Top Mic Placement Tips for Theater
Using microphones for theater productions brings a unique set of challenges. UK sound engineer Zoe Milton offers her top mic placement tips for the stage.
As a freelance sound engineer, I've spent a considerable portion of my time specializing in hiding mics on performers for theatrical events and broadcast productions. I'm lucky enough to be able to work in all sorts of venues across England and beyond, helping stage plays, opera, children's TV shows and films.
Microphone placement for broadcast and theater present a unique set of challenges compared to miking a concert or studio recording session – not least because traditional placement for optimal sound quality is rarely possible. More often than not, the microphone is required to essentially disappear, as not to hinder the performer or distract from the overall production.
There are a few fundamentals to consider before securing a mic to a performer, because body-worn microphone placement is always a compromise. But our job is to ensure the mic always delivers the same response throughout a performance and on different nights of a production. In this article, I will cover the process I follow to mic performers for vocal reinforcement or recording.
Here are some of the initial questions I ask when setting up a show:
- What is the performer doing?
- What is the overall show? Are we working a rock 'n' roll show or an Edwardian period piece?
- What is the design aesthetic?
You might work with the same performers across multiple scenarios, but they'll likely be giving very different performances. Subsequently, the way we use the microphones will be very different, too. A boom mic is perfectly acceptable aesthetically (and very much required) if you're working on a show that features an on-stage band. However, if your show is a period play that requires only subtle vocal reinforcement, you won't want to have a boom mic across the face of every actor.
Production details other than your desired sound will influence your microphone choice fairly early on. For example:
What are they wearing?
Do they have wigs, hats, masks, or crazy amounts of hair gel?
All of these elements (and more) will have an impact on mic placement and at what point during the show prep you can fit mics to the performer. It's a good idea to meet with the costume designer as early as possible, to let them know you're thinking about mic placement, so you can talk to them about the size and shape of your chosen transmitter. If particular scenes could be a problem for a larger transmitter, the earlier you know, the better – especially if there are budgetary implications.
How physical is their performance?
Are they ruffling their hair? Rolling around the stage?
You must consider the physicality of each performance when attaching both the microphone and the transmitter. Crucially, you have to take into account if the mic and body pack will stay put throughout a particularly physical performance.
I firmly believe that good communication is key to a successful, smooth-running show. And while wireless mics are only one part of the sound designer's palette of tools, it's an area of sound that impacts many other departments. On a standard day, I will talk to makeup, wardrobe, wigs, performers, stage management, and the sound department to ensure the job gets done.
Consistency is King
With some initial questions answered, let's now put what we've learned into practice with an example scenario. For the purpose of this exercise, let's assume the performance is not one that requires a boom mic. The brief calls for subtle reinforcement delayed back to the performer's voice.
Bodyworn mic placement invariably involves some compromise; there are many departments involved, and you can't please all of them all the time. For this reason, the mic isn't going to be exactly where your sound designer would choose in an ideal world. To placate the sound team, you must ensure the mic is positioned consistently every time. This way all of your EQ and gain adjustments will also remain consistent throughout.
A centimeter either way in wireless mic terms is a massive difference and can ruin an entire scene. Equally, poor securing of the mic will cause nightmares, too. I worked on My Fair Lady many years ago in the West End. One night, an understudy went on at short notice, leaving little time to double check placement and ensure a secure fit.
Not only did the engineer have to deal with the performer change, but the ear hanger he was wearing flew off during the big dance number. The understudy tried to replace it, but every head flick sent it flying — not fun to mix and not fun for the performer.
Mic Placement Options
On the whole, I prefer all the mics I place to be on the performer's head, between the temples just forward of the hairline. This position allows the mic to sit on the bone; in my experience, this improves the bass response, giving a rounder sound. I wouldn't use tape to secure microphones to the face, as this approach is too uncomfortable for the performer to justify any potential improvement.
I tend to secure mics to the performer's hair using clips. I secure the clips with milliner's elastic as this gives you some flexibility to move clips as required. The clips come in a few different colors, or you can use spray paint. I would recommend matte spray, as it doesn't glisten under the lights. I often use a pale clip and then color over the top with stripes of color to match hair types – like a zebra hiding from a lion! I use pens to do this as they're easier to control, but you might have to redo your work every so often.
Typically, I'll use three clips: one to secure the mic head and keep it pointing where you want it, one to reinforce this position and one to keep the cable tidy at the back of the head.
First, I create a parting to help the mic sit flat in the hair.
Then I use a toupee clip to secure the mic head (you want the mic to be pointing at the mouth of the performer).
The second clip acts as a reinforcement of this first position, anchoring the mic and securing the position. If you get this one wrong the mic will never sit in the right place.
The third clip sits at the nape of the neck just under that little lump where the skull meets the spine. You can secure it with a tape of your choice, but it's not always necessary – especially if you have a collar and the performance is not particularly physical.
Clips are fantastic and reliable when you need to fix a mic in one position throughout a performance, but they do require a certain amount of hair to keep them secure. In cases when your performer doesn't have lots of hair, we have to look at alternative methods.
In such instances, it's still best to attach the mic to the performer's head, for a couple of reasons:
- First, the distance between the mic and the mouth stays the same, which is good news for your front of house engineer!
- Second, you are much less likely to encounter noise issues on the head. A well-placed, head-worn mic is much less susceptible to falling off or being disturbed than even the most carefully placed shirt-worn mic.
If your performer's hair or costume eliminates our preferred position between the temples, you can try moving the clips down towards the ear. If this lower position doesn't work, you could also try an ear hanger.
Ear hangers pose a few known challenges, for which manufacturers have helpfully devised solutions in the form of frequency boost caps. As you move off the hard bone of the temples, you will start to hear changes in the mic's frequency response. The "color" of the mic changes and we start to pick up muddy, muffled tones; you can counteract this with desk EQ, or by using caps to boost the top end.
You can buy ready-made ear hangers, but I like to make my own. Here's how:
If you take a hairpin and straighten it out, you can cover it in your chosen way to make it comfortable for your performer. I like to use Luko Tape by 3M. I cut a strip that is equal to the length of the hairpin and wrap the tape around the pin. Next, I make a bend in the pin; this will secure the front of the ear hanger to place it on the performer and follow the shape of the back of their ear. Finally, snip off any excess with side cutters (or strong scissors), and you've got yourself an ear hanger.
The benefits of this method are that the performer can adjust the shape of the mic to fit their ear and feel confident that it'll stay put without the need for tape or glue.
With the microphone securely placed, it's time to start thinking about your next challenge — the transmitter.
For most performances, the transmitter can sit comfortably in a pouch on the waist. To secure it, I typically use a two-inch wide elastic band secured at the front with velcro. The elastic band will sit quite happily under the clothes, providing the performer doesn't fall on it or apply pressure directly.
I often get asked about naked performers. There's quite a lot you can do in these situations, surprisingly! Hiding the transmitter on the head is a fantastic solution, but requires some trial and error.
With the size of transmitters today, the job is getting much easier, but in the early 2000's we managed to hide a mic on a completely naked female performer for a single scene by making a pouch in her hair. Just last month, we employed the same tactics for an opera performer – the transmitter was so light and comfortable that he wore it on his head for the whole act!
Here you can see the mic pouch being sewn into a strap, covered by a stock wig that the wigs department found. It matched our performer exactly!
The pouch was clipped into the performer's hair and secured on either side of the head using wig elastic and toupee clips.
In the example, the final clips aren't sewn into place, but the transmitter is sitting quite happily at the nape of the neck. When constructing a transmitter pouch, it's worth making sure all departments concerned know that the final size of the device is affected by the aerial and mic connectors. In this instance, we had to tape the aerial down to stop it poking out of his head. It was entirely invisible once correctly fitted thanks to some amazing team work in action; a willing performer and a wig department completely up for giving it a go, plus some handy sewing skills from the sound department.
If we'd tried to use a plain black pouch, we wouldn't have enough hair to cover the transmitter. By adding a little camouflage, we were able to create a comfortable solution without having to resort to hiding the mic cable down his spine using lots of tape and makeup.
Improvements in equipment design are really making the job of hiding transmitters and body-worn mics easier.
The Bottom Line
If you only take one thing away from this article, it should be that clear communication is essential. Speak to as many departments as you can: wigs, wardrobe, performers, makeup, stage-management, lighting. Each department will provide valuable insight into how the show will work.
For example, I recently worked on a show with a false ceiling. As a result, all the lighting came from the sides, which meant that any exposed neck cables had to be securely taped down, so as not to catch the light. By communicating openly with the lighting department, we were able to take the appropriate action in plenty of time to avoid making everyone's day very stressful.
So, check in with everyone as early as possible, even if it's just a quick hello and introduction – you'll be surprised what you find out in a quick informal catch-up. I also find it helpful to chat about how the other departments are working. I like to learn a bit about what the others are doing on a production, so that I understand the constraints and challenges. That way you're less likely to encounter misunderstandings, and everyone's job gets easier and more fun.