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Out Board: Why mics don’t work – or do they?

TiMax vocal imaging and effects spatialisation are at the heart of the sound design for Disney’s Aladdin TiMax vocal imaging and effects spatialisation are at the heart of the sound design for Disney’s Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

Amplified vocals can be distracting, say some theatregoers. We can’t hear the performers without them, say others. There is a solution to both: use microphone technology wisely to offer audiences numerous benefits

This comment from a bygone thread sums up one of theatre’s perennial old chestnuts: “Sound is the bastard child of the theatre – when it works, no one complains, but when it doesn’t, look out.”

And another revealingly relevant – more on this later – observation: “I saw a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where I was continuously conscious of the voices coming from the speakers.”

And from one unhappy, albeit prosaic, critic: “I found myself consistently distracted by disembodied voices from the heavens.”

It has been a perceived wisdom in certain modern theatre circles over the years that microphones/speakers/amplification are ‘bad’, and in some cases with good reason. But this is now all changing in leaps and bounds due to some new tricks of the trade.

It’s interesting that when there’s a drum kit, guitars, decks etc on stage, our psyche adapts instinctively to accepting visually and sonically significant amounts of amplification. But substitute a sofa and carpet or rural veranda, and that same psyche gets all sniffy about even seeing any microphones, let alone hearing them.

But there’s a good reason for this: the contract ultimately entered into from both sides of the footlights. The aim of the director, designer, technicians and actors is to get the audience to suspend their disbelief, and the audience’s aim is also to suspend that disbelief in order to justify buying a ticket. It’s a communal thing, and mostly what theatre’s about, after all.

The job of visual media in theatre is often regarded as broadly perceptual or descriptive: lighting effects to set a scene, physical or digital scenography to describe it. On the other hand, and while there is some overlap, sound can more strongly affect how you feel, connecting directly to emotion and mood – hence why sympathetic, immersive soundscapes can be so effective.

For their part, microphones are all about intelligibility, communication, focus and helping to effortlessly guide the willing disbelief-suspender through the story.

Many theatregoers may be surprised to know that mics are often being used even when you don’t notice them. This is mics being used properly, with subtle amplification carried out strategically, transparently and sensitively (more on this later).

In other instances than just the ‘too-loud’ problem, the whole thing sounds wrong, distracting or disengaging – and herein lies the rub. This is actually a primitive survival mechanism doing its job, with our brains kicking in a fundamental psychoacoustic response called ‘precedence’.

Les Miserables (below left) in Lausanne. Photo: Mercedes Riedy
Les Miserables (below left) in Lausanne. Photo: Mercedes Riedy

Remember the Virginia Woolf attendee earlier? The reason he heard the voices coming from the speakers was because they reached him earlier, not just because the voices were louder than those of the actors themselves. Our primitive selves needed this trick so that when a twig cracked in the forest we heard it from its true source just before all the reflections off the nearby trees and rocks, so we knew to run in the opposite direction.

Trouble is, we can’t switch this off so we end up with the Virginia Woolf observer’s distracting, even stressful, conflict between what we see and what we hear. And it gets worse with more than one actor because we also struggle to figure out who’s saying what. Switch the mics off and you’re back to the purely acoustic, natural twig-in-the-forest situation with your senses back in harmony.

So, it looks like the ‘mics/speakers are bad’ thing seems to be a fair argument. However, reality usually dictates that we need them. In musical theatre, we need to hear the voices above the band; on large, open-air stages the voices are just too quiet due to distance.

Even in spoken theatre, there are quite polarised schools of thought. Yes, hearing a production without mics might be the holy grail. But some actors themselves will tell you, for example: “I found it very difficult to be able to find a wider range of dynamics in terms of speaking my lines. I had to remember to project to the back rows, so I had to find an even playing ground of volume. The play where I was miked I found to be a lot more stress-free and I was able to play a bit more.”

And from a seasoned theatregoer: “People used to flinch in horror when amplification was used, even for musicals. But that reluctance to mic meant a lot of words emerged unheard, with a resulting sense of frustration from the viewers. I’ve suffered too in straight theatre from sitting up in the cheap seats and watching a performance pitched entirely to the front stalls, with just half the lines floating through and all sense lost.”

So, if we accept that mics are a force for good, here comes the cavalry in the form of a technological solution to solve the twig-in-the-forest biological phenomenon and its distracting consequence. The answer is ‘spatial reinforcement’.

On growing numbers of stages in the West End, on Broadway and worldwide, spatial reinforcement has been rapidly becoming the new normal for discerning sound designers, including several Tony and Olivier winners, who create sound designs for premium musical theatre, plays and opera, both indoors and outdoors. Using a purpose-built ‘delay-matrix’ technology called TiMax from UK company Out Board, they dynamically manage exactly when each mic comes out of the speakers so it always reaches the audience just slightly later than the actor’s original acoustic voice.

This makes the audience localise to the amplified actors exactly as if there were no mics, thus eliminating the distraction and stress while enhancing intelligibility all the way to the back rows. As actors move around the stage, the TiMax system is cued to change its mic timings to the speakers and maintain the localisation. On busier and larger shows, TiMax provides a radar tracking system that follows the actors around the stage to glue the localisation to them automatically.

So, there you have it. Mics do actually work, it just has to be done right. And the benefits are significant, with audiences and even actors hearing and feeling the difference. So for producers and directors who want to do the right thing by their ever-more-discerning customer, the new normal is localisation using spatial reinforcement by TiMax.


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