Sound Advice: Recording Performances

When I bought my first pickup truck, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. The guy with the truck is everyone’s friend – not because he’s handsome or funny, but because he can haul stuff. If you’ve shot much video you know what I’m talking about. Once people know you make video, you’ll have a lot of new friends who want you to tape their kids’ recitals, concerts and plays.

Whether you’re recording performances for fun, as a favor or for real money, taping performances requires a unique set of audio skills, since you’ll find yourself in a wide variety of locations and circumstances. In this article, we’ll identify a number of typical performances, the challenges they present and how to make the most of each situation.

The Recital

Since you only have to deal with one or perhaps two performers, recitals may be the simplest performances to record, but they still offer some challenges. First, you’ll need an external microphone – the one built into your camera will produce a distant, hollow sound complete with the lady sitting next to you who won’t stop talking on her cell phone. If you’re reasonably close to the performance, a shotgun microphone can work well. Its highly directional nature will help to minimize other noises and focus on the recitalist. If you have the luxury of access to the platform or stage area, a boundary microphone is another excellent choice. Laying this type of microphone in front of the performers will pick up a spacious, natural sound and any accompanying instrumentation or background music. In addition, the boundary microphone produces an extremely low visual impact due to its low profile. Translation: no one will be offended when you place it on the stage. In fact, they probably won’t even see it. Just be careful to tape your cables down; we don’t want anyone tripping over them in the dark.

In certain situations you will find it impractical to use either of these methods. In those circumstances, consider using a wireless microphone. The small belt-pack transmitter will hide easily on or under the performers’ clothing and the microphone placement will capture a much better recording than the camcorder microphone alternative.

The Concert

While a concert is really just a large recital, the setup is more demanding. There are a number of additional performers and a larger area to cover. For bands, orchestras and choirs, the simplest pickup method is a central microphone or a stereo pair. This requires the consent of those in charge of the concert, but if you want a studio-quality recording, it’s the only way to go.

Set up a tall microphone stand in front of the group, behind and above the conductor’s position. A distant microphone location will result in a full but ambient sound. A closer location will provide a more detailed recording, but will sacrifice the ambient character of the room. Microphone selection is up to you, but here are some proven options. One omni directional microphone on the stand will pick up a balance of the instruments and the audience. This will result in a monophonic recording, but the sound will be even and clear. A single unidirectional microphone, pointed at the group, will pick up the performers and not much else. Although this will also produce a mono recording, this is still the option of choice in noisy environments. If you prefer a stereo recording, install two directional microphones on the stand, overlapping each other and with a perpendicular orientation. This is called A-B stereo or an X/Y pair and produces a moderately spacious stereo recording.

The Play

Theatrical performances offer a tougher challenge. Not only are there multiple performers, but there’s also a broad and deep stage area to cover as well. Add to that any recorded or live sound effects and you have your work cut out for you. Our friend the boundary microphone is a popular tool in theater circles due to its broad pickup and easy placement. Depending on the stage width, simply setup one, two or three boundary microphones, spaced evenly across the front of the platform. If there is a primary area where dialog will take place (and you have access), be sure to install a boundary microphone there too. More than two microphones require a mixer, but this additional equipment will certainly help you balance the sound during the performance. The only time you’ll wish you’d used another type of microphone is during dance numbers. If the dancers are near the microphones, you’ll pick up the strong sound of feet stomping, tapping and shuffling – and not much more as the intense sound will mask most everything else. Life is full of tradeoffs.

As an alternative, you can set up your own equipment and mike the whole production just like the pros. This requires a wireless lapel microphone for each primary character and broad coverage microphones – either boundary microphones or overhead microphones – to pick up everything else. And don’t forget the orchestra. A handful of strategically placed microphones will cover them nicely. It’s unlikely you will be able to mix the show and shoot video at the same time, so choose one task for yourself and find an assistant to deal with the other. If this amount of equipment is beyond your current setup, consider borrowing or renting the missing components.

The Multi-Camera Shoot

How do you handle audio when there are multiple cameras shooting the same performance? The most common method establishes a master camera that receives the produced audio signal. This camera is generally the most centrally located and typically shoots the master or establishing shot. Regardless of how you produce the audio – single or multiple microphones – send the finished mix to this camera and don’t forget to mark the tape to indicate the audio master status. Back in the edit suite, you combine the various camera angles using your master audio track.

There are situations that require master audio at each camera, but this requires a bit more hardware and planning. First, you’ll have to determine the best way to get audio into each camera – either microphone level or line level. Next, you’ll need an audio distribution amplifier to take your finished mix and split it to the multiple locations. Finally, some cabling from the distribution amplifier to each camera position, complete with appropriate connectors. It’s also possible to do this wirelessly by re-purposing the type of transmitter/receiver system used for the hearing impaired. Many wireless microphone companies offer these systems.

Of course, the easiest way to record the audio in a multi-camera performance is to switch the cameras live and record on a master VTR or hard disk recorder. This makes it very simple for you to connect your mixed audio to the recorder and bypass all the hardware and wiring required to connect to the individual cameras. The other advantage to this method is that you finish up at the end of your shoot with a largely completed program.

Regardless of the type of performance or the method you use to record it, there is no end to the variety of the challenge. Each situation is unique and requires some careful planning to get the best recording. Armed with your audio equipment and some newfound information, you can tackle this unique and challenging type of project.

[Sidebar: Yours, Mine & Ours]

When recording larger and more complicated performances, it may be possible to tap into the house sound system. Although not always an option, this is one of the best ways to capture the entire performance as the audience hears it. This technique is especially useful for plays and multi-microphone concerts where you can’t possibly mike everything properly. You’ll need permission from the venue sound engineer, a bag full of adapters and a good pair of headphones for monitoring, but the effort is worth it. If possible, add an audience mike or two into the mix for a truly live sound.

[Sidebar: Outdoor Audio]

Not all performances are indoors. Graduation ceremonies, concerts and even dramatic performances are often held in the great outdoors. This increases the complexity of your job on several fronts. First, do you have access to electricity? If not, all your audio equipment will have to run on batteries and you may have to completely rethink your microphone and cabling choices. Every microphone will need a windscreen if you plan to shoot outdoors, and don’t forget the headphones to check it all before you hit the record button.

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