Showcase Music Magazine - Vocal Coach
March 1997

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By Karyn Sarring

I will be covering some basic points you should know about microphones, to help in purchasing the right one for live performances. I will not be endorsing any brand names here.

Before I get into some general aspects, I must emphasize the importance of first having your voice acoustically trained with a vocal coach. You do not want to depend on mic technique of effects to provide the resonance, color, and nuances of your voice that should come naturally. Having this in place will only give greater dimension to your performance. The microphone should be used for amplifying your voice over the band and add effects to “enhance” what you already have. You should not vocalize with a mic.

Areas to educate yourself concerning microphones for vocal performance are:

1) What kind of microphone should I buy?

2) What are sensitivity, polar patterns, impedance and frequency response in microphones?

3) What peripheral equipment is appropriate or necessary for the kind of microphone I will be using?

These areas will cover what you need to know when you AUDITION a microphone. Yeah, you heard me... when you go to the store, plan on singing! Take a band mate or your sound person with you, someone who knows the kind of music you sing and knows your voice really well. (How to audition a microphone and mic technique will be covered in a future article.)

There are generally three kinds of microphones: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon. Ribbon mics are usually used in a recording studio and won’t be discussed here. The other two types are used for performing. There is a part in the microphone either electrically or automatically responsive to sound waves, mixing it within its magnetic field. Condenser microphones don’t have a coil. The diaphragm is electrically charged and, thus, responds to sound waves, but the movement “condenses” or “expands” the space. Both mics convert the sound waves into electrical energy which, in turn, is amplified and goes through speakers, converting it back into sound.

Sensitivity is based on how the microphone responds to sound waves. Generally, condenser mics are more sensitive but a little less durable than dynamic mics. Condenser mics need an electrical current to produce a signal, dynamic mics don’t. The louder your voice and the kind of music you sing (ie, hard rock) the less sensitivity you need in a microphone. The more dynamics your voice or music have, the more sensitivity you need from a microphone.

What are polar patterns? These are the mic’s sensitivity to sound coming from different angles. There are four patterns described by directional types: unidirectional, omnidirectional, bidirectional and shotgun. Each of these types respond to the voice in its relationship angles to the microphone. (Zero in front, 90 side, 180 back end.) They also respond to the distance of the sound source from the microphone. Omnidirectional, bidirectional and shotgun are generally not used for vocal performance on stage and won’t be discussed here. You will likely use a unidirectional mic for vocal performance.

There are two types of unidirectional microphones: cardioid and hyper cardioid (or supercardioid). These specific types represent how sensitive the microphone is as you move off of zero (in front of the mic) and travel your voice around the mic all the way to 180 (the rear of the mic). A cardioid mic is about half as responsive at the side of the mic 90 than right at the front 0 and has practically no response at the rear 180. A hyper cardioid has even more of a “drop in response” as you move around the mic from the front 0 position. The latter mic has greater rejection of background noise, which helps reduce feedback, than the cardioid.

Frequency response is another acoustic element you should be familiar with when purchasing a mic. Frequency response is the range of “pitches” that the mic responds to and how it responds. It is given in a range of Hz (hertz) and kHz (kilohertz). When reviewing the frequency response range of a particular microphone, you should ask about the proximity effect, vocal bumps, bass roll-offs, etc. These are not terms that represent the frequency response not responding correctly. Impedance is important because it is the relationship of the frequency to the current flow of the audio signal. All you need to know is that there is high and low impedance. This deals with buzzing, humming, effects, mix, etc. Generally, you will be using a low impedance microphone. I don’t want to get too technical here. The purpose is for you to take these “terms and vocabulary” with you when you talk to the sales rep when auditioning and purchasing your microphone.

The last area to touch on is the equipment you should be familiar with concerning the sound system. You need to know that your microphone fits with the sound system effectively so you get the best vocal sound with reduction of vocal stress on your voice (getting the most natural tonal balance) and get rid of “bad sound” (feedback, etc). Check out what noise gate, equalizer, splinter, enhancer, mixer, monitors and amplifiers are in relationship to your mic and how it fits in with the rest of the band members’ sound.

Give me a call if you are interested in vocal coaching or career consulting: (773) 769-6480. Till next issue.. Keep singing!

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