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Choosing A Vocal Mic

It's all a matter of opinion—and since live sound engineers always have plenty of those, we went straight to the pros

John Roden No matter what the musical genre is, the first step to making a concert work is a good vocal mic—or maybe not a “good” one per se, but the right mic. It’s all a matter of opinion—and since live sound engineers always have plenty of those, we went straight to the pros, asking FOH and monitor gurus for their views on finding the most suitable microphone to start your signal chain.

Unsurprisingly, they had a number of things they agreed on, the most prominent being that there is no silver bullet when it comes to vocal mics. There are too many factors. John Roden, the legendary late monitor engineer for Paul McCartney, AC/DC and plenty of others, once spelled it out for PAR‘s sister publication, Pro Sound News, running off a list of variables: “How loud is the stage? How much input can I expect from the vocalist/s? Are he/she/they mobile or static?”

Michael Mulé, go-to monitor engineer for Nickelback, Cyndi Lauper and Dashboard Confessional, likewise offers up a list of questions, asking, “Is it a male or female artist? Do we have to use a headset mic? Is the band on personal monitors or wedges, and do we need a mic with good rejection to keep it from becoming an overhead? Another thing to consider is ‘Does the artist have good mic technique, or does he or she think they can sing with said mic hovering around their navel?’ I’ve found in the past that this is usually not the case unless you’re Pavarotti or Mariah Carey.”

Dave Rat Roden once noted that sometimes the quality of microphone has nothing to do with the choice: “Other factors—endorsement deals, for example—have to be taken into account. Also, I’ve had microphones rejected by artists just because they didn’t ‘look right’ or ‘feel right to hold.'”

Mulé concurred that, “sometimes you have to deal with the endorsement nonsense. Sometimes your hands are tied from the artist wanting to use what someone else told him is good for him on a previous tour. If you have total control and actually get along with the FOH engineer, you can both come up with a mutual agreement on what to use. Of course, this only applies if the band isn’t using its studio engineer; some people still don’t get the fact that what works in a controlled environment doesn’t always translate live.”

Dave Rat, co-owner of Rat Sound and FOH engineer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is all too aware of that dilemma. “The optimum mic really depends on the artist and the environment,” he said. “In a studio or with, let’s say, a strong female vocalist like Amy Irving [best known as an actress, Irving was the signing voice of jazz chanteuse “Jessica Rabbit” in the movie Who Killed Roger Rabbit?], I would look for something super clean, airy and open, assuming I was in an optimum acoustic environment without feedback issues present. Unfortunately, I have yet to work in any live environment even close to that. My forte is four- or five-piece, energy-driven rock bands and they typically play in big, windy fields, giant echo chambers called ‘arenas’ or in small clubs way too loud. So once reality has been factored in, I look for a mic that minimizes the acoustic issues that I can not escape.”

Paul Owen Finding a microphone that makes the most of a given situation is the name of the game, particularly for monitor engineers. Paul Owen, the vice president of Thunder Audio who recently retired from his long-standing post as Metallica’s monitor engineer, remarked, “It depends on what you are trying to achieve; if it’s a very high-quality personal monitor mix with no conventional monitors, you can go with as high quality a condenser as possible. On many Metallica tours, I’ve used the Audio-Technica Artist Elite 5400 series, since there were so many vocals on stage and I had to accommodate personal monitor mixes as well as wedges and side fills. As James [Hetfield] moves, the microphone of choice needs to be as constant as possible; this helps with channel EQ and mix EQ. Of course, most monitor guys get stuck with whatever the House picks and you have to deal with it!”

For Rat, a key factor is not only what a mic provides for the singer’s voice, but what it also provides for himself as an engineer: “What I want is control—control over the vocal tone, the vocal level and the intimacy or openness of the sound of the mic. Since an ‘open’-sounding mic can never be made to sound ‘closed,’ but an intimate, ‘closed’-sounding mic can easily be made to sound open with a reverb unit, I go for the latter. For the past several bands I have worked with, the Audix OM7 has been the all-around best. I have tried a few others and no mic is perfect, but generally, it’s the best for what I do. Keep in mind, though, that I mix fairly loud bands with singers that keep their lips on the grille and just like everything else, it is all about finding the right tool for the job.”

Dave Natale It’s exactly that reason which caused Owen to change the mics in front of Metallica over the years. “In the earlier days when we didn’t use personal monitoring, using a high condenser microphone would not of helped to get high values, due to the increased high-end,” he said. “Back then, I would go for your good old, standard Beta 58.”

The familiar Shure mics certainly have their supporters. “It’s hard to beat an SM58a for several reasons,” said Roden. “The audio quality is high, and I am sure many PAs and wedges have been designed around the characteristics of it. It has a familiarity for both artist and engineer, as it must be one of the most recognizable microphones out there. That breeds a comfort factor, but there are also many other choices, so it can be tricky and sometimes political. I’ve also used Sennheiser/Neumann KMS 104 and 105 vocal mics; I have been using them recently with both David Gilmour and George Michael—two very different artists—and have been very pleased with the results.”

Mulé can be counted as a fan of the 58, too. “I have been accused of being an old-school guy when it comes down to it,” he said. “I remember I did a showcase with a aspiring country artist with a great set of pipes named Jessie James [now signed to Mercury Records/Island Def Jam]. The last sentence out of my mouth before rehearsal was, ‘Anyone have an old, standard 58?’ Sometimes there’s no reason to try and improve on the obvious.”

In the end, there’s plenty of ways to choose a vocal mic, each as varied as the singer, venue and engineer involved in the equation. And if all those fail, well, you can go an entirely different route; when asked what he looked for when choosing a vocal mic, Dave Natale, FOH for the Rolling Stones, grinned and simply replied, “Weight.”

Clive Young is the senior editor/web editor of Pro Sound News and author of Crank It UP: Live Sound Secrets of the Top Tour Engineers.