Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast

As I've explained in other journal entries, there is more to Sound Design for a Musical than hanging microphones on the actors. There is foldback to conductor, foldback to stage, monitors for dressing rooms, communications lines to backstage, re-enforcement of orchestra, playback of effects. And, often, the system at the theater will be non-optimal (or it won't have one at all) meaning you'll have to re-arrange speakers, equalize the house, set delay times, and otherwise build and adjust a sound system that will work properly for the show.

Be that as it may, for this post I'm considering only the subset of amplifying the talent on stage.

It starts, this time, with the cast list. If you are lucky, this is a show with a small ensemble (either there are a limited number of roles, like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or the show is specifically designed around a small number of skilled singers, like Ain't Misbehaving.) The cast list, for these shows, is your mic list. Nice and simple.

Most shows, however, will have both a core cast and an ensemble; the latter have both minor speaking parts and also sing in the chorus. Your classic musical is nicely organized; Oaklahoma, for instance, has under a dozen major roles. The rest of the cast is one big chorus, who come out in different costumes for each scene and sing en masse. These shows take a little more figuring. First, assign a mic on all those major roles. Then, see if there is anything left in your inventory for the chorus.

More modern musicals like The Producers break up the ensemble into not just lots of small roles, but lots of small vocal ensembles. Instead of having a single chorus singing in SATB for the big numbers, you have trios and quartets, BOHEMIAN PEASANTS and STORMTROOPERS and USHERETTES, singing as defined groups. These ones are the real pain to figure out.

Assuming there are more names in the cast list than you have wireless microphones (which is the case more often then not), the next task is to do a French Scene breakdown. You want to chart from scene to scene, who is in the scene -- not the character, but the actor (for a single actor may be playing multiple roles.) You also want to notate if they are singing or not in this scene. This includes the ensemble, and for that, you need the help of not just the cast list, but the Director and/or Music Director.

Actually, one other person in the building knows who is what in what scene; if Cynthia L. is a VILLAGER or a NUN in scene II.2; the Costume Designer. Still, only the Music Director really knows if Cynthia is a SINGING NUN -- and even more importantly, if he wants to hear her singing there!

Because your next stop after making up the French Scenes is to find out from the Music Director or Chorus Master who his strong ensemble singers are, and as well, find out if there are people that are so off pitch it is better to diplomatically turn off their microphones during the songs. This, alas, only applies to ensemble -- as much as we might like to, the major singing roles need to be heard regardless.

The Music Director will have his own version of this neat calculus; "Henry K. really doesn't blend well, but he is the only tenor in 'How Sweet the Rose' and the harmonies just don't work without the tenor part."

If you have done all of this, you now have a massive graph that shows which actor you really want on a mic at every moment in the play. Of course, you don't have enough mics. And, of course, when you look at the chart, although the OLD MAN is only in the Prologue, and WILD SALLY doesn't show up until late in the second act, the six ORPHANS all need to sing their single verse of Christmas Song in the same damned scene that every member of the HOUSEHOLD STAFF has one line of dialog each.

You attend rehearsals if you can. Singing rehearsals too. You talk it out with Music Director and Director. And eventually you work out the tough choices...the compromises of who actually gets a mic, and when they have it, and if they have to hurriedly hand it off during a quick change in order for someone else to get it.

And you fold into this a few other things you've gained from experience. You know that actors will get sick and need the help the mic gives them. You also know that microphones will break, and at least one night you'll have to come up with a creative switch in order to cover a key song.

So you make the mic chart, and it will have compromises in it -- compromises you may have to fight out with the Director. Because like it or not there are almost never enough mics to cover everyone (and the smaller the theater you are in, the smaller your inventory is).

A few notes on that. Wireless microphones are fragile and expensive. The mean time between failures for a transmitter is several years, but for an element, as little as the run of two shows. If you have a dozen wireless microphones on a cast, at the end of a four-week run you will be purchasing at least one brand-new element -- at around $200 a pop. It is hard to get theater managements to understand, but you have to treat the elements as consumables; purchased and replaced just like batteries.

A decent unit costs about $800 a channel (that's for one transmitter, one receiver, and one microphone element). Rental for six weeks (a five week run and rehearsals) is about $600 a channel; you are better off doing without on the current show and putting the money towards purchasing instead.

Even batteries are not a small expense; if you are daring, you can get two performances out of one set of batteries, but with twenty mics in play, and most of them taking a pair of double-A's, you will spend quite a few hundred dollars on batteries before the show closes.

But there aren't really good options otherwise. Floor mics and hanging mics can get you through a few trouble spots but they can't cover a whole show. Really, the best option for when you have few mics in stock is to use them only when absolutely necessary -- on the weakest voices in the cast.

It is almost always better, outside of certain stylized vehicles like Rent, to focus on re-enforcement; don't think of amplifying everything as if it was a pop song, instead, just try to subtly boost vocal levels, and control the orchestra levels as much as possible, and treat the show as if it were entirely acoustic.

And that is long enough for one morning's essay. I will come back to this in another.

Continued with:
The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast II

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