Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"We Need Four Mics"

Once again, I had a client walk up to me and say "We need four mics."

The setting for this is a multi-use rental facility (a lovely old church converted into a theater). I am the house technician, and in many of these cases I'll also be their front-of-house mixer for the show.

There's sometimes a tech rider, but it rarely has any detail. What the client says when they come in the door doesn't match anyhow. And the band isn't due until later (and what they say will be different from the first two!)

So all I've got is the director or assistant producer or something standing on a bare stage, saying "We need four microphones."

Usually, I will ask "What are they for?"

That's when the client blinks, and parrots "We need four mics." And that's when I realize something horrible. Not just that they don't know any more. But that they don't know there is more to know.

Mics are a form of MSG to these people. You count the number of performers, and that's the number of "mics." You add "mics" to each performer, and suddenly they all sound great and you've got a show.

Fortunately, the band usually has a bigger clue. Unfortunately, when the band gets there, even before they've finished setting up the client is on my case saying "We need to start sound check now."

Oh, sure, I could have set up "four mics." Our stage is sixty feet wide and forty feet deep. There is only one snake. It takes up to sixty feet of cable and ten minutes to be able to plug in just one mic -- in, of course, one specific spot. So I could go ahead and set up "four mics" in a wing, or across the edge of the stage, but that would put me no closer to having them where they need to be.

We have a collection of stands and tripods, plus some specialty stands for stuff like mic'ing a guitar amp. So that has to be figured out too; how do the "four mics" need to be positioned and what sort of hardware do they need? Again, I can guess, but if I guess wrong all I've done is waste time -- and I'm still not any more ready for "Sound check."

("Sound check." I am convinced the client saw someone say that once in a TV show or something. So they know they are supposed to have one, although they have no idea what it is. And they'll stand around demanding we start "sound check" with all the evident self-satisfaction of a manager doing a difficult job well.)

But all that pales before the question of application. The nature of the thing being mic'd determines the best choice of microphone. Not everything in the world is best served by putting a generic dynamic in a stand in front of it. Mic'ing a drum kit alone is an art, involving a variety of mics on specialty hardware in very specific positions.

So, "We need four mics" is, in this context, pretty much the same as going online to, getting hold of a customer service rep, and saying "Send me four books." Don't tell them what subject or author, don't even tell them where you live! Just demand "four books" -- and get upset later when sound check goes badly.

What this is, and I'll write a long rant on it eventually, is an error of compass. When you are dealing with a sound technician, especially one who is also going to be your front-of-house mixer, you want to leverage their skill set.

Don't tell me "Four mics" and think that is either necessary or comprehensive information. Tell me "Three-member jazz combo with baby grand, set up Stage Left." then I know how many mics, and what kind, and what hardware, and how to place them.

In all fairness, often enough the clients who say "Four mics" aren't particularly skilled musicians, and are doing some potluck of a talent show where there are fifteen different acts and no specific common layout. If that's the way the wind blows, I'll get them four of my most durable dynamics and set them on straight stands across the front of the apron....with lots of extra cord and nice big clips so they can remove the mics easily. And if I have the gear on me, compressor set as a hard limiter so they don't blow out my speakers (and audience eardrums) when they chose to blow into to mic or start screaming into it at 1 mm distance.

This is an old post being transferred from a previous blog. I may have learned more about how to anticipate, compromise, and more importantly not be confrontational since then. Or perhaps not! The idiots are still out there, and of course the sound remains the same. At least now with a kit of personal snakes, cheap condensers, and the newer programmable sound boards I can come up faster with something that will probably work.

For those (few!) who have been coming here for sound design and theatrical design, I am providing this post also as an excuse to collect direct links to my earlier blog entries.

The "Care and Feeding of Wireless Microphones" series:

The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast
The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast II
The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast III
The Basics of Mic'ing a Cast IV
A Few Simple Rules for Wireless
The Two Nations of Sound Reinforcement

Theatrical Sound Design series:

So What is Theatrical Sound?
The Basics of Sound Design
The Basics of Sound Design II
Six Simple Rules for Getting a Good Voice-Over

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