Always Getting Good Sound for Live Broadcasts

On live broadcasts, getting good sound on anything or any subject is a skill set demanded of all sound operators. In today’s highly segmented world, however, those skills can be lost if not constantly tested. Here are some general rules to ensure that good sound is always there.

As a kid, I grew up in live radio in the 1960s. I did everything from rigging live church remotes to broadcasting Friday night football games to recording Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass band. I learned these skills from mentors who knew their craft well and passed their knowledge on to me, a kid learning the ropes. These skills have served me well throughout my life.

Getting good live sound for broadcast, as I learned from experience, is as much art as science. I started out using RCA ribbon mics with zero engineering knowledge. What I quickly learned is that mic placement is everything. In those days, EQ and other electronic adjustments were not used at all.

I learned to get good sound through experimentation. Place the mic there and then listen. Then move the mic in or out, always listening for the sweet spot. It was mostly trial and error until you learned what worked and what didn’t in a given space.

Sometimes location sound can get a bit tricky. I remember my first live broadcast using a PA system for a live audience. The remote was for Miss America 1965 at a furniture store. There was a live band playing. The biggest challenge for me was getting the most gain before feedback. Again, I experimented and moved mics around until I found the right placement. There was no magic, just continuous investigation to find that magic spot for the mics.

Today, there are many electronic tools to control feedback, but my old school ways still always start with good mic placement. If the mic is not in the right place, no electronics will save you. You are headed for trouble. I try to keep the sound design simple. It has worked very well for me through the years.

Whether you are miking voices or music, pick your mics carefully. Lavalier mics are good for voices in interviews, while low-sensitivity dynamic mics are a popular choice for close miking live musical instruments.

Regardless of the type of mic chosen for any given task, probably cardioid pickup patterns are the right choice. Their off-axis sound rejection protects against sound from stage monitors or the main PA that can cause feedback.

A key element in live microphone placement in music broadcasts is the distance of the mic from the source. If the mix is dense, a more close-up, direct sound is appropriate. If more room tone is desired, use a mic at a distance from the source.

Walk around the room and listen to the instrument as it is being played in the space. Find a spot where you like the sound. Focus on the treble-to-bass ratio of the instrument at that distance. Is there enough bass, mids and treble? Do you like the amount of room tone? If it sounds right where you’re standing, set-up a microphone at that spot.

That’s the way most of the great recordings have been made over the years and the technique still works extraordinarily well, especially when using near-field and far-field ribbon microphones. It also works well with condensers, though dynamic mics — due to their low output — are best used for close miking.

Once the mic has been selected, place it in the spot you’re standing and listen to the sound through headphones or monitors. If there is too much room tone, move the mic closer to the source. If more room tone is desired, move the mic away from the source.

As one quickly learns, the whole process of choosing where to place microphones is trial and error. There is no right or wrong way to do it, since the placement and the sound being recorded is totally subjective. There are a limitless number of mic choices and positions the engineer can make. The imagination is the only boundary and very often the unorthodox choice works best.

The secret to mic placement is finding that sweet spot. No matter how complex a situation, there is always a place where all the acoustic elements come together and a microphone just works. That sweet spot can found by moving a mic as little as an inch either way. It’s the sound operator’s job to find it.

With mic placement, remember a few basic rules. Less is more. Don’t employ a bunch of electronic “fixes” on a location. Just move the mics to get the best sound and do a few tweaks only if you have to. In live situations, feedback is the enemy. In this case, get the mics as close to the source as possible. The greater the direct sound to noise ratio, the less chance you’ll get feedback.

And, finally, be patient. Get to the venue early and spend time setting up, always looking for the sweet spot for the mics. At the end of the day, trust your ears. If you’ve learned your craft, you ears are the best tool you have.

For more of Frank Beacham's audio tutorials, see the articles below.

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