Outdoor Theatre: Broadcasting Audio to your Audience via Headphones

Outdoor theatre productions often use wireless headphone systems to broadcast single or multi-channel audio to their audiences. By Paul Cherry, Sunday, 26th April 2020
For audio flexibility and audience experience, outdoor theatre and ballet productions often use wireless event headphones to deliver their soundtracks to open-air auditoriums.

Outdoor performances often use a wireless headphone system to deliver multiple-audio channels to their audiences.

For audio flexibility and audience experience, outdoor theatre productions often use wireless event headphones to deliver their soundtracks to open-air auditoriums.

This style of audio setup is often used in both the summer months and early autumn (here in the UK) and it is an easy-to-use, often licence-free broadcasting system which has been specially designed to deliver one or multiple soundtracks to an audience. Many systems like this operate in clear and dry weather conditions and broadcast to the audience within a 500 metre radius.

And of course, being an alternative to a public-address or loudspeaker system, headphones can contribute to reducing noise output for outdoor performances.

Outdoor Theatre and Headphones

Theatrical headphones can be hired from a variety of suppliers, including ourselves at Place Over Ears.

We prefer event headphones that are light-to-wear and which are powered by 2 x AAA batteries so that they can offer up to 20 hours of playback. Importantly, these outdoor theatre earphones can receive multiple-channels of audio, allowing your sound team to move across audio sources during intervals in the performance, if they so wish.

For audience comfort, silent cinema headphones should be light-to-wear and feature on-board volume and channel controls

For listening comfort audience headphones should have long battery life, be light-to-wear and feature volume and channel controls.

Here in the UK, broadcast systems for theatrical production headphones tend to arrive in two flavours;

  1. Open, public-frequency systems that can broadcast on 3 channels (863 – 865 MHz) – no broadcast licence is required, often ideal for small and medium-sized audiences
  2. Programme-making and special events (PMSE) frequencies (470 – 790 MHz) – non-public-use, paid-for frequencies designed for large theatrical events, concerts and shows

Depending on the type of system that you are seeking will dictate the headphone supplier who can help you. Many rental stockists offer the public, licence free headphone systems and some can also cater for licenced PMSE systems.

Audience Headphones at Outdoor Performances

Headphones should arrive pre-tuned to all the channels they can receive. When your audience arrives, ensure that the headphones are fitted with their batteries (or are fully recharged) and hand them out at your reception / under-the-stars foyer with some basic instructions. Before or during your performance, your audience can select the correct channel and adjust the volume to their liking.

An audio mixing desk used by outdoor theatre

Headphone transmitter systems connect easily to the professional audio-mixing equipment or other devices

When bring theatrical audiences and headphones together, it’s worth considering;

  • A novel experience – for many, a silent event may be a new experience. At your performance, simple instructions on printed tickets, around the venue and in the receiving area will go a long way
  • Not for home Hi-Fi – a very small percentage of theatre-goers could think that your headphones would make a great addition to their home hi-fi collection (which without a transmitter, they won’t). How will you safely collect your hired headphones once the show is over? This can be particularly tricky to manage at outdoor theatrical performances if no perimeter, entry and exit points are being actively monitored. Can you incorporate a return deposit for the headphones in the price of admission?
  • Not for small children – event headphones are designed with adults and older children in mind. As earphone misuse can cause hearing loss, you shouldn’t plan headphone events for very young children
  • Many nights, many batteries – while popular models offer 20 hours of audio reception, back to back theatrical performances should plan ahead for battery use over a number of days to prevent supply issues
  • Promote, promote, promote – you can use the novelty angle of the ‘outdoor theatre with headphones’ audio in publicity and advertising to ensure a packed performance
  • Shine brightly (but not too much) – audience headphones can be classified as either ‘event’ or ‘silent disco’ headphones. Both styles will work with your transmitter, but silent disco headphones often feature big LED illuminations designed for the dancefloor. In the darkness of an under-the-stars outdoor auditorium, bombastic LEDs could distract your audience. Our advice is to opt for the more discrete event headphones.

With you audience now headphone-ready, your UHF transmitters become the beating heart of your audio delivery.

If you are broadcasting just one theatre soundtrack, one transmitter will do the job and this can broadcast to an infinite number of audience headphones tuned to receive it.

Transmitters

Popular outdoor theatre headphone transmitters broadcast using UHF, FM signals.

These FM transmitters are often favoured by outdoor production crews as they are easy to setup, they offer a crisp audio and they are simple to manage mid-performance.

Transmitters can be hired that run on mains power – these tend to be higher-powered units and can broadcast up to 500 metres away in optimal conditions. Portable transmitters are also available for small and mobile outdoor theatre productions that perform away from power sources.

Silent disco headphone transmitter

To broadcast your outdoor theatre soundtrack you will need a headphone transmitter like this one.

Public-rented headphone transmitters often output their respective channels on 863, 864, and 865 MHz here in the UK and across the EU. These channels are free for public-use and do not require a license. However, such ease does come with a small compromise. There are no public restrictions on broadcasting in that 863 to 865 MHz frequency range, so it’s not a secure method of broadcast and there is a very slim possibility of channel crossover (interference) in urban areas or at busy events.

However, interference is rare and as an added precaution, prior to an outdoor theatrical performance, production teams can use a RF spectrum analyser such as RF Explorer to evaluate the signal usage in their locale.

If you rent your transmitters from a reputable AV hire company (like us) they will arrive with a variety of connectors such as RCA phono or 3.5mm headphone adaptors so that you can connect them to your mixing desk or playback devices.

Bad Weather

Sadly, rain will stop headphone play. There is a good reason why silent headphone events tends to run in the summer.

In order to keep your outdoor theatre audience and crew safe, event headphones shouldn't run in the rain (unless your hire suppliers says otherwise).

In order to keep your outdoor theatre audience and crew safe, event headphones shouldn’t run in the rain (unless your hire suppliers says otherwise).

In the main, the wireless event headphones are not splash or water proof, so headphones can’t operate in damp conditions as it poses a risk to your audience’s safety and headphone equipment you’ve hired (which you’re likely to be on the hook for to replace if it returns water-damaged). If you are planning a headphone-based theatrical production it’s sensible check the future weather forecasts and consider having a back-up loudspeaker setup in case of damp conditions.

It is particular dangerous to expose mains-powered headphone transmitters to conditions that are not dry and covered. Please don’t ever be tempted to try this.

If you hired from a reputable headphone hire company, and you kept their kit dry and safe, in the event of bad weather, you maybe able to renegotiate a repeat hire or price-reduction, goodwill gesture from them. Again, this is a maybe but it is worthy of a conversation.

Image credit: this post features a rather lovely image by Rhendi Rukmana on Unsplash.


A profile photo of Paul Cherry

About Paul Cherry

Paul is the founder of Place Over Ears and came up with the idea of hiring headphones door-to-door after a train ride to London with his mum in 2007. Launched in 2015 with just 6 pairs of headphones, Place Over Ears' hire service now supplies audio kit to UK and international customers.