Punching Through with Microphones

Choosing a vocal microphone and wireless system for touring and festival work is largely dependent on musical style, audio system technical logistics and the individual needs and comfort of the artist at hand. Here, eight touring professionals detail their priorities in selecting the ideal vocal/wireless rig for the job.
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Choosing a vocal microphone and wireless system for touring and festival work is largely dependent on musical style, audio system technical logistics and the individual needs and comfort of the artist at hand. Here, eight touring professionals detail their priorities in selecting the ideal vocal/wireless rig for the job.

RF Environment Concerns

Kevin Sanford, Owner and Founder of Wireless First, a pro audio sales and rental firm specializing in live entertainment television, has experienced first-hand the great tasks of working with wireless vocal microphones in the world’s most challenging environments. In working on live productions such as the VH1 Divas performance series, he developed a taste for his personal choice, Sennheiser, when it comes to wireless.

"As an RF guy, I’m going to naturally go with what I know performs the best in an RF environment,” explains Sanford, who—when given the choice—often selects a Neumann KK 105-S supercardioid condenser head and Sennheiser SKM 5000 body. “[In shows like Divas], I don’t necessarily have a lot of control over what microphones people use; an artist will come in with requests for what they want. At that point, I’m just a potato chip vendor: You order the chip, you eat the chip.”

Sound Quality Rules
Dave Stevens—an experienced monitor engineer with credits including touring work with the band Heart and theater work at KA Theater at the MGM Grand—finds the KK 105/ SKM 5000 combo a solid choice in most touring situations, preferring the cardioid KK 105 head. With Heart’s Ann Wilson, it was love at first try: “She went on to use it for at least a decade,” explains Stevens. “It was a little warmer” than her previous vocal microphones.

“It’s such a full, natural sounding microphone, which is the whole point (in microphone selection). If you’re looking at it solely from the perspective of getting the best sound available from a vocal mic for a vocalist that can really sing—not shout— it’s great. If your vocalist has the range, the KK 105 has a transparency that allows for it.”

Downsides? “Definitely a downside is the lack of rejection; that’s why we didn’t use it with Nancy Wilson. Her guitar rig’s ambient sound is so loud over on her side of the stage, the KK 105 didn’t work as well as we would’ve liked it to.” As a result, Stevens went with a supercardioid wireless Sennheiser for Nancy’s vocals.

In choices of sound quality vs. off-axis rejection, Stevens insists that you must go for the latter. “Some of my buddies doing more rock and metal bands tried it and had a difficult time,” he explains of the cardioid KK 105. “It sounds really, really good, but it doesn’t perform really well in high-SPL situations because of the rejection factor, especially in wedge situations. But it just sounds so awesome. You know, we’ve had some issues with it on stage where she’s had to change things. For instance, walking across stage with the mic in your hand, holding it down around your waist, things from the backline jump out into the mic because it’s so sensitive.

If you’re standing on the downstage lip, and you point the mic toward the crowd, you can actually hear individual people in the crowd in the ambient wash of the microphone.
That said, Stevens feels like the KK 105 capsule set a new standard when it hit the market in the early 2000s. “It’s really hard to get wireless versions of really nice-sounding vocal microphones,” he continues. “But sometimes you just have to learn to work with the tradeoffs. It’s not like using a Sennheiser 895 or a Shure SM58 and say, ‘Oh, yeah. That sounds pretty good.’ This KK 105 is one you plug it in, turn it on, listen to it and everyone that hears it says, ‘Whoa, dude!’”

When on more budget-restricted gigs, Stevens gravitates towards Sennheiser’s Evolution e 935 dynamic vocal microphone. “They’re good,” he begins. “They’re really warm and the proximity effect doesn’t kill you like on some other mics where you suck right up to it. With some other [inexpensive dynamic vocal microphones] the low-mids just really hurt. If I were buying packages and was on a budget, those would be great microphones to get.”

Seeking Studio Quality Sound
Front-of-house engineer Horace Ward (Beyonce, Usher, Lady Gaga) likes the Neumann KK 105 S/Sennheiser 5000 Series handheld body combination for its “studio-like” performance, which he insists suits superstar vocalists like Beyonce to a T. “I love that mic,” he says emphatically. “It’s a lot of trouble to a lot of people,” referring to its full-bodied, relatively non-sculpted frequency response, “but considering the things that I do to [the vocal chain], it gives me what you’d expect from a ‘real mic.’ It has no built-in arcs or built-in whatever. As a condenser, it’s really open, and once you get rid of all the midrange gust that may cloud it over—stuff that’s not needed in the vocal anyway—it’s so clear.”

For the Justin Timberlake 20/20 Experience World Tour, front-of-house mixer Andy Meyer chose Audio-Technica’s Artist Elite 5000 Series True Diversity UHF Wireless System paired with an AEW-T6100 transmitter—the wireless iteration of the AE6100 Hypercardioid Dynamic Handheld Microphone—and AEW-R5200 Receiver. According to Meyer, it brings “the studio out on the road.”

“The AE6100, as well as its wireless counterpart, is an amazing-sounding microphone, and it really works for Justin’s vocals,” says Meyer. “The sound quality is superior. It has great rejection, especially with the kind of volume we were getting from the crowds on this tour. There’s very little bleed from the stage or the venue that gets in there, which really helps keep Justin’s vocals clean for FOH and monitors.”

Familiarity And No-Nonsense Performance?
Yet not all high-profile artists require custom solutions. Some, such as guitarist/vocalist Keith Urban, look for classic familiarity and no-nonsense performance. When on the road with Urban, front-of-house engineer Steve Law exclusively employed Shure Beta 87C microphones on all vocal mic placements, including Urban’s own. “I love ’em,” offers Law on the classic Beta 87C handheld. “I’ve been using them for years now and have found that they offer a nice response in a variety of different situations.” After adding a bit of classic analog compression, the 87C provides “a very warm, very rich” performance. “It’s a bit more ‘old- school’ sounding” than many newer, more modern vocal mic options, insists Law.

Front-Of-House Engineer Ben Hines also leans on familiar standards in his work with the Yonder Mountain String Band. “Most songs— at a minimum—are two-part harmony,” says Hines. “Sometimes in four-parts.” As everyone sings both lead and backing vocals in Yonder Mountain, Hines equitably employs four Shure SM87A vocal microphones, referring to them as solid, industry-proven standards with “no gimmicks” that take drastic EQ quite well.

“I don’t do hard compression on anything because I think that takes a bit too much of the life out of each instrument,” says Hines. “I do some cuts at front of house with graphic EQ, but the way the pre-amps come up, as long as I have a good, strong gain, I often add frequencies instead of getting rid of them. There are some drastic cuts at 160 Hz and 400 Hz for guitar, but I make those up in the mandolin, where I will add 400 Hz. I basically try to fill four parts of the EQ spectrum with the four instruments. Since all of those strings are so close to each other, getting separation is important.”

Custom Solutions
When it comes to working with a vocalist live, there couldn’t be a much higher profile artist than Madonna. Working for this legendary diva, the late Ian Newton, who passed away in December, was tasked with balancing comfort and superior audio quality in selecting and fitting her headset microphones over the years—a situation which ultimately led to a custom-built solution. “In rehearsals, she once requested a capsule that she couldn’t tell the difference between her handheld and when she was speaking into a headset,” said Newton. “That was kind of challenging for the first few weeks. She didn’t like anything off the shelf, and there wasn’t really anything out there that works quite well for with dancing, too. So to cover all these things, finding the best-sounding headset that is both very comfortable and will stay on required a custom solution.”

Universal Appeal
Singer, songwriter and motivational speaker Jana Stanfield has covered the world in a wide range of performances—from nearly DIY audio rigs in small cities to gracing the stage at New York City’s renowned Carnegie Hall. As such, she’s had some of the world’s best audio engineers input on vocal and wireless microphone selection, and often has acted as her own engineer as well.

In preparing for a gig as an opener for guitarist Mike Rayburn, she unpacked the few pieces of live audio gear she travels with—dual Lectrosonics UR100 and UM100 UHF belt-pack receiver/ transmitter wireless systems with a Countryman ISOMAX Stealth earset microphone—and received immediate and familiar praises directed towards her wireless system of choice. “The sound technician at Carnegie said, ‘Lectrosonics? I love this gear!’” recalls Stanfield. “He said, ‘This is great wireless equipment,’ then showed it to another technician, saying, ‘This is what they use in the movies.’ Cool, huh?”

Prompted by the encouragement of Bill Johnson, owner of Bill Johnson’s Western Connection in Phoenix, AZ, Stanfield chose her Lectosonics/Countryman rig. “I heard from Bill and other speakers that Lectrosonics was the best, and I bought the systems from him,” Stanfield explains. “I use the flesh-colored ISOMAX Stealth with wireless pack for my voice and a wireless pack for my guitar, which I wear on my guitar strap. I think the best thing about the Lectrosonics gear is its ‘dropability.’ I’ve tested them on concrete and marble floors around the world, and played with this system in countries including Australia, Thailand, New Zealand, Bali, and Canada. So far, I’ve dropped it in three-fourths of those countries.”

According to Stanfield, a performer working in the realm of motivational speaking almost requires having a wireless system like her Lectrosonics rig. “If I’m going to the other side of the world to perform, I can only take two bags,” she explains. “One is my Calzone guitar case, which I check on an international flight. The other bag holds everything else I need for the trip—clothes, shoes, and my two wireless systems, all of which has to be under 50 lbs. This gear is so small that it hardly takes up any room and adds virtually no weight.”

Finally, an all-battery operation combined with impeccable build quality made the UM100 a no-brainer. “I don’t have to worry about plugging it in while in different countries,” explains Stanfield with a sense of relief. “And finally, I know that if someone says to me, ‘We’re having a problem with your sound,’ I know it’s not my wireless. I can say to them, ‘I use this equipment all around the world, and I never have a problem with it.”