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Speaker and Microphone Placement for Performance

January 5, 2012; Jeff Samaha

In my last article, I wrote about "Simple Recording/PA techniques for your Productions."  Next I would like to talk about speaker placement in various size rooms as well as lavaliere microphone usage by the performer - do's and don'ts

You could have the best soundboard, mics, and speakers available, but if your speaker PLACEMENT is not thought out properly, all your good equipment will be wasted producing "high quality" FEEDBACK.(the high-pitched squealing from your speakers we've all heard at concerts and plays), a major nightmare for your production and a sure sign that your sound mixer is not very good.
 
Sometimes feedback can be momentary, caused by several unavoidable issues. That said, let's try to solve the obvious problems and the biggest mistake most amateur productions make: WHERE to place the speakers.

Speakers and Mics Set Up for Small Rooms

Most small rooms can get away with two good quality speakers on either side of the stage, (larger rooms could use more), the trick is to place them as far downstage of the performers wearing mics as possible, but still in front or side of the first row of the audience. In other words the mics need to be behind the speakers generally. This will help prevent feedback.

If you have a good sound person, he or she will ring out the room (make feedback happen, then tweak the treble, midrange and bass to get rid of it).

Next do a mic check with each performer and mold the sound to his/her voice again using treble/mids/bass. Try to get a natural UNAMPLIFIED sound to the voice, meaning make the audience strain a little to hear them, almost as if the performer is unmiked. It is unpleasant for the audience to hear voices booming louder than they need to be and at different levels for each person... which, of course, may also drive them into feedback. If you've ever been to a Broadway play, you might find yourself asking, "are the performers miked? I can hear comfortably and naturally." That's because the sound person is riding the level (using the faders) to prevent the contrasting volume that may be coming from them, i.e. shouting or screaming into the mics vs. speaking at a conversational level or even whispering. Sometimes the levels may need to vary according to the script, but the mixer needs to be on top of that by riding the levels. If you don't notice the performers are miked, that's a good thing. It means the PA is not drawing the attention of the audience away from the story or music.

Speakers and Mics Set Up for Larger Venues

The other point I'd like to make relates to larger rooms. Have you ever noticed in places of worship or other auditoriums, there may be several sets of speakers along the length of each long wall all the way to the back of the room, each being maybe ten feet apart? You’ll notice how easy it is to hear every word in these very reverberating, hard-to-hear-in rooms. The reason is the more speakers you have down the line every few rows, the lower the mic levels need to be. Imagine how hard it would be to hear from the back, and how loud it would be for those in the front, if there were only two speakers in the front of the room. The sound mixer would have to pump the levels really loud for it to be heard comfortably from the back of the room.

In larger rooms with this kind of speaker placement, the speakers need to be "delayed by microseconds" to compensate for the distance from the back rows to the stage. There is a natural delay due to the distance from the stage to the back of the auditorium. Since sound travels 768 miles an hour  but the electronic signal to the speakers is instantaneous, the natural sound of the performer’s voice will arrive at the back of the auditorium shortly after the voice coming from the speakers. This causes the familiar echo you hear in sports stadiums when someone sings the national anthem. You want the sound coming from the speaker to be delayed so that it arrives simultaneous with the natural sound from the stage.

Also, if you find that the center area and first few rows of the audience are not hearing well, this may be due to the side speakers being angled away and facing more toward the back rows; you might try using a center speaker in front of the stage and on the floor for those folks. It makes a big difference.

In addition to speaker placement, it is important for the performers and sound engineer (assuming there are lay people running the sound, which is usually the case) to understand where to place the lavaliere mics as well as to know where not to walk on the stage or in the audience area in relation to those side speakers we just talked about. If a performer walks in front of the speakers her or she is asking for FEEDBACK...UGH.

Miking the Performer

If one is performing a major role, it is most likely he/she would be wearing a wireless lavaliere mic. For the best pick up, I would suggest wearing the mic in performers' hair just above the hairline in the center. Another place would be over the ear and/or taped to the face. My least favorite but probably the best pick up would be using a headset mic, as you often see worn by rock performers. I don't like the way that looks, especially for a Broadway type show, but is works well for rock 'n roll because the mic head is close to the mouth and helps prevent feedback when performing with a loud rock band. The advantage there is the sound person won't have to open the mic as much to pick up the performer's voice. IN my experience, the absolute worst place for the mic is on the lapel, since that's furthest away from the mouth. Lapel placement forces the sound engineer to have to increase the mic level to compensate for the distance and accordingly forces the mic to pick up extraneous sounds and feedback. When the mic is placed on the head, ear or face, the performer has the freedom to turn his/her head in any direction and be picked up evenly. If it's on the lapel, the head turn will cause the sound person to have to ride levels more keenly since the mouth is moving away from and back to the mic. Lapel-worn lavs are best used by news anchors in a quiet studio or by teachers in a quiet classroom or conference room. You'll notice news correspondents in the field will more likely use a hand-held mic because of ambient noise and wind.

What about the Orchestra Pit?

The hardest pickup of performers on stage is when there is a band or large orchestra in the pit or to the side of the room. Again for PA purposes it is best NOT to mic the band or orchestra at all (unless for recording purposes directly to a camera or recording device). They will be loud enough. Hopefully the conductor is savvy enough to work the dynamics, and the players professional enough to play at a decent level for blend and sensitivity to the voices on the stage. As a conductor, my biggest chore has been to keep the players at a low college roar bearing in mind that if the sound person has to ride levels at peak to get the voices over the orchestra. On Broadway there is the advantage of having the orchestra under the stage and miked, since ideally it is best to have the cast and the orchestra picked up in the system. This way the engineer has better control of the overall mix. But since community theater or even regional theater may not have the luxury of masking the orchestra it's best to just not mic them at all. They will be loud enough, trust me.

In summary: NO FEEDBACK, NO LOUDER THAN NECESSARY! Oh sorry, didn't mean to yell, and try to attain the most natural unmiked-sounding performance. I DO practice what I preach and it works for me. Give it a shot.

1. Wickipedia: This is 1,236 kilometers per hour (768 mph), or about one kilometer in three seconds or approximately one mile in five seconds.

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Jeff Samaha is a network television stage manager/director who also produces, directs and conducts orchestra for Community Theater and Chorus in Brooklyn, New York Good sound quality is a must for him and this article explains how he achieves the audio quality he wants for his productions. Feel free to email him with your production issues.

Website: www.jeffsamaha.com
Email: productions@jeffsamaha.com




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