Study Hall

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Meeting The Challenge: Delivering Quality Theatre Sound On A Very Tight Budget

Part 1 of a series on making it work despite ever-present financial challenges.

However, I usually end up with more inputs on the mixer than wireless systems and simply re-patch to a different channel with the processing already set for the second voice. Digital mixers make this easier with recallability but of course they cost more.

The other issue can be that actors and backstage crew can forget, or the actor can’t be found in time to make the change so it’s important that everyone communicate. As the inventory of transmitter/receiver pairs would increase I would start switching the transmitters more and more on just the backup singers and singers with just one song but cueing and documentation is still vital. Even if there are enough wireless systems, it’s a bit of a waste to leave mics on singers if they aren’t used for a long period when they could be used for other singers at a different point.

Part of planning ahead has also meant carefully selected purchases. We never buy pricey single-use items, instead opting for lower-cost, general-purpose equipment; for example, the Shure SM86 microphone. (It’s currently listed at $179 on We’ve had very good results with the SM86 – it can handle a jazz vocalist one night and the next day be deployed on a lectern for a speech.

Recently, there’s also been a significant improvement in rechargeable batteries. Having to buy alkaline batteries for wireless transmitters wastes so much money – we were spending $400-plus on batteries for every run. With rechargeable battery technology (and the transmitters) becoming more efficient, we’ve saved huge amounts of budget and the rechargeable units have worked out quite well.

A Matter Of Diversification

Slim budgets have also led us to borrow from other departments on campus. Our department has built good relationships with the Audio/Visual (A/V), Broadcast Electronic Media Arts (BEMA) departments, as well as others. We borrow equipment from them (and they from us), and as long as we return the gear in good (if not better) shape, it’s a win-win.

For example, when we need to record voiceovers, BEMA allows us to use its radio station practice booths, so we get an excellent recording environment for free. Further, both the A/V and BEMA Departments have an easier time procuring equipment from the administration than we do, and as a result, they get certain specialized gear that we can’t. (An artform like theatre is more difficult to explain than TV; it’s a bit more esoteric and as a result our needs often can’t be clearly explained to those deciding on our proposed purchases.)

Credit: Michael Lawrence

Having a deep understanding of every piece of equipment in our inventory helps tremendously. While learning the ins and outs of our existing gear, other uses for this equipment can be discovered. Further, having studied electronics for most of my life and being a licensed electrician has helped tremendously because I’m able to do many equipment repairs, which saves time and money.

With my knowledge of electronics, I’ve been able to come up with some creative ideas to solve challenges. For example, putting triggers on scenery that allow an actor, through the normal course of the action on stage, to trigger sound effects from a loudspeaker inside or near scenery; in this way the cues happen when they’re supposed to, and they sound very realistic.

Of course, putting loudspeakers in radios and record players – so that sound actually comes from these sources – better integrates these props into the storytelling much more effectively than playing their sound through the main loudspeakers. Further, we routinely put loudspeakers backstage to add an air of realism to environmental sound effects. The aforementioned ideas don’t cost us anything, provided we already own the equipment (or it can be borrowed), further proving that creativity and resourcefulness shouldn’t be curtailed by budget.

In the next article, I’ll focus more of the specifics regarding the tools and approaches we’ve developed for our work with theatre sound.

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