Microphone Technique 101
Do microphones scare you? Have you ever had to sing in front of a mic? Do you know the tricks of the trade to help you sound your best when using a microphone? Whether you answered yes or no to any of the previous questions, the following post should clear up any fear or lack of knowledge you might have when it comes to singing on mic. Every singer, sooner or later, is going to have to sing in front of a microphone. Even in the traditional genres of opera, classical and musical theater, there comes a time when a microphone and a sound system will come in to play. So why not make friends with your microphone, and use it to make the most of all that hard work you’ve been doing with your voice?
We’ve all heard of vocal technique, which is all the do’s and don’ts of making your singing voice its best. But did you know there is also microphone technique? You need to make sure that what you do on mic enhances, not detracts, from everything you’ve done to improve your singing! While you may not be able to control what type of mic, sound system, or even sound team is being used during your performance, at least you can control what YOU do when singing on the mic.
I’ve sung practically every style of music in my career, many of which required the use of a microphone— from bands on stage and in recording sessions, to indoor and outdoor venues, in large halls and small. Here are some of my best tips to help you give your BEST performance while singing on a microphone:
1. Sing into the center of the microphone. Whether it is unidirectional
(only receiving sound input from one location) or omnidirectional (able to receive sound input from all around the microphone), you still want to sing into the center front of the microphone head. If you move away from your singing position in a way that pulls you off-center, the volume and quality of the sound will immediately suffer.
2. Beware of Proximity Effect. The ideal distance from your mouth to the microphone varies with the type of mic and how loud you are singing, but usually a half inch for softer volume to even two inches or more for louder vocal production is ideal. But, for cardioid and unidirectional mics, the closer you get to the mic head, the more muddy the sound may get, as lower parts of the tone get emphasized. Conversely, as you pull away from the microphone, this can be a better choice for intelligibility of lyrics, especially in a fast song. Also, if you speak between songs, don’t get too close to the mike to maintain clarity of speech.
3. Try to use a windscreen or pop filter. A lot of singers have terrible diction, and you can’t understand half of what they are saying when they sing. However, for those of us who have spent a lifetime training ourselves to make the most of our words by pronouncing everything clearly, this may be a slight disadvantage when singing on a microphone. This is where a pop filter or windscreen can be your best friend. It diffuses the blast of air that results from your plosive consonants (think “p” and “b”) and makes it easier for the sound engineer to keep things equalized through the sound system as you sing.
4. Hold the microphone correctly. Always hold it by the shaft, not by the head (which can cause terrible feedback!), and never directly in front of your face. Keep the shaft pointed slightly down toward the floor. Make sure you don’t grip it too tightly, which can cause tight muscles in your upper body and ultimately in your voice. But, do hold it firmly and comfortably, and don’t tap it, which is a nasty habit some singers have, which causes a thumping noise while you’re singing!
5. Leave it on the stand if necessary. There are times when, for technical or artistic reasons, you cannot take the mic off the stand. Check with the sound team or director of the show, and if that’s the case, make sure the height of the stand keeps the head of the microphone slightly below mouth level. You do not want to stretch up and strain to get your voice into the mic!
6. Don’t move around the stage without an OK from the sound team.
If you move around without checking where the all the monitors and main speakers are and you pass in front of one with your hot mic, you can cause horrific feedback. Be careful and check with a sound team member first before you start moving around the stage.
7. Insist on having dedicated monitors! More singers have come to me with hoarse or even ruined voices because they sing in situations where they do not have a dedicated monitor with only their own voice coming through, and the ability to control the volume, reverb and equalization right there on the monitor. If you can’t hear yourself singing, you will blow out your voice straining to hear yourself through the main speakers. It doesn’t matter how good a singer you are, if you can’t hear, you’ll unconsciously push.
For this reason, if I’m going into an unfamiliar performing situation, I always bring earplugs with me. If I can’t hear myself for any reason— lack of or insufficient monitors, I’m standing right next to the horn section, or some other similar problem— out comes at least one, and sometimes both, earplugs. At least then I can listen to the sound of my voice in my own head, and this keeps me from straining.
8. Insist on a sound check! Make sure you get a chance to run at least parts of your songs on mic before the show, with the full sound system operating . Have a trusted friend with “good ears” go out into the hall and give feedback to the sound engineering team during the check. Make sure you come well warmed-up and prepared to sing your softest and loudest passages, so that the engineer can get an accurate sense of the different dynamic levels you will be using, as well as the timbre of your voice as it goes through the mic and into the sound system. The sound check and the sound team can make or break your performance, as you have no control over what they are doing from your position on the stage. It is SO important to have that trusted friend out in the hall looking out for you and your voice during the sound check!
9. Practice with a mic before the show. Ideally, you do not want the first time you sing your songs on a microphone to be the day of the show! Take any opportunity you can to sing with a microphone and full sound system before that day. Hopefully you already have some equipment of your own, but if not, try to use a friend’s, or perhaps your voice teacher or coach’s studio or equipment. Go to a commercial recording studio on off-hours, which are cheaper, or a college recording studio, which has reduced rates as well. You can even sing your songs at a karaoke club, too. Finally, even if you don’t have a microphone at home, grab that hairbrush and video yourself and what you look like singing into that ersatz “microphone”. You’d be surprised how much that can help you get comfortable with the feel of having the mic in your hand!
10. Sing just as if there were no microphone in front of you. In other words, still look out in front of you and aim your voice to the back of the hall. Don’t push, but don’t “stop” your voice right before it enters the microphone, either. Many singers have what I call “constipated” voices from always “singing small” into the mic. Always use your full range of dynamics and vocal technique, and move the microphone in or out as needed.
11. Fake good breath control. One of the best parts of using a mic is that quality counts more than quantity. Concentrate on making the kind of sound you want, and let the microphone and sound system carry it out to the audience for you. This is especially helpful at the end of long phrases, when you might be running out of breath. Keep the mic close while you still have power, and then start pulling it back to create a decrescendo that sounds like you have fantastic dynamics and breath control, but you are actually masking the fact that you are running out of breath and losing volume!
12. Advice on choosing your own microphone. If you decide to buy your own microphone, go to a large music retailer and be sure you try out quite a few of them! Different microphones amplify certain acoustic properties of the voice. If you have a bright or higher-pitched vocal tone, you may want a mic that adds more mid and low end, giving richness and depth to to your sound. When I was choosing my own microphone, I chose one that boosted the higher, brighter elements of the sound, because as a mezzo-soprano, my voice already had a warmer, richer quality and benefited more from boosting the upper acoustics of the tone. This helped my sound to “cut through” the sound of the band more easily as well.
So– I hope after reading the tips above, you no longer have any fear about singing on a microphone! Knowledge is power, and now you know so much more about how to use the microphone as an extension and enhancement of your own voice. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it adds another dimension to your singing experience, and makes it possible for your audience to share in that very special experience as well. Even if you’re just starting with a dream, a hairbrush, and your bathroom mirror, that’s the first step into a brave new world of singing on mic!