Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Let’s hear it for wireless microphone systems


PHOTO: Singer Amy Riemer displays a wireless headset microphone pack used in shows of Green Bay’s Let Me Be Frank Productions. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Time was, you’d go to a performance and never be sure what you’d hear, what quality of sound would come from the stage. A musical could have dead spots on the stage. If microphones were used, there could be static or EEEKKK – feedback. Or a show could have yards and yards of microphone cords that would hog-tie performers.

Today, time and again, modern sound systems heighten the performance experience. I delight in wireless headset microphones. They have been around for a while. Maybe they’re taken for granted. Today, I’ll marvel about them.

For instance, in one recent show, a singer drifted into the audience, sang to various individuals and was heard clear as a bell anywhere she went between tables and chairs – in a space where good sound was unexpected but was there because of what the sound setup and mix could do. I thought, “Wow, the limitations have vanished.”

In this feature, two people with deep experience and expertise in the territory assist with my take on the topic. Kent Paulsen is a singer, pianist, piano accompanist, teacher, musical director in musicals and director of the St. Norbert College show troupe Knights on Broadway. Amy Riemer is a singer, dancer and vocal director with Let Me Be Frank Productions, which performs mostly at the Meyer Theatre in downtown Green Bay.

Kent Paulsen says, “One of the things that wireless microphones are supposed to bring is a sort of authenticity to the performance. I guess modern audiences are kind of used to seeing the headset, and so it gives the performer the opportunity to just be present in all parts of the theater as if the audience member were right there in front of them.”

Amy Riemer says, “I can have the freedom of moving wherever I want to on stage either in character or doing choreography. It’s just a lot more natural because you can act kind of normal rather than be walking around or standing in front of a microphone stand with a microphone. So it just makes it a lot more realistic and for the audience, too.”

The cast of Let Me Be Frank Productions moves freely, singing and dancing from any part of the stage. The voices are blended and balanced. The music of the band is interlocked and balanced. Very nice, thanks in a big degree to the wireless system.

The earlier example was from a Daddy D Productions show I saw in a secondary space at Green Bay’s Riverside Ballroom. Ditto about the wireless system.

Knights on Broadway also performs in spaces not built with acoustics in mind but made fine with the appropriate sound setup.

Kent Paulsen says, “We can perform pretty much anywhere. We usually hire a sound man who brings in a mixing board and speakers and manages all the wireless for us. But we have all of our microphones in a wireless rack that is portable. The new generation of wireless headset microphones that we have have what’s called variable frequencies, so if you’re in a room or in a different state and you’re getting interruptions from other wireless microphones or radio or TV, you can tune each microphone to a different frequency.”

Amy Riemer says the sound is faithful to what the human voice is to the ear. She says, “When I listen to some of the recordings that we make of shows, it sounds amazing. It just sounds great.”

On stage, the Let Me Be Frank singers hear themselves through speakers on stage that are facing toward them. Individuals can sing backup from off stage, and there are monitors on either side of the stage so they can hear themselves as they add do-wops or harmonies.

The band members have wireless in-ear monitors so they can hear each other and the singers.

Some basics: The headset microphone is attached to a holder that wraps around the back of the neck and fits over the ears, with an arm for the microphone extending along the contour of a cheek. The microphone is near the mouth. Amy Riemer says, “They pick up pretty well. They don’t have to be right in there. They can be a few inches away.”

The microphone is tiny and is covered by a fuzzy ball that helps mute the “s,” “ps,” “ts,” “pf” kind of popping sounds.

A cord that’s attached to the headset is plugged into the transmitter pack, a rectangular apparatus that’s about four inches by three inches. The signal is transmitted from an antenna on the pack to a soundboard that’s usually placed in the rear of the theater or performance venue. The transmitter packs are adjusted to individual voices of the singers.

Amy Riemer says, “Basically, it’s just turn it on, turn it off, and that’s all we have to do.”

The lump in clothing that you see on performers? That’s the transmitter pack.

Amy Riemer says, “We try to tuck them in and make them as invisible as possible, so we’ll tuck them in tights or on the back of our costume or something like that so they’re the least noticeable as possible.”

In the past, microphones were attached to cords. Eventually, wireless systems came along with microphones that were hand-held – an improvement, but still limiting for dancing.

Today’s system, Amy Riemer says, allows the performer to do “anything you want, pretty much. A few years ago, we did a show where I was dancing with Tom Verbrick (of the Frank’s cast), and he flipped me over. We were doing a bandstand kind of a dance, and he actually flipped me over. I flipped over backwards. I mean, there’s no way you’d do that, first of all having to hang onto something, but second of all with the cord flying around. So pretty much the wireless headset allows us to do anything we want to on stage.”

Singing simply is easier.

Amy Riemer says, “It makes it easier to portray your song, too, when you’re not holding onto a microphone. You have both hands free. You can walk around. You don’t have to worry about a cord. It really allows you do dance or be expressive or interact with the audience, too.”

The person controlling the sound board can add effects to voices – an echo, for instance. This can be done in midstream, so to speak, as when a singer is building to a big close, and the sound is heightened or an echo effect is layered in. It’s all been rehearsed, of course.

Still, the headsets can’t do everything that can be done with a hand-held microphone.

Amy Riemer says, “In some songs, we have really low notes and really high notes. There is a certain amount of control that you (performers) have with the hand-held mic as far as moving it closer to your mouth and moving it away like when you go for those really big high notes that you can pull the microphone away so that it’s not too loud.”

A jazz singer is more apt to use a hand-held microphone to control fine points of his or her voice.

Kent Paulsen says, “A lot of the question of whether or not to use microphones is a genre question. For instance, it’s considered correct to sing without microphones in opera or classical music or with a symphony. But if you were doing musical theater, it’s assumed that everyone would me miced.”

As a singer, Kent Paulsen performs in classical music situations – no microphone. That will be the case Feb. 15, when he is among soloists appearing in the Civic Symphony of Green Bay concert.

He says, “If you’re singing without a microphone, you have a certain resonance and volume that you use… Well-trained opera singers can still sing over an 80-piece, modern orchestra. So a lot of that is training.”

Amy Riemer also has sung in situations with no microphones, as a wedding. “I had to go back in my classical training and call on my projection a little bit more,” she says.

Most of all, the microphone is a fact of life in most types of performances these days.

Kent Paulsen says, “In many ways, it’s another tool, and, in the hands of a great performer, it becomes like another instrument – how to use a microphone. If you’re singing with a hand-held wireless microphone you can make some slight adjustments. If you’re singing with a headset, you have to make some adjustments in your singing as well.”

Microphone use has other variables.

Kent Paulsen says, “Different styles of music have different types of microphones. You go to the rock concerts and you see the bigger headset mics with the big foam ball. You go to musical theater and you expect to see a tinier one. Sometimes they’ll even adjust the color of the microphone based on skin tone or put make-up over it. With something like vocal jazz, you expect to see hand-held mics.”

Amy Riemer says, “There is different technology out there with the smaller headsets. Music theater (the genre) often uses the ones where there’s not a headset necessarily, just the wires, and then they tape it somewhere. They can put it in your hair, or they can tape it to your cheek, so they become almost invisible. It’s kind of cool when you’re watching a production, especially like a musical where there’s a lot of the drama and the acting. It almost becomes like watching a movie because you don’t see the microphones almost, and it doesn’t take away from that whole image that they’re creating, the whole story that they’re telling. Our shows are some story and then a lot of concert, so we don’t mind having our microphones showing, and they’re a little bit sturdier and a little bit tougher.”

One of the big changes is the performance space is no longer limiting. Good sound can be found in places that in the past were awful for shows, or not even considered as viable.

Kent Paulsen says, “Microphones can always help enhance a dead acoustic, but sometimes they can’t counteract a really live acoustic. For instance, if we (Knights on Broadway) brought our wireless microphone rack into the St. Norbert Abbey Church (known for huge resonance), it wouldn’t work very well. In fact, in the new Birder Hall (at St. Norbert College), there are parts of the building that can adjust the acoustic. When we perform with Knights on Broadway there, we close all the shades and bring down the acoustics so that we make the room a little drier to be able to use amplification and balance. When we do a student vocal recital (with no microphones), we open up all the acoustics and let it be as natural as possible.”

Another advance is sound balance. Whether in a song-and-dance show or a musical, one performer can be on one side of the stage or tucked in a corner, and their voices can be blended or equalized. A composer’s sophisticated quartets or other multiple-voice weavings are allowed to soar or have whatever intended effect – enriching the listening experience for the audience and the performance experience for the singers.

Kent Paulsen says, “Then that puts a big part of the burden on the sound person. You’ve got to have a great sound guy who will blend that.”

The area’s two busy show troupes have consistency in that position – Dan Collins for Daddy D Productions and Tim Funk for Let Me Be Frank Productions.

Amy Riemer, of Frank’s, says, “(The sound balance is) something that I feel has progressed as we’ve been at the Meyer and as we singers have gotten used to the sound there and singing together, listening for the other voices. Usually with the background vocals, we have the monitors and we kind of have to monitor ourself if we’re blending, if we’re too loud, too soft – we can hear what we’re doing. And then the lead vocal is usually bumped up (by Tim Funk). So whoever sings lead on a song is a little bit louder and has more effects on their voices.”

A catchphrase in computers is, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The same applies to performing with wireless microphones.

“As I always tell my students,” Kent Paulsen says, “a microphone won’t make bad singing sound better, it will just make good singing sound like you’re right on top of the person rather than from a distance if you’re in the back of the room.”

There’s no hiding out-of-tune singing with today’s sophisticated sound systems, no matter how much fudging is done through the sound board. A flawed voice becomes all the more obvious.

Amy Riemer says, “If you don’t want to stand out, then you’re going to. You’re going to be heard. If you want to be a wallflower in the back, if you’ve got a wireless on, no matter where you’re standing, you’re going to be heard.”

In a way, none of this is new. In a way, it’s an old story. On other hand, the advances didn’t arrive like a dam burst. They trickled.

One of the early advances was the floor microphones – a line of microphones along the lip of the stage. “They were trying to pick up the voices,” Amy Riemer says, “but what they picked up was clumping feet.”

The trickling took the form of different types of wireless microphones.

Kent Paulsen says early ones “weren’t nearly the same quality that we have now. They were more the clip-on the big lapel mics. Now we have some really, really thin headset pieces.”

Hand in glove with microphone advances came overall sound system sophistication.

Kent Paulsen says, “For some of our summer shows, (musicals of Music Theatre of St. Norbert College) you can take an iPad and sit in different parts of the theater and mix, and the system will adjust the buttons on the board remotely. It’s a pretty amazing technology.”

Boiled down, the live performance experience is more pleasurable today than in the past. You can more consistently expect good things, from the high school level to the local theater musicals to the pros.

Kent Paulsen says, “One of the challenges for the modern performer is, because so much of the world has such great sound and so much technology and iPads and iPods and things like, that is there’s sort of an expectation that you will have great sound and that you will get things to work.”

That’s not always the case. But it is more so these days.

For the performer, Amy Riemer says, “You’re so much into the performance. I know that when I go see (another production), it’s so much more believable or it’s not a distraction. You’re just looking at the person, their costumes. With the dance moves, the singing, that microphone is not there to remind you that this is pretend or that this is a play. You’re immersed in the experience of it better.”

Sometimes there are unintended consequences with the wireless frequencies.

“A funny story,” Kent Paulsen says. “A couple of weeks ago, we were doing our Knights on Broadway Christmas show in the Bemis (International Center at St. Norbert College), and ‘White Christmas’ was happening (about two blocks away) in the Webb Theatre (of St. Norbert). Evergreen Theatre doesn’t have wireless mics, so they rented them. At one point, they were getting a little interruption on one of the mics, so they adjusted the frequency and picked us up. They had a few moments of ‘O Holy Night’ from our show broadcast in their show before they quickly realized that that wasn’t going to work.”

Mostly, audiences are unaware of the bustle for good sound in shows.

Amy Riemer says, “We kind of work to make them not aware of it. But when you think about it, then it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that really makes a huge impact in the performances’.”

It makes theatergoing all the more fun.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

More Stories

Don't Miss

  • WFRV Pro Football Challenge
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Training Camp Report
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Your Local Experts
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Our Town 2017
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories

Latest News