How to mic a school play?

Discussion in 'Location Recording' started by 3G, Dec 13, 2005.

  1. 3G

    3G Guest

    Hi~ I got thrown at the last minute into running the board for a school play. All things considered, it went okay, but I'm a musician, not a live sound engineer and I'd like to do better should this happen again.

    The setup was four Shure mics suspended from the ceiling to about 9-10 feet off the floor. They were in a line across about a third of the way from the front to the back of the stage. The mixer (a Mackie 16 channel) was located offstage - in the back. I had to use headphones to guess at the mixes between recorded music and the kids - I never did hear what it really sounded like out front.

    The mics were SM58s, and I did the best I could, but had to continuously ride the faders to get the kids' voices and avoid feedback.

    They evidently had tried some wireless mics in a previous year, but because they had to change costumes (and because they were kids), it didn't work out.

    So, guys, how is this done in the real world? Shotgun mics? 231 mics placed all about the ceiling? Megaphones? ?!?!?!
  2. pmolsonmus

    pmolsonmus Well-Known Member

    I usually use PCC's across the front of the stage on a bit of foam or carpet to mask the foot noise. A shotgun on either side pointed toward the action to capture the rest.

    We often also have to use wireless lavaliers for some productions. If they're needed ( I personally hate trying to mix students with lavaliers with a large ensemble for production #'s) but that's a different topic. If I use lavaliers, then....

    We have the students put the mic in their hair or above their ear- run the cable under their tops and put the battery pack in their underwear. This allows costume changes and whatever without problem with the cable. It does however create a problem for the battery pack if the student sweats a lot due to dance numbers or whatever. This is solved by (I'm not making this up) putting the battery pack in a condom to prevent moisture.

    It really works well and it's also a blast to send the nerdiest kid to the drug store for a boatload of condoms!

    The only issue is then making sure someone hits the mute buttons as they leave the stage. I wouldn't ever attempt to monitor from backstage for a musical. Rent or buy a snake and get FOH!
    Good luck
  3. 3G

    3G Guest

    What's a "PCC"? Pretty Cardiod Condenser? Ponca City Cutie?
    I guess I should look around the site here for a glossary....

    Great ideas...

    Do you use desk stands for the front mics? I don't know if "shotgun" is an appropriate term, but it's the only one I could think of. Are they made with different ranges of effectiveness? Any favorite models or types?

    Many thanks!
  4. ptr

    ptr Active Member

    Have You tried putting three or four PZM's at the tip of the scene?

    I've used this method (With 4 to 6 Crown PCC-160's) when I record live opera performances and it works out quite well. A bit louder voices the then, but still might be something to try...

  5. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    I do a lot of opera recordings and I use EV mic mice with good Cardiod micrphones (similar in approach to PTR) and have had no problems with pickup to the back of the stage. I sometimes use shotguns for really deep scenes but don't like the sound difference between my mic mice and the shotguns.

    The worst way to mic a play is to use hanging microphones. Think about it they are hanging stait down, the voices are going forward and all you get is a lot of "problems" with trying to record or amplify the voices.

    The EV mic mice may or may not be avaiable I could not find them on the web but you can make your own with a piece of sorbothane.

    More info here



    Line 6 Manuals

    and always a good resource


    Hope this helps.

    Oh yes
  6. 3G

    3G Guest

    Believe me, Thomas, I DID think about it. It was a school setup and that's what they had to work with. I did know it was not a great setup and that's the reason I'm buggin' y'all for some education.

    Now, my experience with Crown has just been the amps, which were first rate, so I can believe their PCCs are great.

    Are they effective for n(linear feet) or do you just do sound checks and keep throwin' them out there until everything's covered?! I'm sure the more the merrier.

    Do they (PCCs or mic mice) always go at the front, or are they effective to the side as well? videographers always do everything they need, or do they sometimes work with an audio guy and sync sound to picture in post?

    Hmmm Hmmm....I wonder if videographers and audio guys ever need someone to compose and add music beds....(closer to my world...).

    Well, my fascination with this has escalated and I'm going to have to do some woodshedding so I don't continue to ask kindergarten questions.

    This is great stuff. Maybe I can find a "sound guys club" and sit in a back corner during meetings or something....

    I really do appreciate the info...

  7. ptr

    ptr Active Member

    Depending on the width of the stage 4 will cover the most at 6 feet apart.

    Generally, Yes. If you have people speaking and singing very much of-axis, the I'd try placing additional support in the direction of the voice, not saying it will help. Unualy when someone speaks in a diffrenty direction than at the audience, its ment to be that way...

  8. pmolsonmus

    pmolsonmus Well-Known Member

    3 - 4 usually is all you need and 4 may be too many. You still create phase issues with the PCC mics and can create amazing dead spots on the stage where you need amplification most. Be careful.

    I send my shotguns to a bus and only use them when they're absolutely necessary for stuff way upstage that I can't get any other way.

  9. felixcat

    felixcat Guest

    What was your speaker set up? Did you have playback and/or reinforcement or just straight vocal?

    I do alot of pro theatre and musicals and find that dpa 4061 into shure radio packs (each artist body miked) with sm91's across the apron (cause that's getting into the feedback danger zone) usually covers most things.

    On the body mike thing, you can get really inventive with where you stash the pack, I've had them in wigs, had special bra attachements made for women etc... In my current show, I've got dpa's hidden in flower arrangements, threaded amongst the bark in a couple of trees. It all depends on the costuming/situation. Think outside of the norm and you can pull off (almost) anything.
  10. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    I agree with Felix's approach & creativity, and will add a few tips here. (I think this has been answered in depth by myself and others over on the video forum as well, in a thread about good audio-for-picture in a musical or theatrical production.)

    I know you're stuck with the four mics overhead, but maybe some of this will help you for future reference....

    For most HS musicals and the like, I wouldn't go with less than 8 tracks to record, then mix in post. The venerable DA-x8 series has always been a good workhorse for these kinds of shows, while making a DAT or CDr at the same time for rough mixes.

    I mic the orchestra simply (They're usually pretty awful anyway!) with a main stereo pair, and spot-mic whatever crucial instruments are in the pit - piano, bass, violins, etc. If possible, I'll submix the orch to 2 tracks no matter how many mics I've used on them. For example, stereo aux sends put the orchestra on Tracks 5 & 6.

    Ambience mics are more than a luxury,they're vital if you want to give your recording a sense of space, and it let's them hear the applause when it happens. (It's also good to bring this up and down - often in post in a DAW - as needed.) Put these on Tracks 7 & 8.

    Body mics are vital for the lead roles - esp if it's semi-amatuers who can't project. Which is a whole 'nother round of rants from me on the subject - people who think body mics are subsitute for talent - and then they bitch and moan when they can't be heard, because they AREN"T PROJECTING in the first place! Grrrrrrrrrrr....but I digress.... :evil:

    I always have the school production moderator assign a "mic wrangler" for me - someone who has a master list of mic/channel numbers, character name and REAL name of the people wearing the mics. If there are lot of them, we'll do a submix for the tape, and assign the composite mix to a track on the multitrack track, usually Tracks 1 (or 1 & 2) . (We've have as many as 16 on a recent production - almost a nightmare!) SFX sometimes happen as well, you may want to track them onto Track 2.

    FWIW: If we're doing FOH live mixing for the show as well, the rule is: NO ONE TURNS A MIC ON OR OFF; that's our job, at FOH. They are loaded with new batteries at the top of the show, and the swtiches are taped over. Ditto for any mute switch. We tell the cast: If your mic is on or off when it shouldn't be, then that is OUR problem. God knows, they have enough to do - sing, dance and act, without worrying about sound. All they need to do (with the help of the wrangler) is to make sure they're wearing the right # microphone pack when they go out on stage. We do the rest. (Plus it makes the cast more careful and focused backstage: They never know if their mic is on or off, so the backstage chatter and nonsense is minimal between numbers.)

    Two tips for wireless mics: 1. Use a thick rubber band to secure the lav wire around the top or side of the beltpack; it acts as a strain-relief/shock absorber, and it keeps the wire from being violently yanked out of the plug during rough use. You'll be amazed at how this prolongs the life of your lav cable & connector. 2. If you can get the cast & crew past the "ick" factor, buy a few boxes of dry, non-lubed condoms for the beltpacks. The #1 reason why wireless mics "mysteriously" fail during shows is moisture/sweat from the performer - Then they work again when they're dry a day later. (Duh!) Keeping the beltpacks dry and moisture-free is the key. If you own these mics (instead of the school), you'll be protecting your investment. (Yes yes, you can call it: "Safe sound"! ;-)

    Last but not least, the subject of stage mics. I too try to hide mics in scenery or in plain sight on stationary places onstage. Once in a while, it's also a wireless mic situation, esp if the scenery is going to be moved around. Shotguns and overheads are often the last place to go, they're mostly useless and never sound right. They're simply "OK" (not great) for recording purposes, and usually a nightmare for live sound reinforcement. To me, they feedback more than not, esp in the hands of inexperienced sound techs who continue to turn them up up up until they feedback. (I don't know why people do this, do you??? :roll: )

    I will make a bold statement here and tell you that I've all but given up on PCC's, PZM's and floor "mice" for actors' pickup from the front lip of the stage. They SUCK, and here's why: For the most part, they're boundary mics, and as such, pick up in a hemispherical pattern, often straight up in the air. Few actors are standing over them, singing down into them, nor are they ever really close enough to them to do any good. Unless they're more directional models, this means you'll also get the pit orchestra as well as some of the actors if you put these things on the stage floor by the footlights. They are just another "one size fits all" solution. Ugh.

    I've changed to using LDC's in the front, at the footlights, on the shortest, tiniest stands I can find. At least in opera and big musicals, the difference (for me, anyway) is immediately obvious. No less than two, ideally four mics spread across (AT 4040's, 4050's, or even 3035s, AGK 414s, etc all do nicely) on 3" short stands. (You can get these stands at Radio Shack for about $9 each, and put black gaffer tape on the chrome poles.)

    Angle the mics upwards to focus on the talent at mid or center-stage; everything else tends to fall into place anyway. You'll also get an early reflection off the stage right in front of the mic as well, and it tends to reinforce the signal as well. With the standard cardioid pattern, the mic faces the talent and rejects most of the orchestra behind it. They're dark (Black) and tend to disappear in the stage lighting anyway. Just be sure to put them far back enough and out of the way of the performers (and dancers) feet if it's a tight staging situation. (I've lost quite a few PZM's that way as well, been kicked, stomped and shattered by many over zealous dancers...)

    So, with wireless feeds on track 1, SFX and offstage stuff on tr 2, stage mics on 3 & 4, orch submix on 5&6, and ambience/applause mics on 7&8, you could get quite a nice little recording of your favorite local HS production, and impress everyone with the results.

    Couple that with a few 3-chip miniDV cameras covering the action, and you're all set to edit it all together.

    Hope that helps some and gives you a few ideas of your own.
  11. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    Ahh... You should look at some different boundary mics... While I agree that "real" microphones will work better, there are some great boundary mics out there. When I use mics on stands, I like small-diaphragm hyper cardiod mics (3-5 across the foot of the stage). Schoeps MK41's sound great for this...

    As for boundary mics, just avoid the Crown mics. They are noisy, they are bright and not particularly directional. My favorites actually come from the film world- the Sanken CUB-1. It is really small and easily hidden and the sound is quite good. Not as hyped as the PCC and much more directional. The key test at just a bit behind it is about as quiet as you would ever expect. I can also get a fair amount of "dig" into a scene with them as well. The size (once again) is awesome for this kind of work... They are about as big around as a silver dollar and only half an inch tall.

  12. clambaker

    clambaker Guest


    I read with interest everyone's suggestions on miking up a stage for theatre shows and musicals. I'm particularly interested in JoeH's comments regarding the use of LD's such as AT4040's as footmics versus hypercardioid SD's and PZM's etc.

    What are the benefits of a LD over a SD in this application? I would have thought the SD would have been preferred due to its better off-axis response, tighter pattern and smaller visual size. However buying some AT4040's is appealing to me cause . . .

    a) they double up nicely into the world of studio recording (my other gig) whereas SD hypercardioids are a little less universal in their application.

    b) I already have a bunch of KM184's to play with


  13. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Scott, if you'd like to contact me privately for some examples of 4050's and 4040's as foot mics in some recent productions, I'd be happy accomodate you.

    And you're right; they're a great purchase in terms of all the things they do.
  14. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    After doing opera recordings for a number of years and doing my share of musical comedy recordings I have never been a fan of wireless microphones. These are some of the reasons...

    1. They are unreliable. They can just stop working for no apparent reason. The batteries can fail even with new batteries for every performance. Things like battery contacts getting corroded or simply failing to keep contact with the terminals in the transmitter

    2. The performers are depending too much on the wireless microphone for their support and if something does happen they are not able to "perform" without the microphone. Not good for a live situation.

    3. They need a lot of TLC and even with condoms and rubber bands they can fail or fall out of a costume or the microphones can get detached from the transmitter. Actors are not thinking about microphones and fanny packs they are thinking about the fight scene or the sword fight or the love scene and they can fall on the fanny pack (and get injured) or they can inadvertently pull out the wires or have the microphone drop down into their costumes.

    4. Wireless microphones can come under a lot of interference especially in theaters with cheap dimming equipment. They can also pickup things they are not suppose to pickup like someone driving by with a full gallon CB rig (1000 watts) which can be funny but not in the middle of a serious play.

    5. Actors get so use to having them on that they take them in to places were they should not go like a bathroom and I have witnessed, on more than one occasion, the sounds of some one going to the bathroom with the wireless still on because the board operator was not paying attention to the offstage still on wireless microphones.

    6. Even with a "wrangler" things can go very wrong back stage where it is dark and confusing and the wrong transmitter can get put onto the wrong actor. Been there done that. Also some actors and actresses seem to find the microphones "foreign" and try to move them to more comfortable areas of their costumes and thereby mess up the sound from the microphone. I was backstage at a very high priced musical and one of the leads lost her microphone down into her costume and the "wrangler" was desperately trying to retrieve it and it looked more like something that you would see in the back seat of a car at a drive in movie and the "wrangler" got a good slap in the face for putting his hand were it was not wanted.

    I think front of stage microphones are still the best way to RECORD an opera or a stage play. For sound reinforcement maybe wireless but with all the problems I have seen over the years that too seems like a crap shoot.

    As to putting microphones on short stands. The reason a boundary layer microphone works is because it is in close proximity to the floor and there is no comb filtering going on. Raise the microphone above the floor and you are opening up a whole other can of worms with comb filtering.

    I guess my best advice is to use what you have to use to the fullest and be happy with the results.
  15. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    As to putting microphones on short stands. The reason a boundary layer microphone works is because it is in close proximity to the floor and there is no comb filtering going on. Raise the microphone above the floor and you are opening up a whole other can of worms with comb filtering.

    Ya know Tom, I have to respectfully disagree here.

    I bought into all that stuff for years; this is one of those "Looks good on paper" but (IMHO) is actually rather meaningless and less critical than you'd think in real-world use. The actual, real-world GAIN you get with an LD mic on a short stand looking up at the talent, or a floor stand just protruding in over the front lip of the stage (also looking up) far surpasses any slap or blurry sound issues from so-called reflections. It's just not an issue in actual use. (IMHO again, I've felt any slaps or reflections only help at that point, but most are off axis or are rejected by the pattern itself.) I'd be happy to send you some examples - front mics alone, orch mics alone, and the whole thing mixed together in a final mic. "Comb filtering" just dosen't come in to play in most cases.

    The only REAL production issue is sightlines and visibility. But with a lot of productions, there are footlights or mini-spots nowadays, and since my stuff is all matte black, it blends right in.

    Floor-mounted boundary mics have never given me the detail and punch I get from an LD mic on a short stand looking up at the talent. I found this totally by accident on one event when I had no choice but to work this way - dancers were everywhere; one actually destoryed a PZM mic I had out there, so we went with the LDs on short stands. WOW! What a difference. Prior to this, I was a stone believer in boundary-style PZM mics. Never again, not if I can help it.

    As for wireless mics; I feel your pain. ALthough you've mentioned every safeguard and approach I can think of, somehow, the amateur folks still manage to screw it up. I saw Les Miz in London back in the fall (hey, don't laugh - my girlfriend MADE me go! :? ) and their wireless mics were superb; totally flawless. But, of course, that's becauase it's a completely "Pro" operation, with automated console cues, and pros working backstage who's careers depend on getting it right, all the time, every show. I don't think it's going to get any better any time soon than it is now for the HS and college level, unfortunately.
  16. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    I have tried EVERY type of micing for stage productions and have tried all of the various flavors of boundary layer microphone placement including the short stand approach (which, by the way, did not make me any friends with the performers, the director or the scenic designer all of whom complained that the microphone were messing with "their" space.)

    When I did Cleveland Opera for umpteen years I used the "lay the microphone on the sorbathane approach" and it worked well. The director was happy the radio station was happy the performers and lighting and scenic designers were happy and I got lots of kudos for the production recording.

    JoeH you might want to look here and here and this

    And this is a great site(Dead Link Removed)

    Boundary Layer Microphone
    Sound waves, in the moment of being reflected on a hard surface, build a zone of increased pressure. The size of this "pressure zone", (which, by the way is registered trademark of Crown Boundary Layer mics) is maximum half the sound wavelength. Microphones, built into the reflecting surface, do have special features: There is no difference between free-field and diffuse-field for omni capsules. The sound addresses the diaphragm from the front. The sensitivity of the arrangement of layer + mic is twice the value of the mic alone (+ 6 dB gain because of the increased pressure). The microphone is almost invisible. Boundary Layer microphones are specialists for room ambience, but also for conference desks (teleconference or recording the minutes), for instruments like Cello/Double Bass in an orchestra. It also is possible to have a stereo mic setup out of boundary layer mics. Just lay them in front of the sound source on the floor, having a distance of about 30 ... 50 cm from each other, which gives a runtime stereophony like AB. Or you mount a fig.-8 microphone just above the capsule and get an MS Stereo setup. Schoeps provides special clamps for their boundary layer microphone. It also is possible to build a boundary layer microphone yourself. Think about protections against accidentally stepping onto the mic and take care not to put the capsule in the center of the plate (because the reflection artifacts of the plate's edge shall not accumulate at a certain frequency = the frequency that is equal to one wavelength between capsule and edge). You see, boundary layer mics are very versatile. They came up in the '80s, but the principle was known since 1939.

    If you are happy with the results you are having with the short stands I say go for it. If you are not picking up any comb filtering I would be very surprised. What ever floats your boat.

    Have a GREAT week!
  17. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Thanks, Tom! "Whatever floats your boat", indeed. :cool: Clearly, we disagree on the overall value/usefulness of the boundary microphone concept, but it's all good.

    Yes, I've read all the literature over the years, including the links above and elsewhere. I've used plenty of PZMs, PCCs, etc., in my time, and I'm sure I will again, when the situation warrants it. (Closed-lid-with-a-gun-to-my-head-piano mic'ing, etc. :twisted: )

    However, I'm not swayed by all the glorious hype written by the manufactuers in order to sell iron - and neither should anyone else be, unless they use 'em in real world scenarios and find out for themselves if it's what you want. (If they're so gosh-darn wonderful, why do they sound so BAD on pianos, and I'm talking about using them EXACTLY the way they show you in the users guide....or drum overheads? Please....let's not go there.)

    For me, I've found that they're simply not the cure-all for all the things they're (mis)used for nowadays. I find them almost as bad or as useless as the hanging-overhead choral mics. (ok, not QUITE as bad, but close....) They're wonderful for conference calls (when the speaker is within a few inches or a foot or two from the mics) and wonderful when hidden on-set for video shoots, tv production, films, etc. And they're great for hidden mic use...surveilance, etc. In those cases, the science sure does prove itself. Not so, IMHO, for onstage musical performance use.

    The abuse starts when they're placed on the floor, (who's singing into the floor?!?!?) usually along the front lip of a high school stage. (Use more than one, you'll get comb filtering here, too.) Since the basic (non directional) version of these things - that is usually all the cash-strapped organizations can afford - pick up in a hemispherical pattern, they're just as likely to pick up the orchestra (usually a bad one) in the pit mere feet away, as well as the "talent" on the stage, dancing around, and projecting poorly. Is the sound from upstage supposed to shoot itself in some laser-like way INTO these things so you'll be able to magically differentiate the wobbly 2nd male lead over the screechy horn section bleating away in the pit orchestra? Can the PZM's differentiate between footfalls, scrapes, thumps......and proper singing?

    What I've almost always gotten is poor, watery, weak, inidistinct sound that was barely usuable in recordings (needing much EQ, limiting, level, etc.) and totally unusable for any live PA work. (Keeping in mind where they place most HS PA system speakers...) Let's not even talk about stereo imaging when using two of these, routed full L & R. It's about as lame as it gets. (I can of course, get decent stereo with a pair when strapped together on a custom built center wedge I use occasionally, not unlike the Jecklin disc, but that's not what we're talking about here....)

    For me, when making recordings of serious opera, musical and dramatic plays, the LDs on shortie stands have been a revelation and salvation. They reject a lot of sound coming from the rear (ie: the pit orchestra, which is mic'd separately anyway), and they're STATIONARY, so comb filtering, which of course, can always be an issue, is minimal. YES, it's there, but it's managable; the direct sound far surpasses the reflective sound.

    Of course, if someone is moving around a lot, you may have some issues, but I also use - when necessary - PZMs as needed for overall fill, or body mics, etc. if it's that bad. Usually, it's not. AND, i've had LD mics on floor stands, literally behind the shoulders of wind players in some tight orch pits, peeking in/looking up at the stage with quite manageable rejection going on; due to the cardioid LD mic's pointing at the stage, not the players behind the mic.

    Admittedly, I have some great clients - mostly operatic in this case - who really know how to project, even over a 35-50 pc pit orchestra, and it makes my job all that easier no matter what mics I use.

    I'm sure everyone has their favorites, and gets results that they're looking for. I've found mine, and it works for me. I don't expect anyone to change what they prefer, but I'll offer this: I'll let you know the next time one of our opera's is on the air/webcast. You can decide for yourself, plain and simple. :cool:
  18. pmolsonmus

    pmolsonmus Well-Known Member

    Store this in the FWIW department -

    I have been a pretty firm believer in the PCC department, I own 4 crown PCCs and 4 crown PZMs, I've used every combination imagineable to try and get a good sound. I usually manage through EQ and placement to get what I need depending on the space because I hate mixing room and lavalier mics.

    We just did a Madrigal Dinner in a space with 10 foot ceilings, a stage running 100+ feet along one wall and a stage with acting space in front of it.

    I tried every combination and wound up with 2 414s on short stands in the middle of the side stage, 2 Rode N5s on short stands on the peripheral edges and 2 hanging AT choral mics for dialogue and the main court on stage who only needed a small amount of amplification.

    I had more control over gain without problem than I ever had with PCCs or PZMs and could then EQ where needed to boost even more. The added plus of not amplifying the foot traffic of guards, jesters,etc.. was a real plus. It became set it and forget it and the easiest time I've had with sound in that room.

    I will try both PCC, PZM and LD when we do a musical review in April and let you know the results. That space is much different and I expect the room will best determine the type of mic.

  19. clambaker

    clambaker Guest

    Hi Joe,

    Keen to follow you up on your kind offer of auditioning some of your recordings made with AT LD's of opera/musicals - but couldn't figure out how to contact you privately. I clicked on the private messaging icon in your profile but it told me I had to be a subsriber.

    Any advice?


  20. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Sure! go to my website, find the "Contact" page and send me an email from there, with your info. Happy to send you some stuff. ;-)

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