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Old July 20th, 2017, 04:56 PM   #1
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Recording stage sound for school productions

I have been recording school productions for a number of years, usually junior and infant schools. Typically they are end of spring term leavers productions or Nativities near Christmas. They are usually performed on a temporary stage in the school hall, with either no sound reinforcement or extremely limited and usually unskilled operators on a very basic system. These days the productions are bought in from companies that sell finished scripts and audio CDs with the music and some singing voices already on them, a sort of school production karaoke. The children on stage are usually not miked up and speak at various volumes, with often a narrator or two with a microphone relating bits of the story. Children are spread around the stage in different scenes with children not on stage usually in front and to either side.

All this makes it extremely difficult to get acceptable sound in such a widely varying environment and with very little time to set up in an active school. We usually have a maximum of 60 minutes to set up cameras and audio recording, test everything while parents and children are arriving for the show. We also film from a fixed position at the back of the hall, so no chance of running cables round.

We would usually have all cameras with onboard mics, to give guide tracks for syncing and try to place audio recorders near to the sound sources. The problem there is that mic stands cannot be used on or near the stage as they will get knocked and be a pssible danger to the children. PZMs on the stage are also a no go as they will get trodden on. That means that we usually have to put recorders and mics on the scenery or walls behind the stage which means that children speaking are facing away from the mics. There are usually beams in the roofing above the stage, but that requires ladder access and time that may not be available to fix mikes and recorders in place, plus the need to switch them on long before the show starts.

The general result is less than ideal sound that sometimes means quiet speakers are almost inaudible. We've never had complaints, but it is something that I have not been happy about. This week we had four school productions to film so I tried an alternative method for the first time. I decided to try to quickly get a recording from over the font edge of the stages from only a few feet above the performers heads, but with a very fast set up and break down. The ceiling/roof beam heights varied over different stages from 15 to 25 feet, so I bought 100 metres of 10lb strain fishing line and some small muslin drawstring bags, plus some 1" diameter washers. I then weighed my pocket recorders on the kitchen scales and weighed the same weight of washers. The recorders were then put into the muslin bags and paired with bags with the same weight of washers in. The fishing line was cut into short medium and long lengths, each being about a third off the expected roof to stage height. a small plastic sprung hook was attached to each end of the lines and the lines were wrapped around small spools for transport. The final piece of equipment was a telescopic washing line prop which cost me 3.

On arrival at the venue, the recorder/s I wanted to use were put into their muslin bags and attached to the appropriate length lines with the corresponding weight of washers in the bag at the other end. The bag with the washers was then thrown over an overhead beam then hooked with the extended clothes prop to draw up the recorder. The fishing line was very simple to shorten if neccessary and the recorder could be turned on a few minutes before the start of the show, by just pulling it down with the pole, then pushing it back up as it was counterbalanced by the weighted bag. I used my Zoom H1 and Sony pocket recorders and was delighted that even the quiet speakers were easily picked up and the overall sound easily levelled in post production.

Does anyone else use a similar method for such recordings or have an alternative that is quick and easy in these situations?

Roger
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Old July 24th, 2017, 07:14 AM   #2
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

sounds like you have a solution. Have you ever thought of a parabolic reflector for one of the back mics? also what I have done in the past is take a wireless lavalier that is omni directional. Tape it centered to the front of the stage. Being that it is so small and depending on how you put it on the front of the stage, It could be out of the way to get stepped on.
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Old July 24th, 2017, 07:32 AM   #3
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

Hi Roger

As every school is different, we adopt a few different methods.

Our preferred is 2x rifles 2x boundaries on the front of the stage, however if they are using stage blocks we use one of the following:

1, Removing a chair from the front row and standing a single stand with a pair of rifles on it. This is usually right beside the main isle, so good and central.
2, Placing boundary mics on the stage (very much depends on the stage, as some of them are very noisy) But equally placing it below the rifles works well too.
3, Sticking Lapel mics to scenery, obviously depends on if it is moving on if its going to be moved.
4, Sticking boundaries to the walls either side of the stage.

The rifles get the best sound usually and combined with a boundary on the floor this works well.

Daniel
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Old July 25th, 2017, 05:42 PM   #4
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

Quote:
Originally Posted by David Stoneburner View Post
sounds like you have a solution. Have you ever thought of a parabolic reflector for one of the back mics? also what I have done in the past is take a wireless lavalier that is omni directional. Tape it centered to the front of the stage. Being that it is so small and depending on how you put it on the front of the stage, It could be out of the way to get stepped on.
Hi David,

I have a pair of Wireless TXs and various lavs, but there are two problems with using your suggestion. One is that the children who are not on stage seem to be sat on benches along the front of the stage on the floor for most productions, and either knock or rub against the mics. The second is that a mic taped to the stage always picks up the constant banging of feet and shuffling about that the kids do.

On pro theatre shows of course it's less of a problem, but with kids in school halls it's a pain.

Roger
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Old July 25th, 2017, 05:54 PM   #5
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

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Originally Posted by Daniel James View Post
Hi Roger

As every school is different, we adopt a few different methods.

Our preferred is 2x rifles 2x boundaries on the front of the stage, however if they are using stage blocks we use one of the following:

1, Removing a chair from the front row and standing a single stand with a pair of rifles on it. This is usually right beside the main isle, so good and central.
2, Placing boundary mics on the stage (very much depends on the stage, as some of them are very noisy) But equally placing it below the rifles works well too.
3, Sticking Lapel mics to scenery, obviously depends on if it is moving on if its going to be moved.
4, Sticking boundaries to the walls either side of the stage.

The rifles get the best sound usually and combined with a boundary on the floor this works well.

Daniel
The rifles can work and I have tried the gap in the front row before. It sometimes works well, but I often seem to end up with the parent with another young child sitting next to the stand and either screaming loudly or grabbing at the stand with the parent making little attempt to stop them. The last time it happened, the parent said to me 'Well he wasn't hurting it'. I have used boundary mics if the walls either side of the stage are very close, but often in a school hall, the walls are quite a way from the stage and the children can speak very quietly, often almost inaudible.

I've struggled with the sound problem for years in these situations, but the suspended mic/recorder over their heads has given me the best sound so far. Last week at one production, we worked with a pro sound engineer and desk with 10 TXs and mini mics taped to the main speakers foreheads. We took a feed from the desk to a recorder, but unfortunately there were about 16 speakers so a number had no mics at all and were totally inaudible through the desk. Luckily I also used the fishing line and overhead recorder as a backup and that worked very well.

Roger
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Old July 26th, 2017, 07:41 AM   #6
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

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Originally Posted by David Stoneburner View Post
sounds like you have a solution. Have you ever thought of a parabolic reflector for one of the back mics? also what I have done in the past is take a wireless lavalier that is omni directional. Tape it centered to the front of the stage. Being that it is so small and depending on how you put it on the front of the stage, It could be out of the way to get stepped on.
Another thing that I have done before was to have someone in the front row with a shotgun on a pistol grip. Maybe put that on a wireless and then have them following the main action using a mic bridging amp so they can hear what they are doing. It worked fairly well, although it takes another body. I then, as others have suggested put stationary mics house left and right.
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Old July 26th, 2017, 09:55 AM   #7
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

all this boils down to budget, doesn't it. If there is budget for extra people and extra equipment, you can do the job better. Sometimes, however, it is what it is. I'm lucky in that we run the 1400 seat theatre we work in - it's seasonal. We do lighting, sound and video - whatever is required, and we always have to have serious chats wit the hirers. If you want this - we can do it but it will cost X - and we try to be honest and reasonable. We tell them exactly how it is, and they choose. We do quite a few early and late season children's shows. One show will have 5 boundaries, a couple of shotguns for that upstage bit, and radios on 14 key people. The next one wants the same sound, but with just 3 boundaries. We usually give them some freebies, but sometimes they just have no money and high expectations.

However - throwing technology at these things rarely works that well. The organisers are not skilled at managing - so you are down to one radio mic left, and get the choice of him or her. He has a bellowing and quite horrid voice, she has a quiet beautiful one. Often, he gets the mic, when he does the entire scene with the girl within a few feet - and she could have had the mic and captured enough of him too! You have 5 boundaries, yet they have blocked it with a row of tappers between the mics and the singers - just crazy stuff like this. You have other groups of singers who are so untrained that the monitor audio they are singing to is leaking into the mics, so you turn the monitors down, and they sing even quieter!

I really hate them - so few do it properly. Most times the group of ten singers has three who sing out while the others mumble. Makes me cringe - and always happens.
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Old July 26th, 2017, 01:34 PM   #8
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Re: Recording stage sound for school productions

Most common method is a combination of hanging mics, boundary mics on the front edge, or condenser on mic stands in front of the stage. Normally there shouldn't be anyone in those locations. There are mic stands with small footprint and boundary mics that are built to withstand being stepped on. For convenience sake I'd use the later two options.

Amateur low budget school stuff has theses types of problems. Sounds like you've come up with the best DIY solution.
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