Choir Tech Know-How: Part 1

RS profile picThis week we introduce Dr. Richard Seaby, our resident sound technician at Total Voice.  Richard has been running our sound desks at rehearsals and performances for three years now and has a vast knowledge of all things technical.  He has also experienced many different performance settings and challenges during his journey with us from which he has drawn lots of knowledge.  In this first section he talks about the basics of sound equipment needed for choirs of a rock and pop style using backing tracks.  In subsequent articles in this series he will also cover choirs using a pianist or live musicians as well as reviewing some top tech.

Unless you are a choir that always performs in venues where there is a resident sound engineer to do the work for you, it is likely that you will need some kind of sound kit for your choir when you perform.  If like the Total Voice Contemporary Choir you use backing tracks then this will also be necessary for rehearsals.  With audio equipment you can spend as much as you want although with budgets in mind, I will give you some guidelines about what is needed rather than what would be nice to have.  Of course when you hit the big time you can splash out on whatever you want!   I do sound work for both the Contemporary Choir and Chamber Choir at Total Voice which require different set ups.  The Contemporary Choir have performed everywhere from big community halls to garden parties (in all weathers) and a large shopping centre.  However although the logistics, temperatures and acoustics may vary, everything is based around the same technical set up.

A sound system is always composed of four main parts

Choir Tech Table 1

If your choir is using backing tracks, the amount of kit required is related to the size of group and venue you are going to rehearse in. If you are just starting out, it is probably not worth investing in the kit needed to perform with yet. This can be hired, or many venues have or can get hold of the equipment needed.

For rehearsals the absolute minimum needed for a small group of singers is a reliable music player.  What form this takes does not matter particularly, I use a laptop for rehearsals now but I have used IPod, IPad, phones and even old CD players. The quality of the backing track you use and the music player will matter in performance but are not essential in the early stages.

Once you have chosen a method to play your music, you then need it to be heard.  If you are ten people in a small room a home stereo system might suffice, as long as it will play or connect to your music.  However for a growing choir such an investment can be short lived as for any larger group this will be unwieldy and you should consider getting a more professional system.  Indeed Christine quickly grew out of several different music players when she started Total Voice.

When looking at going from a simple home stereo to a more proffessional and larger capacity system there are three main options:

Combination Style Amplifiers and Speakers – In this setup, all the parts (mixer, amplifier and speakers), are included in the package. These come in two forms, a single speaker with a simple method of taking in signal from your audio player (and often several different sources, such as mics or guitars), which is all built into one box and aften fairly portable (ours has wheels and a suitcase like handle).  Many have a battery built in so that you can operate it for a couple of hours without plugging it in as long as you have remembered to charge it!

Pros – Easy to manage if you are running your choir and also dealing with the sound.  Portable and easy to use in small venues and rehearsal rooms.  Useful in certain performance situations even after you have a full PA system, for example we sing in an old people’s home every Christmas where space is limited and we also do a walkaround.  The speaker on wheels is ideal for this

Cons – Less flexibility than a full PA system.  Mono sound.  We have found battery can be unreliable and mains power ideal again restricting flexibility.

The second type of combination system is becoming more popular and comes with a central mixing/amplifier unit and detachable speakers.

Pros – Stereo sound, speakers can be spread out more, most of these system include a basic mixer.

Cons – More expensive than the first option, less portable.

The third type of system is a full PA.  For larger choirs this is the best option as it has a proper dedicated mixing system with separate speakers, this allows you to match the amount of power needed from your speakers to the rehearsal or performance situation.

Pros – Flexible in a variety of situation, high quality sound, vocal effects are available to the singers, can be linked to other systems on location, is a good investment as it will grow with your choir.

Cons – Requires more technical knowledge, needs to be operated by a separate person, more equipment to carry around, move and store, requires more financial outlay upfront.

So that rounds up the first part of my tech know-how series.  Next time I will be looking at each component making up the sound system; the music player, mixer, speakers and microphones and talking about different options for you.  In the meantime I would love to hear from you if you have any music tech related questions.

Comments on Choir Tech Know-How: Part 1

  1. Avatar Plaxy PIERCEY says:

    Hi, I have just started a small ( less than 15) gospel ensemble. We will be performing in small venues with a backing track. I’m looking at the Bose S1 pro portable pa. do you think this would be suitable for us?

    1. Avatar Victoria Hopkins says:

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m afraid we can’t offer individual advice or coaching on Total Choir Resources; that’s what we do inside our membership Community Choir Professionals.

      You’re very welcome to post your question in our free Facebook Mastermind group. If you’re not already a member, you can request to join here. There are hundreds of choir leaders in the group. If you ask your question there, you’ll get lots of responses.

  2. Avatar Dee Gee says:

    Is there good software that can show words and score (to control playback ) and alllow different parts to be emphasised?

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Dee,

      Thanks for your query, unfortunately that’s not something we know about. If anyone else reading has any ideas please let us know.

  3. Avatar Maddie Cordes says:

    Thanks Richard, very useful. I set up the Landmark Show Choir just over a year ago and started with own stereo system and ipad and amp which we still use in smaller situations but now have a PA system we bought second hand. However it’s not portable enough (very heavy mixer desk,CD player in steel case and huge speakers) so will be interested in your next article! Would also make the point that venues often have their own equipment which they say you can use but beware of this! Even when we have tested it beforehand, which is essential, it hasn’t always worked on the day or because we don’t know the system it hasn’t had the required effect eg we performed in our town hall and hadn’t realised that there were four speakers throughout the hall and with the backing track coming out of all four, people sitting at the back couldn’t hear the performers at the front – there was no PA system as such just a CD player. So the lesson we learned is to take our own every time and not rely on others. It is also an issue even if you are using a professional set up run by a sound engineer especially if you can’t get a sound check beforehand or meet them or talk to them before the event. I have found the musical part of running the choir, the managing part of the people and the admin all relatively easy with my business background but the sound the hardest! Also changing requirements throughout a set eg group songs to solos to children etc – would welcome some advice on that. Think the answer is to have it all set up beforehand so there is less transition between songs and have enough equipment – we need to invest in more mics and ambient mics for group songs I think. We have had feedback that the audience saw a lot of turned backs in between songs and we lost the flow of our performance. Also hiring someone to help lug the equipment and possibly to operate it – I am using my son at the moment! Looking forward to discussing this subject in more depth! Thanks a lot, Maddie

    1. Avatar Richard Seaby says:

      Hi Maddie,

      Thanks for your comments on the post. Great to hear about your show choir, I had a look at your website and it sounds like the choir has a similar set up and performance style to our contemporary choir.

      In my next article I will be focusing on some of the other specific parts of the sound system and different options available. In general there are some heavy parts in most quality sound systems but you can choose to a certain extent which parts are heavy (for example active speakers with a light desk or passive speakers with a heavier desk). I will delve into this further next time. In the meantime you mention difficulties working with existing systems in venues and make some very valid points. We also always take a complete set of kit with us when performing in venues as you never know what you might come up against unless working with professionals. The only exception is our local Community Centre where we have tried and tested the kit and know it inside out plus this venue is only two minutes away from where we store all of our kit so popping back is no problem. Christine is here with me and says from the point of view of the choir it’s always a good idea to get them practising in different acoustic situations. For example, we often sing outside our rehearsal space in the summer. This prepares the choir for singing in open air, which of course has a very different feel to being inside and can be off putting and also cause a lack of projection if not practiced beforehand.

      We have been fortunate to date that when working with professional sound engineers there has never been a problem, however I think this would be a good topic for an article in itself and I can put together ideas to help discussions with sound engineers. I also know a couple of very good sound engineers who I can get involved in the discussion.

      With regards to setting up microphones for different groups singing, we always try and set up as much as we can before the performance and have someone to be in charge of any mic movement required, I often take care of this. Christine says as a leader she is always thinking of this initially when planning the set and putting the shows together. However, with regards to microphones having the right kit certainly does make a difference and I will also be doing a feature purely on microphones and how to use them.

      Finally, I think for a choir leader it’s always a good idea to have someone to take care of the sound, if not in rehearsals definitely for performances. I know from working with Christine and Victoria, there is already so much going on for the choir leader, looking after members, keeping everything under control and leading the music. In our set up with have pretty much separated these roles now although Christine and Victoria do have a working knowledge of the sound system and can operate it if needs be. This also helps them to understand the limitations from my point of view and makes it a more positive experience all round.

      Over the next few weeks we will cover those issues you are interested in, however, do let us know if there’s anything further you like more info on.

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