Vocal Microphone Technique

There seems to be many singers who don't learn and practice their microphone technique enough, this often results in some great voices being overlooked due to poor sound and bad technique when performing live.

One of the worst practices I often see these days is copied from many MC's in the dance scene, and this is to cover most of the mic with the hand. This turns a directional mic into an omnidirectional one which is more prone to feedback. I have even had singers insist that it makes it easier to hear themselves!! This is complete nonsense as it means that the monitors have to be turned down to compensate and prevent feedback which, of course, makes it HARDER to hear them!

I have also had singers who wave the mic around on it's cable between the vocals, often swinging it in front of the monitors causing feedback squeals, they then look accusingly at the sound engineer as if it is his/her fault!

There are the most obvious points to remember when using any kind amplification:

With a little practice this is easy to rectify and should become a part of your rehearsal routine.

The microphones used for live work are uni-directional (cardoid, or supercardoid), that is, they pick up sound mainly from the front (and sides) and much less from the rear. This is so a monitor can be placed behind the mic and pointing at the performer and reduces the onset of feedback from the monitor.

Practically all un-directional mics change their sound depending on how far they are away from the source, in this case, your mouth. This is known as the proximity effect. As you move close to the mic it will sound warmer with more of the lower frequencies, a thicker sound with more bass. This is generally good for quieter more intimate sounding vocals. As you move away it becomes thinner sounding but cuts through a lot more which is great for loud vocals.

If you watch any of the great singers you will notice that they use this by varying the distance of the mic depending on what they are singing. They will also create fades by moving the mic away and create dnamics by pulling the mic closer to emphasise certain words or passages.

During normal singing the mic is usually best held no closer than 2 to 3 inches from your mouth. This is dependant on the individuals natural power and ability to project and you will have to experiment a little.

Gradually move the microphone away as you continue to sing and listen to the effect - at what point does the vocal sound start to fade? - That is your furthest point to remember. The optimum distance for clarity is between the shortest and furthest points.

There are times when you will be using more volume, hitting higher or lower notes or sometimes almost whispering. Practice using different distances and positions to see how using the mic creates different effects.

Move the microphone away your mouth when aiming for high or more powerful notes and move closer during quieter sections. Practise using the microphone to enhance or lessen certain effects until it becomes second nature.

Practice makes perfect and if you have the facilities to set up a PA and recorder at home or if you use use a rehearsal studio you have a distinct advantage!! Even if you don't have this equipment, you can still experiment with amplified sound by using your home stereo or karaoke machine and a microphone. The quality might not be too brilliant, but you should still be able to get a basic idea of mic positioning and distance with a little practice. Set your volume controls so that the backing track is lower than your singing.

Hiding Faults

Microphones can be used effectively to hide as well as enhance a singers faults. One very common technique used to hide a lack of sustained breath control is to hold the microphone away from you when starting a sustained note and bringing it closer to the mouth as the note diminishes. To the audience the note appears to maintain it's volume, although it is important to keep on pitch and not attempt to hold the note for longer than is comfortable!

Vocal Effects

The use of a microphone lets the singer use various vocal effects to enhance a performance These include:

Avoiding Pop's & Hisses

Certain consonants create sounds when amplified become abrasive or detract from the sound. B's & P's can sound over-exaggerated causing a 'pop', whilst the natural sibilance of C, S & Z can produce a hissing sound. These problems can be avoided by using a combination of correct diction and mic technique.

When using a microphone for the first time, the natural instinct is to place it in right in front of your mouth, but moving the microphone further from your mouth, angling it to one side or lowering the mic and angling it more towards the ceiling will lessen the sensitivity by just enough to prevent the pops and hisses. The adjustment can be quite fine depending on the EQ & gain settings along with equipment type and quality.

Common Problems with Microphones

Radio microphones can be the cause of many a singers nightmares, with cut outs and dodgy batteries causing distortion and the cheaper ones even picking up taxi radios and suchlike! Small microphones attached to clothing can easily work loose causing loss of sound. Hand held radio mic's left on while backstage can pick up discussions or noises that you would rather remain private! Even the humble lead mic if left on in a stand will pick up footsteps or other loud vibrations from the stage and floor.

If using a radio mic, always check the batteries before use, keep a couple of spare batteries handy, make sure aerials or leads are not twisted or bunched up and have a lead mic available in your kit bag for emergancies.

Switch off all microphones during breaks or when not in use.

Which Mic?

There are many vocal mics on the market and as with many things quality rarely comes cheap. Most musicians will be aware of the famous Shure SM 58 and often it's dearer sibling the SM 58A Beta, a similar but with a smoother more detailed sound. For many vocalists an SM 58 will be fine, it is for good reason an industry standard. Having said that there are some voices that do not sound good at all through a '58 and most voices will sound better through a quality condenser mic, such as a Shure SM86 or KSM9, AKG C 5, or the Neumann KMS-104 and KMS-105 (considered the kings of live vocal mics by some).

There are quite a number of dynamic vocal mics other than the '58 worth checking out to, examples being the Sennheiser e845 and e945 and its siblings (often better on female vocals than the '58), Beyerdynamic M88 (a darker non peaky sound, very sensitive) and OPUS 69, Audix OM series, Electro-Voice N/D767a, PL series or the AKG D 3800.

This is by no means an exhaustive list as the market abounds with quality microphones these days. The best thing is to try a number of different mics in your price range at a dealer to see which suits your voice the best. A mic that makes one singer sound great can make another sound too bassy or stridently tinny.

Head-set mic's are useful for dancers or singers who want to have complete freedom of movement but are 'fixed' in front of or to one side of the mouth, this means that the singer is unable to manipulate the microphone. For this reason alone I do not recommend them unless you have your own sound engineers and play really large gigs, in which case you will not be probably not be needing this advice anyway!

Most recording studios carry several microphones to cater to all types of vocalist and singer/songwriters may find that purchasing a microphone for 'live' performance and one for 'recording' solves a few clarity problems.

Lastly, your voice is an instrument, treat it as so, nobody is going to blame sloppy guitar playing on anyone apart from the guitar player, for example, so don't expect the sound engineer to compensate for your lack of technique anymore with the other musicians, there is only so much that can be done and your perfomance can only really be as good as you can give it.