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Mics for Live Performance

Mics_for_live_performanceIs your trust in that small piece of metal well placed? Learn the basics of owning your own mic.

Beginning at the End
The house lights have dimmed.  You are on stage, a microphone in your hands. Your head is full of the images you are about to paint with your words. You begin to sing. You’re confident and the audience begins to connect with you. What is this piece of equipment in your hands? It is merely a means to an end—an effective and soulful performance.

Technical know-how and expensive equipment are not the main ingredients in a stirring performance. Yet, some vocalists have found that a part of their confidence on stage comes from the fact that they “own” their microphone.  Not only have they purchased one to avoid catching a cold from the house mic, but they’ve also tested it, know that it works well with their voice and understand basic mic technique.

Vocalists have 3 main questions about mics for live performance:

Is the SM 58 the end of the story?

What other mics are gigging vocalists raving about?

How does one start the search for a mic they can “own”?

Is the SM 58 the end of the story?
Most singers have nothing but good to say about the SM58 by Shure:  “I’ve had mine for 25 years!”, “Nothing makes my voice ‘punch’ better”, “I’ve dropped it more times than I’d like to think—and it keeps on going!”, “For the price and the quality—I wouldn’t think of using anything else.” So, is the singer’s search over?

Bill Gibson, recognized audio authority, explains, “There’s no doubt that when Shure produced the SM58 they got a lot of things right; it has an excellent response for most voices, it makes the vocals stand out well in front of a band and it gives a full sound when the singer makes use of proximity effect—i.e., singing close to the mic.”

So far, this sounds like a sponsored ad for Shure!  However, Gibson points out that the SM58 does have limits for some singers and there are alternatives that are better for some voices. In order to understand these limits and opportunities a little basic knowledge of the inner workings of a microphone is in order.

The SM58 is a dynamic microphone, a popular mic for live applications.  Think of the microphone as a little electric generator, turning your voice into an electrical signal. How does it do this?  Inside is a small, taut diaphragm that vibrates with the sound of your voice. These vibrations move a coil inside a magnet which, in turn, produces an electrical signal.  This electric signal is a very faint electric representation of your voice. When this signal is run though an amplification system—voila, your voice is reproduced.

This theory helps one to understand both the strengths and limitations of any dynamic mic:  they are simple, low cost, usually robust and do not require an electrical charge.  However, dynamic mics require that you sing close to the mic, just an inch or two away.  One has to lean more on the amplification system with this type of mic.  Cheaper knock-offs of the SM58 do exist, though one has to be careful to test these and to watch out for infamous “handling noise”, the annoying sounds that a mic makes when grabbed or bumped.

Other Mics for the Gigging Vocalist
There is no simple formula for finding the right mic for one’s voice.  This is because there are so many variables: the unique features and style of one’s voice, the acoustical characteristics of the venue, the type of PA used, etc.  However, singers testify that mics other than the SM 58 can be better suited to their voices.  Bill Gibson says: “For those with a lighter tone and/or a higher pitch, another mic may enhance their voice better; I’m a big fan of Shure’s Beta 87 because it has a transparent-sounding high end.”

The Beta 87 is a condenser mic. Again, a little theory: condenser mics require phantom power; a low-voltage electrical input is applied to a thin membrane that is lightly coated with a conductive alloy.  The movement of this sensitive membrane reproduces the sound source. Because of this, condenser mics produce a more accurate representation of one’s voice and are often able to pick up sound further away from the mic, while maintaining a fuller sound.  This is one reason condenser mics are preferred for studio recording, however, a number of condenser mics have become popular for live performance.

So, what mics are gigging singers using for live performance?  The following list is not comprehensive but these are the top choices, this month, for VoiceCouncil readers. Warning: this is not a critical review of these microphones, just a quick “rehearsal” of what singers are using. Prices are approximate and are quoted in both US Dollars and Great British Pounds (GBP)..

AKG D5 This is a dynamic mic. Singers report that it provides a good, crisp sound and is low on handling noise. (100 USD/70 GBP)

AKG D 3700This is popular as a low cost touring mic.  Some of our readers enjoy the fact that it can be used with a cable or without (wireless). It’s also liked for its contoured, non-slip grip. (100 USD/70 GBP)

Audio Technica 6100a This sturdy microphone has been noted for being good to the singer on a noisy stage. (175 USD/140 GBP)

Audix OM5 These are known for being tough and bright, cutting through the mix. (160 USD/130 GBP)

Beyer dynamic M500 These mics were introduced in 1969 and are a low cost and effective dynamic mic (used by Phil Collins among others). These are no longer produced but many are still in use.

Electro Voice ND 767a This is a dynamic mic which has VOB technology, a system which counteracts “muddy” or “boomy” sounds. (100 USD/75 GBP)

Heil Pr-22 Some singers say that their Heil brings out the mid range that gets lost or is too harsh with other microphones. (175 USD/130 GBP)

Neumann KMS 104 and 105 These condenser mics are definitely not for the budget shopper but many vocalists believe that you are getting more for your money  (the105 rejects sound from the rear even more than the 104). (700 USD/400 GBP)

Sennheiser e835 This is a sturdy dynamic mic having a clear response without an overabundance of low end. (70 USD/60GBP)

Shure KSM9 This condenser mic has switchable pick up patterns which can help if a vocalist is in different acoustic situations (700 USD/500 GBP)

Getting Started on the Path to Ownership: Tips from the Pros
There are so many mics, each with their own claim to fame; how does one get started on the road to ownership?  The most important thing, urges singer/songwriter Laura Clapp, is to make the decision to find your own mic: “Most singers put themselves at the mercy of what is at the gig.  A lot of singers don’t really know that there are options out there. The right microphone can help you convey your signature sound but without a little basic knowledge, singers show up for gigs or at the studio and just have to take what is given”.

Clapp has some practical advice. “One thing that a lot of singers don’t even think of doing is going to music stores and testing out mics. They aren’t in the display case just to look pretty and there is nothing wrong with trying them out.  Sometimes singers are afraid to do this—after all, it requires strutting your stuff right out there on the showroom floor.  But think of it this way: you’re going to be out there on stage anyways and a little vulnerability in the music store is nothing compared to standing on stage with an audience looking on.”

Tom Lang, whose many credits include opening for ZZ Top, urges vocalists to test prospective mics in their performing venue(s): “The only way to really test a mic is “in situ”, on stage with the monitors, exactly as things would be in live performance”. One of the advantages of testing mics out in this way has not only to do with different mic tones and sensitivities, but also with pick-up patterns. Depending on factors such as band volume and monitor placement, microphone pickup patterns may be perfect for one singer and problematic for another.

Finally, Bill Gibson urges singers to develop a relationship with a pro audio supplier: “Get them to loan you 5 or 6 mics and see which one(s) work best”.

The End of the Story
The house lights have dimmed and you are on stage with a microphone in your hands.  Perhaps you are just a little bit more at ease because you “own” that piece of gear; you know what it will do and how it will respond.  Now it’s time to forget the technical detail and move into your soulful performance.

Give Your Input
You can join other VoiceCouncil readers and help to shape future articles in this series. Just click below and you will find a survey that takes less than 60 seconds to complete.

Click here to share your views on The Perfect Mic

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Click here to share your views on the Best Mic for Home Recording

VoiceCouncil wishes to thank the pros who assisted with this article:
Bill Gibson, president of Northwest Music and Recording, has spent the last 25 years writing, recording, producing and teaching music.  Bill is a best-selling author and has written over 20 books on audio recording.  His recently released 6-volume set, The Hal Leonard Recording Method is already receiving high praise for its user-friendly approach.

Laura Clapp is a singer/songwriter who has worked in Nashville and has recently been backing vocalist for the legendary Howard Jones.  Laura travels across the globe singing and leading demo sessions as a product specialist for TC Electronic. See www.lauraclapp.com

Tom Lang’s career has spanned everything from postage-stamp sized stages to headlining tours for up to 40,000 crazy fans. By day he’s a product manager at TC-Helicon, where his singing experience and extensive use of audio products provides invaluable feedback on performance in diverse environments.  By night, Tom sings and plays guitar, keyboards or fiddle. See www.tomlangmusic.com

Stewart McLellan is the director of SMP, offering audio, video and recording production services for artists and businesses. Stewart works actively as both a musician and product developer. He’s worked with Dweezil Zappa, Zoux, Pat Lachman (Halford, Damage Plan), David Newman (Disney Film Composer) and Taavi Mote (Madonna).

© 2008 Gregory A. Barker.  Greg is a writer and editor living in the heart of Wales. You can see more of Greg’s work here.

  • Northwinds

    For live I've always used an SM58 but recently got hold of the wireless PG58 which I've started using in rehearsals.
    One worry I have is the batteries though.
    Can anyone comment on this?
    I decided to buy a rechargable battery to try out with it and it seemed to be working great until about two thirds of the way through a 4 hour rehearsal, when it cut out completely. Luckily I had a regular battery in my case as backup and my wired SM58 as well.
    But we are looking to gig quite soon and I don't want to have this as an extra worry.
    Can anyone advise on makes and types of batteries I should be looking at for this?
    I know there's different types of battery advised for using in camera flashes as opposed to alarm clocks – for example – due to their power requirements. So has anyone got experience of this?
    I'd rather go green and buy a couple of suitable rechargables than contantly buying a new duracell each gig and adding to landfill.
    Thanks in advance for your advice and comments.

  • GyspyGina

    Neumann KMS 105mt- Absolutely worth every penny! I bought mine near the beginning of my career almost 10 years ago – no regrets—don't think the new ones are as good since Sennheiser took over though.

  • Stillwater

    A good article indeed by Greg Barker, and we need more articles such as these on the web. I agree with Mr. Barker on what he has to say about this subject. I wanted to add some couple of things. First of all a microphone that is worth mentioning is the Beyerdynamic Opus 89. It's true that the singer has the hardest job when it comes to testing his ax before buying. Everybody else in the band can go to the local music shop and test their guitars and keyboards freely with no problems. The singer runs into many problems. Even if there are the few smart ones that do test the mics in the stores they run into a limited selection. More likely he or she will be testing products like Shure, Sennheiser and maybe AKG majority of the times here in the U.S. Other brilliant mics such as Audix, Beyerdynamic, Nueman, and Rode get lost in obscurity just because most average music stores do not have to them readily available. When I wanted to test the new Telefunken dynamic mic I knew that would be near to impossible. Even when I call for information on certain microphones I get the feeling that the salesman is just reading the specs without any knowledge about the mic whatsoever. Because of this hurdle you will find many excellent singers who have no knowledge about microphones, and will go through a lifetime singing into a SM58, or whatever a sound company will put in front of their mouths. Now in the defense of the SM58 is that their is more pros than cons. If in doubt use the SM58, because it's the standard microphone for the last couple of decades and probably will continue to be so. Most of the problem here lies with the sound guy. The typical singer that might not know all the microphones is sometimes handicapped of explaining to a sound guy of what sound they he or she is looking for. The seasoned singer knows a good vocal sound sometimes better than some of these live engineers, but might not know the technical jargon to explain it. Even if the singer brings a uncommon high quality dynamic mic, or a condenser such as the Nuemann KMS 105 they run the risk of the sound guy screwing up a good vocal sound, because 80% of the time these kind of engineers have dealt with SM58. That is the reason why the SM58 is safe, cause even the mediocre soundguy can work with this common mic. Most singers find a good mic that they like by accident while on a gig. The business of finding a good mic is unfortunately trial and error. Even if you do test the mic in the music store it really takes about a couple of performances to form a strong opinion about a microphone. Hopefully you are smart enough to cling to advice to the likes of Greg Barker and making your road narrower in your search for a good mic.

  • Th Hoemann

    I started my carreer with the SM 58. Meanwhile I use the Neumann KMS 105 BK. I tested several mics in the studio before buying the Neumann. In a direct comparison there was no mic with which my voice had such a clear brillant and authentic sound like with the Neumann. Afterwards I discovered the Audix Mics and tested them too – and bought the VX5 for my wife – also a great mic. You see there are in my eyes definately alternatives to the good old sm58.

  • Th Hoermann

    I agree to that. Lot of stores do not have a huge variety of mics available. But it is essential to testwith your own voice before buying. In Germany there areseveral big online stores where you can order several mics, test them and send back those you do not want to buy.

  • Jim

    My voice is baritone and I found I was getting very muddy from proximity effects, so I first found happiness with an EV ND767, a great mike that wore out – and then I discovered that on the new ones (ND767a) there was no longer a bass roll-off switch.  So I went to the EV ND967 and am again happy with my sound. 

  • jen.I

    to get the right mic for your voice you have to test it on stage against the rest of the band, I’ve tried mics in the music shop which sounded good but when on stage they lacked the clarity and punch that I want from my vocals, I even tried a audio technica 5100 condensed but it picked up most of the noise around me so I’m back to the old faithfull shure Beta, which is doing it for me right now.

  • I have a Sennheiser e835 and it works great for my voice. I like it better than my SM58 because it seems to capture the high end a little better… being a girl and all.

  • The Vocal Violinist

    I’m still happily using my old Shure Beta87A and SM58s for live shows; in the larger venues with in-house gear, I see a leaning towards Shure handhelds, with Sennheiser close behind.

  • the first mic I owned for use live was a Shure Beta 57 instrument mic. I went along to Academy of Sound and just tried a load out. I loved the feel, weight, sound or the beta 57 over the sm58 and others. Since then, I purchased a Shure Beta 87c which I absolutely loved and now use the wireless version of the Beta 87c, expensive but worth every penny!!!!