Eventually, I hope to do a video showing exactly how to set up a mixer board and do a proper side-by-side comparison of mics. Until then, here are some basics for singers about choosing a microphone.
This started as a small article that blossomed into a lot more as I kept adding bits of information and advice. It should be quite helpful for new singers and possibly even for veteran singers, because we should all learn from each other.
This article is to help singers understand the basics of handheld microphone types, how different mic patterns affect your singing style, and why you might like one kind versus another. It is sadly common that even music stores that sell the mics won’t know the differences and how they change the way a singer uses the mic. Often the sales-person leans towards one or two mics and that is all a singer may encounter. In the last store I visited with a new singer, they gave her two mics, a cord, and a portable loudspeaker and had her try them in a small room. Not the best way at all, but I was there and made it work well enough to test the two mics.
WHY THIS ARTICLE?
I have been singing publicly for the past 7 years, and my social group is mostly other singers and instrumentalists. Especially in the past 4 years, I’ve been studying handheld microphone types, mic handling technique, mic equalization, and how to select a microphone by actually testing and comparing them. Singers are largely unaware that different mics will make them sound differently, and that is the primary thrust of this article.
I’ve also encountered a fair share of “I’m a pro, and this is the mic EVERYONE should use”, particularly from those who have been in the business for decades. I’ve even seen singers select a very nice mic, only to turn around and also buy “THE mic” because a pro shamed the singer into buying it. I’ve covered this previously in my blog article “MIC SHAMING”. As I point out in that article, nothing compares to testing mics side by side, each one set up on a mixer board and EQ tweaked to get the best sound for that mic and for your particular singing voice.
The reason for this test is simple. This is the only way to really hear how a particular microphone design shapes your voice, and to hear the differences in the microphones themselves versus the difference in a whole sound system and room (both of which also change how you sound). It also gives you the opportunity to see how proximity effect (a boomy bass quality from having your mouth very close to the mic grill) changes the sound of your voice on different mics. It also shows how mic patterns differ, and how the the pattern affects how you can actually use the mic (example: most cardioid mics will sound odd with the singer being right up on the grill, but most super-cardioid and hyper-cardioid mics are designed to have the singer that close).
Once you have settled on a particular mic, it is often a good idea to always use that mic wherever you go because you will get used to how it responds to your voice, and other perfectly good mics may respond very differently and distract you during a performance. I’ll revisit this idea at the end of the article.
MICROPHONE GENERAL NOTES
There are a few different general microphone types, and understanding the design of your microphone is important. Advances in technology have been made in the past 40 years, and microphones that were go-to models for singers for years now have strong competition from mics with more modern design. I’m not going to cover wireless options in this blurb, though the “patterns” are still the same.
I’ll end with three common microphone manufacturers and the mics often chosen by singers.
1. This one bears repeating. It is important to read up on how to choose a microphone, and to not buy one simply because “pro singer X said to buy this one”. You may find by testing microphones side by side that you prefer the sound of a different mic. I just helped a singer pick out a mic at a local music store, and the “go-to” mic sounded harsher to us than the mic she chose at the end of the test for an equivalent price. Sometimes that sound quality isn’t apparent until you can hear them side by side.
2. Also note that “more expensive” doesn’t translate to “this is a better mic for my voice”. Nothing compares to a side-by-side test that has been properly set up.
3. Mic pattern (which I’ll discuss shortly) is another consideration. Some singers love being right up on the microphone grill, and others seem to have a hard time staying close to the mic. The mic pattern will help determine what kind of mic to get, and the other part is simply learning how to use the mic properly. Almost all mics should be pointed directly at your mouth and held so that you are speaking directly into the mic from about 2-3 inches away.
4. Don’t “cup” the mic (see pic below), even if famous singer/rapper X does. Cupping is holding the grill/cage of the mic instead of the handle. It is a VERY bad mic technique, even if you think it looks cool. The sound becomes weird, and the sound board has to be tweaked a lot to compensate for this bad technique. Hold the mic by the handle. You don’t need to have a tight death-drip on it, but keep your hand away from the mic grill.
5. NEVER drop the mic. The whole idea of dropping mics on purpose is stupid. It was intended as a final visual puctuation mark after saying something really profound. But it ruins the mic, and even an average mic is about $120, some are more then $400. You drop it, you bought it. It also makes a super loud BANG and may also cause a shrieking feedback in the monitors. All in all, a very stupid and expensive thing to do, especially with someone else’s equipment.
TWO PRIMARY MICROPHONE TYPES
Dynamic: Non-powered mic, very common for singers, durable. Larger diaphragms can deliver sensitivity close to a handheld condenser mic.
Condenser: Requires power either from a battery or over the mic cable from the mixer board that has “phantom power”. Condenser mics are very sensitive to sound (and damage). Phantom power is usually 48v, though occasionally it is 15v. Condenser mics are said to deliver a better fidelity of sound than dynamic mics, but for most singers the difference is not noticable. I’ve seen several say that they only use condenser mics for quiet instruments or as a non-handheld studio mic. It is also important not to disconnect a condenser mic from the cord while the mixer board is turned on, as the phantom power will cause a very loud POP which is harmful to the speakers.
MICROPHONE PATTERNS (how the mic picks up sound)
The microphone pattern represents how a microphone picks up sound (or not). All mics pick up sound from the front, but some are designed to not hear sound from the sides or behind the mic. The pattern is essential for understanding how to use a particular mic. The pictures show the “lobes” of where the mic hears sound. Each kind requires a different handling technique from the singer. Some mics are made to be held very close to the mouth, and others are not.
Cardioid: Medium pickup pattern from front and sides, no rear lobe (may also have electronic rear-rejection built-in to prevent feeback from monitors). Singer can be close to mic grill, but mic will exhibit “proximity effect” (boomy bass) if right up on mic. Typically singer should stay 2-4 inches from the mic grill, or further if singing loudly. (HEIL, SENNHEISER)
Super-cardioid: Tight pickup pattern from front (more directional). Singer should stay close to the front of the mic (typically 0-2 inches unless singing loudly). Small rear “lobe” at the back of the mic that can pick up monitors, so keep monitors off-axis (not pointing directly at the mic). (SHURE, SENNHEISER)
Hyper-cardioid: Like super-cardioid, but even more directional. Very tight pickup pattern to avoid picking up other singers or instruments on stage, but also has a significant rear lobe that can pick up monitors, so keep monitors off-axis. Singer should be very close to mic, within 2 inches. (AUDIX)
Omni-directional: picks up from any direction equally. This is not often used on stage since other singers and instruments will be picked up also, though to a lesser extent. However, feedback is much harder to get on an omni mic and proximity effect is non-existent. They are said to give a very clear and accurate sound reproduction. Omni mics are often used in a recording studio because there is no danger of bleed-over from other singers or instruments, and because of the lack of proximity effect. If this had a picture, the lobe would be a complete circle with the center on the mic head.
MOST COMMON MIC MANUFACTURERS AND SOME COMMON SINGER MICS
AUDIX (all hypercardioid)
- OM2&3: General purpose speaking mics
- OM5: $195 “Warm” sound, low handling noise and low boominess (not nearly as sensitive to anything below 120Hz), side sound rejection, used by Bonnie Raitt, CSN, Alanis Morissette, Blue Oyster Cult. Excellent overall mic. Compare this one with the Shure Beta 58.
- OM6: $239 Warmer sound than OM5, lower range not as attenuated so will pick up more low end. Handles “screamers” (rock, blues) well.
- OM7: $285 Designed for very loud stages and singers with lousy mic technique (cupping), very low impedance requires a rock-star pre-amp and amp that are powerful to get decent sound out of it. No one in the jazz/folk singer circle would probably use this.
- OM11: $240-320 Very low handling noise, but with low-range sensitivity, desinged to bring the human voice through the mix of other instruments, sharp crisp sound and works well with baritone voices also. It is said to handle plosives well (“P” words that push a sudden gust of air at the mic). Heavier than other mics, according to one user.
- PR22: $184 Large diaphragm (1.125″) dynamic mic with rear-rejection for sound coming from the back of the mic. Accurate vocal reproduction. 50 Hz – 18 kHz. 600 ohms impedance. 14oz.
- PR35: $277 Large diaphragm dynamic mic. Large diaphragm helps it pick up soft and deep sounds better than other mics. 40Hz-18kHz (or 80Hz-18kHz with low-cut switch engaged). 370 ohms impedance. 15oz. Mic seems heavy for those used to using Shure mics. This is the mic I currently use.
SENNHEISER (cardioid, super-cardioid, prices reflect the amount of design time and electronics inside)
- e835: $100, basic cardioid, 40Hz-15kHz
- e935: $179, cardioid, popular singer mic, recommended 5-10cm (2-4 inches) to distance from mic, closer gives high proximity effect (boomy bass). Compare this to the Shure Beta 58.
- e945: $220, super-cardioid, more sensitive mic for higher pitched sounds, picks up vocals and drums especially strong (helpful if lots of instruments)
- e965: $700, condenser, cardioid and super-cardiord (switchable), large-diaphragm, low-cut switch, 40Hz-20kHz
- Beta 58A: $100, super-cardioid, very popular singer mic, designed for close up use 0 to 2-inch, Shure website says that proximity effect “adds warmth and fullness”. This is a good one for singers that like to be right up on the mic grill. This is often the one that pros recommend, despite it being nearly a 30 year old design. You may agree or decide differently when you test it with other mics side by side as I’ve recommended repeatedly. Age of design isn’t always a problem, since some old professional mics are still great.
- SM58: Much older design, was very commonly used in travelling bands. Replaced by the Beta 58.
- KSM8: New design for 2016, dual-diaphragm, $500. Cardioid. Accurate and sensitive. Low proximity effect, though it has some. Only one review mentioned that it was better for tenor and soprano voices than for baritone and bass. One review said it was easily damaged on tour, others say it is durable.
There are many other great and not-so-great brands and models of mics that I haven’t mentioned. The above are the most common that I encounter.
USING YOUR NEW MIC:
Once you are used to using a particular mic, you may want to always take it with you to gigs instead of relying on whatever they happen to have for you. There are a few things to understand about this:
A. It is always best to ask if you can change the mic when you walk up to the stand. Most places won’t care at all (as long as you don’t make their speakers POP when you switch mics.) Some singers do this to have a consistent sound, others just don’t like using a mic that carries germs.
B. You may want to avoid taking your mic with you if you have a condenser mic, because you can only use it with a mixer board that has “phantom power” (discussed below). Also, the sound for the speakers MUST be turned down before connecting/disconnecting a condenser mic, or engaging or disengaging phantom power, or the speakers *will* POP loudly.
C. Always press the little release button on the cord when attaching or detaching a microphone. This avoids a pop when the mic is attached.
D. Make certain that your mic never is pointed at the front of the speaker or at the monitor, because this will nearly always result in a loud screeching feedback that makes everyone wince and makes you look stupid. When you lower your mic hand, always keep the mic head up so this doesn’t happen.
E. The mixer board may or may not be something you are allowed to adjust. Many sound techs really do know what they are doing and have to keep constant vigilance over their mixer boards to keep idiots from changing EQ settings and more. I’ve seen singers in various venues approach a mixer or equalizer and start changing settings that were set professionally, because “Everybody knows the sliders ought to be set like a smile”. Such idiots should be beaten.
Conversely, some “sound guys” just don’t want anyone else touching their stuff, and some sound guys really don’t know what they are doing. So you may have to settle for what you can get. I had one that almost came unglued over me wanting to plug in a mic cord (and I asked first). He actually yelled “WAIT! THAT’S NOT SOME CHEAP CRAP IS IT?!” Yes, I only ever use cheap crap, in fact the brand name is Cheap Crap.
F. On your own mixer board, learn what all the dials and sliders do, and what the effects do. Spend time with the manual, or with someone who will teach you. You may need to pay a pro to teach you each part, but you will benefit from knowing what your equipment can do, and how to set it up. Some venues have a lot of sound absorbing material like carpets, cloth covered booths or chairs, curtains, and people with clothes (seriously). All of these will deaden the sound coming from your speakers, and change the sound quality. Other venues are mostly hard surfaces, and even a little bit of volume carries and bounces off walls repeatedly requiring you to adjust your settings. Then when you get to a different venue, you will need to adjust the settings again, especially if you are changing from inside to outdoors.
G. Wind screens (aka “clown nose”) are a foam covering for the microphone. The primary purpose of a wind screen is for when you are singing outdoors, as it keeps the wind from making noise in your mic. Some mics that are especially sensitive to plosives (“P” words that send a sudden gust of air at the mic) and sibilance (“S” words that make the singer breathe out a flow of air at the mic so it sounds like wind) can benefit from having a wind screen on during a performance.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Wind screens are acoustically transparent and do not make the sound “muddy”. I’ve been approached by veteran singers at shows who told me never to use a wind screen because it makes the sound muddy. They are incorrect. Muddy sound comes from bad EQ on the mixer, usually from not using a low-cut filter (which I did recently…) Mostly, people don’t like the way the foam cover looks. There are mic techniques such as singing over the mic instead of directly into it that can help control P’s and S’s, and many singers prefer this over the wind screen. But if you are singing outdoors, you really should use it.
H. Use a monitor. This is a small speaker that faces towards you so that you know better how you sound to the audience, and it helps keep you from being pitchy when singing. Alternatively, have your speaker slightly behind you so you hear how you sound. But always have someone in the audience area help correct your sound (more or less volume/bass/treble/reverb).
Hopefully, I have conveyed the basics of common handheld microphone types that most singers will encounter, as well as what those differences mean to singers. Singers need to be aware of the microphone pattern in order to adapt their mic handling technique on-the-fly. This information will also help singers to choose a microphone for purchase.
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