Monday, August 26, 2013

Sound 101 : The Mic Check

What is that Huxley quote about a beautiful theory being slain by ugly facts?  Mic check for wireless mics is a perfect case of something that seems like it should work and is sensible, and in reality tends to work out poorly.

Every time a mic fails in front of an audience, someone -- director, stage manager, producer -- will be asking "Can't we have a microphone check before the show and stop this from happening?"

And that's the lovely theory.

Even more attractive, from the point of view of the sound professional, to be able to do a full sound check with the actor...!

So here's what this lovely image looks like;  each actor is fully dressed in the microphone and the costume they will be wearing, including hats and wigs.  The room is silent, the actor warmed up, and there is time to probe every nuance of their voice and that fragile wireless link to see that the equipment is working perfectly and that the adjustments -- compromises -- we are making from position on the actor to EQ at the board are the best choices possible for that role and that space.

Every bad connector, patchy wireless path, metallic costume, poor position, corroded element is discovered and the problem repaired.  The slightest noise or stale sound means fresh equipment is brought out...and an hour later, the shows unrolls with flawless performance by the microphones and not a single failure.

And here is the first ugly fact in that beautiful image.  Mics don't fail in the box.  They don't fail in the bag before the show.  They fail on bodies.  They fail because they are being sweated upon, wrenched at, jiggled, sat on, and otherwise tortured by being taped to an actor who is dancing and singing and sweating and having water thrown on their face and buckets put on their head and all the other things that befall them during the course of a show.

A significant number of mic failures -- particularly the loud, uncorrectable kind -- happen suddenly without warning.  They happen when a cord caught in a costume, or a drop of sweat rolled into an element.

And no check prior to showtime will catch them.  Heck -- they will make it through four scenes and three songs flawlessly.  And then die....usually right at that very moment the actor exits the wings and will not leave the stage again until the final curtain. 

And they fail in the context of a show.   They fail because the RF can't punch through the chorus, or hetrodyne interference crops up when one specific trio happens to be in one specific arrangement on stage, or at 8:15 PM when the local pirate radio station fires up, or in the lighting cue of Scene 5 when hum in the wiring to a set-mounted light is picked up by a mic.

Still, there are all those problems of corrosion and fraying that will show up slowly, over time.  And most brands of element decay in sonic quality over weeks of being worn and you can hear that sonic degradation slowly increasing.  And transmitters weaken and start drifting off frequency.  And all of this, you could catch in a mic check.

But here's reality in all its callous glory.  That mic check?  Half the actors will not be in full costume.  Some of them are outright lying to you; they have tacked on their microphone just to get through the nuisance of mic check and will remove it promptly the moment they are back in the dressing room.  (The bolder ones will hold it up with one finger as if holding a mic in the vicinity of their face is equivalent to having it properly taped on).

The band is tuning up and even with headphones you can barely hear.  Not to mention they are vacuuming the lobby behind you.  You don't have time to listen to each voice; the set people need the stage to set up, the front of house staff is clamoring to open the doors, and there's a dance brush-up and fight call that are also competing for the time.

The actors are cranky, their voices cold.  No-one is there to give them pitches and they will sing off-key (even when they sing a number that's actually in the show). Which means their vocalisms won't much resemble what they will actually be doing on stage later.

All of these can be addressed, if you have the time and patience and clout to fight it out.  Which is also time and capital you are going to want somewhere else; every time you go to the mat for something, you have to give up something else in return.  You have to pick your battles, and in the scale of all things sound, I choose not to fight the actors and make them my enemy over some of the details of mic check.

And, yes, in most theaters you don't have the luxury of plentiful spares.  Even in relative affluent circumstances there are sheer limitations in just what you can stock and how many frequencies can be crammed into the narrowing airwaves, and all too likely a potential problem is going to have to be signed off on in favor of the time and crew and money necessary to fix a worse problem on one of your leads.

Depending on budget and time, it can get a lot less like the final polishing of a spacecraft about to launch, and a lot more like triage.

Which is why I often forgo mic check entirely!

 I know.  It sounds ridiculous.  In the best of all possible worlds I would have one.  At my current theater, we have a 7 PM curtain.  Practically speaking, the only way to get the cast into microphones in time for a proper check would be to demand they leave their day jobs early on every performance night.  There simply isn't enough time before the house has to open.

But I check the mics on bodies.  When things are scheduled properly (the last show, they were not), mics are on most of the cast by warm-up, and this is a perfect opportunity to listen to full singing voices.  The only difference is, instead of playing it over speakers I am doing PFL into my headphones.

The meter strip is also a good check.  I have the receivers near me at FOH, and I can check battery status and RF strength of every transmitter from there.  I can also tell from the meter strip if an element is shorted out, or gone completely mute. 

All of this would go much, much better, though, if my cast would get into microphones earlier than the pre-curtain speech!  And that is the main reason I'm contemplating renewing mic check.  Not because the check in and of itself will help significantly.  But because forcing the cast into microphones with plenty of time means I can do the checks that matter, and do the repairs that are necessary, before they need to be on stage.

No comments:

Post a Comment