If you’re playing in bars and clubs, there will most likely come a day when you encounter a certain artifact. Some might call this artifact “The Scepter Of Plagues.” Others might name it “The Odiferous Transducer Of Doom.”

The rest of us just call it a mic that’s been beaten half-to death, and which has never been cleaned.

Yuck.

Such awfulness alone is a really decent reason to have your own vocal mic. There are other justifications, of course, like predictable performance (especially if you use your own vocal processor), and knowing that you’ll have a transducer handy which works nicely with your voice.

But there are so many mics out there! How do you figure out which one is the right choice?

1. Forget About What You Liked In The Studio

Some mics used in studio settings work well on stage, it’s true. Some people use “on stage” mics in the studio anyway.

At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.

…and yes, I know that those studio microphones look cool. I also think they look cool. Looking cool is neat, but what’s awesome is actually getting the job done. I personally run into very few “studio” mics that can actually function usefully in the nightmare hellscape that is commonly referred to as “live vocal reproduction.”

2. Don’t Agonize About The Spec Sheet

There are people who spend months looking at all the numbers associated with every mic they might want to purchase. They worry about the sensitivity, and the self-noise, and how low the frequency response goes, and the impedance, and…

Folks, any halfway decent mic that’s actually designed to be on stage will be fine in all those areas.

If you want to spend time looking at something, look at the frequency response graph and polar patterns. Even then, recognize that those plots can be fudged and averaged to look better than they really are.

Mics with flatter response curves will tend to behave better across different systems. Some manufacturers “dial up” a lot of studio-mic-esque high-end into their offerings, which causes them to sound better on systems without a lot going on in the high-frequency area. However, that can also translate into feedback trouble and harshness when you perform on a rig with an extended response.

Mics with tighter polar patterns are generally better at rejecting feedback and picking up less of everything that isn’t you. Tighter patterns mean that you have to be more diligent about staying “on the mic,” though, and may cause you sudden problems if you have a tendency to cup your hands around your microphone.

3. Rent Your Shortlist, And Rehearse With Them

Once you’ve narrowed your possibilities down, try to find a pro-audio rental house that will let you pay to try them. If you can’t find a rental, reach out to your contacts and see if you can get a loaner.

Then, get in a real room, with your real band, and rehearse as hard as you can using a relatively unsophisticated audio setup. (Caveat: If you use your own vocal processor, definitely make sure to rehearse with that, and definitely make sure to use all the presets you call up during a real gig.)

The point of this is to figure out how the mic actually delivers in all the noise and chaos of a show. The microphone that’s the right choice for will “make it easy to sound like you.” The reason for the simple audio rig is to find out how the mic works WITHOUT a lot of toys and whizbangs attached. A good mic won’t need superhuman effort and a rack of processing to get the necessary gain to hear yourself. A good mic won’t need a ton of EQ fiddling to dial up an overall tone that fits in with the rest of the band.

Also, that “rest of the band” bit is very important. It’s nice if a purchase candidate sounds sweet through the wedges when nobody else is making noise…

…but the mic REALLY has to work for you when the drummer gets excited, and the guitarist turns up, and the keys player recalls a patch that occupies the entire audible spectrum, and the bassist is trying to move the stage through sheer force of sound pressure.

The right mic will satisfy the needs set out above, and will also be well constructed, feel decent in your hands, and mate with XLR cables without fuss or flimsiness.

Buying your own mic is an investment in your career. Take your time and find something that actually works for you.

Of course, your show should be exciting. It should be bursting with color, light, and sonic textures. The attention of everyone in attendance should be held rapt with every word, such that any notion of NOT being enthralled by your performance borders on the distasteful.

However…

The technical execution of your show should not be exciting at all. It should contribute nothing to the adrenaline rush of the experience. For the humans tasked with the practical work of ensuring that your show does burst with tangy lights and savory audio, pulling it all off should be routine.

Workaday.

Maybe even dull.

Why?

An Excited Pilot Is Having A Bad Day

Of course, I’m oversimplifying my analogy – but stick with me.

Let’s say that you’re on a flight. The whole thing has been pretty “ho-hum.” You got a beverage about halfway through, fired up some tunes on your phone and settled in. It’s just another day in the air for you. It’s just another day in the air for the flight crew. They’re doing what they do all the time.

And then, an engine makes a sudden decision: It wants to retire. Immediately. So, it just stops. You’re at 30,000 feet, and one of the devices that keeps the plane moving forward (and thus acting like a plane instead of just a large, complex, soda can) is no longer doing what it’s supposed to do.

Emergency procedures are immediately put into action. The pilots get the other engines spooled up to handle the load that the dead motor isn’t dealing with anymore. They start looking for a place to divert to, and get on the radio with updates about the situation. It’s all very exciting!

But it’s not fun. You, the flight crew, and everybody else are living on the bad side of a classic mantra for flyers: It’s better to be on the ground, desperately wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air, desperately wishing you were on the ground. Everybody wanted the flight to be fun, but everybody also wanted the actual flying to be boring. The mechanics of flying should be routine, so that the experience of tearing down a runway, leaping into the air, and soaring above the Earth is an absolute hoot.

It’s the same with show production.

What You Can Do

The key to keeping the technical execution of your show routine – or as routine as can be practical if you’re doing one-offs – is to do just that. Keep things routine.

In other words, keep things as far inside the boundary of “this was expected to happen” as you can.

For The Big Show

For shows that are big, complex, or high stakes, this means rehearsals. REAL rehearsals, with all the technical elements either in play or being closely simulated. Get in the actual space if you can, get a real FOH mix going, get real monitors happening, run the lights, run the atmospheric effects, roll the video, and do everything that you’re going to actually do on the night. This is expensive and time consuming, but it does something very important: It reduces or (ideally) eliminates all surprises regarding how the show will be pulled off. On the night of the real show, this means that both you and the techs will have maximum mental capacity for dealing with unexpected issues, because the number of expected elements will be very high.

For The Little Show

For one-offs, keeping things routine also means rehearsals, but done differently. In your band space, rehearse as though you will have nothing. Practice like the audio and lighting humans will be deaf and blind. Practice as though you can’t get much – or even anything – in the monitors. If the PA barely exists, will your arrangements themselves create a balanced mix? Can the singer(s) be heard without a lot of fuss? (If the mix is wrong in rehearsal it will probably be wrong at the show. If the singers are being drowned in rehearsal, they will probably be drowned at the show.) If your show pretty much works without a lot of bells and whistles, there’s a good chance that an average tech will be able to put a decent show together. They’ll be able to run their rig well inside its normal limits of gain and output, which is a very “routine” and easy thing to do.

Also, COMMUNICATE. At least a couple of days before your show, make sure that the folks responsible for running the gig have a current list of your audio needs, and a basic idea of where everyone will be on stage. It’s fine if this is on your website, as long as it’s what you actually need to do a show right now. Yes, some techs don’t do their homework, but some of us do. For those of us who care, knowing what to expect means having everything out on deck, patched in, and maybe even partially checked before you arrive. We might even be able to cook up some cool light cues…if you tell us what you want in advance. Preparation = expected to happen = routine = “happy boredom.”

On the flipside, finding out just before downbeat that you “need a couple more things” is problematic. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to pull it off – we should – but it’s exponentially harder to get gear on the deck, patched in, and preset when the general chaos of getting a show rolling is already happening in full force.

Please DO excite us, all of us, with your show. Excite us with the prospect of doing your show. Excite us with helping you design and produce your show.

But when it comes to running the show, bore us. Bore yourself. Bore us all to tears.

Dear Bands,

I want to thank you for what you’ve entrusted me with as an audio technician. Whether or not you’ve done it consciously, you’ve placed the translation of your music in my hands. That’s correct – translation. My job is to take what you produce and send it along to the audience in the seats, doing so in the best way that I know how. Seeing as your career depends on connecting with the folks who’ve come to your show, I have an important responsibility to both you and the listeners.

So, again, thank you for being willing (whether that willingness is enthusiastic or grudging) to “hand me the lightning bolt.”

It has come to my attention that some of you have, often by accident, placed more responsibility in my hands than might be prudent. This may have come from many things: A misunderstanding of how our roles intersect, an overestimation of what physics will allow me to get away with, misplaced hero-worship, or other such thoughts.

What I am referring to specifically is the idea that your song arrangements are best managed by way of a sound person wielding a tremendous chain of signal transduction and processing equipment. You’ve seen and heard concert setups that have impressed you, and you’ve thought, “This gear, in the hands of a competent tech, will make us sound good.”

My dear Bands, I don’t wish to be combative or contradictory, but I cannot agree with you on that concept.

I have sometimes been paid a sincere (and truly appreciated) compliment. It has been said that I have made a lot of crappy bands sound great. I am certainly pleased to have done work such that it elicited praise. As I said, the compliment was appreciated. However, alongside my enjoyment of being recognized, I must also ensure that I am not recognized for the incorrect things. It’s unhealthy for everyone involved.

In a good number of years of operating audio systems in a live context, there is one fact of which I am supremely confident: The set of situations where I made a bad band sound good is a collection containing zero elements. I have never pulled off such a feat. It is not physically possible. I may have managed to minimize the damage that a bad band was doing to itself and its listeners, but that is the extent of my achievements in the area.

It may sound like mere semantics, but I believe the true form of the “make us sound good” thought is actually this: “This gear, in the hands of a competent tech, will translate our show to the audience as well as is possible.” It may seem that this is merely a difference of word-choice, but take a closer look and you will see that there is a great difference in functionality.

This is where your arrangement – and your control of it – comes in.

From an audio human’s perspective, song arrangements are the choice of what sound sources are producing signals in certain frequency ranges, when those sources are making those signals, and the overall intensity of the signals. Music is made to fit together by allowing signals to compliment each other – especially in ways that contrast nicely. These contrasts are what allow you, me, and the audience to hear and understand each source distinctly. When the contrasts are not in place, what you get is merely a jumble of sound…and often, a volume war.

Let me give you a concrete example, one which I have heard many times.

A keyboard player and a guitarist are playing together. They are both hammering away. The guitar player is constantly strumming at a bunch of chords produced by finger positions that are low on the neck. At the same time, the keyboard player is steadily and repeatedly playing large chords that mostly occur in the middle range of the instrument. The sounds smash together into a result that I refer to as “guitano.” Both instruments get lost in each other, and increasing the volume of one causes it to mostly obliterate the quieter source.

The keyboard player asks for more monitor, which swamps the guitar. The guitar player turns up and masks the keyboards again. The keyboard player asks for more monitor. The guitar player turns up. The keyboard player…

(You get the idea.)

There IS a sort of “patch” that an audio human can apply. We can attempt to carve a yawning chasm in the midrange of one of the instruments, with the idea that the conflicting frequency content will go away. We can then try to push the overall level of the “scooped” source, in the hopes that the remaining content in the upper harmonics will make the source’s presence known. We also hope that those upper harmonics will not be too “clangy” or “harsh.”

We can also listen hard, and try to push one source over the other when an important bit for that instrument comes up.

But those are only patches, not fixes, and worse, the EQ solution requires that at least one instrument be made to sound rather strange. The problem with the “more volume” approach is that it’s either-or. The instruments can’t really coexist together. There’s also the danger that we won’t have enough PA to do the job, or the overall result will be uncomfortably loud. None of this amounts to the best translation for the audience – and, if we’re talking about onstage sound, it’s really not the best translation for you.

The actual fix resides in your hands. The fix resides in the arrangement. If both instruments must be playing all the time, they can both retain their natural sounds by playing in very different frequency ranges. The keyboards might hold down a low-mid area, while the guitar plays up high. The inverse is also doable. If you prefer both instruments to play in the middle of their range, you might pick one to play only intermittently. This will create a space in overall volume where the counterpart can be clearly heard.

Dear Bands, live-audio humans can’t reduce the level of an instrument below its natural volume in the room. For instruments that make no sound without the audio rig, there is still a “natural level” to be had: The mix we get for the monitors on stage. Sound work for concerts is, by necessity, an additive sort of affair. As I said, I can patch some problems by “getting on the gas,” but I have a finite amount of volume I can produce. Also, your audience may not be able to tolerate even that limited amount of sonic intensity.

Yes – studio engineers with producer-area skills can help you with your arrangement. They have the luxury of not having to translate your performance to the audience in real time. They also have the luxury of being able to reduce a signal all the way down to silence.

Live-audio practitioners have neither of those things.

I urge you to view your song arrangements as your responsibility. Make room for each other. Unlike me, you can engage in a subtractive process: When it’s time for that amazing guitar solo, everyone else can quiet down a bit or play in a different frequency range. If the verse is sung quietly, the instrumentalists can pull back so as not to drown the singer…and then surge into a thunderous roar for the big chorus.

If you already “sound like a band” without me taking corrective action, I can use all the tools at my disposal to translate that already-good-sound to your audience. It will be done as well as can be possible in that circumstance.

Dear Bands, I think that’s what you really want.

Finding a comfort zone while speaking to audiences between songs is something that has been problematic for MANY singers and musicians and one of the big reasons many clients have approached me for performance training and production of their live shows.

Unfortunately a lot of artists don’t see how negatively this sort of thing can impact their performances. Nevermind for a moment that not being able to speak well can make a show feel less polished and professional in the eyes of your fans.

It can also result in you making LESS MONEY and getting LESS E-MAIL SIGN-UPS…both of which are the life blood of today’s independent artists.

So I spent a large portion of time over the past year-and-a-half exploring this very issue and looking for ways artists can improve at this extremely important, yet often neglected, skill. Asking questions, experimenting, testing some of the ideas on my own clients.

And it was amazing because it brought to the surface several things that nobody in the music industry was really talking about. That resulted in me putting together a series of three videos exploring speaking skills during live shows. Each video, around 15-minutes in length, tackles key points ranging from the way artists rehearse their shows to the manner in which they structure their sentences when pitching e-mail sign-ups.

The first video was posted nearly a month ago and the responses I received via e-mail and social media were fantastic! One of my favorite comments came from an e-mail subscriber who applied some of the concepts to her own performances and said, “what had seemed awkward and slightly terrifying in the past was actually fun and fluid.”

Set aside 45-minutes of your time and…watch…these…videos. They WILL help you!

Video 1:

Video 2:

Video 3:

ABOUT WADE SUTTON

Wade Sutton has dedicated his life to helping artists ditch their day jobs in favor of careers in music.

Serving as a live music producer and performance coach, Wade teaches singers and musicians how to turn their live shows into a kick-ass experience resulting in fans buying more merchandise and increasing e-mail sign-ups.

He also puts to use nearly twenty years of professional journalism experience by creating biographies and electronic press kits for singers and musicians while advising them on matters related to the media, public relations, and obtaining sponsorships.

You can receive a free digital copy of Wade’s book by clicking HERE.