Overhead “Hanging” Microphones: Aesthetic Asset or Liability?
Today most operatic or symphonic performances are enjoyed at venues constrained in shape and size by the need and understanding that the room plays a critical role in the acoustic balance and enjoyment of the performance. These venues often have a few expensive small (1/2″) and large (1″) diaphragm condenser microphones strategically installed or placed for ambience pickup serving broadcast or recording applications but never artificial reinforcement. On the other end of the spectrum contemporary music venues will amplify electric or close-miked instruments and vocalists will usually use close proximity handheld microphones through an all but invisible sound system. In fact the visual technology or “gear” aspect, if you will, may even enhance the performance experience.
But the needs of the modern worship community have often been out of step with these two paradigms. The decision making body for the contemporary worship space often wants the control and perfection of a modern sound system while visual aesthetics remain the first criterion of design. Stepping outside the realm of the simple liturgical country chapel the enclosed amphitheater (or clamshell) model has served the prolific worship spaces of the United States as the best audible and visual solution for much of the 20th century. Without the aid of even a limited sound system, however, this model has had limitations of what speakers, musical instruments or performers can project in balance with one another. Now, in the last few decades, due to sheer size requirements even this model mandates enhancement by visual projection and sophisticated fidelity sound systems. But again, structural aesthetics followed by projection and lighting systems are often prioritized. Even in multi-thousand seat sanctuaries, loudspeaker clusters and arrays are buried in prosceniums and walls while the sound engineer’s mix positions are stuffed in out-of-the-way places with the poorest reference point to overall venue fidelity. Thus, the age-old struggle between the needs of sight and sound continues. We still can’t completely hide all the microphones.
However, the movement towards a more progressive worship space is now in full swing. Even traditional congregations are taking advantage of the plummeting cost of audio and video equipment in the spirit of providing a more contemporary presentation. Wearable miniature microphones attached to wireless sets have been a big advantage in aiding liturgical mobility, but these mics are seldom of a musical performance grade. Large format mixing consoles are now so affordable that some choir miking solutions include the assignment of many handheld mics to individuals or pairs of vocalists. This produces the audible affect of a group of fluctuating background singers that the sound engineer can never balance, due to the ever-changing proximity each singer has to their assigned microphone. Seldom realized is the psychological phenomenon vocalists may experience by trying to sing as individuals holding or standing before a single mic rather than as members of the body of a human choir. As one affordable “discrete” solution, many microphone manufacturers now produce low cost hanging mini format condenser mics integrated into the ends of very thin, so called, “twist-resistant” wire. These mics can be more susceptible to EM (electro magnetic) or RF (radio) noise and seldom provide excellent directional properties or premium reproduction simply due to their size. Since the 90’s it has become commonplace to find these long thin black or white wires dangling from just above the heads of choirs. Are these little microphones really such an asset nowadays?
These newer mics may seem like an affordable elegant solution, but what is the real cost per mic when an installer must suspend them from high cathedral ceilings or prosceniums? If these areas are not easily accessible, the audio installer may require a “cherry-picker” or worse, an assembly of scaffolds to install them. These microphone lines may now require an enormous amount of cable to run before they wind their way across the ceiling and through walls and/or floors to the mixer. And what is the aesthetic benefit after all?
A paradigm shift recently emerging is the realization that hanging a mic 30′ from a ceiling only to get it 3′ or so feet above a choir can be a liability to the designed appearance of the sanctuary. True, they minimize stage clutter and increase line of sight with the faces in the choir, but permanently hanging a set of mics presupposes that the choir must always be the same size and in the same location, which is not always the case nowadays.
Mics, mixing consoles, amps and speaker systems now provide good fidelity at a fraction of their earlier costs, yet it still seems that the audio system loses the battle to projection and lighting systems for ideal placement. Quality display media and projection systems have similarly plummeted in costs. Once considered an expensive premium available only to the largest congregations many more sanctuaries can now be outfitted with a pair of quality projectors and screens. That pesky hanging mic may have been something to live with in the past but if a projection beam and hanging choir mic are competing for the same air space, the mic will lose.
Of course each client has their own particular performance and aesthetic needs, but worship spaces demand versatility and discreetness. Modernizing the older sound and media display systems is a retrofit cycle that worship facilities can count on. Replacing tenured condenser mic models that may be on hand with, for example, mini-hanging mics can be a disservice to the system. Many of the older mics work better. Larger diaphragm condenser mics are typically much quieter and provide better-extended frequency range with more transparent reproduction. Best of all, they may already be paid for, and therefore it could serve the venue and budget to simply check and replace what was already there. Or, one may consider using some of the newer premium performance large (1″) and small (1/2″) diaphragm condenser mics now available for a fraction of their predecessor’s cost with more features and flexibility.
To best reproduce the acoustic signature of a choir as a single instrument of human voices, we have to live with the fact that some number of mics will always have to be visible, whether stand mounted or hanging. Why not maintain the visual integrity of your sanctuary by placing the best mics money has to offer on stands, and leave the hanging variety for the courtroom jury box or corporate video conference system? Tasteful, symmetric or precision placement of quality mics on discrete low profile stands may be a trade off to those in the performance space, but they may be moved to suit the service needs of that day and those in the sanctuary won’t have their attention drawn to spools of wire hanging like yards of fly paper over or in front of the most important visual focus of your worship space.