Low-Tech Must-Haves In Your Wireless Mics Toolkit
As sound people, we are required to know a plethora of obscure and seemingly unrelated information. We are also ridiculed for our endless font of “useless” knowledge. Two sound people can hold a lengthy conversation using only numbers and letters, which has caused my wife to boycott dinners with more than one sound person in attendance. We are required to know basic electronics and microphone techniques. We must know how to mix and what TV stations are broadcasting. We need to know that MIDI can only travel 50' without an extender and how humidity and temperature affects the sounds we hear. We also must know how to properly attach a lavaliere to an actor and how to prevent sweat-outs. We should know the name of a good medical supply company as well as a place to get cheap defective condoms. It really is a wealth of minutia. We also must possess the strength to make everyone happy, the wisdom to know what to say when someone is unhappy, and the patience to know we will never make them happy. And, of course, we have to know some intercom and video.
Part of this minutia includes knowing what equipment you need in your RF toolkit and the secrets of dealing with wireless mics. I talked to one of the most experienced deck sound people on Broadway to get the lowdown. Mary McGregor has been an A2 or deck sound on dozens of shows. She currently works at the Metropolitan Opera and recently worked on: Spring Awakening, Chicago, In the Heights, and Spamalot. McGregor explains that the optimal placement of a mic on an actor seems to be the center of the forehead, but there are questions to be asked: “Is there hair or no hair? Is there a wig or no wig? Is there a hat or no hat? These things help determine the actual placement and rigging parameters,” she says.
Tailoring the mic to the actor is the next step and one that McGregor describes as the more “crafts-y area” of being an A2. “The basic three-toupee clip rig with the mic head at the center of the forehead will work for a healthy head of hair,” she says. “If we are using a beige mic, it is necessary to paint the cord to match the actor’s hair. I really like the Copic markers best for this. When they fade due to sweat and hair products, the color isn’t horrible.” She also recommends Letraset Tria markers.
What not to wear? “Do not use a black Sharpie ever,” McGregor advises. “It will always go blue. Color the mic the length of the actor’s head from forehead to nape. Add 2" of craft wire in a color that matches the hair color at the element end. This helps to focus the mic toward the actor’s mouth. String three toupee clips onto the cord. The clips should be prepped with 1/8" elastic tied through the holes. The clips should come close to the actor’s hair color. I also paint the very head of the mic with black or brown or beige nail color. This way the color won’t sweat off onto the actor’s forehead.”
A bald or balding actor can be a challenge, but McGregor suggests an ear clip. “Over the ear is the next best placement,” she says. “I have placed mics on the temple using the standard three-clip rig. With a DPA model, I like the clear plastic ear clip. With a Sennheiser MKE2, I like the heavier metal clip. I try to get the head of the mic on the actor’s cheekbone away from the sideburn. Craft wire on the mic for the distance from the ear to the cheekbone helps hold the mic close to the face. Using a Hellerman tool, attach the mic cord to the ear clip with two or three Hellerman sleeves. If the actor has hair on the back of his neck, you probably need a small toupee clip after the ear clip. Otherwise, plan on taping the mic behind the actor’s ear and at the neck.”
She explains how wigs make life easier. “If the mic is worn with a wig, very little needs to be done,” she says. “I have had quite a bit of success with putting them under the lace front of wigs. The head and maybe 2" can be painted to match the hair color or skin tone. I have also had the head peak out from a hard front wig. Sometimes, depending on movement, it may be necessary to go to a hi-boost cap on a DPA, because the curved screen on the soft-boost cap scrapes against the lace.”
McGregor has found an inventive way to paint mics temporarily. “Lately, I have been dealing with mics in a rep situation,” she says. “I have started covering the mic cord, where it gets painted, with paper adhesive tape and painting the tape. Then, when the show is finished, I can remove the paper tape and have a plain mic to use for the next show. The paper can last two or three shows but needs to be redone for more shows.”
McGregor explains the delicate art of sticking the mic to the actor’s skin. “Generally I put one small piece of tape on the actor’s neck,” she says. “This is mostly to strain-relief the last toupee clip so it won’t be pulling on the actor’s nape hair. It’s also to counteract loopage—when the cord loops out of the actor’s collar and can be seen by the audience. Three kinds of tape are usually used: Transpore™, Blenderm™, or Tegaderm™, all from 3M. I have also used paper tape, fabric tape, and adhesive bandages. Whatever the actor is comfortable with, and as long as it doesn’t irritate the skin is what I go with.” Tegaderm is generally a last-resort, as it is relatively expensive, but it does have the benefit of coming in large sheets for naked or plunging back taping. McGregor advises using alcohol pads or skin prep pads to wipe the neck or ear area before taping, reducing bodily oils or sweat.
And what can you do about those pesky sweat-outs? Sweat control is a rather actor-specific situation. McGregor recommends moleskin fabric, “available at drug stores and usually near the shoelaces,” she says. “Elastoplast is better because it doesn’t get furry, but it is harder to find. I take a small piece of Elastoplast the length of the mic head’s diameter and wrap it around the cap not covering the windscreen. These wraps need to be changed regularly as they become messy and stop absorbing. If the actor is a heavy sweater, and the mic belt is next to the skin or a really wet undershirt, the pack might need to be bagged. The cheapest are plastic bags taped closed. A cotton puff or two at the top around the connectors can be added before you tape the bag closed. Sheathes or condoms can also be used. I don’t like long-term condom use because the talc can gunk up the battery compartment and the off/on switch on the transmitter. Sheathes, ordered from a medical supply company, don’t have the talc.”
But your job is not done when the curtain comes down, as McGregor explains. Maintaining the microphones after the show is crucial. “I like to use non-acetone spirit gum remover on the cords to remove tape goo,” she says, citing Krylon and Ben Nye as manufacturers she’s used. “Most hair products can be removed with soapy water. Painting always needs to be touched up, and the elastic on the toupee clips should be checked often. The windscreens can also get clogged with sweat. I like to use an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner for the caps. A $60 one is usually just fine. The battery-operated ones aren’t powerful enough, and the ones with digital controls and heat cost too much. Mr. Clean or any low-suds, antibacterial cleaner is fine. For hygienic reasons, everyone should have his or her own mic, but budget constraints may limit this possibility.”
McGregor notes that some designers care more about hiding the mics than others, and likewise, some actors care more about the comfort of the pack placement than others, which can have more to do with the costume than anything. “The bottom line, however, is the sound quality,” she stresses. “The main job of an A2, in my mind, is maintaining the consistency of that sound. Once the EQ is set for a particular actor with a particular placement, every show thereafter should be the same, even if there is just one rehearsal and one show. Live theatre is a fluid thing, and no two shows are ever the same, performance-wise. The mic placement on the actors at least takes one more variable out of the equation, so the mixer doesn’t have to chase EQ and attenuation all night.”
Shannon Slaton is a sound designer and engineer. On Broadway, some of the shows he has mixed include: Spring Awakening, Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde, and Bombay Dreams. He has designed many national tours including: The Full Monty, Wizard of Oz, Hairspray, The Producers, Sweeney Todd, and The Drowsy Chaperone. He is also the associate sound designer for the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera.