Volunteers and live sound professionals alike often find that amplifying their choir artfully can be a difficult task. What should be straightforward often isn’t since the microphones, their placement, the PA system and the processing are all interconnected. When they don’t all work in tandem, you will hear the following symptoms:
- Feedback, noise and distortion.
- An amplified choir sound that doesn’t blend well with the actual acoustical sound of the choir in the room or something that sounds thin and artificial on recordings, live streams and in overflow rooms.
- Spotlighting of the choir members located directly in front of the microphones, which makes the choir sound a lot smaller than it really is.
- Low intelligibility and lack of detail.
So, let’s start by organizing our sound goals into something resembling “Maslow’s hierarchy of choir miking needs”. You can’t get to the top level until you master each phase below.
LEVEL ONE: AVOID BAD THINGS
You simply need to avoid bad things like feedback, noise and distortion. Use the minimum number of microphones placed as close to the choir as possible with minor corrective processing. (Use a high-pass filter somewhere around 100Hz to block low frequencies that aren’t important for choir sound and can cause feedback from subwoofers). Additionally, the microphones of choice should have the largest amount of rear rejection possible and the null should be aimed towards the PA. The PA should be optimized for even and controlled coverage across the room while avoiding splashing the stage with sound. It’s worth noting that if large amounts of corrective processing are necessary just to avoid feedback, then this might be as good as it gets for the time being. You’re going to be staying at this Base Level until you upgrade the signal chain in order to achieve the higher-level goals.
LEVEL TWO: MAINTAIN CONTROL
Level Two is all about maintaining control. Don’t overdo it. Simplicity rules. Your live sound goal is to simply cover the space evenly – to let the collective voice wash over everyone without unwittingly boosting the band, the orchestra or the audience. Your main tools here are mic choice and placement but processing, such as EQ, filtering and gates or expanders can help as well. When you nail this, you’re most of the way to a good mix. Everything up from here is just the icing on the cake.
LEVEL THREE: INTELLIGIBILITY
Level Three is intelligibility but not in the same sense as when you’re mixing for speech. We want the blended harmonies of the total group voice. We don’t want any individuals to stand out. We want the intelligibility of everyone around the microphone to be heard clearly and equally. The better we do this, the more we convey a sense of size. To achieve this, lean into microphones with the flattest and most consistent off-axis frequency response possible.
LEVEL FOUR: PRESENCE
Level Four is all about presence. Focus on blending the choir’s acoustic output seamlessly with the PA so that in-person guests can’t tell where one sound source ends and the other begins. Your goal is to make the sound bigger, not louder. To do this well, you’ll need microphones with a gentle proximity effect and with the least amount of color (or else you’ll be wasting a lot of corrective processing that will prevent you from moving up to Level Five).
Here’s a pro tip for your remote guests once you’ve achieved this natural, life-like sound. Add a pair of omnidirectional room mics for your broadcast mix. Blend those in softly to invite your streamers into the room with you and to make them feel that they are right there sharing the same experience as everyone else. They may not be able to pinpoint what sounds different or why, but they will feel it and, in a blind A/B test, your remote audience will pick your room mic mix every time.
LEVEL FIVE: ART & CREATIVITY
And, finally, now that all the fundamentals are in place, it’s time to have some fun, just don’t overdo it and blow all the work you just did. Level Five is where you can subtly enhance the sound. Add a bit of richness and fullness to the bass section. Add air and enhance clarity and articulation by carefully boosting high frequencies. Cut out low-mids to improve the way the choir fits into the mix with lead vocals and instruments. And that’s it. That’s the best way that you and your skills can be of service.