Without All Those Crazy Microphones

I received a wonderful (if unintended) compliment during our run of Avenue Q.  It went something like this – “We  love seeing shows at the black box.  We get to hear the actors without all those crazy microphones and speakers.”  The reality of course was that we did use some of those crazy microphones.  We just used them in such a way that they weren’t noticeable.  And that’s the real success for me.

The goal for most theater sound folks is to not be noticed.  I think this is even more important for the small theater environment – the goal is to be invisible.  I start by finding individual volumes and EQs that are at least not annoying.  From there I refine the setups and the real time mixing so the sound “enhancement” becomes transparent.  This can be a challenge when you combine mic’d actors with un-mic’d actors.

Why would you want to mic some and not others?  it’s not so much want as need to.  The realities of local theater together with a black box environment conspire to keep our lives interesting.  Our initial goal for Avenue Q was to go mic-less.  All of the actors had strong natural singing voices.  But one of the puppet character voices (Princeton for those of you familiar with the show) was difficult to project without straining.  This became the first mic.  It immediately allowed the actor to relax a bit and be able to balance and blend with the other actors during the musical numbers.

The use of the next two mics were weather-based.  More specifically, the show ran for three weekends in February (in New England) and a nasty cold swept through the cast.  The use of these mics varied from day to day.  I always checked with the cast before and after each performance to see how they were feeling.  So these mics were on different cast members from night to night but gradually settled down once most everyone’s colds subsided.

The fourth mic was needed to help with a strained voice.  Did I mention three weekends? In February? In New England?  We had to cancel one show due to a serious snow storm.  We re-scheduled and got caught up by doing six performances on the final weekend (ouch).  Saturday and Sunday were double-headers (a matinee and evening performance).  The Gary Coleman role requires some serious vocal belting and by Sunday, I could hear that the actor’s voice was getting a little gravely.  So mic #4 went on her for the last two shows.

The challenge for me was keeping the sound transparent as the overall environment changed… without the benefit of any rehearsals.  Given that the “compliment” we received was after the Sunday matinee, I felt like we achieved that goal pretty well.

I’d love to hear other stories like this from other sound engineers and actors.  Please feel free to leave me a comment.

[Upon further thought]

– I used lavalier mics as opposed to over-the-ear mics and all the actors who used mics were dressed in dark clothes.  So this helped hide the visual presence of the mics.

– There’s a fascinating dynamic involving the balancing of the voices between the mic’d and un-mic’d actors combined with the real-time adjustments I make from the booth.  This is worth some more serious study… and another post.

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