Event Production Sound,
Stage, and Lighting Tips
Little Details Make a Big Difference
by Jeff Evans
Understanding the basics of sound, lighting, and staging can’t make a presentation, but not knowing can break it! This article is designed for people planning an event who aren’t professional event planners or production specialists. A lot of my observations here are simply from experience. I have no official training or certifications, but I present hundreds of performances each year at venues ranging from hotel banquet rooms to conference centers to school gymnasiums. Working in all sorts of situations, both good and bad, highlights the importance of sound, lighting, and staging to any presentation.
Although you can’t transform a dining room into a lecture hall, there are lots of things that are within your control to transform your event from good to great. You won’t receive an award or recognition for doing these things, because they’re often invisible to the casual attendee. However, observing these rules and suggestions will make your job much more pleasant!
Sounds Good to Me
As a general rule, I like a sound system when I’m presenting for fifty or more people. This is flexible; sometimes room acoustics are great and you can easily speak to over a hundred with no sound reinforcement.
There are many details involved in setting up a sound system and properly using a microphone. (In fact, just thinking about the possibilities convinced me to write a more complete article.) Here are a few basics.
Types of Microphones
The basic types of microphones you’ll likely see are handheld, podium-mounted, lapel, and headset microphones.
Handheld microphones may be wired or wireless. If you’re not moving from the stage to speak, wired is great. They are reliable, don’t require batteries, and difficult to lose or misplace. On the other hand, if you’re walking about the room, or perhaps handing it to different people who speak (for a roast or toast, etc.), the freedom of a wireless microphone is wonderful.
Tip: no mic stand and need to go hands-free? A short length of cord or ribbon can be tied around the microphone to hang like a necklace. (Commercially available mic holders are available. Look up “gimcrack.”)
Lapel microphones are hands-free so your presenter can gesture, move about, pick up props, display items, etc. Tip: clip the microphone element high up on the shirt. Too low and you will need to increase the volume level which increases the chances of feedback. Of the types of microphones mentioned here, lapel microphones tend to be the most prone to feedback. The reason is that the mic element is located several inches away from the mouth. This requires more gain, and the higher the volume, the more apt the microphone is to pick up sound coming from the speaker. Poof – feedback! Be sure you don’t walk in front of a speaker wearing a lapel wireless.
Tip: Test for feedback before the event begins by walking around the venue with the microphone on at the sound level you expect to use for presentations. See if there are feedback hot spots to avoid later.
Headset microphones give you the hands-free advantage of a lapel microphone with better gain-before-feedback more typical of a handheld microphone. It can take a little time to get used to the feel of having something clipped to your ear and hovering by the side of your mouth. Another disadvantage: you can’t easily hand it off from person to person for multiple speakers.
Nothing is more annoying than the squeal of feedback! Interestingly, it’s one of the easiest situations to fix once you understand how it occurs. Feedback is sound from the speaker traveling back into the microphone, then being amplified. This “feedback loop” magnifies and intensifies and quickly becomes the high-pitched squeal that everyone hates. The solution is simple: know where the speakers in the room are pointing and don’t walk in front of them carrying the microphone.
Tip: If you need to adjust the volume of music or a microphone, adjust the control for that one channel only. Don’t change the master control, as doing so immediately changes the volume on every other input.
Here’s a sample situation: Mary is speaking into a microphone on channel #1. John has his microphone plugged into channel #2. Mary is soft-spoken and hard to hear, so you move the master level up. John begins speaking and -AAGH – feedback! Adjust the individual channel levels rather than the master level.
Tip: Microphones typically plug into a mixer that has volume control for multiple channels. This way several sources can be plugged in and adjusted independently. Some mixers are easy to operate, others are complicated. Either have a knowledgeable staff on hand to help adjust the sound level when presentations begin or learn how to adjust it yourself.
Tip: If you’re using a PowerPoint or video presentation, check both the video and audio in advance and know how to turn these devices on and off and adjust volume.
Tip: Using video but there is no way to connect the audio from your laptop to the sound system? In a pinch, turn up the speakers on the laptop and then place a hand-held microphone near the computer or portable speakers. The microphone will pick up and amplify the sound coming from the laptop. It’s not as good as a direct connection, but will work in a pinch.
Tip: If the venue has portable speakers (or you’re providing and setting up your own portable sound system), be sure and use speaker stands to elevate the speakers to at least the ear height of your audience. Speakers on the floor are not nearly as effective.
Tip: Place speakers at the front of the stage/performance area pointing towards the audience. This arrangement virtually eliminates feedback. If your presenter wants to be able to hear themselves, your sound technician can add a small speaker as a monitor pointing back at the presenter.
Light it Up
Years ago a comic friend of mine told me that the sound system is the number one element, but that good lighting was close behind it. He posed this question: in a comedy club, where is all the light? On the stage, where the performer is. Everything else is in shadows. People’s eyes and attention are naturally drawn to the presenter on stage.
Now picture the standard banquet room where your annual awards banquet or holiday party takes place. Dark, isn’t it? I perform magic, so it’s important that people can see me and what I’m doing. I travel with my own compact lights when I perform because it truly makes a difference. You don’t necessarily need to go to those lengths, but when you arrive to set up for the event check out the room lighting. Find out where the light controls and dimmers are.
Does everything look good? You’re not home free yet! A change always happens between the afternoon when you are setting up and the evening when presentations begin. The sun goes down, the catering staff turns off the work lights, and lights are dimmed for ambience. Be sure to ask staff in advance to set the lights the way you need them, or know how to do it yourself.
Stage for Success
Put your presenters where everyone can see them. This isn’t an issue for a group of, say, 25 people, but once you get 100+ people in a banquet room it is helpful to have a platform or stage. If one isn’t built-in, your venue can likely either provide one or recommend a production company. The size you need depends on the number of people who will be “on stage” at any one time. You’ll likely have a podium on stage, and possibly a table. For small groups, an 8′ x 12′ platform is usually good. Remember to add steps to get on/off if the height is more than an easy step. (Handrails may be required also.)
Obviously this is very brief overview of sound, lighting, and staging. If you’re planning an important presentation or event and need assistance, there are event production companies that specialize in doing exactly this. In the greater Seattle area look up Pyramid Staging (www.pyramidstaging.com).
Are you planning an event and looking for outstanding entertainment? Contact magician Jeff Evans at 360-412-5064 or send e-mail to jeff[at]amazementproductions.com.