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Theatre-Sound: Engineering and Production

Beginning of the article.
Microphones section.
Sound Systems in theatre.
Jobs in theatre-sound.
References Cited.

By: Kevin Flinn
Instructor: Kathryn Carlson
Class: Business Writing and Communication
Date: June 9, 1998

Modified for HTML use.
(Not used in any actual publication)

When we think of live sound we normally think of it as going to a concert where the sound is reinforced by a large array of speakers above the stage. This is not the case with live theatre sound. There are some clear differences between theater sound and live sound reinforcement and the ways in which you approach each of them. The microphones, the sound system, the life on Broadway, and all the different jobs can only be somewhat compared to popular live sound reinforcement. This is why I want to explain what is involved with the theatre sound production and what the tasks of the House Engineer and other crew members are.

The first thing I need to clear up is that live sound reinforcement is the reinforcement of sound. Whereas theater sound is not solely for reinforcement, it must have a “transparent” (Emerson) feel or have a “natural sound” (Hallgren). You should not be able to hear the speaking from the speakers, it should sound as if it is only coming from the performers. I will describe the sound system in more depth later. To clarify, when I say “live sound” or “concert sound,” what I am referring to is “popular live sound reinforcement.” Likewise, when I say “theater sound,” I am specifically talking about theater performances such as on Broadway or on other major touring shows.

Microphones are a major part in the production of a live performance on the stage as equally as they are in live sound reinforcement. In many ways, you would want to limit yourself from using microphones at all in the theatre says Ronald Hallgren and Mark Anduss. Hallgren is the house engineer at the City Theatre of Stockholm and Mark Anduss is an experienced engineer in both recording and theatre sound. When microphones are used in theatre, there are distinctive, more expensive types. First off, more “pristine” microphones are used for theater sound for “subtle reinforcement,” stated Jim van Bergen, an experienced engineer for AudioArt Sound. There are several types of microphones used in theater sound. “Footlight mics, hidden wireless mics, shotgun mics and boundary mics are frequently used in the theatre to reinforce without being particularly visible,” says Charlie Richmond of Richmond Sound Design Ltd. in Vancouver, Canada.

When it comes to the appearance of microphones, they need to be hidden from audience view. “Visual aesthetics come into play when using hanging mics or trying to hide mics on set pieces and using wireless on actors,” explains Anduss. Wireless microphones for the performers need to be hidden, this means placing them in the oddest locations on them. Most of the time the small microphones are placed in the hair or on the face somewhere, explains Tom Pfaeffle, a concert sound instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle. When the RF guys are positioning the microphones on the performers, they need ways of making the microphones stay in one place. Surgical tape, hair clips, and placing them in wigs are ways in which they make them stay (Hallgren). Sweat from the performers also has to be taken into account. The microphones then need to be spaced away from the body to eliminate them getting wet and malfunctioning or injuring the performer (Hallgren). The other microphones used in the theater are either placed above the performers or below on the floor. They may be used to pick up the ambiance on stage or a group of people on stage that would be difficult to mic individually (Pfaeffle). For a hanging microphone, Mark Anduss uses an AT 853, and on the floor he uses PCCs when micing a play.

After getting the microphone placed on the person, you still have to worry about feedback, phase cancellations and RF hits. Compared to the directional microphones used in concert sound, theater sound uses omni-directional lavalieres, which means more chances for feedback. Another thing that increases chances for feedback depends upon where the speakers are located. Many times the speakers are placed backstage for special effects (Hallgren and Bergen). Phase cancellations are also a concern among the engineers when two performers are next to each other and both have microphones that are on. Sometimes they will just use the other person’s mic to pick up the person they are next to (Pfaeffle). Another problem that is prominent with wireless microphones is RF (Radio Frequency) hits. Since they are transmitting over the airwaves along with all the other radio and TV signals, they are competing for frequencies that are clear. RF hits occur when another radio or TV station is picked up by the receiver and interferes with the transmitting microphone. To eliminate the RF hits, each microphone must be tuned to an unused frequency in that particular city.

I briefly talked about how the sound system used in theater sound needs to have a “transparent” feel. There are a variety of ways of placing the speakers in order to keep that feel. One new concept includes a stereo pair of speakers in the front for the music and an “A/B system” for all the speaking parts (Bergen). What this means is that there are separate sets of speakers for pairs of vocalists. The reason this is done is to eliminate phasing problems that may exist when two performers are next to each other. Mark Anduss explained that he uses an 8 bus console to have separate controls over the different locations of speakers. In bigger situations they may use a matrix system of 16x32 like on the Cadac console. Say there is a need for a gunshot upstage right; they would have a speaker placed there specifically for the sound of the gunshot to give the feel of where the sound is actually coming from. Depending on the venue, there may be several speakers on stage and ones used for surround sound (Hallgren). Once you start placing speakers on the stage you then have to worry about visual aesthetics again and dealing with the set designer and director. The main point of using the sound system is to make sure everyone can hear the performers but not the sound system.

The equipment used in theatre sound is much more expensive and falls under higher standards. The sizes of speakers are also much smaller compared to concert sound, says Tom Pfaeffle. They use speakers such as Genelec and Lexicon for their effects and surround. The console used today in big Broadway productions is the Cadac console, selling for 300,000 dollars (Rudolph 45). Digital consoles are also starting to make their way from the studio to the theater, making it easy to automate all your cues and have all your settings ready at the touch of a button. The lower prices of digital consoles also makes it easier for the smaller theaters to get better systems.

There are many jobs in the theater sound field, and I touched shortly on the job of the RF guy. These include the House Engineer, Sound Designer, Deck Audio (RF person), Monitor or Orchestra Mixer, Audio Master, Sound Effects, and System Technicians. The engineer’s responsibilities are various depending on the production they are working on. In any case, the engineer must follow the guidelines set by the sound designer if they are not the designer themselves (Emerson, Stoody). They must also make a “flawless” show every time as Jim van Bergen emphasizes. The engineer may have to mix a band, run cues, setup monitor mixes, record sound effects, keep good notes and just about anything else that may arise dealing with sound. The sound designer has the job of designing the sound system, sound plot, and making the sound cues (Anduss). The deck audio people (also known as A2) are responsible for hooking up the wireless microphones to the performers and moving them around. Sometimes there is a need for a monitor engineer in the bigger productions. They are responsible for feeding the stage monitors with whatever the performers want or need to hear. If there is an orchestra in the house, then they may feed the instrumentalists with their monitor feeds. The house engineer may also have another person helping them with the sound effects and cues if it is a larger show.

When it comes to the job of house engineer in Broadway theater, their tasks may begin at around 6:30pm if the show starts at 8:00pm. They start by completing a system check, then they go through and do a microphone check to make sure all the microphones are working properly and well (Bergen). During the show they mix and make sure everything runs perfectly while also keeping the transparency of the show. If they run into problems, such as wirelesses going out, they need to cope with them too. After they’re finished, they shut-down the system and go home. If it is on Broadway, they would be living in New York. If it is a regional theater, they would just go home and live a normal life. The life of the Broadway engineer is more stable than that of the touring engineer. When the engineer goes on tour, it is still very similar to the Broadway scheme. It just involves packing and unpacking all the gear for each show or supervising that it is done correctly (Emerson). Life as a touring house engineer is different from that of Broadway or a regional job. “People don’t take their families on the road,” says Bergen. They may date coworkers, but having a family and going on the road is difficult to do. The life of a touring engineer is for a young person or a “nomad,” as Ben Emerson puts it. The touring engineer takes the greatest toll, but they pay is somewhat higher (Anduss).

There are several ways of getting into theater sound. Most of the people I interviewed said that “being there at the right time” was how they got into it. They also mentioned starting out as an intern, apprenticing for a local theatre or working in other areas throughout the theater. These may include doing props, stage management, being a cable guy or even sweeping the floors. Education was another plus at starting a career in theatre sound. There are more universities now that are also teaching sound design. Experience is the best way to learn the trade, hanging around and getting the opportunity to mix also increases chances. Jim van Bergen adds to this by saying, “. . .a great one is the school of hard knocks.”

One thing that is important if you want to start a career in theatre sound, is joining IATSE. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees is a union of people involved in theatre and television, from the runners to the engineers and producers (“Historical...” 1997). To become a house engineer or any of the other jobs in the theatre, you must become a union member of IATSE. To join the union you have to take a test and then, of course, pay your dues. There are some theaters where you don’t have to be a member, but joining IATSE gives you the chance of going to different venues to work without the worry of being frowned upon. The work can be found just about anywhere there is a theatre and a need for it. Mark Anduss agrees that the work is “all over the place.”

Theatre sound is a whole new world to the engineers working in live sound reinforcement. There are completely different microphone styles used along with making sure they are hidden and not heard. Mixing the sound is also different, you not only have the two speakers in the front, but you have speakers all over the theater you have to deal with. You also have to deal with the performers and the production staff in making everything work out for the best. Whether choosing to be a Broadway, regional, or touring engineer in theatre sound, becoming a member of IATSE is a necessity.

References Cited

Anduss, Mark {} May 1998.

Bergen, Jim van {} May 1998.

Emerson, Benjamin {} May 1998.

Hallgren, Ronald {} April 1998.

“Historical Background” An Introduction to IATSE n. pag. Online. Internet. 2 May 1998. Available

Pfaeffle, Tom. Personal interview. April 1998.

Richmond, Charlie {} May 1998.

Rudolph, Eric. “The State of the Art in Broadway Sound.” Mix Feb. 1996: 44+.

Stoody, Matt {} May 1998.

Other References

Harada, Kai. "Sound-- Wireless Microphones!" n. pag. Online. Internet. 2 May 1998. Available

Rudolph, Eric. “Rent Makes Noise on Broadway.” Mix Oct. 1996: 168+.

Smith, David {} Re: Digital consoles. E-mail to
{} May 1998.

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