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Choosing Headset Mics

John McJunkin • May 2021Sound Sanctuary • May 7, 2021

Dr. Johannes Hartl speaks into a DPA 4188 headworn mic at the 2020 MEHR Christian Conference.

If a millennial worship sound volunteer (or two) were to step into a time machine taking them back 50 years, they’d be surprised by the lack of headset microphones. Handheld mics ruled the world at that time, and there was nary a headset mic to be seen, with the notable exception of those used by radio and television sports announcers. You know what I’m referring to — the ones consisting of massive 10-pound headphones with a giant black foam ball covering the lower half of the face. Although to be fair, this lack is partially accounted for by the fact that we hadn’t developed the capacity to build a small mic that didn’t cover half of the pastor’s face… or weigh ten pounds. And for that matter, wireless was only just starting to happen in those days, and the sheer notion of freely wandering around the platform, hands unencumbered by a wired dynamic microphone, hadn’t started creeping into the dreams of preachers and developers — yet.

‡‡         Sometimes, a Great Notion…

However, our young sound volunteers would be partially justified in their incredulous surprise that such a great idea hadn’t spawned at the time. After all, headset mics really are a great idea, for a number of reasons. It is a bit of a surprise we didn’t aggressively pursue them sooner. So let’s take a look at the things that make them great, and discuss how to go about choosing the right headset microphone for your application.

Audio engineers want the users of microphones to keep the mic capsule a consistent distance from their mouths — but if a handheld mic has been deployed, the likelihood of this is virtually zero. Yes, yes — the pastor has the best of intentions when instructed to keep the mic 2-3 inches from his or her face and perhaps a bit off-axis. However, as the words begin to flow easily and the Holy Spirit provides encouragement, the pastor starts focusing on the message and forgets all those important instructions provided by the tech folks. And the mic ends up out in space (18 inches from the mouth) or down at belt buckle level. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all had to try to ride gain in a desperate attempt to keep the pastor’s voice flowing through the P.A. while avoiding feedback. Headset mics pretty much resolve this problem. If the headset is worn and adjusted properly, the mic capsule is precisely in that sweet spot near the speaker’s mouth, and it stays there consistently. Handhelds can’t do this. Even lavalier mics can’t do it as well. Headset mics put the capsule close to the mouth, and they keep that distance constant.

So once we’ve talked reason with our pastors and helped them see the greatness of the headset mic, we need to make a good choice and deploy it properly. And if we don’t, the audio quality could suffer, or the pastor could have a negative experience with the mic, and as a result of either scenario, may seek to return to the dreaded handheld mic. Among other things, the mic needs to be lightweight. Nobody wants to deliver a 30-minute message with a heavy contraption wrapped around their head. Of course, the industry has managed to develop headsets that can honestly be described as featherweight — at least in comparison with their sports broadcast counterparts of yesteryear. In fact, our headsets are so light now that after wearing them for a few minutes, they are largely forgotten — no longer perceived by the wearer.

‡‡         Appearance is Next to Godliness

Similar to the notion of weight is that of visual aesthetic. It’s easy to joke about ginormous broadcast headsets (some of which still exist for applications that don’t require light weight or an unobtrusive visual aesthetic), but just for a moment, imagine if we did send the pastor up on the platform with a humongous headset rivaling those worn by Howard Cosell in his prime. The laughs would be uproarious. We don’t want the congregation focused on the ridiculous headset — we want them focused on the message, and the person delivering it. To this end, we’ve developed headsets formed of thin metal wires that can be largely concealed in hair, and those unconcealable parts can be coated in colors that blend in with the skin, rendering them all but invisible. Of course, the microphone capsule itself can only be made so small and still be expected to deliver a high-quality signal, but at the current time, that small is pretty darn small — the size of a match head or thereabouts. And again, by leveraging some color the right way, the thing can still be made virtually invisible to all but those in the front row pews.

‡‡         Comfort Ye My Pastor

If we hope to gently guide our pastor toward the magical solution of headset microphones, comfort is going to be a high priority. Of course, we’ve shaved several pounds off the weight of the headset over the years, and we’ve made it wispy-thin by leveraging thin metal by way of the mic’s main structure. But not all metal-wire headsets are made the same. Some are more comfortable than others. In some cases, the wire is in the form of a de facto spring, which squeezes the head of the wearer, helping to keep the mic in place. Sometimes the springs are just not comfortable. The metal can also chafe the face and neck of the wearer — not good. By trying several models, usually a pastor can arrive at a design that doesn’t pinch or squeeze or rub or chafe… usually with a good bit of soft rubber involved to serve as a cushion.

Another important factor is ensuring that once the headset is in place, it remains there. One of our principal benefits is getting the mic close to the mouth and keeping it a consistent distance therefrom. I had a pastor years ago who would start out the message just fine — mic nice and close to the corner of his mouth. But he was animated — and he moved around and gesticulated. On one particular Sunday, the mic had literally pivoted completely away — flopping around 12 inches or more away from his mouth. He finally reacted to the congregation trying to point out the stray mic. Proper deployment is as important as proper design if we’re to keep the mic where we want it.

‡‡         Choices, Choices

One last (and major) consideration is whether we’ll deploy a headset mic with a cardioid or omnidirectional pattern. The benefit of a cardioid is its directionality, which rejects background noise and also feedback. The drawback of a cardioid is that it must be “aimed” properly. If the direction of the pattern moves in relation to the mouth, the timbre can change noticeably. Cardioids are also highly susceptible to proximity effect. The benefit of an omnidirectional mic is that it captures the entire frequency spectrum more evenly than a cardioid. The spherical pickup pattern makes it very forgiving in terms of placement. As long as it’s somewhere close to the corner of the speaker’s mouth, you’re in pretty good shape (although you may need to boost the intelligibility frequencies a bit). A drawback of an omni mic is its lack of directionality. It does not reject background noise (or feedback) as effectively as a cardioid. Chances are that you may be prohibited from using an omni mic unless the mic is located a substantial distance from the nearest loudspeaker presenting the output of said microphone. In smaller sanctuaries, this just may not be possible.

As we see, there are a number of considerations to be made when choosing a headset microphone — be sure to take note of them all, make a good choice and make some heavenly sounds.

John McJunkin is the chief engineer and staff producer in the studio at Grand Canyon University.


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