Melanie Brown and her face mic in Rent(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Melanie Brown and her face mic in Rent
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Feedback. Sound designers don't like it for, in their business, the term refers to a high-pitched whistling sound that occurs when already amplified sound is picked up by a microphone. But for writers, feedback -- meaning response to what's been written -- is welcome and appreciated. Well, most of the time, anyway. I'm certainly grateful for the feedback I got from sound designers on my recent article on the use of microphones in the theater.

I asked, "If we must have microphones, must they be ones that are visible to the theatergoer -- the kind that curve around one's cheek, the ones popularized by Rent?" Acccording to John B. Sibley, who's the head of sound for one of the Producers tours, the answer is yes. "Believe it or not," he wrote, "there is a reason they're used in shows like Rent. In order to effectively amplify the human voice, the microphone must pick up that person's voice at a louder level than the other things that are going on on stage. Rent has a loud on-stage rock band so it needs rock-style monitors for the performers to hear themselves. If microphones were placed instead in the actors' hair, their own voices would be drowned out by the on-stage volume. Getting them closer to the performer's mouth allows their voices to be louder than the on-stage cacophony."

Sound designer David A. Gilman agreed, explaining that, "on a loud show like Rent, you can't get the gain before feedback you need with the hidden mics. Many shows start out with the hidden ones and then switch because they simply can't make the cast loud enough. Don't forget that classic musicals didn't have the band on stage and that newer scores are written knowing that the actors will have microphones. Remember, too, that some theaters weren't built for musicals and have horrible acoustics."

Shannon Slaton, who's been a sound designer and engineer for Broadway and tours, wrote: "Amplifying a show is not a new idea. Believe it or not, the first time microphones were used on Broadway was in the '20s. Reinforcing shows started to become common in the early '70s. One reason it has become more crucial is that a theater's 'noise floor' -- the sound in an empty room -- has risen dramatically. Eighty years ago, theaters were not air conditioned. Air conditioners are loud. I worked on a musical recently and, before tech, the sound designer met with the producers and building people to discuss how to make the air conditioners quieter so that the show would not have to be amplified too much. Also the sound of lighting is really out of hand. With every new lighting invention comes more noise. Believe it or not, a majority of the time that a sound designer spends involves chasing down noises that other departments are making and trying to find ways to quiet everything. Luckily, most lighting designers hate the noise, too, and are pushing the manufacturers to make quieter equipment. But actors today have to get over more ambient room noise than they had to 30 years ago."

Slaton addressed the issue that I brought up about the 1989 production of The Threepenny Opera, which bravely announced that it would have no amplification whatsoever but then brought in microphones after one ill-received preview. I mentioned that "Kim Criswell, the show's leading lady, who possesses quite a set of pipes...welcomed the microphones, and gave a reason that sounded persuasive. 'I just don't think that we hear as well as the generations before us did,' she said. 'We've had much more noise pollution than they ever had to endure.' Certainly, those who lived in earlier times didn't have headphones on Walksmans and Discmans, which many experts say hurt hearing." Slaton agreed but added, "I will not blame all of the problem on our hearing but, rather, on inventions. Seventy years ago, people would listen to tinny, static-laden AM radio and scratched records that were recorded poorly. And when they went to the movies the sound was just as bad. Today, no one would put up with a modern movie or CD that sounded like that. Because of the advances in everyday sound quality, audiences have a much higher expectation of what sound should sound like. So what is the goal of sound engineers and designers? Usually, it is reinforcement, which is to amplify a show without its being obvious. I like it when the sound is natural and even, and you forget that the show is amplified. Most of the time, that is the goal -- to be 'transparent.' But it is a Catch-22, for if you succeed, then you run the risk of people not knowing you did anything.

Les Misérables(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Les Misérables
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"So, has sound in theater added anything to the theater beyond noise? I think it has. Because we can amplify a show, we can give more creativity to the director and choreographer and composer. Sound reinforcement has allowed musicals to become more intimate and less presentational. Take Les Miz. There is a scene where Cosette is upstage right on her knees singing softly into the wings. Without microphones, she would not be able to do that. The director would have to block her downstage singing toward the audience. I am currently doing a show where no one wanted reinforcement because it was supposed to be a quiet and intimate show -- but it became necessary. Without it, the actors would have had to resort to Merman-like belting, which would have changed the feel of the show much more than reinforcement did."

Slaton closed by saying, "I wish critics would write about the good sound that is out there because there is bad sound out there, and it needs to be weeded out, but you can't separate the wheat from the chaff unless you acknowledge there is some wheat. I wish that critics would stop ignoring sound unless they want to say something bad about it. Critics should point out when a show sounds bad but also when a show sounds good. I wish critics understood that sound people were not the enemy and we have much higher goals for the sound quality than just about anyone. And, of course, there should one day be a Tony for Best Sound to recognize the work."

Finally, Gilman had a question for me: "What copy editor let you get away with 'mike' instead of 'mic'?" Well, I'll stand behind my guys at Theatermania. Sound designers may be chummily in tune with "mic" but the rest of us read that word as if it's pronounced "mick." For that matter, Gilman went on to say that a person who has been enhanced with sound has not been "miked" but, rather, "miced." If I'm reading and I come across the word "miced," I start thinking that it means what happened to Cinderella's horses after the dot of midnight -- they were miced back to the rodents they were before.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]