Here at dBS Solutions, we not only supply equipment to professional theatre tours and events, we also dry hire our systems to lots of schools, churches and amateur theatre companies. We often get enquiries from customers looking for radio mics for their productions, so we thought we would write a little post with some of the things you should be thinking about when you’re looking for radio mics for your production.
One of the first things we should think about once we’ve established that we need to amplify our cast is How much louder do we need them to be? This may sound like an odd question to ask but the human singing and speaking voice isn’t as quiet as you might think. How much louder we need to get our performers will depend on a number of things. The style of performance is one of the main factors. I’m going to assume for this article that we are looking to perform a musical since for many plays in all but the largest of venues, the answer to this first question will be “not much louder than their natural voice.” if this is the answer in your case, then a future post on float mics may be for you.
The style and volume of our musical will play a big part in how much louder we need to make our actors voice to suit the performance.
A classic production such as Kiss Me Kate, Carousel or Fiddler on the Roof may only demand quite a subtle lift in voices, whereas for productions of Miss Saigon, Spamalot, we may need to bring out actors over the music more. Shows like Grease, Hairspray and We Will Rock You, demand an altogether different level of volume than our actors can naturally give us.
Why is this question important?
It’s important to make a choice as to how loud your show will be from the offset as it has an impact on the type and position of radio mics. Once we know if the aim of our mics are to enhance the detail of a performers voice, whilst still giving our audience the impression that our actors voice is coming from the stage, or to aid in getting their performance clearly heard over a large band of live rock drums, we can begin to chose the type of radio mics we should use. If our band or orchestra are amplified or not will also contribute to how loud our performance will be.
What other noise will be around our performers on stage?
Another question that will help us chose between microphone types and positions is how much other noise from musicians, speakers and other cast will be around our actors when they perform. For most musicals this really comes down is the show to tracks or a band and if so, are the band in a pit in front of the stage, on stage or backstage somewhere? For most traditional musicals with a band in an orchestra pit the other noise surrounding our performers shouldn’t be a big problem, however, we also have to factor in amplified sound from our speaker system.
When we use a microphone on stage to pick up an actor (or any sound) the speakers we use to deliver this to the audience will almost always deliver some of this sound back to our microphone. In a well set up system (with our speakers facing away from the mics and towards the audience) with some distance between mics and speakers, this can be kept to manageable levels. If our performance space has a large Apron though or we are performing the show in Thrust or in the round keeping the speakers away from the actors wearing mics can be a challenge. In these situations, we will have more other sound entering the microphones than would be ideal. Some times this might be the on-stage band or could be the actor’s own voice from the speakers.
Once we have a good idea of how loud our show will be both for the audience and on stage, we can begin looking at the different options for radio mic types. These systems can be divided into two types. Belt packs are worn on our cast (although not very often on the belt but more on that later!) and handheld mics. Few shows really lend themselves to handheld radio mics however there are some, and yours might in part either suit the use of a handheld or the situations we’ve spoken about above may demand it. For everyone else, belt pack systems will be the best option. Once this has been established we have the choice of what type of microphone we attach to the pack? This choice is based on how close we need to get the mic to the actor’s mouth. For a loud production such as School of Rock or a big Pantomime getting the mic capsule as close to the actors mouth, helps ensure that the ratio of our actor’s voice to the band or other noise as high as possible. This will help keep your production sounding clean and intelligible to our audience. Getting their voices over the top of your band or orchestra will become much easier. This option isn’t without its challenges though and may directors or costume designers can take issue with the visual look of these mics. When renting these headset mics you can be limited to the colours available. We offer beige, tan or black in most of our headsets. On professional productions these are then further coloured to match the actor’s skin however this isn’t possible with rental mics sadly. When we need to choose a mic to ensure we get the most possible level from an actor into the sound system a headset is often our best option.
We stock a number of different headsets to fit your budget. One first comes free with any radio mic hire and is available with an adjustable boom length. This allows for the mic to be positioned anywhere from back near the ear, all the way to the corner of the actor’s mouth. We’ll look at mic positions and our options for this a little further into this post. Our next option is available as a chargeable extra, the JAG IMX6 Mic. These headsets offer a more flexible wire frame that can adjust to be more comfortable for the actor but also will help retain the mic position as our performer acts and dances. As a quick rule of thumb the closer the mic is to the source the more critical it is that the distance stays the same. If you find you need to use a headset, more often than not, you will find that the next biggest challenge you face will be keeping the mic exactly where you need it. These JAG’s mics can help here along with various hair and wig clips and tapes. Another advantage to these mics is that they have removable adaptors and cables. With these parts being replaceable, finding your company have damaged a mic can be much cheaper than replacing the full headset. I’ve found this to be very helpful at keeping unwanted costs down on shows with busy energetic casts. Our final option is the industry standard DPA 4066 and Define 66. These headsets are similar to the JAG but have a more rounded familiar tone. They sound fantastic and are very discrete however they represent the flagship in our headset range.
If the level from a headset isn’t required or the visual look of a boom offends, then our next option is a hairline mic capsule. There are a number of sonic and visual benefits to these mics. The main benefit is that we have a much larger number of positions we can look at for these to help the mic blend into the actor and their costume. The primary position for these discrete mics is on the forehead. This position can vary between right up into the hairline (hardly noticeable at all) for a play where very subtle amplification is all that is needed, too much closer in towards the eyebrows for where level and detail is demanded but a headset would be too intrusive. Anywhere on the forehead will offer the very best natural sounding mic position. That is to say that the mic will sound most like the actor’s natural voice without any treatment such as equalisation from the sound department. This is the best approach if we can get it but there are often situations where this isn’t possible. The arch nemesis for mics on the forehead is hats! not only because in the haste of a quick change they can often cover the mic altogether but also because anything with a peak that is in close proximity to the mic will alter the sound of the mic altogether. This will vary from a little such as The Lady of the lake’s crown here to the left to affect us a great deal. some of this can, of course, be corrected on the sound desk but one thing to remember is that any changes that are made to the eq on a sound desk effects not only the voice we are aiming for but also all the other noise collected by that mic. This can cause feedback problems in some situations.
One tip if our actor doesn’t take his hat off during his time on stage, is to attach his mic to the underside of the peak. The cause of the sound problems with hats is usually acoustic reflections from the hat so in reducing the distance between the mic and the object we can usually get to a position where the effect is minimal. We’ve used this in several situations such as the Witch in The Wizard of Oz, several hats on guys in Legally Blonde and all of the Knights in Spamalot tour. Often for quick changes into hats it’s also worth including a radio mic pack into the hat too. This way our actor just pops the hat on over the current mic in his hair. In this case, a cue from the sound desk will mute the hairline mic and open the mic (and belt pack) in the hat ready for us.
If our actor removes their hat, has a very high hairline, or no hair at all, then its likely we will need to look at a position more like that of the headset. We can use a plastic or wire positioning frame called an ear hanger. You can buy these or make them from garden wire. Attaching the mic to this allows a position under or over the ear and can still remain quite visually unobtrusive. This position never sounds that good and needs a lot of work to ensure your actor sounds like the other cast do but it is achievable in practice.
Now that we’ve discussed the mic capsules and positions available to us during your show, the next question is how small does the mic pack need to be? Now I know the answer is “as small as it can be!” however as with all technology the smaller the pack the more expensive the system is to buy and therefore to rent. We should ask ourselves how many belt packs will our actor be wearing? Sometimes we need to double mic people, or as we discussed above, they may have a pack within their hat etc. Having more than one pack on their person will certainly need us to think about the weight of the pack. How much movement and costume will our actor need to deal with? an actor who plays a fairly static character in a play may well be able to cope with a slightly larger and heavier mic pack than a dancer in Cats for example. We offer two sizes of mic packs in our rental stock. The Sennheiser evolution systems which offer good value for money and the Shure UR1M micro packs which are some of the smallest and lightest on the market.
How many radio mic systems will I need?
This may seem like an obvious question, but how many radio mic systems you need might not be as clear cut as counting how many solo or speaking parts you have in your show. That’s often a good place to start and you can do this with a simple spreadsheet of characters and scenes or musical numbers. If you just put a cross in the boxes for where each character appears you will have a matrix of who needs a mic and when. Don’t forget though that this will only be for solo parts and you will likely need some radio mics across your chorus groups too if you’re looking to ensure you have an even balance of voices. Certainly, in professional productions, it’s usual to just mic everyone however this might not be needed in your show. You could consider a few swaps of smaller parts. If a character appears at the top of act one and then isn’t seen again until the end, you may explore swapping the mic pack to another cast member for another small part and back again. In our experience, though it’s only worth thinking about this is if you have a dedicated person backstage that can look after radio mics and swaps. By dedicated we mean not an assistant stage manager, or someone that will have other duties. Looking after radio mics and ensuring they are in the correct place and working is a full-time job on a musical. It’s always worth having someone you can train up to do this for your production. You can ask us about some training if you’re interested. We would suggest you never rely on the cast to swap radio mics. However capable they are, they have another job to do on stage and this will always be their priority as it should be. One further thing to think about is if your production will need any actors double mic’ed or double packed (two mics and two packs.)
Once you have created your spreadsheet it will become clear those actors that are on and off stage regularly, and those that are almost on at all times. Do we need to ask ourselves if actor X’s mic at this point how long would it be before our radio mic tech could get to them? when they do get to them how long would they have to change the mic or pack or fix the problem? For those actors where access to the pack in their costume is OK, but wigs and head gear make access to changing the mic problematic,we can look at putting two mics on them taped together and only plugging one in, the other connector can just sit in the radio mic pouch ready to be swapped when needed. For those actors who are hardly off stage and when they are changing then perhaps two packs and two mics would be safer. This way if we have a problem, the sound operator can switch to the spare mic without any further intervention. The radio mic tech can then get to the back up at another time. We have designed sound for small shows where none of the cast leaves the stage and all are double packed to ensure no issues.
Finally, it would be prudent to ask What sets one radio mic system apart from another? what do I need from a radio mic system?
There are many radio mic systems on the market ranging from the very cheap Chinese units, all the way to the top quality professional systems with redundancy for everything. For the most part, you will be looking for a reliable system from a reputable manufacturer such as Sennheiser or Shure. There are others but these are the two stand out options. For short term hires you can’t be expected to know everything about the complex frequency management of these systems, how many radio mics you can operate together in the frequency band available at your venue. Planning radio mics is a dark art. let someone else help you! The rental company you use should be able to plan all your frequencies for your show and assign you a clear list of spare frequencies. When you hire radio mics you can expect a level of service from them including sending spare mic packs, spare mics, planning and advising on systems, frequencies etc. Its also good to know for your peace of mind, if they have a whole bunch of radio mics back in their warehouse should you have a problem, or if you have all that they own. Often in an effort to help reduce costs, these things are omitted and the service just becomes a rental of equipment. Watch out for advertised costs per radio mic that don’t include the antenna distribution, good quality directional antenna (not short stubbie aerials on the radio mics.). Some times passive antenna are more suitable then active and somethings its the other way around. How can you know? Easy. Hire from a company that you know and trust have the experience to deliver and support you during your show week. dBS Solutions have around 75 channels of radio mics of several different brands and frequency ranges. We supply touring productions with careful frequency management. We are always happy to advise you on frequencies and planning and can often save you the costs of further licencing by carefully selecting the channels used in our systems. If you hire from us we will provide full planning of our radio mics along with spare frequencies and in most cases spare, mics & packs.
Right now we have a good stock of our Sennheiser radio mic systems and are offering a discounted rate of £45 plus vat per radio mic system for week-long rentals subject to availability until July 2019. Please give the office a call or email to see how we can help with your next production.