The very first gig my company served was at a church and included a choir. It wasn’t supposed to include a choir, but I found out that it was the opening act at sound check when all 50-plus members showed up.
I’d only worked with a choir once before as a technician for another company, where I learned the 5-foot rule from an “old soundman.” Basically, the rules say to space microphones about 5 feet apart across the front of the choir, pointed at the middle row of the risers. At that gig, this approach worked well.
When my fledgling company faced that first gig with a choir, I remember taking stock of our mic and stand inventories. We had a bunch of Atlas straight stands with round bases, some booms and a few extra mics that could be dedicated to the choir, but there wasn’t enough for the 5-foot rule.
Instead, we placed the stands evenly across the front of the choir and then had them sing during sound check. I quickly realized that we weren’t capturing the members in the back couple of rows, and we also weren’t getting enough of the bass singers. Both issues were solved by repositioning a few mics to the highest level possible via the addition of extra booms to the stands, and then moving a couple more mics closer to the bass section, who were located toward the center.
These two relatively simple things made a big difference, and in fact, we were surprised at how full the entire ensemble sounded. Only later did I realize that the choir was very experienced and professional, which in turn made our job a lot easier. In fact, we probably could have gotten away with carefully deploying just a few mics to attain a satisfactory result.
Another approach that has proven to be successful is the 3-to-1 rule. Essentially it states that it’s preferable that the distance between mics is at least three times the distance from each mic to its associated performer, so the leakage signal from the distant performer into the nearer performer’s microphone will be about 10 dB lower – low enough not to be a problem. As always with every method, your mileage may vary so it’s important to keep an open mind and experiment.
What I’m going to focus on here are ways to successfully capture choirs and other large vocal groups when there aren’t dedicated mics in place, which can be the case even at venues such as churches and performing arts centers. With that in mind, we’ve learned a lot in working with larger vocal ensembles many times over the years since that first company gig.
We might still follow the 5-foot rule or place the mics closer or farther apart, depending on the pickup pattern of the mics. Our goal is to overlap the patterns by a little bit to help ensure we’re capturing everyone.
If the choir is on a riser (or risers), an effective method is to position the mics high and then aim them downward so that they’re pointing at the middle row of singers, about as equidistant from every row as possible. If the group is on the same level, try to get the mics up higher and point them down at each section.
Options for large groups include mics on floor stands, boundary mics, flown mics and individual mics. Our standard approach is floor stands because more often than not, there’s no good option for properly flying mics, at least in an efficient manner. This usually entails using booms to get the mics above the heads of the singers.
Atlas model SB36W stands have large, heavy bases, and while they’re designed for use in studios, they also work quite well in this application. We’ve taken the wheels off of ours to keep them from moving accidentally after placement. Ultimate Support has a similar stand called the MC-125. The heavy bases counter the imbalances created with the booms.
If you don’t have access to stands of this nature, place sandbags or weights on the bases to provide added stability. Bases can then be “dressed up” with fabric or a section of drape to make the package look more professional.
When it comes floor-style options, have a look at miniature mics and thin booms such as the MicroBoom system from Audix, CSM from Ace Backstage, CBM324 from Galaxy Audio and the CAD 1700 system. These models, as well as similar styles, offer slender booms that provide a pleasing (low-profile, non-obtrusive) look on stage.
Choices are plentiful when it comes to mics to deploy with floor stands, including small-diaphragm condenser models like the Shure SM81, AKG C451, and Electro-Voice ND66. All of these and several others sound great with vocal ensembles, while their small size and weight make them a great fit with extended floor/boom stands.
Another option is stereo mics. We work with a school choir that owns several RØDE NT4s, which we’ve found allow us to deploy fewer mics/stands because they cover a larger area than standard monophonic mics. If small directional condensers aren’t available, consider standard dynamic handhelds such as the Heil PR 22, EV PL80a and Shure SM58/SM57.
If there’s not enough of the same type of mics to get the job done, then try to use the same models for individual sections of the group; i.e., model “x” for all of the sopranos, model “y” for all of the altos, and so on.
Mixed choirs (male and female voices together) are normally divided into four sections. Typically (but not always), women sing at the two highest ranges of the spectrum, called soprano and alto (short for contralto). And typically (but not always), males sing at the two lower ranges, called tenor and bass/baritone. Variations may include women who sing in-between the soprano and alto ranges, which is called mezzo-soprano (mezzos).
Singers in traditional choirs are usually grouped into sections. However, beware that some prefer to intermix the different ranges, which can make it more challenging to pick up “sections” and balance out the group.
Usually, bass sections lack in volume. It’s harder for some people to sing lower notes as loud as higher notes, so it’s a good idea to give them a little extra attention, perhaps by adding more mics to capture them and/or miking them closer.