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Buying guide: On the mic

Buying guide: On the mic

Buying guide: On the mic

There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a vocal microphone, from feedback to frequency response, not to mention wireless options. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen learns more

It’s no secret that that the two pieces of equipment crucial to delivering the most intelligible, high-quality audio to your congregation are mics and speakers but the choices are endless and the upgrades seemingly infinite.

Gene Houck of Audix Corporation
Gene Houck of Audix Corporation

With many houses of worship now integrating live music and events into their services and extracurricular activities, demand for high-level mic performance has become essential. Selecting the right vocal microphone with the required features hugely depends on the task at hand.

Gene Houck, director of sales at microphone manufacturer Audix Corporation, explains: ‘There is such a diverse selection of microphones in use in today’s churches and a plethora of misinformation. For choirs, any single microphone will be covering several singers, so high-sensitivity condenser mics are the best choice over a dynamic microphone. If the choir location and size are consistent from week to week, a hanging choir mic is often a traditional choice. In many of today’s churches, however, the choir does not stay in one place or there may only be a choir for special services. In this scenario, platform condensers attached to a stand or boom are a better choice.’

Built to perform

When miking a single vocalist, on the other hand, you are looking to pick up just one voice and isolate it from other noise. In most instances, a tighter polar pattern, such as hypercardioid, can be a good choice. Microphones that feature reduced sensitivity to surrounding noise (often known as off-axis rejection) can also help the vocalist ‘cut through the mix’, explains Houck.

Chris Countryman of Countryman Associates
Chris Countryman of Countryman Associates

‘For the spoken voice, the popular choice is between a wired podium mic or a wireless lavalier or head-worn microphone. If a podium or lecturn is in use and the pastor stays put, a traditional gooseneck-style mic is still a viable option. However, most pastors now like to roam. Lavalier and head-worn microphones allow more freedom of movement,’ comments Houck. ‘Unlike a lavalier mic, a head-worn mic moves with the head, so head turns won’t result in reduced volume. Because the mic is close to the mouth, there is less chance of picking up ambient noise and certainly less chance of picking up the rustling of clothing.’

Is the price always right?

The variety in price point for microphones can also be hard to navigate but Houck is keen to suggest that high-quality audio doesn’t have to hurt the budget. ‘A good-quality vocal mic doesn’t need to break the bank. In fact, good-quality handheld vocal mics can be had for around US$100. To keep within budget, some churches will invest in a more expensive microphone for the worship leader, such as a handheld condenser, and a more economical dynamic microphone for the backup vocalists,’ he adds.

Countryman's 077 H6 headset omnidirectional tan microphone
Countryman's 077 H6 headset omnidirectional tan microphone

Chris Countryman, president of Countryman Associates, echoes the statement: ‘You simply can't judge a microphone by its price anymore. I have found extremely inexpensive microphones that sounded good, although they didn't have much longevity or consistency. I've also taken apart premium microphones to only find $2 microphone capsules inside.’

The best-quality and value microphones normally range between $350 and $500, according to Countryman. ‘Assuming that the highest cost equals the best quality is probably the biggest misconception. For head-worn vocal microphones, it’s tempting to assume a directional microphone is best; however, we see most HOWs happiest with an omni. Omnidirectional microphones typically have the most natural frequency response, provide excellent isolation when placed close to the mouth, are easier to use and are much less susceptible to breath pops and cable rubbing noise.’

No wires

Audix MicroBooms in use
Audix MicroBooms in use

Over the past decade, there has been a wave of churches moving towards wireless vocal microphones, yet Houck remains cautious of this trend. ‘While wireless microphones are a great tool, in most cases, the most expensive wireless systems are simply trying to do their best to emulate that which is simply accomplished by a microphone cable and a wired mic. Secondly, once you learn the added cost, servicing issues and potential RF interference issues to deal with, churches would be wise to consider wired microphones in places where mobility is not a factor, such as worship team members who are stationary. Sometimes a church may also site cleanliness of the platform for minimising cables. But truth be told, the congregants don’t really care if a vocalist is singing on a wired or wireless microphone. They just want to enjoy worshipping in a great-sounding sanctuary.’

But, as Countryman states, for HOWs, the message comes first. Therefore clear, natural sound should be the key priority. ‘Ultimately,’ notes Countryman, ‘microphone buyers have to consider the true cost of degraded audio or outright failures when making their decision.’ 

Condenser mic 101

When choosing a vocal mic for live performances, there are product specifications to note as well as the type of vocalist and volume of the stage where the mic will be used. Pedro Rocha, business development manager at Earthworks, explains three main features to observe in a condenser vocal mic.

1. Gain before feedback

A good indicator of how happy a sound engineer and audience will be with a vocal performance is if it can be heard without feedback. The specification that reveals the likelihood of this problem is found in a polar pattern chart (Figure 1). You want to see the off-axis response, sound from the rear of the microphone, as attenuated as possible. If the back of the polar pattern shows a sensitivity of at least 15dB lower compared to the front, you may be at the margins of what will work on a loud stage. This is particularly important when a vocalist sings at a low volume and extra gain may be needed.

Earthworks' SR40V vocal mic can handle up to 145dB SPL without distortion
Earthworks' SR40V vocal mic can handle up to 145dB SPL without distortion

2. Frequency matters

Frequency response is often shown as a number; 20Hz-20kHz is the range of human hearing and is represented graphically (Figure 2) by a vertical line of intensity (dB) vs a horizontal line of frequency (Hz). A smooth line without deep peaks and valleys means a microphone that will be easier to amplify and pleasant to the audience.

A frequency response with numerous peaks and dips can be a sign that you’ll have to EQ these areas to smooth the response, or to control feedback. Using EQ to correct these issues is the only remedy at loud volumes but doing so can negatively affect the sound due to the way EQs interact with adjacent frequencies (phase issues). It then becomes a balance to keep the microphone from feeding back and having the source sound natural. As a rule of thumb, the less EQ the better.

3. Transient response

Here is where the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones becomes apparent. For singers with quiet voices, if you hear vowels accentuated more than consonants, it may be an indication that you need a condenser microphone for clarity.  

Unlike dynamic microphones that use air pressure to move a coil to generate a signal, condenser microphones have low mass diaphragms and react many times faster to the presence of a pressure wave. With condenser microphones, the attack of a sound source is preserved and subtle details like teeth, tip of tongue and lip sounds that define consonants and make for intelligibility are better presented. There’s a reason why choir and pulpit microphones are generally condensers. 

And, above all, remember, when testing vocal microphones, never wrap your hands around the capsule of a mic while singing. It doesn’t matter how cool it looks, the sound is going to be altered in a bad way; even the best directional microphone will tend to go omnidirectional and feedback if a hand fully encloses its capsule. Microphones are ultimately filters; they change or at best minimally affect the natural sound of a source. Some microphones have a character that is well-suited for flattering an individual’s voice. It takes time to know which microphone is best and it’s best to audition them in the area in which they will be used to fully know what to expect. 

This article first appeared in the July-August 2019 edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at www.proavl-central.com/subscribe/worship.



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