When sound designers think Broadway, they immediately think wireless microphones. The knowing looks in the designer's inner circle feature untold volumes of the trials and tribulations, sometimes the horrors, of dealing with these tiny, crucial, and sometimes maddening instruments. >From the scientific yet often nightmarish frequency coordination to designing pack placement and element mounting for each actor, these tiny pieces--how they function, and most important, how they sound--take up a major portion of the designer's job.
In recent years, the industry has seen a surge in research and development as well as the sheer production of wireless mic elements from different manufacturers. But what do different manufacturers turn out? How are they different from one another; and how do designers and engineers know what to choose?
Many companies have lavalier mics designed specifically for wireless usage. AKG, Audio-Technica, Beyer, Countryman, Crown, DPA (Danish Pro Audio, formerly known as B & K), Sanken, Sennheiser, Shure, and Sony all have lavalier mics designed for the music and theatre industry, with some a little more rock-and-roll-oriented than others. In the film and TV industry, several other manufacturers whose broadcast mics are often used under clothing come to mind: Countryman's ECM, the PSC Millimic, Tram's TR-50, and the Sonotrim STR line are popular mics of this type. At first glance, it's obvious that there are alternatives in product that vary in size and price. But what about durability and sound quality?
Let's look at the standard: on Broadway musicals and plays, the most common lavalier used is the Sennheiser MKE-2 red dot, a compact and omnidirectional element. In some large productions, designers have chosen to use Sony ECM-77s or Countryman B-3s on chorus members, often to keep costs down. "Specialty" mics have always been popular; for years, the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera has been miked with a Sanken.
When asked how the MKE-2 became Broadway's de facto RF lav, Dennis Short, director of technical services at Masque Sound & Recording, says, "I think when it first was introduced, everyone was excited because of the small size of the capsule. It only got better when you listened to it, because it had a very pleasant sound as well. The MKE-2 has stood the test of time because it's proven to be a reliable and very durable microphone. Other manufacturers have tried to capture part of the [wireless lavalier] market, and they've always fallen short of the mark either due to size or physical reliability. The two most common failure points are the cable and moisture...and nobody has made a microphone today that can take its place."
How about Sennheiser's newest lavalier, the MKE-102 and 104, a slightly larger lav that has a screw-on capsule, allowing for different patterns on the same wire? John Sibley, a designer and engineer currently mixing Broadway's Little Me, says, "I've used the cardioid version (of the MKE-104) and we unfortunately 'sweated out' a lot of them." Sibley finds this element useful, if oversized. "They're huge," he says, "because they come with a little windscreen that resembles a bishop's hat, and you really have to use it to reduce the wind or motion noise you get from the cardioid pattern, so they're gigantic in comparison. But they have a surprisingly low amount of handling noise for a cardioid lav, and they sound quite good, when we can make it through an entire show with them." Lew Mead, president of the Audio Division of Production Resource Group, which includes ProMix Inc., says of the MKE-104, "The idea of a replaceable capsule is wonderful, and the sound quality is great, but they're just too big for thea trical use."
"In the rental industry," Short says, "the 102 has not found a strong niche. The 104, on the other hand, has more applications, since it is a cardioid element, and there are situations that warrant a cardioid capsule over an MKE-2. I have to be honest: we don't have a lot of experience with them, because the staple of our inventory has been the MKE-2. The one mic that seems to be creeping in is the DPA 4060 and 4061 (which is a red dot or low-output version). They did have someinitial problems with cable failures, and I'm told that in the meantime they've addressed that with new cable, but again, we don't own or have as much experience with the newest styles as we do with the MKE-2."
Erik von Ranson, a designer of large-format corporate industrials and the production sound engineer for Chicago on Broadway, plainly favors the Sennheiser MKE-2. "I'm pretty fond of [them]," he says. "I don't quite know why, but they always seem to work the best for me. I'm not as taken with the 102 and 104; they are a little more directional, but I've had problems with the connections--getting sweat in there, and just staying put--and since you have twice as many connections, you are open to more connector problems."
"Some people think that DPAs are better-sounding," von Ranson continues, "but I have a couple of issues with them. [The 4060] is a very nice-sounding mic, but if you get loud, it doesn't hold up. It gets awful funky--the high end starts to break up and it sounds crunchy." Still, von Ranson says he likes the accessory kit that comes with the 4060. "There is a pattern- and frequency-shaping cap that goes with it, basically a different windscreen that gives it an HF boost, which is pretty cool. There are plenty of applications for it." Chicago used the 4060 element (utilizing a newer strain-relief on its cable) as a specialty mic exclusively on actor Hinton Battle, "which worked pretty well for us," von Ranson says.
Mead agrees. "We have several designers who have had a lot of luck with the DPA mics. Right now the DPA is the mic of choice if you're not using an MKE-2." He notes that the upcoming Broadway production, The Civil War, uses only DPA lavalier mics, with each actor wearing a headset mounting for the element. "But availability has been a problem," he cautions.
Mead explains that from the viewpoint of a rental house, any change made by a manufacturer can mean trouble. "The thing that we live in fear of every day is that the manufacturers will come out with the new version of what they feel is a better product, and will stop making or supporting the original product.
"And it may be better in one marketplace, such as broadcast, yet not in theatre; but for them to discontinue something that has always worked in another industry throws a designer into a tizzy," Mead continues. "I worry a lot about the speed in which the electronics industry evolves, because any new technology is dangerous--it may be obsolete within a month. The designers are highly interested in the newest technology, but they want to make sure that they can make the equipment transition very smoothly," he says. "We've seen mic companies come out with products that we won't be able to get exact spares of, because they come out with a newer model and they haven't been able to support the old model, which is on a running show." The potential for headaches, for the shop as well as the client, is staggering, Mead notes. "It makes it tough for a rental company to have consistency in its equipment inventory. Of all our wireless lavs, ProMix has probably 85% MKE-2 elements in our inventory; 5% of our inventory is MKE-102s and 104s, with the remainder being Sanken, DPA, and Countryman mics."
While some shows will only use one type of element, Sibley is used to mixing several different types of elements together on a production. "We've got about five of the Sankens (COS-11s) and three or four (Countryman) B-3s on my show right now, in addition to the standard Sennheisers," he notes. "I like the Sanken as a special purpose mic. If you can't get a forehead placement, and you have to go over the ear, they tend to sound better than an MKE-2, because of the HF peak." Sibley explains that he likes the fact that when mounted over the ear, they require very little EQ from the COS-11. "All they have is a little low cut to get the rumble out, and that's it for console EQ. They're not as consistent as an MKE-2--the tonality varies a lot more from mic to mic than an MKE-2, and they vary within their spec more, but I do like them.
"They've very sweat-resistant; you practically have to submerge them to sweat them out," Sibley adds. "We have done it, but the only time it happened, they were literally soaking wet, and once they were aired out, they were fine."
Von Ranson agrees with Sibley about the usefulness of the Sanken as a special purpose mic. "The COS-11 has a very different sound [than the MKE-2]. Brian Ronan chose them on Busker Alley [which von Ranson mixed], and they worked great on Tommy Tune and a few others. It's a little rounder-sounding, and not quite as flat." And although the element is quite long and thin, neither designer finds the mic difficult to mount.
Of the Countryman B-3, von Ranson says, "I like them. They're not a bad choice, but I think the MKE-2 is a more linear mic overall." Sibley thinks that although it's a good special purpose mic, he does not particularly like its sound. "I don't like the B-3 overall," he says. "They don't have the extended high frequency response, so the high end is not very natural-sounding at all to me, but they are nearly impossible to sweat out. I have yet to sweat out a single B-3, and I've had them on very sweaty actors for weeks. Also, their sound doesn't change much over time, as they get used and repeatedly abused, as opposed to the Sankens and Sennheisers." Sibley adds that the placement of the element is also critical to having good intelligibility. "The mic sounds a lot better than it used to in older designs, but when mounted over the ear, the amount of EQ you have to use to make it sound natural is pretty painful. If you can get it on the peak of the forehead, it really sounds quite good."
Short says, "Some of the other mics that we use include Countryman B-3s, Sony ECM77s, and an occasional Sanken or two. But they tend to be used on the lower profile shows, and more often, it's an issue of cost, since they are less costly microphones." Cost can be a major factor, especially with particularly sweaty actors, who might destroy as many as three of four mics a week.
"We've had shows go out with a bunch of Sankens, and they come back early. People seem to just prefer the MKE-2 unless there is a particular performer who needs it," Short adds. "The sound quality of the mic is such a subjective thing. Personally, I prefer the MKE-2 and I haven't found anything that sounds better in a miniature lavalier. Being a rental house, we only provide what people want, and this is globally what is on the equipment lists; so this is what designers want. Ninety percent of what we send out is MKE-2s, and it has been that way for many years."
If that's the past and present, then how about the future? Mead says that he's excited about the latest technology recently shown by Sennheiser at LDI: "They showed a prototype of a fiber-optic mic that will be developed as a lavalier, and it's very impressive. The idea is to have no interference, sweat, phasing, or proximity problems." While development, manufacturing, and availability are all unforeseen prospects, the idea is intuitive, powerful, and smart. "It's definitely the sign of things to come," Mead says, "Without a doubt, it's a revolutionary idea in mic technology."