What does God sound like?
A Q&A with God of Carnage Sound Designer Matt Starritt
By Joanna Horowitz, Seattle Rep Communications Manager

Sound Designer Matt Starritt has designed eight shows at Seattle Rep: The Imaginary Invalid, The Seafarer, boom, Breakin' Hearts & Takin' Names, Opus, Glengarry Glen Ross, and now God of Carnage.

That wall-shaking train in Glengarry Glen Ross? All Matt. Violins (Opus), Christmas carols (The Seafarer), and the end of the world (boom)? Yep, yep, and yep. God of Carnage is Sound Designer Matt Starritt's eighth show at the Rep (and later this season he'll come back for The K of D, an urban legend).

The 28-year-old University of Washington grad and former Washington Ensemble Theatre company member sat down with us over breakfast at People's Republic of Koffee in Capitol Hill to chat about God, making soup from sound, and why the heck you even need a sound designer.

Let’s start with your background. How did you get into sound design?

Matt Starritt: I did a little bit of sound and equipment set up in high school and had a really good time, but I didn't even now what design was until I started designing for the U. [University of Washington]. I ended up getting a job with the shop as a carpenter and they found out I could run a sound board and they started putting me on the graduate shows as a designer before I even knew what that meant. I was doing 3-4 shows a quarter for them figuring it out as I went. It's all been very hands on and by watching the other designers and figuring out their process and figuring out how that would relate to sound, or not sometimes. Then we started WET [Washington Ensemble Theatre] right after that and I was the only sound designer anyone knew and they were like, come start a theatre company with us!

What is your process like?

M.S: It's totally different for each show, which is part of the reason I like designing so much. And the more you work with a design team and the same director, the process sort of solidifies. For this show, Wilson and I are approaching it fairly casually, listening to music, he's figuring out a lot of what's going on with the script and where he wants to take the script in rehearsal, and I'm sort of gathering a pile of stuff that might be interesting and at some point in the next couple of weeks we'll take a listen and talk about it. There's always lots of talking.

I think a common misperception is that you just make a mixed CD for the show, pull together music. How do you think about actually creating the world of the play from sound?

M.S: Making a mix is definitely a part of it, and I call it a lot of different things: sometimes I call it the pile, sometimes it's soup. But the first thing I have to be able to do is talk about it with everybody else and then you can start making choices and feeling it out. It's a very organic process. So how do you go from a pile of random sounds to the world of the play? It's a lot of trial and error. The space is really important—where the sound is coming from and how it's coming. We've got the technology now to do all kinds of fine tuned, controlled things. If you want the music you're playing to start somewhere and then end up somewhere else space-wise, you can do that.

Do you go into the rehearsal room and try stuff out while the action is happening?

M.S: That's always the goal, but usually the last week of rehearsal they're like, "Ooh, don't come in, we're not ready." It's such a short rehearsal process. So as much as I'd like that, I usually don't get to do it. Of all the shows we talk about that happening, it probably only happens one in ten times when you get to demo stuff. But it's a lot of fun when it does.

So are you usually just at home listening to stuff?

M.S: Right now Wilson, he's at the end of his first rehearsal, he's figuring stuff out. I'm at home thinking about all the stuff we've talked about and pulling research and listening to it, and I'll get a CD to him early next week, and he'll listen to it and he'll have a bunch of awesome random ideas and I'll have a bunch of awesome random ideas and we'll see which ones cross over. And from there it's prepping everything and getting ready for tech. It's also making sure you have all the tools you need. So like we need to make a portable phone ring in a realistic way, so making sure I'm talking to the TD [Technical Director] and the props department about where we're going to put the speaker.

For something like that, take the phone for example, do you come into tech with a bunch of different phone rings and try them out or do you know for sure, this is the ring?

M.S: I know pretty much what it's going to sound like. Sound effects are so easy to pull these days. I'll roll in with 4-5 and within ten minutes I can pull another 20 if we wanted to. With that it's way more about how it sounds in the space and whether it's realistic, and from there it's easy to plug in the right ringtone. Once you get it all lined up you can sit there and fire through 30 of them real quick.

Do you ever have to create your own sounds?

M.S: Yeah. I'd say most of the music I deal with is all pre-existing, pulled music. I don't have a music background at all so I'm not making stuff at home on piano. I'm good at faking it, though. If the research we pull is in the same sort of narrow range of sounds I can make that sound like music, I'll make stuff myself. Like the show Braden [Abraham, Seattle Rep Associate Artistic Director] and I did at WET (The Ten Thousand Things), I think I made all the music for that.

On your computer?

M.S: Yeah, it was taking samples and putting them in a sequencer and adding as I needed.

That must be fun, though.

M.S: It is really fun. It's really hard for one guy in a studio to make music that sounds as good as music that's made in a recording studio. Unless you're really careful and really specific you end up with lower quality recordings of what you're doing. I mean there's no way I would have been able to put together and record the string quartet for Opus. The recording was amazing. That's why I like pulling most of the stuff. There's tons and tons of music out there, especially with the Internet. It's kind of like, decide what you want and find it.

Is that the bulk of your job? Treasure hunting?

M.S: That's definitely the bulk of it. It’s probably 40%, then putting it in the space is another 40%. Actually just talking about it is 60%.

So tell me a little more about God of Carnage in particular. I'm curious because in the script there are very clear directions about the design not being realistic. How does that translate, if it does at all, into sound design?

M.S: The script doesn't need a lot of sound. It needs a couple of phone rings and that's about all it calls for. That’s not a lot to start with. Wilson's style is very realistic, so we don't have any magic moments ever, so he's very straight-forward. That's why the last two shows have been so successful. It's just really, really real and really, really raw. This one will be the same that way. The sound for this show is more about the framing than anything else. What you hear as it starts and as it ends. And maybe some internal stuff, but it's too early to tell.

Do you just have to wait and see?

M.S: A lot of times there's not a lot of room for it, especially with this show. It's so fast and so much information happening just in the dialogue so quickly. Sound a lot of the time shares that same space. Lights don't get in the way of hearing people speak on stage, but sound’s not the same. Sometimes you can have too much information happening.

So, on a show like this, why have a sound designer?

M.S: I think the framing is really important and to be able to do that elegantly, having a sound designer definitely helps. And I think for internal stuff, we’re still not all the way the process so it's still pretty early to see how much there will be. Breakin' Hearts & Takin’ Names only had two sound cues I think, and I was like, "Why have a sound designer?" But having someone, having a third, fourth member of the team is always good.

Why is that?

M.S: The process is always a conversation. Having someone there that likes talking about it. I've worked on shows where there hasn't been a costume designer, where the costumes are really simple, and it's like someone's missing.

Do you think of things in a different way as a sound designer? In a show like this when not as much sound is needed, what are the things you're thinking about that maybe other people aren’t?

M.S: It's always good to be thinking about space. Eugene [Lee, set designer] is actually great at designing sets that help sound. He knows that space really well. I've definitely seen shows in there were it's really hard to hear everybody or shows where you need microphones. It's a totally different dynamic to hear somebody through a microphone. So thinking about the acoustics of the space and making sure everything's clear and crisp. And so even if I'm not working on a cue I'm always listening for that. And sound has so much to do with timing. I feel like timing is a thing I've gotten very interested in thinking about: how the pace is going and how things are moving mainly because sound happens the most during transitions and transitions are all about linking the thing before and the thing after and making sure the timing matches up. Having a really long transition with no music versus a really short transition with music that matches the energy of before and after. It's like two entirely different worlds.

What's it like working with Wilson [Milam, director]?

M.S: The process always gets easier after you've worked with someone the first time and then the second time. And even if you have a really great experience the first time, it's like picking up right where you left off. I think we're a little more comfortable this time. We've built a vocabulary now and we've built a way of talking with each other. Because there’s no standard way of talking about it: "That sound is really loud." Those are words we all share. But talking about the emotional quality or the textural quality. "That sounds really tinny, like it’s coming out of a little speaker?" There’s no set scale to talk about it with. It’s sort of trial and error vocabulary creation time. You come up with a metaphor that works for some things and doesn’t work for something else and so you change your metaphor and keep going. Working with someone over and over is great because you don’t have to figure out what all the words are again. You can just be like, "Remember that thing we did last time? It'll be like that, but a little bit like this."

As people are walking into the theatre—which I feel like is when people first encounter your work—for God of Carnage, what sort of mood will you be setting?

M.S: I don't know that we’ve come up with the words for it yet. I think it wants to sound expensive, I think it wants to sound a little shallow, and it wants to be complicated, too, if that’s makes any sense at all. It doesn’t want to be obvious, and I think it wants to set up the space we’re in, which is a really specific space: it’s a very stark and stripped down space.

Last question, what is your favorite design project you’ve worked on?

M.S: That’s like what’s your favorite song? They’re all so different. I’ve definitely got a top ten.

OK, what was the most challenging?

M.S: The shows in the big space are always a little more challenging. There's just a little more at stake.

The Leo K. is so fun to design in. It’s just ready for sound to happen in, and the big space is just heavier, it’s not as easy to make it do what you want it to do. I had a great time with Opus so it’s definitely up there in the top 10. It was all pre packaged, all the sound came with the script, so it was all about timing and space, where is the music living in the space. Glengarry was great. That train is one of my favorite sounds I’ve ever made. It was so loud. And K of D has been really interesting. We’ve gotten to work on it so many times now. Normally it’s like you make something and it lives for a month and then it’s gone. Working as a carpenter and building scenery teaches you that nothing is going to stick around forever. K of D has been really interesting because you archive it and put it away and next year you get to pull it out again. This will be our fifth pit stop.