Singer's Tools of the Trade: Microphones

If you’re a working singer, a student, or a hobbyist and you’re jamming with other musicians, playing gigs, or aspiring to do so, there’s one key piece of equipment you really need to acquire and learn how to use. 

As a CCM (contemporary commercial music) singer, you’re most likely going to be performing with amplified musicians or an amplified backing track and will, therefore, need to be amplified yourself. Some gigs and venues will have a house system and a live sound engineer that will take care of the front of house, fold back gear and mixing. Regardless, I highly recommend that you ALWAYS bring your own microphone. You may choose to use one provided, especially if it’s a different, better, sexier mic to yours (perfect opportunity to try something else out and earmark it as your next purchase or ‘avoid at all costs’ for future reference) or because it’s too-hard-basket to swap it out. I used to be super-fussy about using my own mic for hygiene reasons, but for some reason, I’ve mellowed out on that one slightly, and I’m currently only performing half-a-dozen or so gigs during a year that comes with full-on PA supplied. For the most part, I’m supplying, setting up and running the PA myself, however, when PA is supplied, I still come prepared with my own microphone and use it if I can or if I feel it’s necessary. 

If you’re like me, and you or your band are supplying the gear, then you’ll definitely need your own microphone. And you should actually be singing with a mic and some kind of monitoring (fold back speakers or in-ear monitors) during rehearsal as well. This is good practice, not only to preserve your voice but also, this gives you an opportunity to hone your microphone technique and perhaps to learn more about live sound mixing. It's really crucial that you’re able to hear yourself, without needing to push or drive the voice over the rest of the instrumentation, both in rehearsal and in performance. If you can’t hear yourself over the rest of the crew, then I suggest you find a polite way to let them know that everyone’s volume needs to come down, rather than turning yourself up. I love performing and rehearsing with the lowest stage volume possible. What’s true for vocalists is also true for other instruments. As soon as you start having to really dig in and over play to hear yourself, you start to sacrifice on subtlety, agility, and finesse. I’ve had many conversations with my guitarist mates about this shared issue. So, take responsibility on your end, and make sure you’re kitted out with the equivalent necessary equipment to your instrumental peers! 

Mics are the place to start. Here are a few things to consider: 

Dynamic or Condenser - 

Dynamic microphones work by electromagnetic induction. There is a diaphragm inside the microphone which has an induction coil attached, positioned within the magnetic field of a magnet. When you sing into the microphone, your voice (sound waves) causes vibration in the diaphragm which then causes the coil to move within the magnetic field, creates a varying current, transducing the sound into an electrical signal which can be amplified by your mixing console. 

Condenser microphones house a capacitor inside the mic, which has a fixed back plate and a thinner flexible front plate that vibrates when you sing into the mic. The vibrations caused by your voice (sound wave) cause the plates to get closer together, causing a change in capacitance (the ability of a component or circuit to collect and store energy in the form of an electrical charge), which is converted into electrical signals which are then amplified by your mixing console. 

Dynamic mics tend to be less expensive than condenser mics, more durable and rugged, less sensitive and better able to minimise feedback and pick up ambient or distant sounds. 

Condenser mics are highly sensitive, have a good response at high frequencies, and usually result in a high fidelity output. They’re typically more expensive than dynamic microphones and can be slightly fragile. They also require phantom power (a constant +48 volts) supplied by your mixing console or a battery inside the microphone. 

I own both a dynamic (Shure Beta 58a), and a condenser (Neumann KMS 105) microphone, and switch between the two depending on the gig, the band, the room we’re playing and a number of other factors. 

Frequency Response - 

Ideally, you want a microphone that has a flat response to the entire range of frequencies to which it responds. The Neumann KMS 105 stage condenser most definitely fits the bill here. It’s almost completely flat from about 200 Hz to 6k. I absolutely love this sexy, sexy beast…. 

The Shure Beta 58 A has a rising response from 2k to 10k which adds brightness and intelligibility to the voice. It also has a beautiful bass frequency response which boosts warmth and adds fullness to the voice when held close to the mouth (proximity effect). 

If you have a high pitched voice like me, you have to be careful using a mic which emphasises the highs. This can make you sound a little harsh, so appropriate EQ’ing is required. However, that boost in upper frequencies will also help your voice cut through the band, so you really have to balance mic technique and vocal technique as well. 

Applications - 

What are you going to use your mic for? Are you thinking about doing some home recording or possibly mic’ing an instrument or an amp? The two mic’s I’ve mentioned here are primarily designed for live vocal performance but can have other applications. A condenser mic can double as a live broadcast and recording mic and is also useful for mic’ing acoustic guitar. Dynamic microphones can be good for mic’ing amps for both recording and live performance. When investing in your microphone, consider all applications to ensure you get most bang for buck. 

Just a final thought, buy the best microphone you can afford. If you’re on a budget, an excellent, reliable choice is the Shure SM58. You can usually pick one of these bad boys up for around $165 (AUS), and they will seriously be worth every cent. There are obviously cheaper options around, but you’ll almost certainly sacrifice on quality and frequency response, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll be regretting that cheap-ass mic purchase, especially when you end up having to spend more money buying a better replacement mic. If you need to justify parting with around $200-$300 on a piece of gear that will likely last you over ten years, take a knee and reflect on the guitarist in your band that has to replace strings and buys plectrums on a regular basis… get yourself a decent mic, look after it, learn how to use it, and you won’t look back!

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