by Adam Dolge
Microphones may be as important to a live performance as the instruments the musicians play. Prices for high performing microphones have drastically dropped and more and more bands are opting to purchase their own set to take to gigs.
Many venues your band plays comes equipped with a full sound system—soundboard, speakers, monitors, microphones, and all the necessary cords. Playing a new club nearly always means some sound challenges. Maybe the vocal microphone is low quality and is prone to feedback from the monitors, or maybe the venue doesn’t believe in miking an amp. Even worse, maybe that mike your lead singer is using was embraced last night by a slobbering sickly vocalist.
If your band plays out frequently, perhaps it should invest in its own microphones. All the various clubs, bars, and halls you play will have different quality mikes, and therefore, you never know what you’ll get.
“Live work is all about making the stage sound good,” explains Professor Alex Perialas, of the Sound Recording Technologies Program at Ithaca College’s School of Music, in Ithaca, New York. “One benefit of having your own microphones is that, if you do any recording at home, then you have mikes you can use. For consistency, it’s a good idea to have your own microphones.”
Before you go out and buy a new set of microphones, it’s important to know what mikes your band needs. Once you own a set, knowing how to get the best sound out of them may feel like a daunting task, but there are some simple rules to follow that will have your band sounding better than ever.
In a live setting, a band’s biggest obstacle when it comes to sound are the monitors. It’s easy for the monitors to feedback in microphones, creating obnoxious sounds. Perials explains that it’s important for mikes to have good rear rejection of sound and roll-off typically below 100 hertz. This can be attained using a cardioid microphone, which picks up sound more like a cone, as opposed to an omnidirectional microphone, which picks up sound nearly all around the mike.
Perialas says it’s important to understand the purpose of the microphones you plan to purchase. Most mikes are designed for different uses, although there are plenty of general mikes that serve multiple instruments.
“In the studio, we strive to shift mikes in small movements to change the tonality,” he says. “The same goes for live music. When I do live sound, I really work, making sure the mikes are in good places on the stage. Even at a venue without a lot of good equipment you can still sound good. Know your equipment and know where the sweet spot on your gear is.”
How to Set up Your Mics
Vocal: First and foremost, good vocal mikes are key to solid sound. Nearly all the major manufacturers make inexpensive high performing vocal microphones. Durability is important to vocal mikes since they are likely to get the most use. Most singers will benefit from a cardioid microphone, which will reject feedback and reduce ambient noise. You’ll most likely want to purchase dynamic mikes, as they are more rugged and can handle a greater SPL (Sound Pressure Level), but some vocalists prefer higher quality condenser mikes. It’s also a good idea to purchase the same mikes if you have multiple singers, as the sound guy will have an easier time setting up the soundboard. Choices include Shure SM 58 Vocal Microphone, Earthworks SR69, and the Samson C03 Vocal Condenser microphone.
Piano: A good condenser mike is perfect for pianos, explains Larry Blakely, director of product development for Earthworks. Since condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamic mikes, they typically pick up more minute details. “The two enemies of miking a piano are gain before feedback, and leakage of other instruments,” he explains. “The secret is getting the mike as close to the piano as you can.” He suggests using two omnidirectional mikes, placing them apart, about a third of the way from each end of the piano, about two inches from the dampers and two to three inches above the strings. A good piano mike will have fast impulse response (how long it takes the diaphragm of a mike to respond to a fast attack), short diaphram settling time (how long it takes the diaphram to return to ready position), and near perfect polar response (equal sound pickup from all angles of the mike).
Brass and Woodwind: Mark Wilder, director of marketing for Samson, suggests using wireless condenser microphones if possible. These microphones clip to the bell of the horn and allow brass and woodwind players to move around the stage freely. Since the microphones are held in one place, sound is consistent. He recommends using a good cardioid wireless mike system, like Samson’s HM40.
Percussion: Miking a drum kit can be a little more challenging than miking other instruments since there are so many different components. Perialas, who is not only a professor but also runs Pyramid Sound Studio in Ithaca, says many microphone manufacturers make sets of drum mikes, specifically designed for different purposes. For instance, the Shure Beta 52A is designed for kick drums. When shopping for a kick drum microphone, try to find one that is a high output dynamic mike, supercardioid, and has excellent rejection of unwanted sound through high gain-before-feedback. Perialas suggests a pair of quality condenser mikes with high frequency response for cymbals, like Audio Technica 4041. For toms and snare drums, look for small condenser mikes that have clips to easily attach them to the rims of drums. Samson, Shure, and other manufacturers make sets of drum mikes, which typically come with three, five, seven, or eight mikes.
Amp: A tight, supercardioid mike is ideal for miking amplifiers. The key to miking amps is knowing where to put the microphone, Perialas explains. He recommends using a flashlight to shine light through the grill cloth to see where the speakers are located as they might not be where you think they are. If the amp is on the floor, you’ll likely get more of the lower or bottom end sound, the closer you place the mike to the center the speaker, the brighter the sound.
To save money and effort, when considering what microphones you need, try to find some overlaps in use. For instance, you could purchase several of the same microphones to perform different tasks—miking an amp, snare drum, or vocals.