their presentation, but most of our time (I went over my allotted 20 minutes - 45 on the first day, and 85 on the second) was spent talking about design in general: conceptualization, execution, their careers, their next steps, and strategizing their last year and a half of school.

Of course, like most conferences, this one had a lot of socializing outside of the sessions. Groups of sound designers roamed in packs, hitting restaurants and bars, swapping tips, buying each other drinks. Students, educators, and professionals (and those of us who are more than one of those) were able to pick each other's brains. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of thinking. I highly recommend going to next year's conference, in Kansas City, 31 March - 3 April, 2010!


  1. Vincent~ I wish I had the chance to go this year, it gets to be difficult, being freelance, to sneak away from work for a week. I went to it while in school and really enjoyed it. I love the fact that it is a way we as a community of sound designers can get together and discuss our art, and to give back a little knowledge. I took part in the student presentations the year I went and really loved the feedback. I wish I could of heard Joe Pinos discussion on rhythm, it sounds very interesting. Thanks for the update on this years events, I hope that I can make it back some year. I (of course need to promote this blog) hope that this blog can be a tool for continuation of the discussions that went on at USITT.

  2. I am really interested in that discussion on rhythm. Did anyone record it? I'd love to hear it. Ryan Rumery expressed a similar notion and used it to great effect for the bombing sequence in Either Or.

    On a semi related note SXSW records all of their discussions and releases them to the speakers for them to do what they wish. Does USITT do that at all? Would they be interested in it? I think it would really help bring attention to the trade show and what we do.

  3. I don't think anyone recorded Joe's talk. He had a keynote (powerpoint?) presentation, and he mentioned wanting to put the slides up for anyone to download. Not sure if he's done that yet...

    And I hear you guys on the challenge of balancing freelance work with USITT. I never went when I was freelancing. I only started going when I started teaching and had the time and resources to do it. There aren't many freelancers who end up at USITT: most of us who attend sound events are students, educators, or work for a company that values USITT. Very few freelancers.

  4. I wonder if there is anything that can be done on the freelance at USITT front. Especially because students need to know what the job is like as well as the theory. Maybe USITT isn't the place but in an industry like theatre I think its important to know what you are getting into.