- by Bryan Reesman
in Sound Design
Sometimes the basics get you by for miking a musical—other times you have to get creative
Despite the lamentations of old-school fans, the default state of musical theatre is now amplified. Mics on performers and in the pit, and speakers everywhere have become standard. The challenge for sound designers is to find the best way to make things sound natural without the audience noticing. While there are plenty of standard miking techniques that people have used over the years, Stage Directions spoke with veteran designers and engineers about taking a different approach when called for.
Think About Placement
Making an amplified musical feel natural can be tricky enough. Live sound engineer Carin Ford (head sound for Shuffle Along on Broadway) says that an approach to ear rigs that she uses, but that she does not see most engineers on Broadway tours doing, is a specific mic placement. “Whenever we have to use ear rigs for our shows, the position of the mic that I like to use and which seems to work really well is to get the microphone extended out above the cheekbones,” she explains. “I make sure that the microphone is pointed straight out, not down at the mouth where people believe that that will sound better. It doesn’t. It actually makes it sound worse. I like to point the microphone straight out so that it’s pointing toward the eye or right at the cheekbone, and I also put a long high-boost cap on that microphone. That helps with clarity. It doesn’t always help with everybody, but it helps with most.”
Sound designer Amanda Labonte espouses a clever mic technique that involves hairspray. Not the show, the actual product. It was an idea that she originally shared through her Twitter account (@soundtechgal).
“If you spray hairspray on an actor before taping their mic to their head, it blocks their pores and they won’t sweat there,” says Labonte. “I found it helpful for actors who sweat through tape and tagaderm. You just need a small bit. I keep a travel sized bottle of hairspray in my kit when I A2. Oddly, I learned it from a drag queen, who was talking about sweating through tape. I tried it on a particularly sweaty high school boy, when I was contracted to consult, and it worked. I’ve used it in a variety of settings from high school productions through professional. It’s my super secret sound tip.”
When she followed up with Stage Directions, Labonte added that she has used this technique many times, and she suggests using it on lower budget shows “which can’t afford tagaderm, or 1000 rolls of mic tape.” Some of her personal examples are high school productions of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Annie and college productions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Street Scene. “I believe I used it in Intimate Apparel at Chautauqua Theater Company,” recollects Labonte, “and I know I’ve suggested it while working at Shakespeare Theater Company in DC and PCPA Theaterfest, though I can’t remember if it was used or not.”
Sound designer Nevin Steinberg enhanced Cinderella’s sound thanks to the ingenuity of his engineer Justin Rathbun. “We miked the mark tree in the pit in stereo so we could pan it across the sound system for magical moments,” Steinberg told us. “We used a pair of DPA 4021s. When the percussionist did the typical mark tree glissando on the instrument we were able to hard pan the action across the stereo field in the loudspeaker system. And also buss it into the stereo send to the surround reverb. Made the magic feel even more magical!”
The actual inspiration for the idea stems back to when Rathbun was a small boy. “I remember my parents had a stereo record player, and I would listen to some Disney learn to read/picture books along with a record,” recalls Rathbun. “For every page turn, there was a wind chime noise that went from the right to the left to signal to turn a page. I always thought it was so cool. And magical. Everything on Cinderella was magical in some way or another. And while I don’t recall if Cinderella was one of the books that this happened in, it did remind me of those little kid moments. I want to say that the actual moment it popped into my head was when Ella turned a page in the book during our tech period on stage.”
Into the Dance
Tap dancing enlivens many musicals, so it is important to find the right balance of sound as the musicians in the pit are playing off of the rhythm and energy of the dancers. Ford says that most of the times the dancers themselves are miked with lavaliers such as MKE 1 and 2s, and maybe foot mics to pick up a general ensemble if the aural focus is on a few key dancers, such as when she mixed An American In Paris on Broadway. But working recently on Shuffle Along with famed choreographer Savion Glover was different.
“We had 72 mics under the entire stage,” recalls Ford. “The deck was broken up into sections, and we had a pair of mics in each section. We had a sub mix with the Yamaha CL5. They were doing the main mix for the microphones, and they brought that sub mix up to the Studer, then we did area miking for each scene. I would program the Studer so that whatever was going on for that scene we had a group of mics for each section, so as the dancers moved I would be able to follow their movements. That’s how sound designer Scott Lehrer had it set up.”
Ford notes that Glover is very particular about the way he wants his taps to sound. “Everything has to be big, loud, and crisp,” she explains. “He himself went out and picked out the type of wood to use on the deck, and he didn’t want the dancers to be wearing trousers with stuff on their feet. Sometimes they had so many quick changes it just wasn’t feasible to do it that way. So the mics went under the deck, and to follow the movement was a lot of work mix wise.”
Sound designer and composer Brad Berridge (director of sound operations at Feld Entertainment) worked with Glover earlier in his career, and from that experience he learned to use contact mics on the floor. “This gives you a ton of gain before feedback, which is useful for Savion because his monitor mix is sometimes pushing 100 dB and he wants everything in it,” explains Berridge. “To be able to put the floor in the mix, you can’t use a condenser mic of any kind. Those contact mics really come in handy and give you a really percussive, strong sound that you can use straight out by itself or easily blend with the more traditional miking techniques, or with all your other mic sounds that you’re cobbling together from the floor.”
Berridge accrued some good experience over many years as the resident designer for Flamenco Vivo. He says he tried incorporating a variety of techniques into each show based upon the theatre they were performing in along with the specific needs of the piece. He would usually do boundary miking with PCC mics, but depending how the system was responding, he would “occasionally turn them and prop them up so that the element was actually focused into the floor rather than just straight on out. That gave me a smaller footprint for what I could effectively amplify but allowed me to get a lot tighter gain structure, so I was really able to make the sound pop. At that point, it’s more about blending the sound of the tap and the boom of the contact on the floor. For certain things that works out really well.”
He stresses that for flamenco especially, one wants only the tap sound because the boom sound can draw focus away from what the performers are doing. However, with a solo piece or a pas de deux it is “effective to have that extra bit of sound coming in and just highlight it every now and then,” says Berridge.
With larger halls, such as the thousand-seaters the flamenco company would sometimes play, he needed to get every bit of sound out of the floor that he could. “That’s when I would employ using PCCs and integrate the standard technique and this new technique,” he says. “If I had access, I would occasionally mic under the floor with condenser mics usually in just a cardioid pattern. You roll off a lot of the low-end so you can still get an impact sound. That helped to fill things out.”
The positioning of mics for a flamenco performance can be crucial to the amplified sound that emerges. In addition to placing boundary mics across the front of the stage, Berridge would place one in each wing. “In the flamenco company we would have the band upstage in a rough line or a shell arc,” he recalls. “We would have a boundary line where there was a light line for the dancers, and I would put mics up there as well just to cover the whole stage. You get a lot of bleed from the band that way, but if you get the chance and there’s a dancer who’s localized you can really highlight that and get a fuller sound. If you’re just miking downstage, if people go mid-stage or upstage your sound changes and it’s going to call attention to itself. This helped me fill in a little bit and get a more full sound.”
One thing Berridge insisted upon was not miking the dancers themselves. He never miked the shoes or put a mic down someone’s pant leg because he felt it might affect the movement of the performers. “I never wanted to intrude on that,” he says. “On top of that, if they move so quickly within that you’re going to be dealing with a lot of wind noise when you do that with a lav. It’s been effective for some people I know, but it’s never been something I wanted to ask of a dancer.”
The best sound design is the type where the audience does not even notice it is there. The above tips will hopefully provide inspiring ideas to those seeking to coax the right sound out of their performances.