James Ballen is Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Sound Supervisor. A theatrical live sound professional who has also worked with Chicago's Goodman Theatre and who, for the past ten years has run sound for Berkeley Rep, is tasked with overseeing all aspects of the theatre's sound operations. Over the past decade, he's become an enthusiastic user of Countryman products, including the company's E6 Omni and E2 Uni-directional earset microphones, B6 Omni lavaliere models, as well as the Type 10 direct boxes. He discussed the challenges he routinely encounters and his reason for selecting Countryman.
“When an actor or actress is outfitted with a microphone—be it an earset or lavaliere type model—sound quality is only one of several key considerations,” says Ballen. “Comfort is equally important. If, for example, an earset mic doesn't fit well, it becomes extremely distracting and this is likely to compromise the talent's ability to give their best performance. Countryman's E6 earset mics have proven to be extremely comfortable, are very lightweight, and sound fantastic. Compared to many competing products, the E6's are frequently preferred by theatrical performers due to their fit, sound quality, and their ability to blend to various skin tones. These mics are used in many of our productions and we keep roughly ten units in our permanent inventory.”
In addition to the Countryman E6 earset models, Ballen reports the theatre also has a pair of E2 earset microphones as well as about fifteen B6 Omni lavalieres. “The Countryman E2's have a much shorter boom than the E6's and, as a result, are even less visible to the audience,” says Ballen. “Being uni-directional, their pickup qualities are different from the E6's, so having both models gives us considerable flexibility when outfitting the talent. Similarly, the B6 lavaliere mics have proven to be invaluable when it comes to placing a microphone directly onto wardrobe or hiding it within a costume. The sound quality of the E6's and, for that matter, all of the company's mics, is right there at the top—regardless of price point.”
The Countryman E6 is a great microphone choice when achieving suitable audio levels proves difficult, as Ballen explained. “We premiered a show called Passing Strange that eventually went on to Broadway,” Ballen said. “This show was presented on our Thrust Stage, which has a rather odd shape that can cause acoustical challenges. This theatre has no right angles and the stage juts out halfway into the house. Because of these factors, feedback is a huge issue whenever we use lapel or body mics on stage.”
“We started tech rehearsals with some microphones placed on the actors' ears to make them as discreet as possible,” Ballen continued, “but we quickly hit the ceiling in terms of gain before feedback. We just couldn't get acceptable levels. We then switched everyone over to Countryman E6's and these mics completely resolved the issue. The sound was fantastic, with tons of gain. Everyone involved with the production was impressed with the vast difference the E6's made.”
Depending upon the nature of the production, live musicians are frequently hired to play the theatre's shows. Making the Hi-Z unbalanced (musical instrument) to Lo-Z balanced (mixer channel input) conversion can create distortion and color the sound if not handled properly. To overcome this, Ballen often relies on Countryman Type 10 direct boxes. “We had a show a while back that required several guitars, and we used the Type 10's exclusively,” he said. “The sound quality was crystal-clear and transparent—absolutely wonderful.”
Before shifting his attention back to the business of the day, Ballen summarized his experience with Countryman Associates, “Countryman's customer and technical support services are some of the best I've encountered. They've overnighted products to us in the past and are very responsive whenever we have questions. After working with a variety of Countryman products over the years, I feel as though everything the company makes is of very high quality and is built to last. Their equipment exhibits well-thought-out designs and I can honestly say I'm very happy with them.”
To learn more about the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, visit them online at www.berkeleyrep.org.
About Countryman Associates
For more than 30 years, Countryman has focused on developing microphones and accessories that deliver maximum gain before feedback, with the highest possible rejection of wind, vibration, interference, and other unwanted sounds. The result is warm, clear vocals in speaking and singing applications, delivering natural audio reinforcement that requires almost no attention from the sound engineer or the performer. For additional information about Countryman Associates, visit the company online at www.countryman.com.
Photo Info: Rebecca Naomi Jones, Stew, and de'Adre Aziza (left – right) wear Countryman E6 earset microphones in the world premiere of Passing Strange at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo credit: www.kevinberne.com.