The Playgoer: To Mic or Not to Mic, cont.

Custom Search

Saturday, November 07, 2009

To Mic or Not to Mic, cont.

Great comments from readers following up on my post and link to an article about the state of voice amplification on Broadway.

In case you've missed them, I want to feature a couple of insightful missives from some sound designers on the topic.

"CLJ" says:

A microphone bumped you out of the illusion? Not the fact that every single piece of scenery is unreal? That it was performed under artificial lighting? In a climate controlled room full of people?

"The willing suspension of disbelief." It's mandatory for theatre patrons, and should extend to artifacts such as microphones, too. It's not reality, and it's not supposed to be reality. It's a play, for gods' sake.

The issue isn't "mics" versus "no mics." The real issue is "competent sound design" versus "incompetent sound design." There are very few competent sound designers, and a lot of pretenders who like to play with sound gear.

If the sound design is properly executed, you should not be aware of speaker placement; it should sound like it's coming from the person speaking. And if it doesn't, it's not because microphones and a sound system were used, it's because microphones and a sound system were used very poorly.

I say this as a classically trained actor who sneered at microphones until moving over to the production end, and seeing just what they can do, properly utilized.

And here's "Nick":
C.L.J. is right about good sound design vs. incompetent sound design - as a sound engineer and designer myself, I am caught up in this discussion on a daily basis. On the one side is CLJ's "good" or transparent sound - sound that is properly delayed and sourced to the actor using the principle known as the Haas effect - (look it up). It is truly convincing, so much so that we as engineers often get asked why we're not amplifying the actors - when we are. On the other hand is over-amplified sound that makes actors sound like they're breathing like walruses hanging from the giant center cluster in the grid. That's not helping anyone push the art forward. And there are gradients in between, and times when over-amplification is the aesthetic goal.

The biggest question for me is sustainability. Both transparent and non-transparent sound have a problem - it's horrendously expensive to body mic people, and I'm worried that the format of the 1,000 seat theatre is getting less popular. I've seen shows easily spend around a half-million to a million dollars to get that sound right - and they need to hire one of the probably a couple dozen sound designers who can effectively design on that scale in a transparent way. I'm talking in the united states. How is that ever going to work?

I wonder if the solution here isn't an embracing of theatricality. The audience often thinks they want loudness when they actually want clarity. I'm coming from an environment (Chicago) where our best selling theatre is in an increasing number of smaller and smaller houses. The intimacy helps clarity of both sound and performance, and not at a great expense. The quality of the experience improves.

It's very true - the old methods of vocal projection were born out of necessity, required skill and craft, and we miss those things, and we shouldn't forget them. Nor should we mistake them for better days. Large houses and big voices engendered a style of acting that clearly communicated to the audience - but became outmoded as technology changed. Look at the difference in acting styles between the silent movie era and the talkies - huge differences brought on by a slight shift in technology. We're seeing that shift again as the technology has lept forward in the last ten years, but I think our response isn't as creative - we're somehow still pursuing the naturalistic realism of what - Miller? nah, that'd be fooling ourselves- when we could be using sound in the theater to further illuminate the human condition. And again, louder does not necessarily equal more illuminating.

The question isn't how to hang on to old methodologies - it's how to embrace new capabilities in pursuit of a human truth.
Yes, a performance conditions change, new techniques are required from actors. And new aesthetic tastes are formed.

No comments: