Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Kids Speak Out

It seems strange to hang wireless microphones on kids. But the sad reality is that area mic'ing doesn't give you the volume before feedback, or even more importantly, the intelligibility gained by having a head-worn microphone.

Children's theater is a strange bird. Often as not it is a school program or a church program, and there are very few people on board with experience in technical theater. At the same time, some schools are affluent and some have friends: the gear you will find covers the entire range from two channels of Radio Shack special to 24 channels of top-of-the-line Shure ULX. The only thing that remains the same is that the gear will be stuffed in a closet, often covered with grime, and no-one will know how it works.

One of the toughest hurdles I have to cross is getting people to understand the implications of gentle support. That we need the band to play softly (but enough in monitors to keep the kids on pitch and time!) That the microphones are SUPPOSED to sound like they aren't on. And that the preferred position is NOT taped to the cheek one inch from the mouth.

The default, sadly, is usually to tape mics as close to the mouths as possible, EQ only to control feedback, and leave everything on and loud for the entire show. Once they hear how good it sounds with a properly tuned and adjusted system, though...expect to get hired again. And again.

The kids are a delight. The first day I show up, at least one member of the cast will recognize me from a previous gig and yell, "It's the mic guy! We're getting mics today! Yaaaay!"

Then of course as soon as you get them on mic they'll forget they are wearing it, and touch their faces, adjust their hair, talk just before an entrance, or even try to whisper directions to another actor while on stage. Sometimes they'll forget their entrance entirely and you'll put up their mic only to hear (loud!) dressing room chatter. Oh, but then there are the times between scenes in a stop-and-go rehearsal where it seems half the cast is tapping on their mics with their fingertips and calling, "Is my mic on? I don't think my mic is on!"

Two things save you here. The first is that dressing room chatter, and quick-changes in the wings, are loud. Both have distinctive spiky patterns on the meters. You don't even need to PFL that mic to know it shouldn't be turned on. On-stage singing and even dialog tends to be softer and has a rounder volume contour. With practice, you'll learn to recognize it from the meters alone.

The other is that half your ensemble is marking it. Take a quick stroll through the PFL into a pair of headphones during an ensemble number, and start muting each microphone where all you hear is tentative, breathy, whispers. By the time you've winnowed it down to just the strong singers you've got less than half a dozen mics up -- and much less chance for accident.

It will still sound like a full ensemble. Since we are doing reinforcement here, direct acoustic energy is still coming from the stage. And almost no-one in the audience will ever realize little Bella and Cindy and Evan are singing into dead mics.

The best sound, as with adult actors (particularly women) is with a head position. I go through multiple packs of the cheapest hair clips Wallgreen's stocks; generally tape just below the hairline, hair clips at roughly 2:00 and 10:00 o'clock, and depending on the length of the hair, presence of pony tail, style of costume, a third clip near the base of the pony tail, or tape around the 7th cervical vertebrae (high enough to keep the cord from developing a loop, low enough to catch as little as possible of the fine hairs along the back of the neck), or clipped to the neck of the costume.

Bobby pins work but you have to take the time to reverse them (aka use more than one, pointing in opposite directions). Toupee clips need to be prepped ahead of time because most of them will not close over the thickness of a mic cable.

However, children's theater tends towards costume dramas and shows about animals (Seussical, Narnia, Jungle Book, Aristocats, etc., etc.) All the things going on and off heads makes the ear position necessary.

Let me stop and point out here that although it is tempting to tape to ear/along cheek to achieve that last couple of possible dB from a quiet-voiced actor, what you will end up with in most cases is merely a louder breathy, indistinct mumble. The sound has to start with the actor. In borderline cases bringing the microphone closer (better to use a true "Madonna-Mic" like a Countryman E6) is a worthwhile trade-off, but apply this on a case-by-case basis; not as a default solution.

I can not emphasize how important it is to demonstrate the ear position to your assistants, and to check on them frequently. They will inevitably migrate. You want the microphone to follow the cheek bone (generally right below it). This means it effectively points towards the philtrum, not the mouth -- but this is where it is supposed to go. When you don't keep an eye on the taping, they'll end up being angled down and have the element right on top of the drum membrane surface of the cheek. NOT a good sound.

For adult actors I'll tape as close to sideburn as possible. For kids, it depends mostly on the costume. A good default is the "point" of the cheekbone. Put the element there, put the tape behind the head of the element (not over it). Yes; again, some people don't understand the physics. They see the hole in the front of the mic (the grill) and think that's where the sound goes. They don't understand that the entire head is an acoustic device and you change the character of the sound by putting tape over it.

Many kids have thick enough hair that you can spare them the uncomfortable tape behind the ear and hairclip to the hair tucked behind their ear instead. When you do have to tape, try not to catch any hair, and if the skin is oily, wipe down with an alcohol prep pad first. For the smaller kids, tearing the tape down the middle to make a narrower strip also helps.

And a non-technical note on this. It isn't smart, not these days, to get backed into attaching all the mics yourself in some dark corner of the theater. Get several people involved, get the parent volunteers, stage manager, director -- people who have been properly vetted and fingerprinted. I've never seen it happen, but all it takes is one parent mis-hearing what their kid said and you will have a very short career in children's theater.

As with any actor, or any musician, be respectful, make sure they understand what you are doing before you start sticking tape on their faces or fiddling with their hair, and answer questions. Tell them why a microphone has to be in a certain place, tell them how it makes them sound better. Get them to understand a little of how the microphone works, and they will work for you in making sure it is set up right and it stays right through the performance.

Treat them like professionals.

A last couple of tricks. Almost everyone uses those over-the-door shoe bags to hold the prepped transmitters. When you arrive for the show, put in fresh batteries, condom the mics, check to see that the connector is secure, the clip light isn't flashing in a way to indicate a broken element, the fuel gauge shows a fully charged battery. Wrap it loosely and stick it in the shoe bag under the actor's name (or character name; whichever is most convenient and informative).

When the mics come off again, be profligate with the alcohol pads. They don't loosen tape any, but they do numb the skin slightly. Be gentle in getting the tape back off. If the tape is really stubborn (and painful!) use a little goo-gone on a rag first. Pull batteries, bags, condoms, moleskin et al and set the mics back in the shoe bag to air out. Hang the bags to dry outside.

Many children's productions will be double-cast. It is unfair for a class production to have one person get a starring role and everyone else has to play spear-bearers. As partial answer to that, most programs will have an "A" and a "B" cast alternating performances.

Since often these are drawn from the same pool of performers, you can simplify your life a little by assigning microphones by actor instead of character. Then when the "B" cast comes on you re-patch the channels and re-assign the EQ and other processing. On a digital board like the Yamaha LS9 this is literally a matter of a single button press; change the soft patch and call up the new EQ et al just by loading the appropriate show.


  1. I'm currently working at a charter school and need to invest in a set of good mics for our production of, you guessed it, Seussical. The current mics are clip ons from approximately 1995 and are pieces of garbage. Can you recommend any good, inexpensive mics that you find work well for 8th grade students?

    1. I just noticed the email address I replied to had "_no_reply_" in it. So apologies if it didn't reach you!

      Almost all clip-on elements can be taped on. I've had experience with the old Shure WL86, which take a ton of tape and look horrible on a face, but sound decent, and we are still using Sennheiser ME2 (a black sphere almost half an inch in diameter) when we run out of Countryman B3's.

      I've also used the AKG C417 (bright, has a sort of hole-in-the-middle sound, but almost as small as the B3), Shure WL93 (tiny black rectangle, sounds like garbage, and of course everyone has them), Senny ME4 (a long cylinder that is hard to hide but has an incredible low-mid response), and Countryman E6 (very tiny, thinner-sounding than the B3).

      Anyhow they can all be moved from lapel clip to face. Probably, though, if your stock has been in use since '95, they are all in need of maintenance -- the little wires get frayed, especially at the connector end.

      Put it this way; when I'm running 20-22 channels of mic, I typically have to repair two elements every weekend the show performs. Those cables are FRAGILE.


      The rule of thumb is that the more modern the wireless, the narrower the effective bandwidth. Which is to say; the more you can run at one time. Shure PGX or LX can handle maybe 8 channels before they start interfering, for instance.

      The game is changing very quickly with the new crop of digitals, but outside of those and someone you trust who can walk you through the pros and cons of a specific system, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Sennheiser "Evolution" G3. $600 used, $800 new. Over a 100' range with the stock antenna, can run 8+ units in each frequency band. Take 2 AA batteries with a good 8 hours of battery life and are compatible with rechargeables (I use Sanyo Eneloops in mine -- the savings are remarkable!)

      And for an extra $200 a pop, Countryman B3's are practically the theater standard. Tough, small enough to hide fairly well, available in a range of skin tones, decent sound.

      But as I said in my email, assuming your existing units still work, and aren't Nadys or old Shure LC or something, the main thing to look at is moving to faces, and finding someone to mix the thing. And do some maintenance! "Seussical!" is one of those show you gotta mix practically line-by-line. I've done it twice. Doesn't take an engineer to mix a show. Doesn't even have to be a musician (although it helps). But it does have to be someone who is attentive and can listen well and will be there every night.

      Oh...and helps LOADS with getting mics to sound good if you have a mixer that can do a little Equalization and compression. I almost always have a low-end roll-off on mine, frequently 2:1 compression for kids, and a slight presence peak on everyone (4-6K boost).