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Choosing a Vocal Microphone

Steve LaCerra • November 2021On the Digital Edge • November 3, 2021

Fig. 1: A microphone’s polar response chart can provide an indication of how well the mic rejects off-axis sound

Given a choice, the vast majority of musicians I know would rather use their own gear than use rented or “house” equipment. And yet, a surprising number of singers will show up to a gig and use whatever vocal mic is placed in front of them, without any thought as to whether the mic is flattering to their voice, whether it’s the right mic for the job or (worse), where that mic has been, and who has used it recently — an especially important concern these days.

In addition to the top-of-the-line condenser vocal mics featured in this month’s Buyer’s Guide, there are plenty of excellent dynamic vocal mics on the market for stage use, many available at reasonable prices. Here are some tips to help you choose the right vocal mic for your artist.

Flattery Will Get You (Almost) Everywhere

Floating to the top of the list when choosing a vocal mic is whether or not the sound of that mic is flattering to a particular singer. Here’s one of those rare instances where you can throw specs out the window, because specs won’t tell you how a mic sounds on someone’s voice. Neither will the price of the microphone. I’ve used plenty of expensive microphones that didn’t work well for a particular singer. The only way to know if you’ve got the right mic is to try it and see if (a) you like the way it sounds in the FOH mix and (b) if the singer likes the way it sounds in their monitor mix. Hopefully you can come to an agreement; if not it’s going to be a long day.

In addition to a sound that “works” for the singer, what else are you looking for in a lead vocal mic?

  • Clarity and articulation. Can you understand what the vocalist is singing or saying?
  • Smooth response. Are there certain ranges of the singer’s voice that are louder than others, or is the response even across the entire range?
  • Presence. Does the mic help the singer’s voice cut through the mix without sounding harsh?
  • Leakage. Does the mic sufficiently reject background noise from the stage so that you get a good “signal-to-noise” ratio?
  • Handling noise. If the singer holds the mic while singing (as opposed to leaving it on a stand) can you hear any handling and/or cable noise when they move the mic?
  • Plosives. Does the mic suppress popping “P” and “B” sounds?
  • Controlled proximity effect (see below).
  • Detail. Is the microphone capturing the singer’s nuances?
  • SPL. Can the microphone capsule handle the SPL dished out by the singer?

Dynamic Versus Condenser

All things being equal (and they never are), condenser microphones tend to be more sensitive, enabling them to capture more detail. That’s great in the studio, but it can present problems on stage because high sensitivity also means more bleed from the background. If the instruments on stage are quiet (just an acoustic piano, for example) this may not be an issue. But combining a condenser mic with a quiet singer and a stage with loud guitar amps and drums can be frustrating because you may hear as much of the other instruments as you do the vocal. In such cases, a dynamic microphone might be a better choice. Dynamic mics are generally less sensitive than condenser mics, enabling them to reject unwanted background noise more effectively than condenser mics.

Condenser mics generally have a more extended high-frequency response compared to dynamic mics, and that can be great for getting the vocal to cut through a mix — especially when the singer needs a little help in the high end. But beware of combining a bright mic with a singer whose voice is naturally bright or sibilant, because the result can be harsh when heard through the P.A. system.

Dynamic mics tend to be more rugged than condenser mics, so if you plan to toss the mics into a work box after a club date, you may want to take that into consideration.

Proximity Effect

Proximity effect is the increase in low frequencies that results when a directional microphone is moved closer to a sound source. Generally, as directionality increases, so does proximity effect. Omnidirectional mics exhibit virtually no proximity effect, while figure-eight mics produce the strongest proximity effect. Cardioid, hypercardioid and supercardioid mics produce proximity effect somewhere between that of omni and figure 8, but many manufacturers design their vocal mics with built-in low-cut filters to reduce proximity effect. P.E. can be a beautiful thing when a singer with a thin voice works the mic close, but using a mic with pronounced proximity effect on a singer who naturally has a lot of low end in their voice can reduce intelligibility.

Microphones react differently with changes in distance. Some mics produce fairly consistent response at distances ranging from two to 12 inches, while others will exhibit proximity effect that becomes more pronounced as the singer gets closer to the grill. If you like the sonic attributes of a mic but find the proximity effect is too noticeable, use the HPF on the channel to tame it.

While we’re on the subject of the grill, it’s imperative that the grill reduces or eliminates popping “P” and/or “B” sounds. A HPF can help control plosives, but you don’t want it to be at the expense of the mic’s low-frequency response.

Internal Shock Mounting

Here’s a test you can easily do that will give you an idea of how well a mic capsule is isolated from its housing: Place the mic on a stand, turn off the channel HPF, turn up the P.A., and tap on the mic stand. You should hear a dull, muted thud that’s way lower in level than someone speaking into the mic.

Polar Response

As mentioned above, a mic’s polar response will affect proximity effect, and of course it affects the mic’s ability to reject unwanted sound. Omnidirectional mics get a bad rep in live sound because they’re more susceptible to feedback from wedge monitors, but if your singer is using in-ears and consistently works the mic close, an omnidirectional mic can be a valid solution that produces an intimate sound without the boominess caused by proximity effect.

More common are cardioid, hyper- and super-cardioid patterns, which are generally better at rejecting unwanted sound from monitors and instruments on stage. To get an idea of how effective a mic is at rejecting off-axis sound, have the vocalist speak or sing into the mic while the mic is directly in front of their mouth, then ask them to simply turn their head to the side. (Fig. 1 shows the polar response of a typical cardioid mic.)

You should hear a significant drop in level, but be aware that strong off-axis rejection doesn’t make one mic “better” than another. Consider this: If your singer has poor mic technique and doesn’t consistently sing on-axis, a “better” mic may be one that is more forgiving of position — i.e., a mic that has a wider “sweet spot” within which the sound of their voice remains consistent. It’s also worth mentioning that not all patterns of a type are created equal. The cardioid pattern on one microphone might be tighter than that of another, resulting in different rejection characteristics.

You’ll also find that the frequency response of some mics changes drastically as the mic is moved off-axis. Whether this is an issue or not will depend upon the singer’s mic technique and their ability (or lack thereof) to stay on-mic during a performance.

There’s no magic microphone that’s perfect for every voice, but with a little testing and comparison, you’ll be able to find the right vocal mic for the job at hand.

Steve “Woody” La Cerra is the tour manager and front of house engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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