Wireless microphones are everywhere in theatre today, indispensable in productions nationwide, from Weston-super-Mare to the West End. They are one of the technical bedrocks of contemporary performance – nowadays, it’s rare to find a show that doesn’t use wireless in some way.
That hasn’t always been the case, though. Before wireless technology, cabled microphones and complex boom-mounted arrays were used to ensure an actor’s voice was audible across an auditorium. This was problematic, because it was an eyesore for the audience and hugely impeded a performer’s freedom and fluidity on stage.
The arrival of early wireless technology in the 1990s wasn’t a solve-all solution, though. Zoe Milton is a sound engineer specialising in theatre, and she remembers how troublesome and tricky wireless microphones could be when they were first introduced.
“When I worked on Les Mis, that was pretty crazy, because they only used 16 radio mics back then,” she remembers. “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,” Milton continues. “You couldn’t turn the transmitters on before 5pm, or they would die before you got through the performance.”
Not only were there issues with power, but there were also issues with placement. According to Milton, the unreliability of early wireless microphones still placed limitations on what shows could achieve with direction and design, and vice versa.
“You were more cautious,” Milton explains. “Staging was much more influential on mic use. We would sometimes need to add extra antenna or rely on wired mics. You would also need to think hard if performers were flown on wires – you would probably need to remove the transmitters before harnesses were put on as they were much more bulky and got in the way.”
And, on top of that, because early wireless microphones and their accompanying bodypacks were much bigger and bulkier, they were much harder to conceal. Apparently, says Milton, in the very early days, costume designers would often give characters “bulky handbags, suitcases or utility belts to hide the technology”.
Inevitably, because early wireless technology was so cumbersome and chaotic, things went wrong.
“We did The Coast of Utopia at the National Theatre in 2002 with rechargeable battery packs,” Milton remembers. “On one day there must have been a power cut, or somebody accidentally turned a socket off, as two of the sets of battery packs hadn’t charged overnight.”
“We knew we weren’t going to get through the show,” she continues. “We ran around like crazy looking for batteries, and charged whatever we could find for as long as possible. We had to keep swapping transmitters on actors as soon as they came off stage, just hoping the batteries we’d found had some charge. It was awful.”
Gradually, though, thanks to development by advanced audio technology companies such as Shure, wireless microphones became more reliable, more sophisticated and less expensive. And that allowed more producers and more directors to start using them in their productions.
“The level of detail directors and audiences expect is much higher now, and that’s because the whole sound experience on stage is much more nuanced and controllable,” says Milton. “Where previously you might only have fine control over the levels coming from one or two actors, now you can pretty much close-mic and adjust the level of any key performers.”
The result, she says, is “a more ‘present’, bigger-sounding show”. And wireless technology is no longer limited to microphones either: in-ear monitoring is now used frequently across the industry.
“I remember when there would be one person with a single in-ear monitor on stage, and that was a big deal,” says Milton. “Now, sometimes all of the people on stage will have them, and the crew too for backstage comms.”
But it’s not all good news. With the increased capability of wireless technology has come increased oversight of how it is used. Since 2012, regional, national and international governments worldwide have auctioned off the rights to large parts of the radio frequency spectrum, largely to mobile phone operators. That makes it much harder for sound engineers to get a clean, interference-free spectrum.
“I have to put much more effort into frequency planning and scanning during an event than I used to,” says Milton. “Just a few years ago, you could set up and your transmitters would always be the loudest voice in the room. Now, at most gigs I do, there will be a bit of juggling and shuffling to get everything to work. Spectrum access is definitely going to be one of the biggest challenges over the next few years.”
Thankfully, companies like Shure are continuing to adapt and develop their technologies to meet new challenges. Shure’s new wireless systems are designed to make more efficient use of the available spectrum, for example, effectively squeezing more channels into less space, without ever compromising on sound quality.
“The new Shure stuff is amazing,” says Milton. “It’s made it possible to get more channels safely on-air, despite the decrease in available spectrum. All of this, combined with innovative new microphones and cables, means that we can continue offering the production values audiences expect, despite changes to our operating environment.”
Shure has decades of experience working with wireless technology. It knows that quality and consistency matters in theatre, that weeks of work goes into preparing a show, and that the second the curtain goes up, everything needs to be perfect.
Through its This Is the Moment initiative, Shure is celebrating all the preparation that goes into a flawless theatrical production, and with its suite of products designed with reliability in mind, it is making sure that preparation isn’t wasted.
Head to shure.com/theatre today to download your copy of its free audio systems guide for theatre productions