Sunday, August 16, 2015

Microphones Are Not Your Friend

Lately, I’ve been experiencing the sad fact that too many hobby musicians seem to think that microphones are some sort of corrective device; like Auto-Tune©, but smarter. A local bookstore hosts an open mic event every 2nd Thursday of the month and there is a surprising amount of talent, young and old, in Red Wing. A few days later, I was listening to some experienced musicians at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls and saw that deluded faith in microphones again. All of the characteristics and qualities microphone designers know about microphones seem to have failed to filter down to musicians, poets, and nearly anyone who touches a microphone with sound reinforcement in mind.

The open mic experience probably bothers me more because it’s obvious that the people on that stage are simply imitating the stupid crap they see on television or stage from so-called “professionals” who are most likely simply lip-synching a fake performance. Sound reinforcement is close to perfectly unnecessary when your audience is fewer than two dozen people. Musicians survived and thrived for hundreds of years without the help of low fidelity electronics and electro-mechanical devices. Audiences were more polite, more engaged, and more informed about the music, the musicians, and the sound of instruments and voices before electronics distorted and deformed live music. There is some hope, though. Occasionally, I see a musician using those incredible analysis devices called “ears” to make informed decisions about how to use (or not use) the microphones placed on the stage. Not often enough, but at least it happens. If it happens once during each evening, it might catch on and happen twice. Next thing you know, we have a revolution and music sounds . . . musical again.

cardioidHere’s the first thing to know about decent microphones: you will sound more natural, more musical, if you get the hell away from the damn things. Cardioid microphones (like the one in this picture) have the reasonably useful characteristic of being able to ignore some signals from the off-axis (backside) of the microphone where the stage monitor often is. This can, sometimes, provide a ik-iklip-4-largeslight improvement in gain-over-feedback. The nasty compromise this “polar pattern” brings to the party is that as you get closer to the mic the tonal characteristics become grossly weird. P’s, t’s, b’s, and other “plosive” signals are emphasized as are s’s, h’s, c’s, and other “sibilance” signals. You may think you are sounding intimate when you “eat” the microphone, but you are mostly sounding awful and irritating. The sound-doofus may try to “fix” the mess you and the microphone are making with EQ, but that will only add to the irritation. You’re still going to sound awful.

Bob-Dylan-Rare-High-Quality-Picture-04Try backing up a foot or two. Even better, back-up and drop the mic below your collarbone a few inches. Some of the power of your voice comes from your chest, stuffing the mic up your nose does what you might expect it to do; it makes your voice sound “nasal.” If you are a solo vocalist or a speaker, the same thing goes for you. Get the hell away from the mic at least a spread hand’s distance and drop the mic below your mouth at least six inches. If it was good enough for Bob Dylan, it’s more than good enough for you.

Don’t be surprised if this is harder to do that you expected, the first time. You’ve probably grown used to the oversized sound of your proximity-enhanced voice. It probably sounds “big” to you on stage, but if you wanted someone else’s voice you should have become a mimic. Any musician worth listening to is trying to be himself, not some hyped and distorted poor copy. Remember, we’re talking about a venue that is no larger than a decent living room. If you need a PA to entertain yourself in your living room, you’ve got problems I can’t help you with.

One of the things that always amazes me about singers is their lack of attention to the most important details in their live performance: the microphone and microphone technique. Guitarists bring their own instruments, including amplification, but vocalists just show up and depend on the kindness of usually-deaf sound-doofuses. If you are a singer with some talent and a voice, you should study microphones until you know enough to find one that reproduces your voice as you hear it in your head. Then, you bring that instrument with you everywhere you perform. If you are an acoustic instrument musician, the same applies to you. The microphones you are most likely to be stuck with in a live performance venue probably suck. The industry standard, the Shure SM-58, is insanely durable, but sounds somewhere between awful and mediocre. The same goes for a whole collection of 58-look-a-likes from practically every manufacturer. Unfortunately, quality isn’t cheap. Expect to spend $500-1,000 for an excellent vocal microphone.

ptse23One of the worst personality characteristics microphones appeal to is ego. Some musicians simply want to be loud. The thing they most want to be loud is their voice, so their accompanying instrument is either grossly distorted by godawful pickups or doesn’t exist at all. The picture at left of this paragraph is a good example of that defective thinking. If the microphone output were being recorded, the two acoustic guitars would be barely audible and pretty awful sounding. The off-axis frequency response of an SM-58 is generously described as “gross.” If this were, as it appears to be, a live performance, the two voices will often be distorted, poorly blended, and overpowering through the PA (this mic’ing technique would not qualify as sound reinforcement). These two musicians would be far better off without a PA, but they might never know it because they think the microphone is a crutch. It’s not, it’s a handicap unless you know what you are doing and 99% of musicians and 99.99….% of public speakers are totally clueless when it comes to the technical side of microphones.


Anonymous said...

The audience expects a sound system and you can't be heard in even a coffee club without a pa. People are so rude.

Thomas Day said...

That's just not true. The audience begins to ignore the "artist" the moment he/she plugs in and says [tap], [tap], "Is this thing on?" If they aren't listening when you are a low volume, low distortion, and sounding the very best you can, they won't listen when you boom at them. They'll just talk louder.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.