The Nativity

The Nativity

Nativity setting up The Nativity is a version of the medieval English Mystery Plays. The play is set in the north of England and uses a northern English dialect. As the play was being performed in London and not in the North, I thought intelligibility might be an issue.

Here is a link to an earlier version of the play performed at the National Theatre you can hear the dialect used. An added complication for intelligibility was the venue. A church, you can hear the acoustics here in the welcome to the church from Fr Paul. The performance space was also in the round, in front of the altar, in the aisles and more importantly for sound often in front of the speakers.

As you can see, we had some challenges to overcome. We visited the church before rehearsals to get an idea of how voices would carry without amplification and assess if the band area would be suitable. It was an actor/musician show meaning the entire cast played instruments and there would not a separate band. The musical director (MD) came with us so he could hear the space before he started the arrangements. The music was arranged with mainly acoustic instruments, though they would be amplified and there was also an electric guitar and bass.

I chose Meyer UPJ’s as the speakers, knowing I could achieve a tight coverage pattern if I needed it and would help with limiting the natural reverb of the space. We utilized six UPJ s, subs and a few SFX speakers as well. I set up multiple groups for the vocal system one that went to front left and right, one that went to the side left and front left and one that went to side right and front right. This allowed us to facilitate the cast moving around the space and create vocal zones. Jenn Goodheart-Smithe, the operator, faded between vocal groups that corresponded with the zones as the cast moved around. It worked quite well as long as the cast didn’t stand directly in front of a speaker when they were delivering dialogue.


I pre-recorded the voice of God announcing to Mary the virgin birth so that the angel could mouth the words and we would hear the voice of God. It was played through a small speaker hidden very close to the actor to give the illusion of God speaking through the angel.

The play starts with the book of Genesis, before the world was complete and everyone that spoke had a reverb to emphasize their other-worldliness. There was also a sound effects bed to help with the setting of that space.

Death is a character in the play, and I gave her a bit of a pitch shift on her mic. Obviously, you could still hear her acoustic voice, but there was an underscore of something a lot deeper as well.

The band line up was mostly mic’d acoustic instruments. There was a large brass section, strings, organ, reeds, woodwind and an electric bass and guitar. We decided to divide the musical numbers into two parts; one would numbers performed in the band area and numbers performed in a surround mode. On the gentler moments, it worked well to have the acoustic instruments in amongst the audience, giving an immersive feel to the show. It also allowed us to control the natural acoustics of the church.

Actor-musician shows can be a challenge there is little parallel rehearsing, the band can’t  rehearse in a different  room and the overall rehearsal time is effectively less. Often, the band is large and some instruments will be played for only half of one song there can be a lot of double use of microphones. This can be trickier to be accurate with the mix but Jenn our operator did a good job with that.

Nativity rehearsing with MaryThis was a working church, so that meant every evening we had to be out of the building for two hours so that they could perform evening mass. We also had to be out of view entirely for the Sunday service. We took everything down and had to rebuild it for the Monday evening show. That took a huge chunk out of our rehearsal time. It meant we had to label and photograph everything. I chose a digital snake and a Rio rather than a copper multicore and stage box as this would make for a quicker setup. The speakers were powered, so no amps and the radio receivers were by the sound desk, so hopefully there would be minimal unplugging for the turnaround.

Remember a successful show run is in the details and the preparation that starts well before rehearsals.

American Idiot

Notes on American Idiot

By: Yvonne Gilbert

American Idiot

American Idiot Photo Credit Scott Rylander

I knew it was a good show five minutes into the first run through. The LSMT cast was energetic and tight, and the show itself was amazing. Great. There were some alarming moments in the run through; the cast threw themselves around, and there was a bit of singing while lying on the floor. Then there was the fan, a huge fan blowing into the cast while they were singing.This presented some issues to solve regarding radio mics.

This is when Simon (the operator) and myself (the designer) bonded.

The show by its nature had to be loud so getting the radio mic heads as close to the actors mouths as possible was the only way to make this happen. We added boom mics and worked to get the position the radio mic packs so they would not get trashed while the cast were performing the demanding choreography. I decided to use foam pop shields to protect the mics from the fan.

The show had high-quality equipment with a Meyer rig and Sennheiser radio mics with DPA mic heads. The Sitzprobe (the first rehearsal where the orchestra and singers rehearse together) was loud but thoroughly exciting. We all left thinking we had a good show and were in great shape to start the technical rehearsal.

With the five-piece band on a level above the stage I thought we could get away with miking the guitar amps rather than using pods. I prefer the sound of live guitar amps, but in a theatrical situation it is important to be able to isolate the amps. The drummer was behind screens with a serge roof that created a booth.

During the tech, Simon worked on getting all the right mics up at the right time. In general the show is programmed or at the least the VCA assignment changes are before tech. This allowed Simon to step through the cues on the desk at the right moment and have all the mics he needed for that scene.  While Simon is doing this, I’m setting gains, EQ, and compressors.

Technical rehearsals can be intense, things happen quickly, or you can spend hours waiting for lighting. The relationship between the designer and the operator needs to be a good one. If you’re fighting each other, it can’t run smoothly, and it is not enjoyable. Mixing a musical is a stressful job, and the operator must work hard to keep on top of things.  I spent many years operating musicals in the West End and know first hand how beneficial a five-minute break can be for the operator. So I make sure they get a break and bring them a cup of tea or coffee.

The audience incoming was accompanied with a mix of different snatches of late night T.V shows, which segues into the cast entering one by one. The final cue of the pre-show was the first number American Idiot. American Idiot needed to start with a bang, but you can’t start at crash level and then keep turning it up. If the sound is at crash level throughout the show, then the audience will tire of it, and there is nowhere for the show to go impact wise.

There were intimate moments in the show that needed to be soft, it also allowed the audiences’ ears to get a rest. So when the next big number came, they could appreciate the change of dynamic. The show had a beautiful ending, all of the band wondering the stage, playing acoustic guitars, and the cast barely in the system with just a little touch of reverb. Shows need to have a dynamic arc; intimacy is just as powerful as loud when used appropriately.

So try not to fuck it up.


Radio Mics and Vocal Reinforcement.


This month I was asked to give a talk about radio mic placement and vocal reinforcement at the Association of Sound Designers Winter School. This month’s blog is the presentation.

I’ve been working in Theatre sound for over 20 years. First, in musical theatre as a no. 3 and an operator, then at the National Theatre where I was the sound manager for the Lyttelton. Now, I work primarily as a Sound Designer, designing productions for musicals and plays.

I’m here to talk about radio mic placement and how that will affect what you can achieve with the sound of your show. I’m going to talk about different productions I’ve worked on and how I’ve dealt with mic positions in different situations.

I have some pictures of mic placements from shows that I’ve designed, and we’ll talk about the situation for each one as we go.

In the last 40 years, sound technology has been quickly evolving. I think it all started with:

The Sony Walkman

I think we are in a different era for sound design, and it isn’t just because of the new tech that we use, it has to do with the Sony Walkman, invented in 1979. It changed the way we listen. Sound was now delivered to you. Sound was now a personal thing that had gone from mostly being listened to as ‘something over there’ to something that is very much up close and personal.

Noise and volume

Another factor in the changes in sound design is the fans in equipment in the auditorium. Most of the theatres we work in were designed for unamplified voices, but theatre lights, projectors, and air conditioners all make noise, so the background noise we have to compete with has increased.

We are in a noisier world than we use to be in general  Birds now singer louder to cope with being in a city.

Casts are used to wearing radio mics − they wear them at drama school. I don’t think actors project as much as they use to.


I started my West End career on Grease, at the Dominion Theatre, in 1993. That wasn’t my design, obviously. The Sound Designer was Bobby Aitkin. It was my first exposure to West End sound design, and I stayed backstage on that show for about two years. I learnt the importance of mic placement and how a good operator can hear if a mic has moved. I also learned that you don’t provide vocal foldback for lavalier mics.

You couldn’t see our radio mics. We were a little obsessive about that, considering we were at the Dominion. The stage is huge and most of the audience is quite far away − it does seem a little crazy now. But, we were serious about it, and the lovely wig people put in curls on foreheads so the mics were hidden underneath.

It was a big thing then, not to have the mics visible. We would go around and look at the posters of other shows, pointing out mics to each other if we could see them. We would judge the backstage staff on that.

There was a lot of pride attached to the mics being in a good position for audio, as well as you not being able to see them.

We had a couple of handheld microphones for Greased Lightning and for the mega-mix at the end. It does seem an odd concept not to give vocal foldback to the vocalist, but what they need to get through the number isn’t the same thing as the audience needs to enjoy a good show.  You often have to have a difficult conversation with the vocalist, but it is a good idea.

Why can’t you use Lavaliers in Foldback?

Why is that all the lav’s that we use are omni-directional? Whatever the singer is hearing the mic is hearing too. It’s easy to see how that can lead to feedback.

On Grease, we had lav‘s in the hairline. This gave us a consistent distance between the mouth and the microphone, keeping incoming sound levels consistent. We didn’t have any hats, that I remember, so had no trouble there on this production.

Because lav’s are omni-directional, putting them in the foldback causes all sorts of problems. In addition, sweat and hair products can get into the mics, causing issues, and they can move.

Loud numbers

There were some loud numbers in the show − Greased Lighting, and the mega-mix at the end − and they were done on handhelds. We had a handheld hidden in the Greased Lightning car and that would be whipped out at the appropriate moment. Then, at the end of the show, there were a couple of handhelds hidden behind the counter in the milk-bar which would be whipped out and appear magically in the hands of the performers that needed to use them. We were told we could get away with that because Greased Lighting was song within the story of the show, so we could get away with that as well.

Handhelds aren’t omni so that meant we could use them in the foldback. We could turn the volume up for those numbers and get a bigger impact from them. There was also a scene at the prom where we used a Shure 55SH on a stand, plugged into a radio mic transmitter. Because it isn’t an omni-directional mic it could also go into the foldback and be treated like one of the handhelds.


Often, by the time we get to tech, we have had the band call and then we don’t have the band again until the dress rehearsal. The producers don’t want to pay for all that musician time so we get stuck with keys and, if we’re lucky, a drum kit.

We tech-ed without the full band, but we did have keys and tracks, so there was plenty of time to get to work on the vocals.

I usually start with a quick line-check for level with each cast member and then start the technical rehearsal. I enjoy this part of tech; finding out how hard you can push the mics, working with EQ, setting the compressors. It is a chance to get the vocal system set and working before the band turn up for the dress rehearsal.

And then the band arrives

The band was onstage, at the back, and, although there were some drapes, there wasn’t a great deal of separation between the band and the cast. It was a problem. We started tech and we weren’t getting enough level out of the mics on the cast. There wasn’t the option to hire a load of boom mics − this was a low-budget production at the University of Surrey, and a lot of the mics belonged to the University. So, what could I do? Well, we had to pull the mics down the forehead. You can see in the next photo that the mics are not in the hairline. What seems like a small movement in position made a huge difference to the amount of level we could get from the mics. It didn’t look great but if we had used booms then they would have been very visible as well.

Rent is a rock musical, there are some delicate moments in it, but it chugs along quite loudly at times. Moving the mics down an inch from the hairline helped to make the show work.

Next Month  I will share other types of mics and mic positions and how I have used them to problem solve.

This article first appeared on

Brideshead Revisited


Brideshead-Revisited-York-Theatre-Royal-c-Mark-Douet-600x350Brideshead Revisited is a co-production between English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal. The play reopens York Theatre Royal after its refit and then it will tour theatres around England.

Brideshead was adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery its based on a book written by Evelyn Waugh and first published in 1945. Brideshead Revisited is set around the life of an aristocratic family in England between World War I and World War II. The play is presented from the point of view of Charles Ryder, who is an army officer in World War II. When the play opens with Charles remembering the events around the countryseat of Brideshead. It his memory of events that the play centers around.

Here are some things we worked into the sound design.


Memory is a major theme of the play; in design meetings we discussed how memories are triggered and what happens in your mind at the time. There was a discussion of the language of memory portrayal in film, which often utilizes reverb and the sense that memories sometimes seem to approach from a distance. I knew that would mean playing with a sound heavy with reverb and then getting closer and dryer and landing a moment before the action on stage took up the dialogue or sound in real time.

A lot of the creative team had memories from childhood that were attached to certain sounds and birds seemed to dominate this. I grew up in the East End of London, and I have memories of lying in bed in the early morning listening to seagulls. (The sound of London birds is the sound of seagulls for me. I know they don’t often make it into the collective agreement of how London sounds, but if you are within a mile of the river then there are seagulls) So I knew birds would feature in the sound design. Memory in relation to sound, often revovles around phrases that we play to ourselves over and over in our heads. Doubling of dialogue was also something I thought we could work into the
sound design.

We wanted the process of story telling to be visible to the audience; the cast handles the scene changes on stage, setting up and changing the props. They also set microphones on stage and perform some on stage Foley.

Alcohol is a big part of the first section of the play, and we worked on amplifying the sound of wine being poured to emphasize that point.

brideshead-york-theatre-royal-last-780x520-2We decided to amplify the sound of a projector vs. working to silence it and cover it with a sound effect.

We used radio mics, but not every cast member received a dedicated mic. Ryder, who did a lot of the narrating/ remembering of the play, wore a radio mic. His mic was used to change the tone of his narration and to put him in a different space for those bits of the play rather than for amplification. I was using it in a different way than when I would use a radio mic for `musical theatre. If you can imagine BBC radio drama announcer, that’s the kind of sound I was going for.

Some of the play took place in Venice in an old house. As this was a static talking head moment of the play, I used one of the two 414s on a stand to pick up the voices and send it to some gentle short reverb to help give the sense of being in a big stone house.

Scene changes were marked with music and soundscapes were woven together. The composer (Chris Madin) and I worked closely together to get the tone of these transitions right and to carve out or give room to the dialogue that surrounded the transitions.

The plot of Brideshead takes us to Oxford, London, to a country house in Venice, Manhattan and aboard a ship. The moments on board ship were potentially challenging; there was a lot of dialogue in this scene as well as a big storm, and I had to make sure the storm sound effects allowed enough room for the dialogue as well.

There was a division in the way sound effects were reproduced compared to the music in the show. The SFX tended to come from onstage SFX speakers, and the FOH system was primarily reserved for music playback.

The pre-playback was a selection of pre-recorded excerpts of dialogue from the cast. They had been asked to mull over lines of dialogue that they thought were particularly representative of their character. I used these lines in the pre-show to create a repeating slowly building round of whispered memories. The pre-show builds and builds and culminates in a sudden cutoff that leaves Ryder in Brideshead at the end of World War II.

Brideshead Revisited Rehearsals

I was fortunate to work with the company during rehearsals. We were able to discover things about the play in a much more cohesive way than if I had just joined the production for technical rehearsals. It was great to be able to play sound and music in the rehearsal room. It helped the cast to build a relationship with the soundscape and for us to integrate the use of microphones into the play. There were a few moments in the play of whispered conversations that the rest of the characters in the play weren’t supposed to hear. They obviously needed to be heard by the audience, these were mostly spoken into a couple of 414’s and routed to FOH.

One of the best discussions I had in my early days as a sound designer was with a vocal coach. We use to discuss listening to the whole play rather than just the elements of the sound design. I found this useful for this production where the amplified and un-amplified voices had to be woven together and although they needed to highlight different moments in the play they all also needed to sound like they were part of the same world.

This post originally appeared on Sound Girls



Sound Design for Lift the Musical

I recently worked on a production of Lift a musical set in and around the lift of Covent Garden underground station. It was directed by Paul Baker at the Ivy Arts Centre in Guildford  originally being produced at Soho Theatre in London.

Lift is a rock musical rather than a more traditional musical with an orchestra. The music is composed with a guitar heavy band, strings on click, and an actor/musician “the Busker” who plays an acoustic guitar on stage. The show also has a large SFX element; tubes, lifts, and announcements all combine to create the bustling soundscape of a London tube station.

There was around a week of pre-production, with some prebuild of the set. I got a few hours after everything was set up to tune the system and then band call. I like to have a slow and calm band call this is time we never get back and if you get this right you have the building blocks for the rest of the show in place. The cast joined in with mics later in the afternoon and we ran through the entire show. It was a good day, and I felt I was at a good starting point.The tech started on Monday morning, and we had an audience in on Wednesday night, not long to get a lot of tech together for all departments.

There were several sound challenges presented by Lift. The set was on multiple levels, with the performance area set not only in the auditorium but also in the balconies on each side. Achieving imaging and eliminating feedback in this situation was going to be a challenge.

The upper level presented a feedback challenge just by virtue of being so close to the in-house line array. The stage itself was not very deep, which made speaker placement difficult. I had to compromise on the mic positions for the actors, they were further down their heads than I like, this helped a lot with gain before feedback. The balconies in the auditorium were used for a full singing ensemble and were in front of the line arrays. I had to rig more speakers to make other “ front of house rigs” on each side of the auditorium.  With panning, timing and some skillful mixing from the no1(foh engineer), we managed to keep the imaging of the cast spread out around the auditorium. This allowed the imaging to follow the cast as they moved around and to get lots of gain before feedback.

The Busker

The cleanest way to allow the Busker to play live and wander about the stage without trailing a cable everywhere was to feed his pick-up into a radio pack which went into a pouch, stitched into his guitar strap. The Busker played both solo and with the band. A video feed of the musical director (who was positioned behind some of the set) at the back of the auditorium made this and cueing of all the numbers easier.

While guitar cabs on stage are not a problem with close mic’d singing into cardioid microphones, we were using omni directional radio mics, and they presented some challenges. The musicians had to be cooperative regarding their levels, and they needed to be aware of how their dynamics were affecting the cast on stage. After meeting with the musical director Barney Ashworh, I realized he knew what he was doing, understood the process and I was sure we could make it work. Which was great as it meant we wouldn’t have to go the way of virtual guitar cabs. A microphone on a cab, in my opinion, just sounds better.

The Band


The band position was on stage but behind the set of the tube and underneath the raised platform, so there was some wood and padding between them and the acting area. This helped to contain the spill from the band and also allowed the guitar players to be at a level where they could get their desired sound.

A major sound element was the tube trains arriving and leaving Covent Garden station. I was excited by this and along with great set and projection by PJ McEvoy I thought it would be fun to achieve. The first time I tried the sound of the tube arriving in the station it didn’t really work. I am always anxious to hear the SFX in the space with the speakers in position ASAP. It can be hard to predict what a room and set is going to do to the SFX that sounded perfect through your headphones.