Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mixing a Spelling Bee

I happened to be watching the Scripps Spelling Bee on ESPN tonight and it reminded me of my recent experiences providing sound reinforcement for a small spelling bee. You might think mixing a spelling bee would be a rather dull task. I'll admit it can get monotonous. However, like most things in sound reinforcement it can be as involved a task as you make it.

Spelling bees are a lot like weddings in the sense that you will have a very small channel count, but the material coming over those channels is very important stuff. I've heard some engineers say these tasks are "simple" thinking only of the channel count. I wonder if these folks are actually thinking about the importance of the job they are doing. Those kids put in a lot of work to get on that platform. To them, the ability to hear the words and the ability to be heard means everything. The pressure is on because you typically have people who do not have good mic technique and you typically are dealing with multiple output feeds. The contestants need to hear the judges and announcements. The judges need to hear the contestants, and the audience needs to hear everything. The choice of music (whether or what) to play before/after the event can be an important one. A serious sound engineer would shudder to think that a speller missed a word partly because he or she didn't hear something properly or was distracted by feedback.

I used to supply two microphones for the contestants: one for the taller contestants, and one for the short ones. But I've learned that many contestants were "in the middle" and confused about which mic to use. In more recent runs we've simply adjusted the mic between the two age groups and set it up in such a way that it works for most users. I end up riding the faders a lot. I'll typically provide a monitor speaker for the contestant, one for the judge, and one for the contestants' sitting area because these people will be out of the coverage of the main house system. So that's as many as four outputs, each with it's own mix for only about two inputs. The placement of the monitors for the contestant and judge is critical. The purpose of these devices is to make sure they can hear each other. But you can actually reduce intelligibility if the distances are right because one party will hear the other both in direct sound of the voice and sound from the monitor, but these sounds won't arrive at the listener's ear at the same time. So speaker placement and delay considerations are a must. It just goes to show you that nothing in audio is as simple as it looks. Even the simplest events like a small town spelling bee require competent, knowledgable, and interested and alert operators.

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