The sound of music

06:27, Jul 30 2014
Mamma Mia!
THREE KEYS: From left, Michael Zhang, Teresa Monteath and musical director Michael Buick rehearse as part of the band for Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia!, delivering the fabulous music of ABBA, opens at the Civic Theatre next month. Each week we go backstage with Invercargill Musical Theatre to gain a rare insight into what it takes to produce a show of this calibre.

Put a microphone on a performer and get the sound to come out a speaker. Arrgggh! It sounds so darn simple.

Getting the sound right for Mamma Mia! is going to mean getting the process right first.

Mamma Mia!
MICS ON: Mamma Mia! cast member Karl Herman has his microphone fitted by Sono Sound technician Chris Herman in the Civic Theatre.

There are many things that will affect the sound experience. Most are completely out of the control of the sound operator. In order for him to do his job right, there are a lot of ducks to get in a row.

The cast’s microphones are small, almost invisible to the audience, and fitted to a fine headpiece. The head piece disappears into the cast member’s hair and the microphone sits at the corner of their mouth. There is a transmitter pack concealed under their costume. When the costumes are a bit skimpy the transmitter packs are quite often taped between the shoulder blades, or to the lower back or arm.

The microphones and transmitting packs are delicate and expensive.


So far, so good.

Now let’s introduce the human element. A cast member has a quick costume change and forgets to plug the headset back in, doesn’t plug it back in properly or breaks the cable trying to pull the plug. Cast member puts on the wrong mic set (they effectively become lost to the sound operator) or takes the pack off and forgets to put it back on.

During intense movement on stage the cable breaks. A bit of sweat gets on the microphone capsule and it shuts down.

Unfortunately, some of these incidents are going to happen and the only way to deal with them is to properly prepare for them.

There will be two sound operators for Mamma Mia!. Robert Pay from Sono Sound Systems will operate the front-of-house desk and be responsible for the overall presentation of the sound.

Chris Herman will operate a smaller desk backstage. Chris’s desk does nothing but link into the cast microphones. At any stage Chris can listen to any microphone and check its performance. He will know in an instant if anyone has an issue so they can be called over for immediate repairs. He will have a small workshop set up backstage to ensure all the microphones are kept operational throughout the season.

Throughout every performance, Chris will be doing nothing else but randomly checking microphones. He is quick to point out that he is the first person in the theatre every night and the last to leave.

Before the show, Robert and Chris will fit every cast member with their microphones, ensuring they have the right one, are fitted properly and thoroughly tested.

Battery levels are checked and when below the accepted level, discarded. More than 600 AA batteries will be used during the season to power the microphones.

Vocal warm-ups before the show opening provide another opportunity for the microphones to be checked. Robert will have a chance to listen to and tune all the microphones operating through the sound system. Chris will inspect all the microphone capsules to ensure they are set to the correct position.

The human element applies to the orchestra as well, as just as many things can go wrong. Last year in Grease, the bass player decided one night to bring a second bass guitar with him. Part-way through the show a sudden hum came through the sound system. As you could imagine, that put the tech crew into a bit of a spin backstage.

This was simply the bass player trying out another instrument that hadn’t been tuned or proven through the sound system, which no-one knew about. At this level of production you get away with nothing.

When a guitarist sees a knob on anything his natural instinct is to turn it. Under normal circumstances that isn’t an issue, but the sound is so accurately tuned to the venue and constantly refined throughout rehearsals that this simple action can destroy hours of work. The orchestra is always tightly packed away and they never have enough room. With people moving in tight quarters there is always the risk of microphones being bumped, accidentally being unplugged or cables being damaged.

Terry Molloy is a sound technician from Christchurch. He will arrive on August 1 to help get the orchestra settled into their home for the next three weeks.

This will free Robert to concentrate on getting the front-of-house sound tuned properly and let him get all his cueing and programming completed. Over the next week Terry will work with the orchestra, making sure they are comfortable with what they are hearing and that Robert gets the best sound possible out of them.

One challenge we face every year is the dramatic change in the acoustics of the theatre from when it is empty, through the rehearsals, to a full audience for performances. Terry will be moving about the theatre listening to what the sound is doing so the sound tuning can be refined even further. The sound needs to be full and strong. The strength and depth of sound enhances the energy and intensity of the performance.

As busy as musical director Michael Buick is with preparing the cast vocally, he now has to find time to bring together the orchestra. He rehearses with the cast all day Sunday, has a short break and then the orchestra arrive at 6.30pm. The rehearsal is scheduled through until 9.30pm, but to Michael’s despair the orchestra members are having such a good time they are in no hurry to leave. At 10.45pm Michael locks the door behind him.

Made up of four keyboards, drums, bass, two guitars and percussion it is a tight group.

‘‘They are such a talented bunch of Southland musicians,’’ says Buick. ‘‘They don’t play together on a regular basis so it’s been really good watching them come together and gel as a group. At this stage we are only getting a couple of hours together each week but it’s a really intense couple of hours.

‘‘We are just at the point where we are inviting the cast to come along in their own time to have a bit of a sing with the orchestra. As much as the music is going together well it still doesn’t make complete sense until the vocals are there. It’s like we’ve got half the picture’’.

The sound is crisp and tight. The rhythm section is undeniably in control as the music of Abba takes control of all your senses. Something special is happening in Invercargill.

The big question that had the sound boys banging their heads is where to place the orchestra in the theatre. The set design includes a jetty that is installed in the orchestra pit, so the logical place for the orchestra is unavailable.

Quite often in productions around the world, the orchestra can end up in a building across the road or a couple of blocks down the street.

We look at the option of putting the orchestra in the rehearsal room on the third floor of the backstage area. We have issues with fire doors and getting the cabling to them.

Under the stage is a big enough area but concern is raised about the amount of noise coming down through the stage floor.

Director Stephen Robertson decides they should be onstage behind the LED curtain. There isn’t much room but we can make it work.

The added bonus about placing the orchestra there is that at the end of the show during curtain call, we can reveal to the audience our musical director Michael Buick, his backing vocalists and orchestra.

Make sure you give them a good hand.


Mamma Mia! is presented by Invercargill Musical Theatre at the Civic Theatre, August 6-16. Tickets from TicketDirect, ICC Booking Office, Esk St, Invercargill.

The Southland Times