Microphonics!

by George Petersen
in Editor's Note
George Petersen, Editor of FOH Magazine
George Petersen, Editor of FOH Magazine

In traditional audio terminology, “microphonics” typically refers to sounds that can emanate from vacuum tubes that are subjected to vibrations — say, from a guitar amp speaker — and can induce feedback (not the good kind) into a system. But this month, I wanted to rant a bit about microphones and figured “microphonics” seemed appropriate, especially as our “Buyer’s Guide” on page 34 spotlights high-end handheld condenser models.

‡‡         The Real-World Factor

In a perfect world (I’m not sure exactly where that exists), I would assume that vocalists would go for the gusto of condenser mics, where their superior bandwidth and excellent transient response offer a clarity that most dynamic designs simply can’t match. However, there’s also a real-world factor to consider. Some singers (“artistes”) simply can’t be trusted with a condenser mic, where such models will inevitably be subjected to the mic-drop test. And while a Shure SM58 may emerge relatively unscathed from such abuse (with the exception of a possible $10 replacement grill), a Neumann KMS 105 may not fare so well. To be fair, perhaps the KMS 105 might come out just fine. However, I am not planning to test any of mine to find out.

The other downside of a condenser design (for many singers) is that using such a mic requires at least some knowledge of phantom power. The 48 VDC phantom issue has been around for more than half a century — in fact, we have Georg Neumann himself to thank for coming up (and implementing) the concept in 1966, as a means to provide powering for his then-new KM84 mic. You would think that in those ensuing 51 years of phantom powering, people would have caught on the problems created when connecting/disconnecting an energized condenser mic by simply pulling the plug. It’s not good for the console, not good for the mic and especially not good for any speakers in the system, as a massively loud burst zips through the P.A., looking for any unwary HF compression driver diaphragms to cook. Not pretty.

‡‡         Rant #2

One of my lifelong ambitions is to convince vocalists that like any other musical instrument, microphones need to be matched to the vocalist. Every mic sounds different and every voice sounds different and so actually spending some time researching the effect of different transducers on your voice and finding the right match is important. Some mics have a distinct presence boost, some models vary in their proximity effect and others have a shimmery top end. Of course, all of this only applies if the singer actually cares what his/her voice sounds like. Mic technique is important too, but once the singer decides they must cup the mic, then all bets are off.

If the other members in the band have spent years honing their skills, is it really asking too much for the singer to spend 15 minutes learning proper vocal technique?

A little understanding of polar patterns would also be nice. I mixed a 13-hour-straight “Relay for Life” (American Cancer Society) fundraiser event a couple weeks ago, and one of the artist’s riders specified an SM58. No problem there — in fact, it can be a spot-on choice for certain vocalists. Anyway, I pre-set the stage and roughed-in a monitor mix to save some time. I placed the wedge exactly on-axis with the rear null point of the mic’s cardioid pattern. The artist arrives and immediately moves the wedge off to the side. I asked why and was told, “Because that’s where I always want it.” I could have gotten into a discussion as to why a hypercardioid mic would have been a better choice, but hey, sometimes you have to choose your battles, especially on those 19-hour summer workdays.

‡‡         Rant #3

In recent years, this subject has received some attention, but I just don’t understand why any artist — of any level — doesn’t find the right mic, buy one (or several) and bring that mic to their gigs. Of course, it’s usually a factor about not having the cash. However, mics are really not that expensive. In fact, you can buy a great mic for far less than the cost of a double-kick pedal. And in many shows, where the lead vocal is the raison d’etre driving the entire performance, surely a small such investment will pay off. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of whatever mic the club provides, and some of those can be pretty grotty — from a performance standpoint.

Worse yet are the entire issues of health, hygiene and sanitation. God only knows who slobbered, spit, sneezed or left bits of cracker crumbs with chunks of (now-rotted) brie in that grill. And you really want to put your mouth next to (or on) that? Here’s where having your own mic is a cheap insurance policy against picking up the flu, mononucleosis, trench mouth or worse.

‡‡         A Little Sunshine

Maybe I was in a snit this month, but occasionally something nice happens. One of the acts I was mixing (FOH and monitors) at the aforementioned Relay for Life event actually complimented me on how great their monitor mixes where. It rarely happens, but I like that — and — they even brought their own vocal mics! Smart!

Current Issue