#BehindTheScenes: Competitions Through An Engineer's Ears

#BehindTheScenes: Competitions Through An Engineer's Ears

Here are three things every a cappella group can do to prepare for using individual handheld mics at a competition.

Feb 5, 2018 by Amanda Cornaglia
#BehindTheScenes: Competitions Through An Engineer's Ears

A sound engineer’s hands are largely tied during an actual competition, especially compared to a normal show.

For better or worse, all groups get the same sound on a given day, which leaves a small part of the equation of winning out of the hands of the competitors. 

Some organizations allow for a little more leeway than others, but there are three things every group can do to prepare for using individual handheld mics at a competition.

Mic Technique

Making sure your group’s mic technique is solid is the SINGLE most important thing you can do to prepare your group for competition day. 

Understandably, not everyone has access to wireless mics for rehearsal. In their absence, use mic substitutes! Water bottles, hairbrushes, cell phones, whatever you have that will allow you to approximate the experience. It’s preferable to use something with a little weight on it, as mics can feel heavy by the end of a 10-minute set, especially if you’ve been holding... air.

If you move the mic away from your mouth during a solo or while performing vocal drums, it causes several issues. First and foremost, the engineer usually can’t fix it. Each mic has a very specific pickup pattern, and no amount of increase in volume can overcome a mic that’s too far away from the sound source. 

To the audience, this can sometimes be perceived as “bad sound” and elicit feelings that the competition isn’t fair, especially when the next group has excellent technique and everything is clear as a bell over the system. However, using the mics properly, while not officially scored, is part of the overall competition equation, and ultimately is the responsibility of the group performing.

Even an inch or 10 degrees difference in angle can have a HUGE impact on how the mic picks up your voice and diction. Under normal circumstances, this is an easy fix for the engineer, both from a coaching and technical perspective, but in competition the fix is usually not allowed. If in doubt, ask your engineer during soundcheck. It’s the only time he or she can guide you.

Have Your Soundcheck Planned Out

Planning is easy! So many groups get into the weeds on a tiny choreo or spacing detail and waste half their soundcheck. Not using your time effectively gives you less opportunity to get acclimated to the space and achieve the most out of your soundcheck. 

Additionally, if you run out of time to go over all the transitions and solo/feature changes, the engineer might miss one during the show. In this case that’s the performer’s fault, not the engineer’s. Again, the audience can make assumptions based on what happens in the show, and an error with microphone management is sometimes just poor use of time and other resources by the performing group.

However, this doesn’t mean you need to run your entire set during soundcheck. Definitely hit the highs, lows, and transitions and have a firm plan. Bottom line, having your soundcheck planned out makes the whole process smoother and less stressful for everyone, and often leads to a better end product during the show.

And for the few competitions that allow your group to have more of a say in what your engineer can do, do your homework. Remember that the more complicated you make things the larger the margin of error. 

Even in competitions that have no restrictions on sound, it's unpractical to expect an engineer that you just met to get familiarized with your set's special effect triggers or requests, such as multiple solo changes and long lists of delays, in 20 minutes or less.

Understanding The Guidelines

Most organizations are very open about their sound guidelines and encourage questions. The engineer is usually available to address concerns regarding the sound design before and the day of the competition. 

While they can’t always say “yes,” you should get a response that helps your group better understand the rule set and how to use it to your advantage.

A great example of this is reverb. Most competitions require static reverb. From a technical perspective, this is an interesting variable, because the reverb isn’t inherently “static.” Instead, it’s reactive to what is sent into the algorithm, meaning you’ll get less reverb if your group has poor mic technique and sings tentatively or without proper breath support. On the other hand, a group that digs into the mics and sings well WILL get more reverb. It’s just the nature of the processing.

Often, the engineer is instructed not to actively balance the group beyond leads and features. That means if a group is not all on the same page regarding dynamics it can seriously unbalance the group. 

During a regular concert, the engineer is balancing and adjusting the backing parts throughout the show to create an even sound, per the group’s instructions. In a competition, it’s up to you. 

Is there one singer in your group who's always overdoing everything? It can be a tough conversation but make sure to discuss that issue, before you get on stage.

All of these factors can influence the audience’s perception of how a performance went. It’s very important to have these things under control so you and your group can both have success at the event — and get accurate feedback.