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Can We Talk? What Every Singer Should Know From A Mix Engineer’s Perspective

Holding the mic correctly and at an appropriate distance, singing consistently -- even in sound check -- and more.
Sure, it’s a nice photo, but what’s wrong with this picture?

A while back I wrote an article (here) offering advice to DJs from a sound engineer’s point of view. This time around let’s focus on singers.

Let’s start with a pet peeve, something that I really want to emphasize to all singers: please hold the microphone by its handle. Somebody, somewhere, a long time ago decided that it was OK to hold the mic by the its head, probably because this particular pose looks “way cooler.”

We still commonly see this done by metal vocalists, rappers and others who want that cool appearance on stage. That’s the caveat, though. It might look better, but it sounds way worse. The shape of the head is designed in such a way that it provides directivity to the mic element, helping it pick up sound from the front and reject it from the sides and the back, depending on the type.

Holding the mic by its head causes it to A) lose all that delicious directivity, B) make the sound much more prominent in the midrange, and C) because of A and B, be more prone to feedback. Unfortunately, there’s no magic button on any mixing console that can magically fix these issues.

Sure, we can fiddle with the knobs and mask the effects of this torture a bit, cutting out some of the most annoying frequencies and filtering out the most disturbing feedback issues from the monitors, but if the sound is distorted and mangled at the input, there’s no amount of twiddling with the knobs that will cure the problem.

Anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating this point should try it out on their own. Use the same mic, sing the same song and don’t change anything except the position of the hand. It becomes painfully obvious – hold the mic by the body, and the sound is clear and present, but start cupping the head and it becomes nasally, distorted and, well, obnoxious.

Singers, the choice is ultimately yours – if you decide to cup the head, be aware of what it does to your vocal sound and don’t expect miracles to come from the person at the console.

A Matter Of Space

Next, singers should understand how the distance of the mic from their mouth affects their sound – and use this to their advantage. Most handheld mics, regardless of brand and type, are meant to be held about an inch away from the mouth, with the mouth pointed directly at the center of the head.

Moving the mic further away thins the sound because a lot of the low-end frequencies get lost. Alternatively, moving the mic really close can produce a very prominent boost in the low frequencies, a phenomenon known as proximity effect.

As a mix engineer, ideally I like the distance between the mic and the mouth to be as consistent as possible so that I can dial in the vocal sound with greater precision. During live performances this is a big ask, but by being aware of the mic’s position relative to the mouth, singers can help me place their vocal on top of the mix and keep it there.

Ah, that’s much better – the head isn’t being obscured, and the mic is positioned in front of the mouth.

Once singers have mastered keeping the distance relatively the same, they can then experiment with creating deliberate vocal effects by changing the distance, such as getting close for whispers or moving further away for airy, distant soundscapes. Mind you, even these movements can be minimal and still have quite an effect on the sound.

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