Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 1

Anthony Jones with audio operations on "Wicked."
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Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 1

Aug 23, 2011 1:59 PM, with Bennett Liles

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Part 1

Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

Taking a popular Broadway show on the road is no easy task and when you're using over 40 wireless mic systems every night, it's a huge job. Anthony Jones is going to take us back stage on the show "Wicked" for a close up look at set up and operation of the shows Sennheiser wireless mic systems coming up next on the SVC podcast.
Anthony, thanks for being with me here on the SVC podcast, and we're talking about the Broadway show "Wicked." I took a look at the website for the show and it's a sort of a…before the Wizard of Oz sort of thing. So what exactly is this show about and what are you normally doing during the production?

The show "Wicked" is about the Witches of Oz—pretty much how they became who they are–who they're known to be. If you're looking at a movie and you just take the cameras and you pan them to the left or the right and see what's going on behind the scenes, that's pretty much what "Wicked" is about. It's telling how two girls, Glinda and Elphaba…they meet in school and one girl is shunned because of her skin color and the other one is liked because she's very popular and everyone loves her. They love how she dresses and things like that and she pretty much is the favorite, and Elphaba is the outcast and during that time they become roommates at university and things actually changed and they become best friends. And also "Wicked" is about…there's some political things that are in the show that relate to reality. There's a few lines in the show that are referenced to maybe a war or…it could be referenced to Wall Street…it could be a number of things but there are some things that are…makes you want to say, "Huh, that's interesting. I would have never thought of it that way." [Timestamp: 2:11]

And of course you're making sure that everybody hears all that.
Exactly. And the most important thing is when "Wicked" plays a city that "Wicked" has never been seen in that city before, we want to make sure that those people that are coming to the show they hear and understand every word clearly without any compromise. [Timestamp: 2:27]

And you're using a huge number of wireless mics. What kind of wireless mic systems are you using for that?
We're using the Sennheiser EM 3732 receivers and 5212 transmitters and we have a total of 44 radio mics that we're using on the show. [Timestamp: 2:43]

OK, those seem to be a very popular model with shows that are using a lot of wireless mics simultaneously. It's a mighty big job when you're trying to ride herd on that many mics especially where the cast members are so mobile—running around, singing, dancing. So who made the decision to go with Sennheiser mics and why were they chosen?
It was actually the sound designer. The sound designers name is Tony Meola and his associate designer is Kai Harada. And Tony Meola, the sound designer, specified the Sennheiser wireless microphones because of past use and it's one of those tried and trusted products that he knows, "Well, it sounds great," and you can beat it…it still gives you a great quality. It's very rugged and it's very durable. It's one of those things that he's been using for years on many, many other shows that he's designed over the years and it's one of those things that you trust. You know the name Sennheiser—you know they're a great product and you know this is going to be no compromise in sound quality. [Timestamp: 3:45]

Now that's not only a complex production but it's also a very popular show as you alluded to before. Does that long list of awards put additional pressure on you or are you usually too busy with the tech situation to feel that sort of pressure?
There's pressure all the time because in my opinion every show that we do there's an expectation and there's pressure. "Wicked" is a very popular show. It's all over the world and when people come to see that show they want to be taken into a different world. We want to make sure that the technical aspect of this show is in order and it's ready to go and we want–once the show starts we don't want that story to be interrupted by a speaker not working or a transmitter not working or a piece of scenery. We want it to be as seamless as possible and we want it to be the best thing they've ever seen. It does put a lot of pressure on us. We do a lot before the show opens with the sound system and making sure everything is working at 100 percent capacity if not more. [Timestamp: 4:46]

Now they've got a lot of costumes on that show and I would think that would present a big challenge in mic'ing the performers. How do you deal with getting the performers mic'd up and making sure that all of that works right?
There are a lot of different types of costumes in this show and we go through all this in a tech period before the show opens. When the show first opens, before the public gets to see it, we go through a production process and tech rehearsals and we try different mic positions, and once you do several companies of a show you come up with a standard cookie cutter to say, "This is where the microphones should be on this particular act," or…so for "Wicked" there's lots of hats that are worn by all sorts of cast members that are different shapes and they sit differently on the head, so what we do is we wear…we put the microphones in one of three positions actually. One the traditional being at the center of the forehead around the hairline or over the ear or what we've been doing with one of our characters is putting microphones on a set of glasses—we'll put two microphones on either side of a pair of eyeglasses. We'll camouflage them to the point where the public eye can't see and that's how we mic the actors. And then there are times when sometimes if a new actor comes into the show and they're nervous about their blocking and where they're going to be onstage, their microphone may get pulled back into their wig by accident and then I have to go by and just make sure that they're aware that their microphone is caught onto their wig or something or it might have fallen off of their ear and they just need to put it back in place and tape it down. We sometimes use taupe clips to keep it attached to their hair. We paint the microphones a different color to hide in someone's hair if they're not wearing a hat. [Timestamp: 6:34]

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Behind Audio Operations with Wicked, Part 1

Aug 23, 2011 1:59 PM, with Bennett Liles

So a lot of tricks used to camouflage those mics and to keep them in position with all this running around. How many people have you got backstage working on all this?
On the tour we travel with two sound people in the department. There's a department head and the assistant which I'm the assistant on the show, and we have one local person from each city that we will train the backstage of a local crew member to learn our cues backstage…our sound cues so we do that so that in case there's a problem elsewhere…if there's something going on in the orchestra pit or if the ClearCom shuts off or something like that we can…the road person can go and take care of that problem and if there's microphone swaps and cues like that a local person can go and do that. We never like to interrupt the performance for a small technical problem. [Timestamp: 7:27]

Do you actually attach the mics to the performers after they're outfitted with their costumes or are those mics and transmitter in any way built in? Do they wear something underneath that's designed to hold transmitters in special pockets or anything?
A lot of the cast members in the show will have these little elastic microphone pouches…a transmitter pouch. It's almost like a pouch that a cell phone would fit into but little transmitters will fit inside this elastic pouch and it has a snap button on there that will hold it in place and most of the guys will have that—some guys because they have different costumes that fit differently in certain areas of the body, they will actually wear an elastic harness that has these microphone pouches built into them so most of the time the guys and the girls in this show—the transmitters will be worn in the small of their back right above their waist line so it doesn't get in the way of costumes and things like that but other people they wear them a little higher, like in the middle of their back because of costumes fitting in a different way. Once we pass the microphones out to the actors they put the microphones on themselves. The principal actors will actually put the microphones on themselves or they will have someone from the hair department to actually put the microphone on them, pin it in place and do their hair all at the same time and that is sort of standard practice. There are times when we are required to go in there and mic the actor or the actress during that time—most of the time it's someone from the hair department will take care of it for us and then we go behind later on…just to make sure that it's in the right position and if it needs to get moved or something like that we let them know and they do it for us. [Timestamp: 9:14]

Now that could be acoustically a little tricky I would think when the actors are all in tight groups on stage. Do you have any acoustic situations where you're picking up people on multiple mics?
Yeah there are times when a guy or a girl will–they could be in a big dance number, they could all be facing downstage singing toward the audience and two actors may turn to each other and you'll pick those two people up louder than everyone else in the cast especially if it's in the ensemble. When they're all grouped together like that it's hard to chase those kinds of things—sometimes those are just unavoidable–sometimes you can talk to the dance department and just say, "Is it possible that they can not turn as much or they can do the blocking different so that we don't get these two actors three times as loud as everyone else?" But yeah, there are times when we do that we do pick up more than one person in another person's microphone especially if it's the ensemble. If it's principals, principals are on different faders so we have individual control of them to the point of if two people are singing and they turn and they face each other we can just use one microphone as oppose to…getting phasing and those two people being louder but ensemble groups, large groups, they're a little bit difficult to do that because it's a lot of…you've got 18 ensemble members that you would have to…to chase—and then you would also have to watch the stage…watch the faders and so that would be a lot to do. [Timestamp: 10:4]

Yeah that's a very big job as it is.
Yeah it's a big job to do that.

Well, it's a tremendous job to keep up with all that and as you said it's live so you're pretty well hanging out in the wind on it. I'm sure that it has to be very well rehearsed and you have to know the script very well. In Part 2 we're going to get into some of the tools you used to make the job more manageable—Sennheiser's wireless systems managers and some frequency coordination and some others things. It's Anthony Jones with the Broadway show "Wicked" now on tour. Thanks for being here Anthony and we'll see you again in Part 2.

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