Microphone Placement

Techniques for Theatre

So you want to know how to attach a microphone to an actors head, and make it invisible? Where are the mics? It seems to be the most frequently asked question, next to could you turn it down, or could you turn it up. Here's a little guide that may help you understand how mic rigs are built and used.

First the supply list:

  • Your favorite miniature microphone (Sennheiser MKE2, DPA4060, Countryman B3 or B6 or what have you) I prefer to start with mics that are light flesh tone, because it allows the greatest number of possibilities when it comes to coloring them to match their surroundings.
  • 1/16" round elastic. Black and white Once again I prefer to start with white and color it as needed. In lue of RIT or some other dye, we have used 10 tea bags (regular Lipton, not the fancy herb stuff) and a bowl of hot water to darken the white cord to a light tan.
  • Black and Brown toupee clips, assorted sizes. Although we use more of the small size than any other.
  • Art markers. Assorted skin and hair tones. It's usually good to have several shades of brown, black, grey. We also have some browns that skew towards red. We use Prismacolor Art Markers with DPA microphones, but have found that the Prismacolors don't work as well on Sennheiser and Countryman mics. We have started to use Zig Painty's on the Countryman mics. the color is a little shiny compared to the Prismacolors, but it lasts longer on the Countryman. While the color doesn't last forever once applied to the mic wire, it's about the best we've found. I have also tried shoe paint, with varying success. No matter what you choose, it is an ongoing art project to maintain mics that hide.
  • Flexible super glue. (Miracle Glue, Foam Adhesive)
  • Floral wire - small gauge, solid wire
  • Moleskin or fabric surgical tape
  • Hellermann Tool and Hellermann Sleeves or surgical tube.

Ok, now it's arts-and-craft time. The process can be time consuming, and probably should be undertaken well before the half-hour call. As every actors hair and skin color is different, you have to start with the actor and samples of the various coloring options at your disposal. We have colorized a broken mic wire with all of our art marker colors, so we have a color template to use for comparison purposes. We have a couple of minutes with each actor to start, where we do a quick color match using the color template wire. We also find out if the actor has a preference as to using elastic or clips. Not that they will always get what they want, as there are other factors that determine the form of the final rig. We also try and get some rough measurements. The most important measurement is Front center of the forehead to edge of hairline on the back of the neck. This may be different for a clip rig as opposed to an elastic rig. It's also easiest to use the actual mic to do the measurement. Hold the mic where it needs to be and stretch the wire through the path it will follow, and mark the location of the rear hairline on the mic, that way you know how far to color the mic wire to match the hair.

Elastic Rigs (Halo)

Halo rigs are by far the easiest to make and the easiest to put on. They can be hidden quite effectively if colored and fitted correctly. If done improperly they end up looking like the actor is wearing a hair-net. Halo rigs don't work for everyone, the hair line has to be such that the mic wire and elastic have a place to hide, and aren't stretched across the forehead without the cover of hair. Halo rigs can be difficult to hide properly if the actor has a receding hairline or a "widows peak" as the wire will want to run across the forehead. Bangs are also very helpful in hiding the head of the microphone.

halo-mic Fig. 1

Fig 1 shows an uncolored halo rig. The elastic is tied to the mic wire just behind the head of the mic, and again several inches down the mic wire resulting in a circle that can be placed around the actors head, with the mic in the center of the forehead at the hairline, and the mic wire trailing down the middle of the back of the actors neck. We use a bowline knot with a half-hitch to secure the elastic to the mic wire. It holds well, and before it's tightened down can be slid on the wire to get the position correct. Care should be taken not to make the knot too tight, as that can be damaging to the mic wire. Sometimes a drop of super-glue on the knot can save re-tieing knots that have come loose. Use your best judgement with the glue, it can create problems of it's own.

halo-front Fig. 2
halo-side Fig. 3
halo-extend Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10

Fig 2 shows a halo rig on an actor. The photo was taken with a slightly upward angle as to show the microphone. From a forward angle the mic head hides behind the actors hair. In this case care was taken to arrange the wire in such a was as to weave it through the actors hair leaving only the head of the mic protruding onto the actors forehead

Fig 3 shows the same actor from the side. Notice the mic wire is colorized to blend in with the actors hair color, making it very difficult to see, even close up. From stage, this microphone completely disappears.

Fig 4 is a shot of another halo rig. This photo was taken looking at the side of the actors head to show the microphone head extending down the forehead and being obscured by the actors hair. Notice the mic wire to the right has not yet been properly dressed through the hair.

The Clip Method

Toupee clip rigs (Fig 5) can be used to blend into the hair when halo rigs are not an option. Some actors prefer them to the elastic rigs, however the clips can be hard on the hair and end up pulling hair out, leaving thin spots unless care is taken when removing the rig. Clip rigs are time consuming to build. Attaching the elastic to the clips and threading the mic wire through, as well as getting the clip placement correct for the application is once again a trial and error proposition.

Fig 6 is a picture of a clip rig. In this instance we were able to use a black mic and black clips, no extra color was used. Notice the head of the mic, a Hellerman sleeve is placed just behind the mic head to minimize any sweat that might run down the mic wire. This is a close-up shot of the toupee clip with the elastic tied between the two holes on either side, and the mic wire threaded through and wrapped around the elastic.

Fig 7 is a photo of the rig in the actors hair. The arrow points to the clip hidden in the hair. Once again, this rig completely disappears when viewed from the stage. This photo is taken from straight on. This actor has a hair line that is ideal for this sort of placement. The mic sits past the crest in the actors brow, placing the mic on the front of the actors face, not the top of their head.

Fig 8 is a photo of the back of an actors head, showing the mic wire and toupee clip holding the wire in place. In addition to the clip, a piece of surgical tape is used on the back of the actors neck to provide additional adhesion.

The Ear Rig

I am not a fan of the sound of the ear rig (Fig 9), but sometimes it's the only option. Here's a photo of an unfinished ear rig. It is a piece of coat hanger bent into the correct shape. The mic wire, and a piece of floral wire and the coat hanger are held together with Hellerman sleeves. A little moleskin or fabric surgical tape covers the Hellerman sleeves, to provide a little comfort for the actor.

Fig 10 is a closeup of the elements inside of the Hellerman sleeves. From left to right, you can see the mic wire, the floral wire, and the coat hanger wire. I don't have a picture of one of these rigs on an actor. Notes on painting: This is camouflage. In the hair, using color that's just a little darker is easier to make disappear. Military camo is multi color, and multi pattern. Varying the color a bit usually gives better results than solid colors. It's all about trial an error to see what works and what doesn't. If your trying to hide a wire across open expanses to flesh (down someone's back for instance) generally going just a bit lighter works best. Once again, trial and error. Notes on maintaining rigs: Mics don't last forever, and the knots, elastic, clips get old and colors fades. Be sure to write down what works for each actor, and all the parts you need to build each rig. For the principals roles we generally build 2 for each of them so that if one breaks, we have another ready to go. Building a new rig is just to time consuming and tedious to have to do it at the half-hour or worse during a performance. Notes on placement: Here's a can of worms. In an ideal situation, the sound designer would have absolute say over mic placement, but that's not how it works. I prefer the center of the forehead, provided the shape of the actors brow allows the mic to sit on the front of the actors face and not the top of their head. Of course, the use of hats in the production could influence mic placement, as the sound produced with a hat tends to be hollow and loud. If an actor has a lack of hair, perhaps the only option for unobtrusive micing is the ear rig. Be sure to check into the use of rechargeable batteries for your wireless mics.

This article was published in the January 2007 issue of Stage Directions magazine.