Sound Advice

Mary Gray • June 2024Musical Theater • June 9, 2024

You are fortunate if your theatre group’s performance venue has a good sound system.  However, even if your stage has a decent amplifier and speakers, it likely does not have appropriate microphones or a mixing board with enough channels for theatre and especially musical theatre. Here are some things you might need:

Microphones Some theatres use body mics only, but if you are working with lots of kids on stage, having good floor mics is the best (and cheapest) option.  Our group uses Bartlett floor mics placed about six feet apart at the front edge of the stage. If your stage also has aprons, you may sometimes need to place a floor mic on the apron if you’re using it in that show. The floor mics can pick up speech from about six feet away. If you have scenes which occur deeper into the stage, you will need body mics or you can place floor mics deeper into the stage if you have a good place to position them that won’t cause actors to have to step over them or avoid kicking them. HINT: Tape a thick piece of foam to the bottom of the stage mic to reduce foot noise.

Body Mics Body mics are fine for teenagers but can be tricky with younger kids. Even for teenagers, it’s best to have a person who has been taught how to handle them to put them on and take them off the actors.  Our group uses the Shure PGX-D14/93 (has WL93 mics) which have good quality for the price. Lower cost body mic systems, particularly the actual mic, can be okay for speech but not very good for singing.

There are two ways to place the mic. You can run the wire through the hair, pin it with hair pins, and let the mic peek out on to the forehead. The other option is to pin or clip the mic to the costume at mid chest over the heart. If you pin it too high, their chin will cover the sound, too low and it won’t be close enough to pick up their voice. Caution: if the costume rubs against the mic, it makes an unpleasant sound, so be careful of that.

Very important – the sound person MUST remember to turn down the sound on the body mic the moment the actor leaves the stage. Otherwise, the audience may hear, “Do I have time to run to the bathroom before my next scene?” Do not expect the actor to turn his own body mic on and off. That is too much to ask of any young actor, even a teenager.

Mixing Board We use a 16 channel Mackie board, which is enough for our 5 floor mics and 10 body mics. But if you can afford a 24 channel board and plan to have lots of body mics, that’s an option. The Mackie board has a graphic equalizer on it and it’s good to “ring out” your room before the audience arrives. The board also has sound effects, but don’t use them for speech and go easy on effects even for singing. It can sound unnatural if you use too much for singing, and there is a greater risk of feedback when you use sound effects.

Speakers And Amplifiers Some speakers are sold with amplifiers inside them. However, having separate speakers and amplifiers gives you more control. Before buying, make sure you are buying something that fits the size of your room. If the speakers are too small or the amplifier too weak, the sound will not reach the back of the room. If they are too big or too powerful, you will be wasting their potential and their cost. 

Unless you have a band playing next to the stage, you will also need a small, amplified monitor speaker placed near the front of the stage pointed at the actors. If you don’t have a monitor, it is possible your singers will not stay in time with recorded musical accompaniment.

One more warning – don’t put any PA system wiring next to wiring for lights. It can cause an aggravating buzz in your system. If there is a problem with the system, start from one end and check every connection systematically to the other end.  You should have two or three people who know how to work the system so you will always have a backup person.

It’s very useful to have your own sound system, but it is expensive, and you need to have knowledgeable people to operate it. For those of you who are thinking of setting up your own PA system, don’t get discouraged. It takes a while to learn how to use it, but it’s worth it.

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