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Understanding Mic Technique

John McJunkin • June 2020Sound Sanctuary • June 8, 2020

Fig. 1: Note how hand grip positioning changes frequency response of this DPA 2028 live performance microphone.

Saxophonists understand their saxes and know how to use them. Guitarists understand their axes and know how to use them. The point is, musicians are forced to know their tools and understand how to use them. I’ve encountered a lot of vocalists who don’t know their tool (the microphone) or how to properly use it. And some of these untrained folks are really good singers — some who studied voice, and others with astonishing God-given talents, but many just never learned the proper use of microphones. I suppose that’s one of the dangers associated with having a standalone instrument (the human voice) that sometimes needs no technology at all.

Audio engineers know a lot about sound and technology. Musicians and vocalists may or may not know about these things. In the audio-for-house-of-worship domain, the likelihood that untrained, non-professional volunteers serve as musicians — and vocalists — is higher than in the secular world. And the likelihood a volunteer vocalist has a handle on acoustical physics is pretty slim, so we need to teach them a thing or two.

Mics are technical things, and teaching creative people about technical things poses challenges. Among these is figuring how much of the underlying science to share with them. In one group of folks, their eyes immediately glaze over on the first mention of anything technical, while another group wants to understand the tech in some depth. Here, it’s best to read your audience and adjust your presentation to align with their personality. That said, a very basic discussion of how mics work will help all vocalists. The phrase “very basic” is key here — there’s no need to get into all the various mic topologies — particularly as 99 percent of the time our vocalists are using handheld dynamics (or condenser mics designed to behave like them), so no need to discuss large diaphragms, ribbons, figure-8s or Blumlein configurations. Tell them that their voice moves through the air and causes the vibration of a coil of copper wire in proximity to a magnet, and electrical current — roughly in the same shape of the wave created by their vocal cords — is created by this vibration. We amplify that current and send it to the speakers so everyone can hear their dulcet tones.

‡‡         Fundamentals

More important than the science of microphones is the practical use of the mic. We need our vocalists to understand a few fundamentals. The distance between the mic and their mouth is important. Too close, and we have plosives, harsh sibilance and extreme proximity effect. Too far, and we have insufficient signal. The mouth-to-mic distance also affects tone. I like to let a vocalist play with a mic a bit — learning how tone changes as the mic moves closer and farther — and learning where it sounds best with their voice, as well as using distance to accomplish specific goals.

The angle of the mic’s orientation relative to the mouth is important. Most dynamic handhelds are designed to used straight-on, but moving the mic a little off-axis can reduce sibilance, warm up the tone and cut down on plosives. On the topic of plosives — vocalists should understand that P’s, B’s and even T’s and D’s create a small burst of air that can cause the mic to send a strong transient along to our vulnerable woofers. Have them hold their hand right in front of their mouth and strongly pronounce the following words: “pop, bop, tot, did.” Being able to feel this burst of air helps them to understand why turning the mic just a bit off-axis — particularly when singing plosive-laden words — will help reduce that low-frequency punch to the woofers.

A related notion is proximity effect. Most vocalists know (if only subconsciously) that bringing the mic closer to their mouths increases the bass response, especially if the mic is a bit off-axis. Stand-up comedians, radio deejays and beat-boxers have been leveraging this technique for decades to coax a little more low end from their voices. At the very least, if vocalists are made aware of peculiar mic function, they can leverage or avoid it, depending upon what’s called for at any given moment.

Understand how to hold a handheld mic is important. Vocalists should learn that the mic should be held by the middle of the shaft, with a bit of space between the hand and the windscreen (See Fig. 1). As the hand gets closer to the windscreen, high frequencies start to roll-off. A hand wrapped around the windscreen yields a large bump in the mids and high mids. Rappers often leverage these techniques to adjust their tone, but for most worship vocals, a natural grip behind the windscreen is what’s appropriate.

Vocalists should understand that we will need them to actually perform during the soundcheck. As we all know, vocalists and musicians alike tend to deliver 10 to 20 percent less SPL during soundcheck than at showtime. Vocalists should be experimenting and getting a feel for the way the mic conveys their vocal during soundcheck so they’ll have a better handle on it during the service.

And make sure vocalists avoid pointing their mics toward monitor speakers (or even FOH speakers in smaller churches). And it may look cool and Pat Benatar-esque to rest the mic on your shoulder for a moment, but then it’s presenting additional SPLs from the drum kit or the Marshall stack. A live performance is (and should be) dramatic and artful… but not at the expense of audio quality. I’ve heard television directors and producers tell vocalists to hold the mic vertically below their chin “because the camera wants to see your lovely face.” Great for the visual, but very harmful to the sound. It’s not about human appearance — it’s about humble worship of the Lord — and the music is how we do that.

Most vocalists are excited to discover that using the mic the right way makes them sound better. Pulling it away from their mouths during breaths (and/or burps) adds polish to the performance, for instance. And moving the mic closer and further can exaggerate dynamics in a musically pleasant way as well. If singers understand how proper technique will improve their performance, they will take some time and learn. Give it a try!

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

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