One of my biggest concerns when I first started getting into contemporary a cappella at the high school level was how to best utilize sound. Luckily, I've had the opportunity to work with some of the best sound technicians in the country, including John Gentry of JAG Recording Studios and Carl Taylor of Liquid 5th to name a couple, so I’ve learned quite a bit along the way. A major thing for me to figure out with respect to sound was how I wanted to mic my groups. Meaning that I didn't know if I would want to individually mic the members of the group or if I wanted to zone mic them. In this blog, I'm going to discuss the pros and cons of both and why you might want to choose one over the other.
Let me start out by saying that I utilize both methods. I think the ultimate goal would be to mic your group on individual mics, but I also realize that there are certain monetary limitations as well as how often you would get to practice on them, etc. When I first started using sound equipment with my groups, we would all huddle around SM 58's. Not the best for sound, but you have to make the most of what you have. Over the course of my group’s first year, we were able to get a zone mic set up- the same set up that is utilized at the ICCA and the ICHSA. So let’s talk about zone micing. The equipment that I currently use is two Rode NT1-A mics and two Shure SM81 mics to get the backing vocals. I put the two Rode NT1-A mics in the middle and then have the two SM81's on both ends standing a little above the group. Along with this set up, I have solo mics, which could be SM 58's or any sort of vocal solo mic. For wireless mics, I currently use Sennheiser EW 165's and I absolutely love them. Those are of course expensive and not needed if you are just getting started. The next thing about this set up that I think is really important to do is to have your best bass and your vocal percussionists on individual mics. Having a bass on an individual mic will help fill out the sound, because let's face it, your girls are going to be picked up by the mics much easier than your low voices. I think this is the best sound equipment set up to get you started. It's also a must if you are going to compete in the ICHSA. It's really hard to do well in a competition like that if you've never worked with sound equipment before.
The ultimate sound set up is to have everyone on individual mics. But this can also become a disaster if you don't practice on individual mics. One of the things that I've figured out over time with this set up is that your kids need to be unbelievably solid and sing very cleanly to make this work. But when it does work, it is awesome. You move up to rock concert status! Someone said to me once that when using individual mics the kids need to be “overpracticed” to succeed with this set up and I totally agree. Yes, monitors help very much and are a must, but the kids need to know their music in their sleep. I attended a clinic once that Rockapella was giving and the first thing they told the group was to take the mics away. They echoed the same sentiments. If it doesn't sound good off mic, you definitely don't want to make wrong notes and poor intonation louder with the mics! Ouch! Lack of money and sufficient time to rehearse would be the biggest reasons why you may not want to utilize this approach.
One more thing that I think for high schoolers to be successful on individual mics is to have a digital soundboard. You need to have compression on every channel in order to have a nice sound that doesn't have kids sticking way out of the texture from time to time. Compression is unbelievably helpful. For this set up my high school group likes to have 4 monitors (they are a group of 19). A digital board also gives you the ability to save scenes for each song that you sing in your set. If there's a song where you want extra reverb or a certain effect this can be very helpful. A digital soundboard lets you be proactive in your approach to a concert. Here's the equipment that we have and use and I highly recommend. We use 3 Sennheiser wireless mics (EW 165's), 16 SM58's (yeah, it's a lot of cords, eventually we will go wireless), and a Presonus 24.4.2 Digital Soundboard (awesome and not that expensive).
My last point that I would like to make would be for you to get in contact with a sound technician and utilize that person! If you know nothing about sound, at the very least ask questions and have someone come out and educate you about your venue. It's a shame to rehearse our kids as much as we do and then have them sound poorly because of the sound equipment. "But it sounded so good in rehearsal." Not something you want to say or feel after a concert. Please feel free to contact me at anytime if you have questions. I don't have all the answers, but would love to chat and I can put you in contact with someone that does.
About the author:
Ben Spalding is the head Choral Director at Centerville High School in Dayton, Ohio. At Centerville, Ben directs all of the choirs and the a cappella group Forte. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from the University of Kentucky. Ben’s a cappella roots go back to college, when he was a member of the University of Kentucky AcoUstiKats and a semi-professional group called 5 by Tuesday. His love for music goes as far back as elementary school and music has and always will be a major driving force in his life.