You are fortunate if your theatre group’s performance venue has a good sound system. Ours did not, and we had to supply our own. I had previously had a performing rock band and had a top-of-the-line sound system, which I then adapted for theatre use. Even if your stage has a decent amplifier and speakers, it likely does not have appropriate microphones or a mixing board with enough channels. Here are some details for what you might need:
Some theatres use body mics only, but if you are working with lots of kids on stage, having good floor mics is the best (and cheapest) option. Our group uses Bartlett floor mics placed about six feet apart. Our stage is 26 feet wide, so one mic is placed center front and has a mic six feet apart on each side, which covers the entire front of the stage.
Our stage also has aprons which we sometimes use and we place a floor mic on the apron if we’re using it in that show.
The floor mics can pick up speech from about six feet away. If you have scenes that occur deeper into the stage, you will need body mics or you can place floor mics deeper into the stage if you have a good place to position them that won’t cause actors to have to step over them or avoid kicking them. HINT: Tape a thick piece of foam to the bottom of the stage mic to reduce foot noise.
Body mics are fine for teenagers but can be tricky with young kids. Even for teenagers, it’s best to have a person who has been taught how to handle them to put them on and take them off the actors. We use the Shure PGX-D14/93 (has WL93 mics) which I think are the best quality for a not too high cost. Lower cost body mic systems, particularly the actual mic, can be okay for speech but not very good for singing.
There are two ways to place the mic. You can run the wire through their hair, pin it with hair pins, and let the mic peek out on to the forehead. The other option is to pin or clip the mic to the costume at mid chest over the heart. If you pin it too high, their chin will cover the sound, too low and it won’t be close enough to pick up their voice. Caution: if the costume rubs against the mic, it makes an unpleasant sound, so be careful of that.
It’s a good idea to make your own body mic belts to clip the transmitter to under the costume. For girls, you can sometimes clip the transmitter on the back of their bra. It’s best if you have an older woman in charge of putting on the body mics since it involves reaching up under the costumes.
To make the belt, sew together three or four layers of cloth about 3 inches wide. You will have to make them in various lengths, but if you put 6” to 8” Velcro on them, they will fit kids of different sizes. Secure the belt tightly on the smallest part of the chest, which could be the waistline or just under the breasts. Clip the transmitter to the center back and run the wire up their back and either through the hair or over the shoulder to pin on to the costume. Make sure the transmitter and mic are VERY secure. There’s nothing worse than having them fall off during a scene.
Very important — the sound person MUST remember to turn down the sound on the body mic the moment the actor leaves the stage. Otherwise the audience may hear, “Do I have time to run to the bathroom before my next scene?” Do not expect the actor to turn his own body mic on and off. That is too much to ask of any young actor or even a teenager.
We use a 16-channel Mackie board, which is enough for our five floor mics and 10 body mics. But if you can afford a 24-channel board and plan to have lots of body mics, that’s an option. The Mackie board has a graphic equalizer on it and it’s good to “ring out” your room before the audience arrives. The board also has sound effects, but don’t use them for speech and go easy on effects even for singing. It can sound unnatural if you use too much.
SPEAKERS and AMPLIFIERS
Some speakers are sold with amplifiers inside them. For more control, I suggest having separate speakers and amplifiers. Before buying, make sure you are buying something that fits the size of your room. If the speakers are too small or the amplifier too weak, the sound will not reach the back of the room. If they are too big or too powerful, you will be wasting their potential and their cost.
Unless you have a band playing next to the stage, you will also need a small, amplified monitor speaker placed near the front of the stage. If you don’t have a monitor, it is possible your singers will not stay in time with the music.
One more warning — don’t put any PA system wiring next to wiring for lights. It can cause an aggravating buzz in your system. If there is a problem with the system, start from one end and check every connection systematically to the other end. You should have two or three people who know how to work the system so that you will always have a backup person.
It is very useful to have your own sound system, but it is expensive and you need to have knowledgeable people to operate it. For those of you who are thinking of setting up your own PA system, don’t get discouraged. It takes a while to learn how to use it, but it’s worth it.