The Singer’s Live Sound Guide Part 1: Mic Choice & Preparation

by Pablo Bellinghausen

Live shows can be stressful for even experienced singers, not only because of the physical and mental intensity of a performance, but also because it’s so easy for the vocal sound to go horribly wrong – sadly a common occurrence even in large, well-known venues.

If you are a singer yourself, there are a few things to consider, and a few serious pitfalls to avoid, that will ensure the best and most consistent performance across venues. We’ve written the following guide so you can sound your best, both to the audience and to yourself.

Even if nothing goes actually wrong during a performance, it is undeniable that a better vocal sound is usually the best and easiest way to improve the overall experience for both the singer and the audience in most types of popular music, from jazz to heavy metal!


Checking the Venue

In order for a voice to sound good in a live environment, it is critical that the PA system and acoustics of the venue are good enough. If you have been booked at a certain place, or are looking to play there, it is very much recommended that you go have a listen to another band or musician to check what it sounds like. It needs to be a similar setup, of course; a PA and stage that can happily accommodate a singer-songwriter could easily be a feedback and distortion nightmare for a 5-piece rock band!

If the sound is good or even great, then that means that you can sound as good (and likely better), by following the advice in this article. However, if the sound is terrible, there is of course a problem somewhere. It can sometimes just be that the sound engineer is having a bad day, but unless you’re sure, it is a good idea not to book the gig.

If at all possible, go speak to the engineer and the musicians after the gig, as well as any other people you know have played the venue, and ask them what their impressions are of the place. They will often let you in on things that can help you decide whether it’s a good space in which to perform. The stage monitoring in particular can often be of poor quality (which an experienced singer can hide to the audience) but this can definitely harm your performance – do try to ask the singer in particular about his stage sound.

Don’t be swayed by how famous a venue is; often (and particularly in the UK, for some reason) venues will often rely on said fame to skimp out on the gear and its maintenance. In other cases, the venue will spend an absolute fortune in amazing equipment but pay no attention to the acoustics, and end up with an indistinct and echoey mess. Trust your own ears, and go for the safer option; a terrible gig is worse than no gig at all!

Should you Buy a Mic?

As a singer, the most obvious thing to bring at a gig (besides your lungs, of course) is a microphone. Any decent venue will provide one, but it will often be smelly, poor quality, or just ill-suited to you. Bringing in a good mic will provide an upgrade in sound, consistency in your performance, and allow you to “learn” the way it interacts with your own voice, becoming an extension of your own sound.

The law of diminishing returns definitely applies to microphones: above a certain price point, many (but not all!) of the differences will be in tone and features rather than perceived sound quality; the upside of it is that below a certain price point, enough corners will be cut that you will get better results using the venue’s mic.

The midpoint of the quality curve that most manufacturers aim for is usually a hundred dollars for a standard model (£80–90). The cheapest pro mics that are worth buying as a singer are priced at about £50-60, whereas premium models can go anywhere from £120 to about a grand.

How to Choose a Mic

Unlike studio microphones, which are used in a controlled environment, vocal handhelds are expected to be used in tough, noisy environments, and are subjected to variables that are arguably as important as their basic sound. A mic that makes your voice sound beautiful but will cause feedback as soon as you turn it up will be far worse than one that won’t.

 

Some of the information below will be a bit technical if you’re a singer instead of an engineer. But knowing the basics will allow you to to compare models even without the ability to try them out extensively in real venues. If you just want to skip the tech talk and go straight to our top recommendations, tune in next week.

 

The two important characteristics of a handheld mic are tone and directionality.

The tone of a mic is down to its frequency response, and can be classified in one of three ways: flattering, present, or neutral.

Flattering-sounding mics sound beautifully detailed and “larger than life” by themselves, usually with a rich lower midrange and in particular lots of treble detail. They are a great option for soft, naturalistic music like jazz, or vocal-centric genres like R&B, but the warmth and detail will usually get lost in loud, busy music, such as rock and metal.
Present-sounding mics boost key frequencies in the midrange, helping with projection of the vocal to help it get heard over electric guitars, which occupy the same frequency range. Different models will choose different parts of the midrange to emphasise, some of which will sound great on some singers but harsh on others.
Neutral-sounding mics try to reproduce the voice as faithfully and cleanly as possible, so that the sound engineer can change the tone if required. One would believe a neutral tonality is the most obvious type of mic, but it’s actually the least common – they’re actually the most difficult ones to design, will often sound a bit uninspiring compared to flattering models, and will lack a bit of “punch” compared to present ones. However, they will sound good off the bat pretty much everywhere, and a good engineer can make them sound amazing with little effort every time.

tonality-2

 

For more info on this particular topic, we suggest the following article:

Pro Audio Blog – Microphones: Frequency Response

 

The directionality of a microphone is related to how it picks up sound at different angles. Mics don’t have a “reach”, as is often misinterpreted, but rather they can either pick more or less sound from the back and sides compared to the front. The graph where you read that is called a polar pattern.

 

Vocal handhelds are always going to be one of three polar patterns:

• Cardioid (picks up quite a bit of sound from the sides but blocks sounds from the back)
• Supercardioid (picks up less from the sides but picks up a bit from the back)
• Hypercardioid (picks up little from the sides but quite a bit from the back)

Cardioid patterns are the easiest to design, and in isolation will tend to sound more natural on average. However, they will definitely pick up more noise from other instruments on stage. Super and hypercardioid designs will usually get less stage “bleed”, but angling a hypercardioid mic more than a few degrees away from the mouth will drastically lower the volume. This means that the singer needs to stay right in front of the mic at all times, which not everyone is able, or willing, to do.

It is important to note that used incorrectly, almost any mic can cause feedback (the screeching that happens when the sound of a speaker gets caught in the microphone and gets re-amplified), and that correct microphone technique will make more of a difference in many instances than the basic polar pattern. We’ll go over mic technique on part 2.

One thing that manufacturers often don’t tell you is that the polar patterns are often only measured, or specified, at one frequency – at other frequencies the mic can behave quite differently:

polar-patterns-shure

Here we can see the difference between the 50-year-old classic Shure SM58, and the latest high-end model from the same brand, the KSM8. We can see that at different frequencies, the polar pattern is a lot messier on the former, especially at the back; this renders the mic more prone to feedback in certain positions. In general, a tidier-looking polar pattern at several frequencies is a sign of a better-engineered mic.

If you want to find out more on this topic, we suggest the following article:

Pro Audio Blog – Microphones: Polar Patterns

Check this space next week for a list of recommended microphones, and then to part two, where we will be dealing with microphone technique, and fixing the most common mistakes most singers make. Until then, happy singing!