Choosing a microphone for singing (and mic-shaming)

I sing jazz standards as a hobby. Doing so puts me in contact with a lot of singers, some professional, most not. I’ve found that a lot of people don’t really know much about choosing a microphone, and tend to rely on others recommending a brand. Conversely, I’ve found that some will “mic-shame” others for their choice, ignoring the actual sound produced by the singer, or overlaying their actual sound with mental prejudice.

Choosing a mic is a personal decision, and finding one that fits your voice is essential to producing the sound that you desire. There really is no substitute for going to a music store and trying out at least a few mics (and actually singing in the store). If they are interested in sales, they should have a way for you to test a few mics at a time with a mixer board and quality speaker (or speakers).

There are generally two kinds of handheld microphones, dynamic and condenser. Dynamic mics are the more common kind, can take some wear and tear, and do not require any special power source. Condenser mics are said to be more sensitive to sound, but subject to damage and require that the mixer board provide 48 volts of “phantom power” over the mic cord to the microphone or have a battery installed.

You may also want to consider a wireless microphone. Such a mic also requires a receiver station, and there are considerations for the frequency range that the mic uses. If you intend to use your mic at vocal jams, keep in mind that setting up the receiver station in a safe location with a power cord is a lot more work than just hooking up a mic to the venue’s mixer board. Wireless mics require a battery, and may encounter interference with other electronics.

Comparing Microphones Equally
There is a common misconception that one equalization fits all mics, or should fit all mics. This is balderdash. Each mic has different components and electronics and will require that you pay attention to the sound quality you are producing with that particular microphone. I’ve seen Youtube mic comparisons where they use the same settings for each mic, allegedly to show an unbiased approach to the sound. Again, this is nonsense. Each mic requires that you set it up for the best sound for your voice and that particular mic. Only then can each mic be compared fairly for your choice. Unfortunately, not all shops carry a wide selection, so you may want to start your search online for popular microphones (I can save you a bit of time by saying that the most popular mics I’ve encountered are the Shure Beta 58, the Sennheiser e935, and the Heil PR35).

1. Each mic you are testing should be set up with its own cord to the mixer board. While speaking and singing various styles with each mic, tweak the equalization knobs (often just  High РMid РLow knobs) on the mixer board starting with each at the middle position. Try each mic with and without some reverb. Your goal is to find the best sound for your voice with THAT mic. Once you have found the best setting, turn the volume down for that mic and try the next mic, again tweaking the settings until you find the best sound for your voice and that mic.

2. Once you have set up each mic with the best sounding settings, begin comparing the sounds that you produce over each mic, both speaking and singing various styles. Notice if there is “handling noise”, that is the sound of simply holding the mic in your hand and moving your fingers. Some mics pick up a LOT of handling noise, and you may need to use a low-cut or high-pass filter on the mixer board for that mic (oversimplified, this cuts out some of the low range of the mic while allowing the range for human voices through). Try the mic with windscreen (sometimes called a “clown nose”) and without. Windscreens can help control plosives (spoken “P” and “B” words that have a sudden burst of air directed at the mic) and sibilance (hissing “S” words which the mic can pick up strongly). Learning how to handle the mic and to direct plosives and sibilance away from the mic can be a better solution than the windscreen.

3. Narrow your choices to two mics and then decide based on sound, cost, and durability of the microphone.

Mic-shaming
I’ve seen singers go through this process and pick out a perfectly fine microphone, only to then encounter another singer (sometimes a pro) who decided years ago that their microphone was the best and only mic that should ever be used by anyone and that all other mics are inferior regardless of sound and components. Some singers arrive at this simply based on “I’ve always used this and it works, and I don’t like change”.¬† Sometimes the shame factor is enough to make a singer change mics, simply on the basis of alleged authority. Do the same comparison of mics as before with the suggested mic and the mic you already chose. Ignore the “authority” and focus on the sound quality, then make your choice.

My microphone is the Heil PR35. I chose it after looking online at hundreds of reviews and forums, after using a few different mics at a mic-comparison session with fellow singers, and based on the specs of the microphone. The PR35 has a larger diaphragm than most other handheld mics, and this gives it both sensitivity to low volume singing (for a sultry whispery sound) and to low frequency sound which is helpful for conveying my baritone voice. I cannot get right up on the mic as I would with the Shure Beta 58, but then again I don’t have to because it picks up subtle sounds easily. It does have rather a lot of handling noise, so I find myself compensating with a high-pass filter and slightly boosted low EQ. This mic gave the most natural sounding version of my voice, to my ears. It is more expensive than some mics, and most shops don’t carry it as a mic you can try. I tend to use a windscreen to help avoid plosives, and haven’t noticed that it “muddies” the sound, though it does dampen the overall volume a bit, which can be compensated at the mixer board.

 

 

Update on Electronic noise during recording

After we moved to a new home, I had not been able to record vocals on my computer due to a constant electronic noise in the background, something like a high-pitched whine and chatter.

After a lot of troubleshooting, I purchased a Ziocom Ground Loop Noise Isolator from Amazon ($9). It is a small non-powered device that plugs into the microphone input (3.5mm) on the computer, and the output from the mixer board plugs into the ground loop isolator. Just that quickly, all the chatter stopped and the recordings are clear again, except for a background hiss. I’m going to try a DAC to convert to USB digital prior to the PC and see if that fixes it.

The concept is that the ground point of my computer and the ground point of the mixer board are different, even though they are in the same room. This creates a slight “potential” (DC current) which is then amplified by the mixer as electronic noise. This gizmo filters out that current and lets the audio signal through.

I used an XLR female to 3.5mm audio cable from the mixer to the isolator.

isolator