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Microphone Selection: A Tech Director’s Choice

There’s no shortage of options when it comes to selecting the right microphones for a live worship service or event. All these choices can seem overwhelming, but it’s helpful to know that there are professionals in the field of sound reinforcement who have gone on ahead of us and established some “tried and true” standards that hold fast today. Often times, selecting the right microphone can be the result of finding the right balance of those proven industry standards and our own personal preferences. This article is a breakdown of my own preferences and as such is a guideline- everyone has their own preferences and opinions when it comes to which mics sound better for various purposes.

For starters, it’s a good idea to point out that most microphones are designed and manufactured with a specific purpose in mind. Some microphones are intended for use in a studio environment, while others are built to endure the rigors of live events and concert tours. Some are engineered to capture the human voice or built for particular instruments. Understanding that there are specific mics for specific tasks helps us to select the best microphone to meet our particular needs.

Let’s take a closer look at microphones for a typical live setting, such as a worship service in a church, where we have a band consisting of a lead singer, two or three backup singers, a piano, guitar, bass, drums, choir, and a preacher.

The Lead Vocalist
A quality vocal microphone is essential for any live performance. No matter how good the musicians sound, if the voice of the lead singer does not come through clearly, the listeners are likely to have a difficult time enjoying and participating in the song. These days it’s pretty much a given that the lead vocalist’s microphone will be wireless (unless your name is Bob Barker.) This allows the lead singer to move freely on the stage and not be concerned about becoming entangled with a long cable.

Quality vocal microphones are designed with a cardioid response pattern and consideration given to proximity effect. There are industry standards for lead singer’s microphones, and leading the way are the Shure Beta SM87 and the Sennheiser SKM series with the Neumann KK105 S capsule. Both these mics feature cardioid response patterns and robust wireless capabilities. My experience has been with the SM87, and I find it to be clear and accurate, while adding just the right amount of warmth to both male and female voices.

Backup Singers
The backup singers’ microphones are often similar, if not identical to the lead vocalist’s mic. This is helpful in a case where one of the backup singers takes an occasional lead vocal part. A backup singer’s microphone may be wireless, but doesn’t always have to be, especially when the mic is set on a stand and stationary. A cardioid response pattern is usually recommended for individual backup singers, and because most backup singers move their mics on and off of a stand, handling noise becomes an important factor as well. Another helpful option for backup singers is an on/off switch.

For a good reliable solid vocal mic, many use the Shure SM58, which comes in both wireless and corded varieties. I’ve been using both the SM58 and the Beta version for years, and they have always performed quite well. This microphone is also built to withstand the occasional drop, ding, or dent. I’ve even done a live mix for a band whose singer was prone to swing around his SM58 by its XLR cable! The mic held up well …with the help of some strong duct tape.

It’s also worth mentioning that backup singers may be grouped together around a single microphone. In this case the mic should have an omni-directional pattern and be placed on a stand. A commonly used microphone for this is the AKG C535EB. It’s a great live condenser mic with an accurate sound from different distances.

Obviously we’re talking about acoustic pianos here, not the electronic variety or synths. For a grand piano, a condenser microphone can be pointed into the open lid, or a PZM can be placed inside. For upright pianos, a good instrument mic can be positioned above the bass or treble strings, with different sounds resulting from the microphone’s distance from the strings and hammers. You may prefer a more natural sound, or more emphasis on bass or attack.

Guitars and Bass Guitars
When a band uses acoustic guitars or electric guitars with amplifiers, microphones are often required. Proper microphone placement for guitars could be an entire article by itself, but generally you’re either going to use a single microphone pointed directly at the instrument or amp, or for stereo, you may use two microphones in an “X Y” configuration.

For guitar amps, it is advisable to use a microphone with a high SPL (sound pressure level) due to the loud volumes. The Shure SM57 is a great mic for this. An acoustic guitar often requires a responsive condenser mic for a warmer, more articulate sound. A narrow response pattern may be helpful as well, especially when the guitar player is also a singer, as you don’t want their voice to “bleed” into the guitar mic.

For bass guitar amps, it’s best to select a microphone designed to enhance the frequencies at the low end of the spectrum. Most microphones designed for use on a kick drum can be used on a bass amp. The Sennheiser 421 also works well on bass amps because of its high SPL and exceptional frequency response.

Drum microphones are perhaps the best example of the importance of selecting mics that are designed for a specific task. Good drum mics are built specifically with drums in mind, with frequency response patterns that capture the specific tones of the snare, toms, and kick drums. Drum mics are also designed to withstand loud volumes, and are usually smaller than other mics so that they don’t get in the way of the drummer.

Each drum should have it’s own microphone, and condenser mics can be used overhead for the cymbals. The high hats should have their own microphone as well, and a condenser usually works best. Special clamps can be used to mount the microphones on the rims of the drums, eliminating the need for stands. For the snare drum, one technique is to use two microphones, positioned above and below the drum. Drum microphones can also be purchased in sonically matched sets, which helps make microphone selection easier.

For, choirs and large ensembles, it’s best to use several microphones to capture all the voices and allow each vocal part to be heard. In most cases two or three mics will suffice, however you may need more depending on the size of the choir. A good choice for choir mics is a condenser with a cardiod or omni response pattern. The microphones should be positioned above the choir, pointing down toward the singers. This can be achieved by placing the mics on tall stands or by suspending them from the ceiling.

Choir microphones are one of those rare instances when you may find the same mic used in both the studio and a live setting. Sometimes a large diaphragm condenser, such as the AKG 414 is used for choirs. I have used the Neumann KM 184 and the Beyerdynamic MC930 for live choirs and found them to be very responsive and produce an excellent sound.

The Preacher
The preacher’s microphone will usually be a handheld mic, a lapel mic, or a headset mic. In each case, the microphone should be wireless. If a handheld mic is preferred, the same principles apply here as with the lead singer, a good vocal mic with a cardioid response pattern. In the case of a lapel mic, I have found that the higher-end models produce far superior results and are well worth the higher price tag. A quality lapel mic will not only feature a good sound and strong wireless signal, but will also feature solid feedback reduction, which is very important but often overlooked. Headset mics have become more popular in recent years, and an advantage they have over lapel mics is that they are always in the correct position, even when the speaker turns their head. Today’s headset mics are often very small, and can be colour-coordinated to match a person’s skin tone, making them almost invisible from a distance. Despite their small size, these mics can still produce a very impressive sound.

When it comes to selecting the right microphones for your live setting, the final decision rests with you based on your individual needs. There’s no “cookie-cutter” solution that works in every setting. There are many variables to consider in a live setting, such as the size of the stage or venue, the number of inputs on your console, room acoustics, portability and so on. Take time to experiment and try different microphones before making a final decision. You’ll discover that microphone selection can often be as much an artistic expression as the music itself.

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