We all need to talk. Be it musical theatre, concerts, or the school play we all need to communicate and work together to create the best performance possible. At times, we can get so wrapped up in what we are doing that we forget there are many other people and departments involved in our production. As if with blinders on, all we see is our little piece of the puzzle and are only concerned about what it takes to make it happen for us. We may not intentionally disregard other departments, but we surely show less concern about how our actions have an effect on them, which, of course, is not a good thing.
Everyone should have an accurate idea of what other departments are planning for the production. Ideas that are out of the norm should be passed around to others who may be compromised with the changes. If wardrobe, choreographers, musicians, or actors modify their parts of the puzzle they most likely will affect sound. If sound is not aware of the change, it can have undesirable ramifications on the mix.
WHY IS SOUND CONCERNED?
During a live theatre performance, sound is required not only to blend the orchestra, but we must also try to fit it “good and bad” into a small window. Musicians who play parts differently than their norm, be it sound or technique, make it harder to paint the picture the designer envisioned. However, the bigger concerns come during dialogue segments. We chase the actor's every whim and, at times, we are required to be mind readers. When dialogue does not sound natural or, God forbid, we drop a line, sound is noticed and obviously in a negative manner. Unexpected changes in line delivery or scene blocking during a segment read directly to the live mix and make it tough for the engineer to keep it smooth. In audio, we need consistency from the stage and the pit to help us perfect the sound of the show.
HOW CAN OTHERS HELP PERFECT THE SOUND?
As discussed in the March 2005 “On Sound” column, keeping dialogue levels consistent and natural are a big part of theatrical shows. Generally, not using compression to handle the quick peaks creates a scenario that can be very challenging. With the commonly used miniature hidden mikes in the hairline or in costumes, we create a high potential for feedback before gain. These mikes also adversely interact with each other when two actors are in close proximity (especially eye to eye). As audio engineers, generally we are required to chase the dialogue and have only one, or as few mikes as possible, on at a time. We must know the script word for word to be able to nail the cross fade of the mikes to keep the sound reinforcement invisible. Of course, if the designer is using an A/B sound system, things are slightly different, but that's another column.
But what if the directors and choreographers were enlightened as to what hoops audio engineers were required to jump through to pull off a quality theatrical performance? And what would happen if they conveyed that information to the actors performing on stage? Maybe all involved could help perfect the sound. If actors truly realized how his or her actions dramatically affected our work, that bit of understanding could allow them to assist with the overall sound.
All involved can aid in improving the sound. This not only includes the audio designers and engineers but also the actors, directors, and choreographers. If all parties have an understanding of the potential problem spots, and the actors are directed whenever possible to follow a few short rules, sound reinforcement can be much smoother.
KEEP IT CONSISTENT
Just as performers are directed and strive to keep blocking or dance choreography consistent, sound technicians also need that consistency in the delivery of their lines. Once the expected settling in period has expired after actors learn their parts, it greatly benefits the audio mixer if the delivery is the same show after show. Or at the very least, refrain from drastic changes. Sound settles in to a groove. We get into a rhythm after mixing the show for a while and rely on consistent delivery from the stage to keep the mix smooth.
Theatrical mix engineers not only learn every actor's lines from the script, but we also learn his or her style and how they deliver the lines. We chase every word spoken on stage, and not only are we attempting to have the right mike on at the right moment but we are compensating for the type of delivery normally produced by the actors. Catching the first syllable of a line at the proper level can be tough, and it is also very important.
If an actor normally accentuates a word, engineers will land the fader at a lower than normal position to keep it from being too loud. And for softer deliveries the fader will land higher so it can be understood. The problems begin when we are expecting a particular delivery and for one reason or another, the actor changes it. For example, we are expecting a strong, powerful line or word and we have the fader level set lower in preparation for this and the actor delivers it much softer than normal. There is a strong possibility that the audience will not understand the first part of that line. On the other side of the coin, when a line is normally delivered in a soft voice we land the mike level hotter to catch that first syllable. If the actor unexpectedly emphasizes that part, by the time the engineer and the audience peel themselves off the back wall of the theatre, they will have forgotten what the story was about.
BE AWARE OF OTHER ACTORS' MIKES
It needs to be emphasized that an actor's delivery is not only important for them and their personal mike but when they are close to another actor as well — now there are two mikes on the actor. If they are alternating lines, the engineer will chase the dialogue and keep it clean. If the two are in a conversation and they are required to respond on top of the other's lines while face to face, we enter a new problem of crosstalk. In this situation, actors not projecting their voice directly at the other's mike can be a big help. The engineer is required to make a split second decision on mixing the mikes together or using one or the other for both actors. Simply having an actor turn their head a couple of degrees can make the difference between a smooth, natural conversation or a choppy, “Oh yea, they are wearing mikes” amplified sound.
BEWARE OF SURROUNDINGS ON STAGE
Scenery, other actors, props, or anything else that has a reflection directly affects sound. If an actor is in close proximity to and simply facing a piece of scenery, it will give a reflection back to the mike. This reflection is then amplified just as the actor's voice is. The problem is that the reflection is delayed and, therefore, slightly out of time with the original source (the actor's direct voice). This reflection is audible and out of place among the direct sounds. To better understand this, take your hands and hold them side by side, palms facing you, and slightly cup them like a bowl. Start talking and move your hands closer to your mouth and then away. As you move them back and forth, you can hear the reflection when they are close to you. When there is a microphone on your forehead, this sound is amplified and accentuated in the house mix.
It should be obvious that anything that makes noise will be picked up by the mikes. People talking, noisy lighting instruments, loud footsteps, and anything else that makes noise can interfere with the mix. Obviously, when the actor is on stage this cannot be avoided. But when they are off stage and still singing or delivering lines they need to be aware of themselves and their surroundings. They need to be aware the mike is on until the segment is complete. Keep in mind, this mike is attached to the actor's forehead. Why do actors think if they whisper no on will hear them? In turn, the people around them must be aware of the live mikes off stage. Casual conversation can become public knowledge very fast, if actors do not pay attention.
REMEMBER TO AMPLIFY
When theatre began there was no electronic sound reinforcement. An actor was required to project his or her voice to be heard by every seat in the house. They still used dynamics but even the softer portions had to be spoken with power. Theatres were designed with a more live, reflective sound and with proper projection from the actor, the room itself would carry the sound to the audience.
Today we have different concerns now that we are using sound reinforcement. We still require projection from actors but obviously not as drastic as before. We run into one problem when actors remember they are amplified and get too quiet. For the most part we can turn up their mikes so they can be heard, but using all that extra gain causes problems of its own. The louder we make the mike, the more you hear surrounding noises like fans and motors on lighting fixtures, moving scenery, even the ambient noise of the room. And if the actor is close to a hard surface like a piece of scenery, this can create a tunnel sound. Every little change from the norm can create a distraction for the audience. And then we have the concern that, while reaching for this extra gain, we have created a potential for feedback through the system. We can only go so far before the sound gets unattractive. Actors need to realize that even with a multi-million dollar sound system, vocal projection is still the key.
Keith Shuford can be found on the Web at www.AdvanceEntertainment.com.