For nearly two decades, I’ve been putting wireless microphones on performers at every level of experience in theatre, music, and corporate events, and over that time, I’ve developed a set of best practices to address each application’s unique challenges. In the first of this two-part series, I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
Mic placement technique is both science and art. It’s importance in capturing sound cannot be overstated. As a community, we have an endless stream of measurements, graphs, recordings, and opinions about it. That’s why I’m fairly certain most of us have a solid understanding of proper lavalier mic placement, or at least how to search the internet before a gig to figure it out.
However, when your mic stands are walking, talking human beings, mic technique and etiquette can collide. As a result, I’ll go over what I see as the most important questions to ask as well as department interaction, health and safety and, well, I’ll say this as delicately as possible: how to professionally put your hands inside a stranger’s clothes. Let’s start with corporate events.
The Right Approach
The mic placement itself is usually straightforward in this environment. Simple clip-on mics are extremely popular, and headsets rarely need to be taped onto anyone doing mid-air splits. The true difficulty here is that the panelists and presenters run the gamut from completely inexperienced to celebrity status. You need to approach each of them as if they have no idea what you’re about to do.
Before even placing mics, we need to be well groomed and have the proper equipment on hand. When getting this up close and personal with people, respect that they will be able to smell you.
Be mindful of allergies, avoid wearing strong fragrances, brush your teeth, and wash/sanitize your hands often. This is a very client-facing position, so I always wear my nice show blacks, not my rock show blacks. Keep a change of clothes for load-in and load-out. And try to make sure your hands aren’t freezing cold (the room is cold enough already).
Finally, your gig bag/workbox needs to contain a specific set of tools, including:
Disposable hypo-allergenic nitrile gloves. I recommend these specifically to avoid issues with latex allergies. Due to health and safety concerns, they should be changed between each performer when you wear them as PPE (personal protective equipment).
3M transpore tape. There are times when the easiest way to get a cable to look good on video is to tape it to skin. A standard example is taping the cable of an over-the-ear headset mic to the back of the neck.
Bobby pins. These work better than tape to affix cables to clothes or hair. They cost less than the fancy mic clip the audience can see, won’t hurt the cable if used properly, and you don’t have to worry about using all your spare clips on one presenter.
Neoprene mic belts. I can’t count the number of times the presenter I was miking wasn’t wearing anything to which I could conveniently clip a transmitter. These stand-alone belts clip around the waist like a fanny pack, are moisture wicking, and have an ideal pouch for the transmitter. They save the discomfort that may arise from having to clip a belt pack to pantyhose, underwear, the top of a high-back dress, or somewhere else unusual.
Tiny Velcro wraps. There’s always extra cable that needs to be stuffed somewhere, and these make it a lot less awkward. Twist ties are a less expensive alternative, especially good for single-use applications. If using twist ties, make sure to wrap them around like the Velcro wraps instead of twisting them off like you would a loaf of bread to avoid skin irritation.
Alcohol wipes. Wipe down skin before applying tape and after removal. These are also really handy for wiping down mics from one end to the other between uses.
Batteries. I don’t feel like I need to explain this.
Rubber bands. Keep reading for the explanation.
Have a plan for attaching the microphone and the beltpack before approaching the talent. Make sure the plan accounts for any preferences of the front of house engineer, the seating order of panelists, and any obvious wardrobe challenges such as statement jewelry or the absence of a belt.
Keep in mind that the least invasive route possible is always the best route. Sometimes you can simply cover the cable with a sport coat without having to go fishing at all. That choice depends on factors like whether you’re in Meeting Room C at 3 pm on Sunday or on the mainstage at 5 pm on Saturday, if you’re filming for the corporate YouTube channel or what the expectations are from the company and client.
Take time to meet with the stage manager, if there is one, to go over the schedule and set expectations about when presenters arrive. Getting the seating order of panelists beforehand can help keep the A1 from having to mix by the seat of their pants.
Positive First Impression
At last, you’re ready to approach the presenters. Always introduce yourself before doing anything else. Asking the stage manager or talent wrangler to make introductions can ease a lot of tensions because they’re a known entity to both parties. Things can be a bit more uncomfortable for the presenter if they’re having their attention directed to a lot of places at once, especially if one of those places is someone asking them to unbutton the bottom of their shirt.
Once I have their undivided attention, I say along these lines to someone wearing a tie and sturdy belt: “Hello (their name)! I’m Katie. My job is to make sure that everyone in the room will be able to hear you loud and clear. Have you worn one of these before?”
Then I show them the microphone: “You haven’t? This mic is so cool, it’s the same thing late night talk show hosts and news anchors (or ESPN commentators or whatever example I think they’ll identify with) wear when they’re on TV. This end is the microphone. I’d like to clip this part to your tie. The cable can drop down the inside of your dress shirt, the end will come out between the bottom buttons, and plug into the beltpack.”
I hold the transmitter up for them to see. “This is the beltpack, it makes the mic work. I think the best place to clip this is to your belt right here.” Then I point to my own belt. “Is that alright with you?”
This eases them into the situation and lets them know that participating in any step of the process is entirely their choice. I refrain from pointing at them because that can come off a bit aggressively.
Tailor your speech to whatever the situation calls for. If you want them to remove jewelry, this is the time to ask. For a professional speaker on the convention circuit, you can whittle a lot of that down to, “Do you have any preferences about how you wear your mic?” A lot of people don’t like to clip the transmitter to an expensive leather belt. Someone wearing a dress may just turn their back so you can reach the back of their bra before you even ask. (You still need to ask, though.)
Also, be careful not to accidentally unclip their bra when placing the transmitter. This is such a known issue among professional speakers that many wear front-fastening bras.
The space you use to mic presenters needs to offer privacy. For some people, just being backstage may not cut it, especially if you’re doing something invasive like unzipping the back of a dress. Angie from the accounting department probably isn’t used to being undressed in front of a lot of people, especially if one of those people is Marv from marketing, who she needs to work with on Monday. Use the greenroom, strategically arrange some road cases, or go the extra mile to request pipe and drape.
We need to be mindful that the First Annual Self Driving Lowrider Expo is not the same thing as a nationally touring musical. Comfort levels vary.
Microphones make most people nervous, but we can demystify them. Take the time to show them any buttons they may accidentally press and explain what will happen if they press them. You can avoid panicking a panelist by telling them up front that the yellow light doesn’t mean their batteries are low, but that they hit the power switch while the mic was power locked.
Be polite, empathetic, and clinical. It’s always important, but especially for first-time presenters, to remember that our Tuesday is their Very Big Deal. They’re probably already nervous, and we have the opportunity to make this part of their day a lot easier.
To put it delicately, in the course of our work, we end up seeing parts of the human anatomy that most people don’t. Keep your interactions purely professional. There are many appropriate topics to discuss while miking someone, including the hows and whys of mic placement, who will be looking after their beautiful-but-large necklace while they’re on stage, the fact that the mic will not be unmuted until they walk onto the stage, how you need to get the mic back immediately after they’ve finished with it before their meet and greet – or even the weather.
To truly make presenters comfortable, do not give unsolicited opinions about their clothes, appearance, the topic of their speech, the industry putting on the convention, or anything else. Making these comments is how you turn an awkward situation into being sent home early, with an option to never be called back.
Ask about allergies before putting anything on their skin. I once worked with an actor who was allergic to the 3M tape we typically use, and latex allergies are far more common than you might think.
You can use a nitrile glove and a rubber band to get the same result as using a condom to keep a body pack dry. This is also a good alternative when working with children, or organizations that find our use of condoms inappropriate. (That was a real thing that happened, but I’m not going to tell that particular story.)
Accept it if they decline to take off a piece of jewelry that interferes with your planned mic placement. Accept it if they say they do not want to have a mic clipped where you’re used to clipping it. Try to come up with a new plan with them. Let them fish the wires themselves, let them enlist someone they trust to place the pack on their bra, or simply do the best you can with what you have.
Is it my idea of a great time to have a huge metallic earring banging against a mic for 90 minutes? Am I 100 percent comfortable placing the beltpack in their hand instead of securing it to them? Of course not.
But people are not mic stands. They have the right to bodily autonomy, and that is a line we should absolutely never cross. I’ve worked with quite a few people at conventions who do not want to wear a lav or headset at all, so I keep a handheld on standby. It’s a much better ace in the hole than trying to convince someone to do anything they’re uncomfortable with.
Take Care Of Business
My last piece of advice is to get your mics back the moment presenters step off the stage. This can be tricky, so as noted earlier, you need to let them know in advance.
Often after a speech, especially with a Q&A at the end, people will crowd around them immediately following the presentation to ask questions or give them compliments. This is a very “rockstar” moment for them. They can easily get caught up in it and walk away wearing your expensive equipment.
Once they’ve finished and the mic is muted, approach them quietly to ask for it back. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules for this situation, and you definitely need to read the room.
It’s a lot less invasive to take the thing off, so many presenters will simply do that themselves and hand it to me in front of everyone. If you’ve used any tape, neoprene mic belts or put a clip somewhere that doesn’t usually get sunlight, politely but firmly let the crowd know that you just need them for a moment, then take them backstage to the dressing area to retrieve your gear.
Don’t forget to use an alcohol wipe anywhere you placed 3M tape or they’ll be walking around with a black outline of glue on their skin for the next three days.
In part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on musical theatre, discussing the ins and outs of working with costume designers, wardrobe, hair stylists, choreographers and actors.