Microphones have a god-like ability to make us, or at least our voices, appear to be larger and grander than life-size. How else would Jewel’s intimate voice reach out beyond the first row? How could Tom Petty command a 50,000 seat capacity stadium? The microphone allows us to funnel sound through its body and reach out to millions.
Microphones are quite varied in design and function, but they divide most naturally into two categories: omnidirectional and unidirectional. Omni mics receive signals from many directions, making them ideal for recording live music, classical music and speaking in a room. You will “hear” the room and all its attendant noise. The omnidirectional mic has its uses, but it is not often found in the hands of a singer performing live.
The unidirectional microphone has a “hot spot” where you can direct a close or high gain sound. This is the mic most often used by onstage performers. One good example of this type is the Shure SM58. It’s a venerable, reliable, sturdy workhorse microphone that’s hard to kill no matter how many times you drop it on its head. I know, because mine has been dropped so often that the ball end looks like any shape but round. Here are some thoughts about how to work with mics like the SM58.
When you sing into a mic, try to bring your mouth as close to the microphone as possible. When you bring the mic close in to your lips, (and I do mean close!), the ambient vocal sound becomes warmer, fuller and more “bass-y.” This is why rockers love to swallow the microphone; it makes their voices sound bigger.
When you back away from the mic the reverse happens; the vocal quality becomes weak, thin, and “treble-y.” It does not have the impact that it does when your lips are practically touching the mic. If you are not using your own equipment, you might consider taking sanitizing spray into the studio with you so you are not leery about putting your lips in the up-close position that will give you the richest sound.
Whether you establish a close position or one slightly farther away, strive to maintain a consistent distance between your mouth and the microphone. You may find it easier to keep that consistency better when you are holding the microphone in your hand, rather than on a stand.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of downside dangers to holding the microphone by hand. One of these is that you come to rely so much on your elbow to regulate the volume that you never take the opportunity to develop techniques for high notes; you learn to control your high notes by simply moving the mic out of range.
The other is that holding the mic seems to bring out a singer’s tendency to keep time by finger tapping on the mic stem surface. Pretty soon those fingers begin to flutter up and down in front of the singer’s mouth like a trapped dove. It’s not only distracting but comes across as silly and unprofessional.