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ChoralTech: On Soloists and Microphones

The SM-58. Do you have this mic? Is it the only one you have? (Shure.com)
 
We spend our hours crafting sound. We build and polish the blend of the ensemble to create a tone which fits the performance style we want, while balancing the strengths of our musicians, until we have the sound that we want to share with the world. When a mic'd soloist comes into the picture, does the sound match? Are the soloist and the ensemble in the same place aurally, or does it seem like the soloist is in a different performance environment than the group. Put simply-- do the tones not match? The problem might be easily solved by looking at your microphone.
 
Two Types of Mics
Allow me to grossly over-generalize. The two most common mics to see are either dynamic or condenser microphones. The difference lies in the internal construction of the microphone and method by which it captures sound. These two microphone types serve some specific purposes:
  • Dynamic Mics:
    • Heavier-duty
    • High input threshold-- can withstand much louder input
    • Can be hand-held
This makes them ideal for singers working with bands. The most famous and recognizable microphones generally fall into this category (at least amongst non-producer/-engineers), and for this reason as well as their generally lower cost, they find themselves into many school music programs and church sound systems.
 
  • Condenser Mics:
    • A bit more fragile
    • Usually more sensitive
    • Better on a microphone stand or boom
Condenser microphones are ideal for anytime you want to have a more natural sound. They're also more sensitive, so they're more likely to pick up "air" or background sound around them. This might seem like a bad thing, but it's not always (and I'll show you why in a minute).
 
These microphones have two distinctly different sounds. The dynamic mic, because it's less sensitive, is designed to be held and sung directly into. Because this is not how we're used to hearing choral music, the sound will be a little different than the ensemble. The condenser mic will sound more natural, because its profile is much closer to the natural sound coming from the rest of the ensemble. This isn't to say that one is always better than the other, though. The key is that each type of microphone has a better application, even in choral music. Vocal jazz or gospel soloists, for example, might like the sound of a dynamic mic for the soloists, since that's more stylistically appropriate. It's also easier for soloists to "work the stage" with a dynamic mic. In classical performance, through, the sound of a dynamic mic doesn't approach what we're used to hearing as a "natural" sound as well as a condenser, which creates a mismatch in tone between your mic'd soloist and your ensemble.
 
Location, Location, Location
 
Aside from the type of microphone used, there's one more variable which can drastically affect the tone of mic'd sound: the distance from the microphone to the object being amplified. Consider the journey of sound from the ensemble to the audience's ears. Once it leaves the instrument (voice), that sound interacts with staging equipment, the hall dimensions/materials, other sounds, the bodies of other people in the room, even the density and temperature of the air before reaching your audience as a final product. Contrast that with how we normally mic our soloists (especially if we've ever coached a young, nervous singer)-- we put the microphone directly in front of them, usually as close as possible, and encourage them with phrases like "kiss the mic," "get right up on the mic," or even worse "swallow the mic." This drastically effects the sound of the soloists for two reasons: first, it subconsciously lets the singer get away with less air support since the mic will do most of the hard work for them, and secondly it eliminates the effect of all of those variables I previously mentioned. We call this "close micing:" putting the microphone as close as possible to the source of the sound.
 
Want to hear close miking in action? Listen to any Sting song and listen to the drums: the late 80's-early 90's pop/rock recording style is absolutely drenched with close mic'd drums, and his recordings are a great example of this. I don't mean to say that one style is right/wrong or good/bad, but compare those drum sounds with something earlier like a classic Beatles or Rolling Stones recording. Now try and imagine the tight, popped sound of the snare drum in Sting's recording in the middle of "Jumping Jack Flash." It would not be good blend.
 
We often do exactly the same thing with our soloists: put a close mic'd sound on top of a naturally "airy" sound, to the detriment of the overall blend.
 
To combat this, try and place the soloist and the microphone in such a way that you can create a little space between them. If you can mic the soloist even a few inches away from the microphone without getting feedback, you can ask them to really support their sound through air as well as getting a sound that is a closer match to what your ensemble already sounds like. Here's another advantage of condenser mics for this purpose: remember how I said they are more sensitive, thus let in more background sound? A condenser mic will sound as though it has more "space" in it even at a closer distance than a dynamic mic. In other words, you might achieve the same effect as moving your soloist and microphone around if you simply switch out a dynamic mic for a condenser.
 
Caveats and Conclusions
As you work with different microphones, you'll realize that each is different. Just like buying a car is more than choosing whether you want a truck or an SUV, and wines are more complex than red or white, there are myriad choices with both dynamic and condenser mics. The points above are, again, excessively over-simplified for the purposes of introduction. I do believe, though, that any classical choral group working with live sound will probably get more use out of a couple of condenser mics than dynamic mics. Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what we find in most sound kits: lots and lots of dynamic mics and very few condensers. There are many very knowledgable people in the fine arts of microphone placement and selection in our forums, so feel free to post a discussion if you have questions about the mics that you already have or are considering.
 
on April 12, 2013 2:22pm
Jeff,
   I love your ChoralTech articles.  We have to do a better job of getting the word out to new directors of the value of ChoralNet.  Articles like this are a goldmine.  You took what has taken me years to learn and put it in a few simple paragraphs.   Thank-you for the refresher as I head into the amplified performance portion of my school year.