Podium Microphones

by Jamie Rio
in Sound Sanctuary

Launched in 1939, the Shure Unidyne 55 was a mainstay on church pulpits for decades.In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. A short time after the beginning, God needed a whole bunch of preachers to get the word out. Well, most of the preachers asked for podiums. And we all know, if you have a podium, you will probably need a podium mic. So, before we knew it, podium microphones had arrived. This is essentially an abbreviated version of how these things came about, but I think it’s fairly accurate.

Way Back When

The mics first showed up in the 1940s and were basically dynamic vocal microphones that happened to end up on a podium. Originally designed for broadcast, the Shure Unidyne 55 was among the first of these to be used as podium mics. Elvis sang into a 55 for most of his live shows during the 1950s and into the 1960s. JFK also used that same mic to deliver speeches during his race for the Oval Office. So what do the King and a former U.S. president have to do with the church? Well, these guys were iconic figures and their choice of microphones set the standard for the day. Your basic 1950s and 1960s preachers didn’t have too many choices for their podium mics. So, using JFK’s or Elvis’ mic probably seemed like a good idea at the time. It should also be mentioned that other mics, such as Electro Voice’s 664 — sporting a swiveling chrome pistol-grip with the capsule mounted at the end of a long shank — was another popular choice in the HOW market, despite its similarity to ray guns from a vintage sci-fi movie.

Back to the mics; they both sported a cardioid polar pattern that exhibited the famed proximity effect. In case you don’t know, “proximity effect” is when bass frequencies are accentuated as one speaks or sings closer and closer to the microphone. When ministers delivering their sermon want to make a point, they need only get closer up on the microphone and their voice becomes bigger and deeper.

In 1965, the Shure SM57 came on the scene and began to grace podiums across the U.S. and the world. From 1965 until today, every U.S. president has had at least one of these microphones on the White House podiums. Today you will commonly see two 57s. As a result, many preachers still have a Shure SM57 on a gooseneck mounted to their podium. My uncle — a Jesuit priest — has been using the SM57 since he became a priest in the early 1970s. “If it’s good enough for the president, it’s good enough for me,” was the mentality of those days, and today. There is no doubt that Shure has gotten a lot of advertising from all those presidents. However, I have seen a Schoeps microphone mounted between those iconic SM57 on many a presidential podium. Those Schoeps mics run about $2,000, so you won’t see many of them in your average house of worship. But I digress; let’s take a look at podium microphones today.

Back to the Present

All microphone manufacturers make their own versions of a podium mic. Today, condenser microphones are very popular. They can be very small, tall and almost invisible — ideal for a preacher who doesn’t want the microphone to be the focal point of their sermon. Condenser microphones are a good choice if the speaker has little experience with a mic. Usually, you can achieve a high gain before feedback with a condenser, and you don’t have to be right up on the mic to get authentic tonal characteristics out of your speaker. I realize that is a big generality with regards to these microphones, but I believe it is true more times than not in the real audio world.

Many condenser mics offer supercardioid patterns. Along with help with feedback control and with extended high-end response, condenser mics can be more natural sounding. As a result, these podium microphones have become very popular and commonplace in churches all over the world. Personally, they are not my favorite microphones. I really like a good dynamic vocal mic on my podiums. That said, I carry condenser podium microphones in my audio arsenal. Mainly because I may have a client who specifically wants a condenser on their podium. If that is the case, I’ve got them covered.

Just using a podium mic can be challenging. When I am mixing in a church and preachers are speaking from the podium, I keep a close eye (and ear) on them to make certain that they know how to speak into the mic.  I will always mix the sermon with great attention to tone and volume of the speaker. That may mean adjusting the tonality and riding the fader during the sermon.

It is common in my line of work to have a preacher who gets very worked up while delivering their speech. They can become very loud (or quiet) and, at times, practically swallow the podium mic. Whatever type or model or brand of mic on the podium, it can require some very focused and skilled mixing to make certain the congregation hears the entire sermon well. After all, that’s the most important part of the church experience. If you can’t understand the preacher’s words, then you may as well stay home.

The last thing about podium microphones that I’d like to mention is the increasing use of wireless mics. Ministers can start the sermon at the podium, then just grab the mic and go anywhere they want on the platform. It is this freedom that has made handheld wireless mic popular at the podium. Of course, it’s more dramatic to grab the microphone halfway through the sermon and charge off across the stage or out into the audience (congregation). And no matter how you take your sermons, theatrics do have a place in a house of worship — if only to emphasize the message. And great sound is a big part of that message.