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Shooting non-repeatable events: weddings, recitals, plays, performances...


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Old November 22nd, 2013, 04:06 AM   #1
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School Plays

For better or worse, I've been hired to record several school nativity plays this year.

I've got the video side of things covered pretty well, but for me at least, the sound is always the weak link at these types of events. The kids are all in the 5-8 years old range and capturing clear sound for the DVD is pretty much essential.

For those who have done this before, how / where do you place your mics?

Due to other commitments for kit on at least one of those days, the gear I'll likely have available will be:

2x Rode NTG2
2x Zoom H4n
1x Zoom H1
1x Tascam DR60D
2x Sennheiser G2 wireless
1x Sennheiser G3 wireless

Various stands and of course the on camera mics which I never use for anything other than ambient in extreme cases.

I'd thought about sticking a mic in the manger, but how else do you record these things loud enough to hear the kids but without getting lots of echo and reverb, something that always drives me nuts!
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 06:27 AM   #2
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Re: School Plays

Dave I did a couple ages ago and your right it's a nightmare. What I did was have three boom type poles around the stage low so just at the top if the stage, two zoom h1 attached at the side poles and a microphone straight on facing stage. Then I put a voice recorder on the main kid that was in the play most of the time. I put a voice recorder in like you said but on a donkey at the back but near enough. Three cameras three rode, one angle close to the stage one quite far away long and another angle near the stage. Don't know what else you could do apart from? There is always a piano player or someone in charge maybe run a voice recorder if them also. Other than that mic up the two main parts. Steve
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 12:23 PM   #3
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Re: School Plays

I swore off recording any kinds of school events a long time ago.

When you've got kids scurrying about on stage and around stage, it would make me nervous to have mic stands and mic cables running around etc.

I would think 2 or 3 shotgun type mics close to the front of the stage would just about cover it good enough without being too intrusive and prone to knock over etc.

Run those to a digital audio recorder.

If there's a dedicated music area like piano, put another close to it.

That would be about as fancy as I'd get personally. lol
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 12:53 PM   #4
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Re: School Plays

Dave, I film quite a few every year and sound is always a bit of a problem. Trying to mic individual kids of that age is really a waste of time as there are usually quite a lot with small speaking parts. Booms can be easily knocked by small children and teachers get nervous of booms dangling over the kids.

The best way by far in my experience, if possible, is to hang a mini recorder or two above the kids and slightly forward of them. I usually do that from hall lighting bars, or roof trusses as many modern halls seem to have exposed trusses. My normal method is to to use fishing line attached to a small weight to throw the line over the truss, then attach the recorder to the line and pull it up to the right height. Use a school step ladder to tie the line back. Turn them on well before the parents start coming in.

The variation in the volume of the kids voices varies from barely audible to shouting, so a compressor at post production works wonders. Whatever you get will be far better than the parents hear in the hall, and they won't expect theatre production sound on the dvd.

Roger
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 12:58 PM   #5
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Re: School Plays

Some schools have a sound system and enthusiastic teacher or helper controlling various mics. By all means take a line out to a recorder, but believe me, the results are usually a disaster as they forget to turn mics on, get the volume wrong etc. So always rely on your own mics and recordings.

Roger
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 03:20 PM   #6
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Re: School Plays

Thanks guys. I'm going to have to look in to how I can dangle a microphone over the stage area (or just in front). Unfortunately this is not a new building, more one that was built about 150 years ago. We'll see if there is anything I can hang from!

There is a piano (isn't there always?) and yes I'll be mixing that on it's own.

While they do have a sound desk, I've never totally 'relied' on these for anything, even though I plug recorders in when ever possible, then if the sound is useful it's a bonus :)

I also just got a copy of the one done a couple of years ago for this school and, frankly, it's terrible. The sound is one thing but the video is … err…. embarrassingly bad too!

Oh well, now we know why they are no longer in business!
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 04:02 PM   #7
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Re: School Plays

Old buildings often have handy tie-bars that can dangle things from, you could be lucky.
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Old November 22nd, 2013, 04:15 PM   #8
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Re: School Plays

Posted a reply to this earlier today but it seemed to disappear into cyberspace. Some of these points have already been addressed but here it is (I kept a copy of the draft as I have had disappearing posts before):

"Done a few of these myself, and they tend to vary quite a bit but here's some thoughts:

1. Attending the final rehearsals is a must; even so, expect the unexpected at the performance!

2. If the kids are singing along to a CD, borrow it to copy - a clean backing track can be handy to have.

3. If there is a teacher narrating, give them a mic to themselves, on a stand if they are staying put or use one of the Sennys if they are going to move.

4. Spare radiomics hidden in scenery are useful as are overhead mics - I often use G2/G3 transmitters (very) securely attached at lighting bar or ceiling level with MKE 2 gold lavs hanging down over the performance area. They are practically invisible, pick up surprisingly well and quickly cease to be a distraction to the performers.

5. I don't run any cables on flooring where people will be and only use mics on low stands in front of the performance area if an adult is guarding them like a hawk against parents and staff as much as kids.

6. Once or twice I have been glad that I kept a shotgun mic on the camera ( yes, I know...) because it against all the odds has recorded something much better than all the others (like a brilliant ad lib from the audience area!)

7. Best of luck - you'll need it".

Last edited by Colin McDonald; November 22nd, 2013 at 04:15 PM. Reason: Typo
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Old November 23rd, 2013, 05:45 AM   #9
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Re: School Plays

I find the more complex the mic setup, the more I need a sound person. Sound is dynamic and takes someone monitoring and adjusting.

A pair or array of boundary mics may be the solution for this. Mics hanging down or shotguns pointing at the stage are all going to record "air" and have reverb. Boundary mics are at least engineered to reduce the reflections. But recording vocals at a distance of more than 30" is always a compromise.
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Old November 23rd, 2013, 08:57 AM   #10
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Re: School Plays

I concur 100% with Les. Professional theatres, who have the budget for all kinds of exotic gizmos still use Boundary microphones. Proven to be the least problematic and the most useful for events where visual impact is also important.
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Old November 23rd, 2013, 09:47 AM   #11
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Re: School Plays

Quote:
Originally Posted by Les Wilson View Post
I find the more complex the mic setup, the more I need a sound person. Sound is dynamic and takes someone monitoring and adjusting.
I sure we could all agree with that. However, if it is a single person crew, that might not be realistic.

Quote:
A pair or array of boundary mics may be the solution for this.
On a conventional stage, yes certainly.

The last couple of Nativity Plays I filmed were in small Nursery schools without any stage areas, and comparatively dead.The performance area was at one end of a large/double classroom with a carpeted floor. Apart from constituting a potential tripping hazard anywhere on the floor near the performers, I am not sure how well boundary mics would cope with carpets. The nearest places to the performers to position mics were in the scenery/ hanging from a low ceiling.

Quote:
Mics hanging down or shotguns pointing at the stage are all going to record "air" and have reverb. Boundary mics are at least engineered to reduce the reflections. But recording vocals at a distance of more than 30" is always a compromise.
Agreed.

Like I said, these plays vary enormously, from a small informal event for parents only to a professionally produced performance in a theatre. I have no idea of the conditions that the OP will find for the performance.
Round these parts, they tend to be fairly small scale ad hoc events in a primary or nursery school.
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Old November 23rd, 2013, 06:27 PM   #12
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Re: School Plays

The points that Les has made are perfectly relevant in the right circumstances, but we are not talking theatres here with productions that benefit from proper staging, speakers who project their voices and budgets to cover sound engineers and multi mic placement. Boundary mics are great for theatre and stage productions when they can be properly mounted and cabled, but we are talking about 5-8 year old kids in a multi-functional school hall performing a quickly rehearsed nativity play.

The other thing to remember is that usually you have a very short time to set up several cameras, tripods and mics, sometimes only 30-45 minutes because the hall is being used beforehand for something else. A couple of mics/recorders a few feet above the heads of the kids will certainly pick up air, but will also pick up all the kids voices, which can be levelled out quite easily in post. A shotgun mic could also be a useful addition as has been mentioned. Ambient noise including audience reaction will also be picked up, but that is all part of the fun of a school nativity.

It's essential to keep it simple and quick, otherwise it will involve bringing in extra people, more time etc. You will then either price yourself out of the market or make no profit. Every December, I usually film 2 nativity performances a day over several days, each at different schools and that can only be done by keeping set ups simple and quick.

One of the schools that I usually film at, wanted two different year productions on different days, but I could only film one as I will be at a different school for the other. They said that it wouldn't be a problem as one of the members of staff would film it with their own camera! I will be using 4 cameras, sound recorders and two operators, then full multi camera editing. The school will be selling both the videos to parents at the same price, which just gives an idea of how little they understand and how low their expectations are!!!

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Old November 24th, 2013, 05:52 AM   #13
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Re: School Plays

Sorry Roger, but I totally disagree. Directional microphones are very hit and miss, and for every quiet child there is one with a foghorn voice. Overhead mics are rarely much use because they point at the ground, voices are not projected upwards, and kids make lots of noise with their feet. Think about police interview rooms - they could have mics hanging from the ceiling, or directional ones - after all, people sit in predefined places. They use boundary mics for the simple reason that they work well no matter what position people sit in - and of course floors are very reflective, being hard - so the boundary effect that takes place when the mic is on that boundary really help you hear voices.

Time wise, placing two or three boundaries on the floor at the front is quicker than hanging mics - keeping in mind that most UK schools have totally screwed ideas about health and safety, and using a small stepladder is totally out of the question. Cables on the floor is hardly complicated compared with hanging mics, and if these hanging mics are too high they sound thin and horrible too of course.

I quite agree with keeping it simple, but ground vs dangling is a no brainer in terms of simplicity and speed - and ground wins!

As for carpet - no problem whatsoever, and it often adds to isolating the mics from any floor bound noise - although most have a rubber base anyway. Carpet and gaffer tape are good friends - we do it all the time. It only gets messy after perhaps a couple of weeks. Removing it after a few hours is simple.

Shotguns as group miking devices are pretty poor - even if you use multiples, if somebody walks across the front speaking, they go up and down very obviously - and off-axis shotguns sound really thin and weedy. That's why they have to be pointed. If theatres could get quality sound by using hanging mics or shotguns, they probably would - but they don't. In fact, I see many video firms with ordinary cardioid with radio plug ins on desk stand, on the floor - and they work fine.
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Old November 24th, 2013, 07:11 AM   #14
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Re: School Plays

Thanks for al the replies. The discussion is, as ever, interesting.

Having visited the location, it looks like hanging a mic or two is 'possible', but not all that easy, and certainly not quickly. It's going to take a lot more than step ladders. This is an old fashioned school stage with really high ceilings above it. It would certainly be nice to keep the mics ground based if possible.

I've not used boundary mics before. Are there many recommendations I should look at?

I'm not sure how much better they'd be than a few Zoom H1/H4n spread around just in front of the stage (there's a reasonable gap between the audience and the stage), but I'm willing to learn from those who have done this before and know what they are doing :)
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Old November 24th, 2013, 07:45 AM   #15
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Re: School Plays

Paul- by all means disagree, as we can only go by our own experiences :-) Like yourself, I have been sound recording for many years under many different circumstances and no two engineers will ever agree on everything.

Given the choice of boundary mics, I would much prefer to use them as they greatly reduce room reflections, but given the nativities that I film every year, I am just not able to use them unless I put them on the back wall behind the kids. The halls are small and the performance areas are usually on the floor or a temporary stage. There is never any possibility of putting mics on the temporary stage because they would pick up the constant rumble of the kids shuffling their feet. The main problem with stage placement though is that the kids always stand on them as there is never a part of the stage that they don't use. Putting them on the floor in front of the performance area is also a no go on the ones that I film as there are always children on benches or on the floor in front of the stage. Seating for parents is also always pushed as close to the front as possible and any remaining floor area is walking space. For me, hanging mics fairly close overhead and slightly in front of the kids is the only way I can get reasonable sound with no major problems.

Early school Nativities for me, are always different to everything else, because of the amount of children on the stage and the complete lack of predictability. I also film older school productions, which are a completely different approach, where I would use a mix of boundary mics, recorders on the main performers and a PA tap. As a sound engineer though, I am sure you will agree that you always use what you have found works best for you under different circumstances and stick with it.

By the way, didn't you used to run Seagull Studio in Lowestoft, while I was running Meadowside Studio in Wisbech?

Roger
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