Mics and Musicals



I'll most likley be running sound for our school's production of Grease in a couple of months. I've never teched (or been to for that matter) a musical before, so I'm curioius as to how sound is generally done for them!

Are the leads often miced with lavs? any reinforcement for the orchestra? How complex or how simple have your sound setups for musicals been in the past? Thanks!

Matt 8)
Musicals can be done in a variety of ways, but it all depends on the equipment you have as well as the theatre you have. For our production of "Once Upon a Mattress" last year, all of the characters who had singing parts received wireless lavs, as well as a good portion of the rest of the cast. As for the orchestra, they were not mic'd because our theater is small enough that the orchestra does not need to be reinforced.

It also depends on your director, for a few shows in the past, my director has decided to forgo the use of wireless lavs and require the actors to project. In cases such as this, we use the hanging mics above the stage for reinforcement. So as you can see there are many factors when it comes to mics and musicals. Post more info and I'll try to be of more assistance.

One small word of advice before I leave, if you use wireless lavs make sure that you are careful in setting the levels on your sound board because it is very easy for singing to clip the mics. Have fun on your musical, and good luck getting the songs out of your head afterward.

Thank you for the input. I guess I don't really have any more information other than the size of our theatre -- seats about 800 with an upper and lower balcony -- as we havn't even had auditions yet :) It should be fun though, and I really hope I will be able to get the songs out of my head too.
Ya, you really have alot of flexability when it comes to musicals. I personaly dread doing dramas more because then the actors tend to be talking more and when they talk they tend to be soft, when they are singing, it is usualy louder then talking. My school does not have enough equipment (we have one wireless mic) to mic everyone so we eather work from overhead or stragically place mics hidden arround the set (but this requires alot of mixing to the end sound doesnt change as they get closer and farther from the mic).

In short, again, you really have alot of flexability depending on what equipment you have, and how you want to do the show. As soon as you find out what equipement you have to work with or any other info let us know and i am sure we can put our heads together and give you some suggestions.
Wow, sound designing for a musical when you've never been to one before? That's tough. Here's what I can recomend for now; if you give some more details about the equipment you have and specific issues, I can try to help you out more.

If at all possible, get wireless lavs for as many actors as you can. It's also quite possible to rent these from any sound company in your area. You can pick up some surgical tape from the drug store and attach them to your actors. I like to tape them right on the temple area (running the cable up the neck and over the ear), but the forehead or the neck can also work well. Avoid clipping lavs to actors' shirts for musicals; while this may work fine for speeches and the like, it doesn't pick up very well in this situation, especially when actors are moving and turning their heads.

Of course, you probaby aren't going to be lucky enough to have enough lavs for everyone in the cast. As such, you are going to have to be creative:

You can have cast members switch microphones during scene breaks. I like to go through the script and take a look at when people have lines and songs and chart them in a little breakdown. Once you have this, you can create a running plot for your microphones that gives the most people mics at all possible times. If you can, rent or buy more of the actual microphone capsules then transmitters. That way, actors can just put the capsules on once before the show starts (this is the time-consuming part) and just swap transmitters during the show. I've done this with great sucuess for many of our shows.

Pick up (again, you can rent these from most sound companies as well) some of the Crown PCC-160 plate microphones. These work well as floor mics (they are highly directional, so they won't pick up too much of the orchestra even if they are right on the edge of the stage). If you can, work with your director to arrange for blocking that puts cast members without wireless lavs near these mics. You can even place PCC-160s on platforms or other set pieces. It always amazes me how well these mics can pick up in a musical and it's a good way to fill in when you don't have lavs.

For one show, I mounted one of these plate mics inside a wagon with the XLR cable running out of a small hole in the back. I just had the run crew connect the cable after they completed the shift. It let us pick up sound from way back on the stage where the cast would otherwise have been inaudible. It's well worth it to pick up some of these. I would say 3 for the front of the stage (one at center and two on either side), and possibly more depending on your set design. You can place them on desks, tables, etc...

ALso, don't discount the idea of having the actors just pick up a microphone when they sing. It's low-tech, but it gives you good sound and it's cheap. The bad part of this is that you loose the flexibility to mic dialog, something that is tragically often needed when working with high school actors as there are often significant difficulties with projection.

Lastly, there's hanging microphones. These are probably your worst bet, as they have to be far away from the action and will pick up a fair amount of noise and orchestra sounds. Get directional mics with a tight pickup pattern, connect a long XLR cable to it, and tape the connection between the mic and the cable with some gaff so you can be sure the mic isn't going to fall (putting a $1000 Neumann up in the air is quite scary, I can tell you that...). I like to put my hanging mics a bit in front of whatever it is they are micing (straight down is far from ideal) and run some fishing line down from the grid to hold the mic at the correct angle.

No matter what you go with (or a hybrid of all of these), tell your actors to speak out as loudly as they can. They shouldn't be forcing their voices of course, but the louder they speak and sing, the better the show will sound.

For the orchestra, I would try to avoid amplifying it as much as possible. Generally, I find myself needing to try to quiet the orchestra more then anything, but we always have large bands as well. I would talk to your musical director early and see if there are any particular instruments that will require reinforcement. For the show that we are currently in production on, we have a Chinese Violin and a Harmonica that I have provided microphones for. For a show like Grease, you likely will not need to amplify the orchestra, but your experience may vary.

My designs from musicals have ranged from the very simple to the complex. For elementry school shows, I've set two microphones on stands at the front of the stage and had actors come to the mics to sing. For my upcoming show (high school), I have 6 wireless lavs in use at any given time (with a complex rotation schedule), 6 microphones on stands for the chorus members, 3 mics for parts of the band, and a CD player. If you've never mixed a musical before, I highly recomend you keep it simple, as it's truly a quite difficult thing to do. Be sure you have lots of rehearsal time with sound so you can learn how to mix the show properly.

I hope this helps. If you give some more details I would be happy to help more. What sort of equipment do you have already?

--Zach Lipton
Thank you very much for that in-depth response! That is exactly the kind of information I was looking for .

As for the equipment we alredy own -- I belive we've got four or five wireless lavs and some floor mics (not exactly sure how many) but for our production of Grease, we're going to have a slightly larger budget for sound than we had for previous shows so I can rent more lavs if needed However, our current lavs do not have dtatchable capsuls but I can work around that.

Our mixer is a 24 channel Mackie SR-24x4 VLZ pro, and I have no reason to doubt 24 channels would be enough.

I may, however, still have to mic the orchestra for a feed I may be sending out to a camera for videotaping the performance. We don't have any large diaphram condensor mics or instrument mics (like SM81's and SM91's). Would dynamic wired handhelds (such as an ATM72HE (similar to SM57's)) suffice?

Thanks again for your input, I greatly appricate it. :)
Ugh, mixing a second feed for a video recording is highly unfun, but it's what you have to do, it's what you have to do...

For a recording of the orchestra, I would just setup a couple of mics and get the overall sound. You may even be able to string some mics off a catwalk or from the grid and point them at the pit. The last thing you want to do is close-mic everything and have a huge bundle of mics to work with. If you really have money left over, then you can start adding more mics to the orchestra and get a second person to mix a feed for the video. Some boards have a "direct out" port on each channel so you can split a single input and send it to both the live board and the recording board. You really don't want to try to mix a complex musical live and wear headphones to mix a recording at the same time.

24 channels should be great for most productions unless you really get fancy. We only have 16 and our current show is the first time I've ever maxed it out. Make sure you include a CD player in your count of channels, you probably will want to playback some effects and it's useful to have a CD deck connected when you want to test and tune your system.

If I get the time, I may write up some tips on mixing wireless lavs for musicals. I'm training someone on the process right now anyway.

When is your show?


--Zach Lipton
We'v got a pair of small diaphram condensors that we sometimes drop from the rear side of the 1st AP catwalks for recording orchestras playing on stage that I suppose I could use to help record the orchestra. I'm not sure if they're omni's or unis though, different adult techs have told me different things about them.

Our board doesn't have any direct out ports, but I think I could probably mix the video feed on the board's aux sends since I don't think we'll have to deal with any monitors (I hope). I'm also thinking that I may have to haul the board out into the upper balcony during the show because the little sound booth is just terrible for reinforcement mixing.

Our show doesn't open til the end of April (possibly early May) but I suppose it's never too early to begin thinking about it. I doubt we'll start working on the show (production meetings and such) until mid Febuary.

Thanks again!

I have even worked an event or two with two people working on the same board. we were doing a live mix, a mix to a laptop for recording, AND a mix to a tapedeck for recording. you HAVE to love aux outs! We just made sure the board was at an angle that we could both reach, and one guy did the live mix with the faders and the other guy did the recordings mixes with the pre fader auxes.

You should be able to get the 57s to work for micing the orchestra. they are not exactly the kind of mic you would buy for the job, but they should work. (someone else should feel free to correct me though)

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