How To Buy A Microphone For Live Performance

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.

  • Absolutely true. Here’s a suggestion for the total beginner: If you don’t own a pro mic already, get a Shure Sm58 and learn how to use it, its directionality, its presence rise, it proximity bass boost. On and off the stand. Once you’ve mastered that one, you’ll be in a better position to judge whether a more expensive stage mic will really buy you any advantage. The other advantage is that all halfway decent live sound people know this one inside out and know exactly how to make it sound best on their systems. You may want to upgrade later, but trying to jump from a $50 mic right to a high-end pro mic might not give you the best final answer. Plus you can always take it along as a backup or use it as a blackjack when a drunk rushes the stage. IMHO, of course.