Friday, June 17, 2011

I Hate Wireless Mics

When I started theater, it was as a carpenter, working towards set design. When I got sidelined into electrics it was largely lighting, and when sound become the major part, it was sound design and music composition.

But the last several years the growing field for me has been reinforcement of musicals. A little FOH mixing, a little sound effects, but most of the hours have been dealing with wireless mics.

I bring three skills to the table that are causing people to call me back. One is skill with sound. A more important one is skill in maintaining, fixing, and often doing spectacular last-minute improvisations to keep those sensitive fragile expensive things running. The last is being calm as inevitably some of them fail anyhow in messy and noisy ways.

A truism said a long time ago; the best wireless microphone made is almost as good as a microphone on a wire.

On the microphone side, these are extremely tiny electret condensers; ultra-fragile and essentially impossible to repair (even rewiring the connector takes nearly an hour of work under a bright light and a magnifying glass). And to help them hide on an actor, the wires are also thin and fragile. But we take these fragile, expensive little bits of precision audio and we stick them with tape to a sweaty actor who proceeds to jump around on stage, then tear the entire thing off in a hurry for a quick change (and oft as not leaves it in a wadded heap on a dressing room table).

On the transmitter side, another piece of precision electronics strapped to a sweaty actor, getting sat on and hit, getting the cord bent and yanked on...and it is a micro-power transmitter, putting out barely more power than an RFID tag. Which means the poor RF signal has to fight its way through the bags of salt water surrounding it (aka actors), the humming ballasts of lighting and dimmers, the electronic hash of the typical slapdash theater wiring, skeins of data cables and monitors and who knows what else hashing up the air with RF noise.

But the worse part is, that theaters have never been rich places, and with the current economy every possible (false) savings is being applied. Meaning equipment that should have been re-conditioned or retired long ago is asked to somehow make it through another show, and another, and another.

I've got packs that have drifted so far off frequency (with aging crystals) that they now show up on different channels. I've got elements so corroded inside they sound like a cell phone stuffed inside a pillow.

And it is the talent to somehow keep these things running and to do horrible, horrible things to the signal chain to hide the poor quality and try to control the errant noises, that is getting me work these days.

This is not helped by the fact that the theaters are often too cheap to hire an operator. So whereas the Set Designer and the Lighting Designer can go out to dinner on Opening Night then take the weekend off (and not come back until Strike), I am working each and every show.

Which usually means sitting at the board trying to keep from developing an ulcer as I wait for the next failure. And staying alert and hyper-aware and ready to leap into action to do whatever it is I can brainstorm at that moment to get the sound back up and continue the show. There are no good nights. There are only nights with the fewest (and least obvious) number of failures.

Needless to say, I don't fall asleep easily after those shows. I am usually so wired I can't relax until near dawn.

Sound has always been the end of the business where the most visible error to the audience is achieved with the least possible effort. In lighting, often as not you can accidentally turn on or off a light and most of the audience will never even know it. In sound, you can hit that same one button by accident and the entire audience will know instantly. And hate you for it, as the female soloists' microphone goes dead right in the most intense part of her song, or a screech of feedback erupts from the pit, or a quiet moment on stage is rudely interrupted by a cab company dispatching a car.

Vast, too, is the distance between what you could do with that singer and that band with good gear, in a controlled studio environment, and what you have to make do with because of the practicalities of getting through an entire show. It means there is a terrible urge to tweak and nuance, to adjust EQ minutely and try to find the magic compressor settings and get the exact amount of decay on the reverb to make that moment of that song sound as good as possible -- knowing full well that in the context of the screeching, failing microphone of the next song, no-one will ever notice or care.

It's like detailing the body of a car with bad brakes and an engine that only fires on two cylinders.

It is thankless work, of course. Everyone notices the failures. The best mention you can get in a review is not to be mentioned at all. Each mistake and each failure makes you look bad (and hurts the show), but the lack of obvious error is rarely remarked upon. When all goes right, the show is merely transparent. The band plays, the actors sing. Only when the signal chain drops (or worse, spits out bad noises) does the illusion that you are "just listening to the music" fall away.

At the very, very best, the directors and the other people you are on the production with will understand why a mic dropped and commiserate. Which is only a small help when you are going to be beating yourself up over that dropped mic until you finally fall asleep at 4:00 AM.

The less clue-full abound, however. But it all descends down to that error of microphones as MSG (just add mics and everything sounds great). And to an inability to understand how human perception adjusts to dynamics. No, I know it doesn't seem loud to you at the moment, but that is because you are used to it AND THAT DRUM IS FREAKING LOUD!

You get these conversations where a music director or artistic director will listen to the cranking band, and turn to you and say "The band isn't THAT loud. Why can't you turn the microphones higher? Is it that the speakers aren't big enough?"

No, the speakers are big enough. The issue is almost never that you can't get the sheer volume. The issue is that you can't achieve that volume without screaming feedback. And the subtler issue following that is that even if you could get the volume without the feedback you wouldn't get intelligibility. Oh, yes, and even if you could do all these things, the band would just compensate by playing louder.

The worst of all possible worlds is when you've got a kid cast, or untrained adults, and everyone looks to the magic of wireless microphones as if technology can somehow transform mumbling little Johnny into a source of clear song that can power over a nineteen-piece live orchestra.

With these sensitive, touchy, and often sheerly ugly sounding bits of technology, you would be best to have them running at very low levels, doing nothing but subtle enhancement. But, no. You are forced to bring them up to ear-splitting levels, and insane amounts of amplification of every bit of noise that comes down that long and fragile signal chain.

When Little Johnny is looking at 173 dB of amplification of the electrical signal, and 90 dB of the actual audio pressure, the tiny movement of microphone against cheek becomes as loud as a snare drum. Tiny electrical charges formed by the movement of his wool sweatshirt are amplified into crackling like a police radio. And when a cable tears and the phantom power for that little electret element is grounded at a full 5 V*O*L*T*S potential, it cracks like a cannon at the climax of the 1812 Overture, sending every meter into the redline and physically tearing the cones out of your speakers if your limiters didn't react fast enough.

And when Little Sally's mic conks out in the middle of the quarter, her unamplified voice vanishes like the Minnow sailing into the Bermuda Triangle. And when Little Sammy stops saying his dialog in a breathy little whisper and gives a full-voiced shout during the chase scene, every microphone within twenty feet peaks. put on extra-strong compression and peak limiting, you notch for every last possible speck of gain, you EQ everything but the most essential frequencies out, and you watch the mics like a hawk, but even if and when everything goes well and you don't have songs peppered by the additional percussion of actors fumbling at their mics because the tape itches, and amplified gossip from the actress who was SUPPOSED to be on stage but got involved in an interesting conversation in the dressing room instead, you end up with sucky sonic quality and a performance that sounds like it was done by mechanized dolls inside a tin hut recorded over a cell phone.

So I've got coming up, a show with a reasonable set of mid-range packs in decent repair that are not, unfortunately, paired with any elements that still work properly (and has millions of quick changes and everyone in the cast has masks and hats and other appliances), and another show in which some of the packs are as old as I am, NONE of them can be trusted to work for the length of a single performance, we don't have enough to cover the cast, and the company is so short they even stiff me on fresh batteries.

So, no, I'm not in my happy space right now. Hence the rant.


  1. Soundism # 1 " there ain't no talent knob on this board" You nailed one of my other favorites. A perfect show for me is the one where no one knows I was there.

    1. So last show I walked into the theater and found...

      We usually put a strip of board tape below the encoders for the returns -- where I normally have my various reverbs and other effects routed. The user before me labeled one of them differently;


      I wish I had taken a picture!

  2. Love the text Mike! We can have an idea of the impossible tasks you have to deal with so the show can go on!

    Regardless of the way you feel about these mics, could you give me an advice of the best (or less worse) miniature mics to acquire. I'm in a band and was thinking of using one of them myself.

    Thanks a lot