Look, Ma! No Wires! How Wireless Microphones Changed Theatre
ZOE MILTON, stage sound engineer and Administrator at the ASD, the UK's Association of Sound Designers, reflects on how improvements in wireless microphone technology have changed her working life, and looks to the future.
Theatre sound has experienced a quiet revolution over the past 20 years as a result of the increasing reliability, affordability and consequent popularity of wireless microphone technology. Before the advent of wireless mics, cabled microphones or complex boom-mounted arrays were required to provide sound reinforcement for actors on stage, greatly limiting their freedom of movement. With the arrival and steadily falling cost of reliable RF microphones and in-ear monitoring, directors have been quite literally liberated from the cable ties that bound them, and the staging and presentation has become ever more ambitious in musicals (always, historically speaking, the first productions to employ new technology) as well as traditional on-stage drama. Today it's unusual to find a production that doesn't employ wireless microphones, whether the cast stands mainly immobile centre-stage intoning Shakespearean soliloquies or belts out catchy choruses whilst flying across the auditorium on wires.
Anyone who has been active on the technical side of stage sound production over the past couple of decades has lived through this period of great change, but some of the greatest shifts have come during the past few years, when reliability and battery life have improved exponentially, and relative cost has declined to a point that has allowed the use of wireless technology on a mass scale. However, just when the demand for wireless audio equipment is greater than ever before, access to the electromagnetic spectrum that allows it to function is, ironically, becoming ever more restricted globally thanks to the commercial requirement to turn that spectrum over to mobile telecommunications companies for use by telephones and wireless internet devices. And of course, one of the popular, bandwidth-heavy uses for these devices is… watching the kind of broadcast video content that makes heavy use of wireless microphones in its production…!
Theatre for Broadcast
Zoe Milton has seen all of these changes happen, and has had to grapple with their consequences (positive and negative) in her professional life. Zoe is a stage sound engineer and also the Administrator at the UK's Association of Sound Designers, the industry body that represents and furthers the interests of theatre and stage sound professionals. She has been working with wireless technology since she was a student at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in the late 90s, earning extra money to pay her way through college by 'depping' as an assistant mix engineer on large-scale West End theatrical productions including Blood Brothers and Les Misérables.
After graduating in 2001, she progressed to working as part of the sound team on My Fair Lady and Tonight's The Night. She worked on her first show as the principal sound engineer at the end of 2005 — Porgy and Bess at the Savoy Theatre. But after starting a family, the hours she had to keep to work in the West End were much less appealing, and she began to look for alternatives. In the end, she specialised on theatre productions for broadcast or commercial release on DVD, with clients including the National Theatre and the Glyndebourne Festival.
"I didn't want to go back into the West End after having children," she explains. "If you're doing shows until late in the evening, you don't want to be awake early in the morning...! But at that time, around 2009, the National Theatre Live concept started up, where theatre productions are broadcast live to a variety of venues, cinemas, arts venues and so on. I was looking for something that was theatrical, but on a much shorter timescale, a few days' work instead of months, and the niche of these live-broadcast theatre productions really appealed to me. For somebody in Sydney or Johannesburg, who can't otherwise see live productions from these venues without spending a lot of money, I think it's as close as it gets to seeing the live production — especially when the production really pays attention to the sound, and makes sure, for example, that there are surround-sound audience mics in use so that you feel something of the ambience of being at the show, even if you're in a cinema on another continent."
Since the turn of the decade, Zoe has mainly worked on these hybrid theatre-for-broadcast productions, looking after the wireless systems for the shows, and often acting as the interface on stage between the recording and/or broadcast crew for a given event and the theatrical techs staging the show. "You'd think that because this is a job that involves sound and microphones, the theatre people and the outside broadcast or DVD production people would understand each other," she explains, "but they can be very different worlds, with different terminology and expectations. I have an understanding of both, so I can communicate between them — and they really need me to do that sometimes!"
Back in the Day
When Zoe first began working in the West End, wireless microphones were used very sparingly, if at all, and this sometimes led to some quite complex working practices, with the technical staff — Zoe and her colleagues — having to keep track of all the mics. "When I worked on Les Mis, that was pretty crazy, because they only used 16 radio mics back then. You could only have 16, because each mic took up such a wide range of the spectrum, and the battery life was pretty short. We were forever having to swap the transmitter belt-packs over so that every line was heard, and we had to know which mics were with which actor at all times, because we had so few available.
"The whole cast had to know the numbers of their wireless transmitters. I would go into a room with a handful of them, shout out the numbers that needed to be changed, and they would all flick their skirts up and show me their bums, ready to have their transmitters swapped! And you'd do that with different packs throughout a performance. When I did Chicago, we were using Trantec radio mics and PP3 batteries. You could do two shows with those, as long as you turned them off in between. If you were using AA batteries, it was one show. You couldn't turn the transmitters on before 5 o'clock in the afternoon, or they would die before you got through the performance. And some of the newer ASD members like to ask me why we did so many pack and battery swaps...!"
Sometimes, as Zoe explains, you had to plan down to the last detail. "Not that long ago, in 2013, I worked on the National Theatre's 50th birthday party show, NT50; that was broadcast as well. We were using Sennheiser SK5012s in the Olivier Theatre at the National, and we couldn't have more than 40 channels of wireless in there, due to the nature of the space, the available positions for aerials and the amount of RF from the other venues in the building and from the broadcast crew. So we limited it to 43 channels of wireless, and spent a very long time working out transmitter plots; how long we would need each mic for each person and how we could swap, so not only thinking about mic placements, but carefully choreographing how the mics were moving around. We had to have a rehearsal room through which everyone passed on their way to the stage, where they would collect their radio mic, and then they all had to come off the stage via the same room to take them off again, so we could keep very strict track of where all the mics were at any one time. Of course, some actors did that perfectly, like hitting their mark during a performance — and some didn't, in which case we had to go and get the mics back off them double-quick!"
Inevitably, these methods of working didn't always run smoothly. "We did The Coast of Utopia at the National in 2002, a set of three Tom Stoppard plays, on Sennheiser rechargeable battery packs," continues Zoe. "There was one day where there must have been a power cut, or somebody had accidentally turned a socket off or something — and so two of the sets of battery packs hadn't charged overnight. Because we had three shows and we were using one pack per show, we knew from pretty early on in the day that we weren't going to be able to get through it!
"We ran around like crazy and managed to find some AA batteries, we put whatever rechargeables we could on to charge for as long as possible, and then we watched the LEDs on the receivers from the wings. In those days, when the lights started to flash, they would die about five minutes later. We had to keep swapping transmitters on actors as soon as they came off stage, and hoping that the AA batteries we'd found actually had some charge in them, and that the actors whose packs we needed to change would be making an exit from the stage before their transmitters stopped working...! It was awful!"
From Chicago to CBeebies
As the cost of wireless came down and the technology improved, more directors started to factor the use of RF technology into their productions. "The expectations of the level of detail people will hear in a production are higher now, both from directors and the general public, and that's because the whole sound experience on stage is much more detailed and controllable," explains Zoe. "Where previously you might only have had fine control over the levels coming from one or two actors - the ones who were lucky to get the expensive radio mics — now you can pretty much close-mic and adjust the level of any of the key performers in detail. That makes for more 'present', bigger-sounding shows."
Generally speaking, Zoe explains, directors and technical staff also don't have to be quite so aware of or careful about equipment as they used to be, and can take more risks in their staging. "Basically, wireless mics used to be more unreliable and they could cause people like me problems," she continues. "So you were more cautious. You just wouldn't create stage designs that called for the performers to be able to wander hundreds of yards from the aerials, like in a promenading event, because that was asking for trouble! And you probably wouldn't have suspended actors on wires quite as much as we do today. Back when I started, if someone was on a wire, we might pre-record their lines, and then the actor could just mime to the recording on stage during that part." She also recalls having to plan further in advance, sometimes working with the costume designers at an earlier stage to have actors' clothing designs adapted so that the much bulkier mics of the day and their power packs could be better concealed during performances. Apparently this was widespread practice in the film and theatre industry in the very early days of radio microphones, to the extent of characters sometimes being given otherwise extraneous bulky handbags, suitcases or utility belts (depending on genre) to hide the technology! But here, too, things have moved on. "Now, the mics are a fraction of the size they used to be, the power requirements for the transmitters aren't anything like as high, and battery life, which used to be such a problem for us, is so much better — and you get much more accurate real-time reporting of the battery levels."
By way of example of how things have changed, Zoe details the RF arrangements for a recent big project she worked on: the CBeebies Christmas Pantomime for the BBC. "For jobs like that, high wireless channel counts are now pretty common," she explains. "Although the show is eventually broadcast, it's actually produced like a traditional theatrical performance, with two shows on one day and a 3000-strong live audience, which is why the BBC uses people like me for that event, who have experience of theatre and broadcast.
"In 2016, the panto was The Nutcracker, and there were eight presenters and a five-piece roaming band, Little Bulb, who were all playing different instruments and singing, so they all had IEMs [ie. wireless in-ear monitors] and at least two or three wireless mics on them... so before you knew it, I had 50 ways of RF on the Sheffield Crucible stage."
All This & IEMS Too
As Zoe has mentioned, the widespread use of wireless is not limited to microphones, but now also encompasses in-ear monitoring, particularly on musical productions where cast are singing. "I remember when there would be one person with a single IEM on-stage — that was a big deal. But now sometimes all of the people on stage will have them, and the crew too, for back-stage comms. When I worked on the musical Nôtre-dame de Paris in 2000, all the backing music was pre-recorded, but with live vocals. We had backup DAT recorders with the backing and recorded vocals on it, and the cast had in-ears so that if we had a problem with one of the radio mics, we would play back the DATs with their vocals on, the cast would hear that performance in their in-ears and could mime along! But that was back in the days of really chunky IEMs... they were quite heavy, and we had to build them into the costumes to hide all of the tech. They also got quite hot! That's all changed now, too."
The pace of change has been so rapid that Zoe says she often encounters stage crews who haven't kept up. Last summer she worked on shows in Madrid and Marseilles. "I couldn't believe how high they had the power set on their wireless transmitters — I kept trying to get them to turn them down. And the crew were forever changing the batteries during the show. I was trying to say 'you don't need to do that any more...' but they just looked at me like I was mad. It was more than just a language barrier in the way!"
Monkey Gets Loose
Zoe is frank enough to admit that learning on the job hasn't always gone completely smoothly. "One of my first freelance jobs after having children was in a circus tent at the O2, on Damon Albarn's show Monkey: Journey To The West in 2009. I had low loss cables and paddles set to high on the receivers. They were obviously powered far too highly, and started to pick up TV audio from across the Thames, instead of the transmitter on the stage. I was sitting there thinking, 'this is an awful lot of interference... hang on a minute... that's Loose Women!!' You learn by your mistakes...!"
But of course, not all the changes have been for the better. Since 2012, governments all over the world have auctioned off the rights to use large parts of the electromagnetic spectrum following the shutdown of analogue TV broadcasting, with most of these rights going to mobile telecommunications operators for use by smartphones and wireless internet services. This has made lots of money for the authorities in the developed world, but has also made access to clean, interference-free frequencies for professional RF microphone and in-ear users ever more difficult and restricted — at a time when the technology is more in demand than ever.
"That's the other side of the changes," reflects Zoe ruefully. "I have to put much more effort into frequency planning and scanning during an event than I used to, to check that all the frequencies I'm using are staying clear. Just a few years ago, you could set up and your transmitters would always be 'the loudest voice in the room'. Whereas now, at most gigs I do there will be a bit of juggling and shuffling to get everything to work; the frequencies you license to start with will inevitably have something interfering on them. The government says we can use frequencies at the far ends of the spectrum, but of course the kit needs to be designed to work with those extreme frequencies. I always think: 'if those frequencies are so good, give them to the phone companies!' Spectrum access is definitely going to be one of the biggest challenges we have to work with over the next few years."
Fortunately, improved wireless technology is playing a part here too, making more efficient use of the RF spectrum and effectively squeezing more channels from the more restricted frequency ranges available following the spectrum auctions. "The new Shure stuff is amazing," concludes Zoe, looking to the future. "For me, the idea that you can tell the transmitters and receivers to find a better frequency if you're not happy with the clarity on the one you're using, and it will find one, and switch it for you, all without you having to go near the actor to adjust the transmitter pack... that's mind-blowing to me. Now the only reason you might need to bother an actor is if there's something physically wrong, for example if their clothing is interfering with the microphone. And that's brilliant for something like opera, where the artists often aren't used to wearing radio mics and they're not keen on wearing them. Now you can put the mics on them at the start of the night and you rarely need to bother them after that."
The Association of Sound Designers (ASD)
Lighting planners, designers and technicians in the UK's stage and theatrical industry have had an industry body to represent them since the early 1960s, but no such equivalent organisation existed for sound designers until less than 10 years ago, when a group of like-minded sound designers met to ask if there was any sensible reason why they shouldn't form such a body. The ASD was duly constituted in 2011, its stated intention to "connect the widely dispersed sound design community, to educate and promote high standards". The Association offers a closed forum where like-minded practitioners can seek advice and assistance, operates a free equipment loan service, provides professional insurance and also runs regular training events in association with respected venues like the National Theatre. At the time of writing, the ASD has just finished its Winter School, a five-day programme (free to members, students and tutors) of seminars, tutorials and guest panels at the Central School of Speech and Drama, with each day on a different theme, including sound recording, sound reinforcement, and system design. The Chairman is Gareth Fry, the sound designer behind The Barbican's smash hit play from 2015, The Encounter (which has now moved on to Broadway and won awards for its groundbreaking binaural sound, recorded by Gareth in person on location in the Amazon basin) and now the record-breaking Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.
As Administrator, Zoe Milton is the ASD's only paid employee (although the position is only part-time, leaving her time to continue her own career). "I joined a couple of years after the ASD got going," she explains. "They needed someone who wasn't purely voluntary or permanently busy with their work to take care of the association's behind-the-scenes admin." It's evident that the Administrator position isn't simply a handy part-time earner, however — Zoe is passionate about the benefits the ASD offers professionals like herself, and has just chaired a 90-minute session at the ASD's Winter School at her old college on dressing radio mics on stage, giving other sound designers the benefit of her experience. "When I first started in this business," she reminisces, "theatre sound engineers often didn't tell anyone the way they did things technically... it was all seen as trade secrets, you know, 'knowledge is power'. Not so many people knew how radio mics worked back then, and if you did know, it was the norm to keep it to yourself! So it was quite a difficult world to get into. And now it's completely changed; there's a real community feeling of sharing and mutual support — all within a few years since the ASD formed. Everyone involved is really invested in making it work, now and in the future — you can really feel that. All the people who formed the ASD were already sound designers, but now we have a very pro-active student representative, Isobel Newbury from RADA, who is very active at attracting the next generation.
"For me the social aspect is one of the best parts: the training sessions, the opportunity to meet people who are doing the same job you do, are experiencing the same sorts of problems as you, and are there for you; you can share stories, advice, help each other and have a few drinks along the way...!"
More information about stage sound design as a career, the ASD, its membership and events can be found at the Association's public web site, www.theasd.uk. The ASD also operates a private site for its members at www.associationofsounddesigners.com.