5 things you should never do with a mic

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1. Drop the mic

It may be funny, but I don’t think I need to explain why this is bad. It can break the microphone (even the classic SM58, which according to legend can take a bullet, and generally does well on drop tests), and if the sound operator isn’t ready for it, will DEFINITELY make a loud “thunk” in the speakers. People will hate you. Similarly, never put it somewhere that it can roll off and hit the ground.

2. Cup the mic

If you’ve seen a rapper or hardcore singer, you’ve seen this. The singer puts their hand around the ball of the microphone, creating a sort of “tunnel” that they then sing into. Not only does this change the sound of the mic (usually making it HARDER to understand the words), but it actually ruins a really important part of the microphone design: directionality. A vocal mic is usually directional: it only picks up sound from the front of it, blocking out sound from the audience, other instruments, and monitors. This means less unwanted sound, less feedback, and the ability to make the mic louder without problems. But when you cup the mic, you block the ports in the microphone that make directionality work, eliminating that effect.

3. Blow or tap on the mic to see if it’s on

Stepping up to a mic can be awkward – you don’t know if it’s on or not, and wouldn’t it be so awkward if you started talking and it wasn’t? Most people, instead of trying some words like “hello?” or “testing,” will choose to blow or tap on the mic instead. This is terrible because 1) depending on the mic, that might damage it, and then it DEFINITELY won’t work, 2) if there’s a sound operator, they don’t want the tapping sound to go through the speakers, so they’ll mute it, and 3) it looks incredibly unprofessional to the audience. Most of the time, the mic will work. Seriously. Just trust that. More importantly, if you start talking and don’t hear anything, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work – it might just be that you’re talking quietly, and the sound operator needs to turn it up…which won’t happen unless you talk.

4. If the mic isn’t working, act like you can fix it

There is precisely one thing that the typical user is capable of doing to fix a microphone that isn’t working: IF it has a switch (most mics don’t!), flip the switch to the ON position. Otherwise, it’s going to be up to someone else to make it work. And yet, whenever something goes wrong, the speaker always looks around at the mic and wires as if they’re suddenly going to fix it. If it’s broken, look at the sound operator. They’ll already know, and will probably be working on getting you another one. All you can do is either go on without the mic or wait until it’s fixed.

5. Speak quietly

A lot more about this on a previous post, but in short – microphones can make things louder, but only to a point before you get feedback. Don’t yell, but if you’re too quiet or standing far from the mic, you’ll probably still be quiet to the audience. Speak a little louder than conversational volume, and if you know how to project properly, do it.

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microphone with wire

Don’t (just) let the mic do the work

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Microphones are like magic. Along with an adequate PA system, they let you take something that’s not-so-loud and make it louder. Hooray! You no longer have to yell until your vocal cords shoot out of your neck just to tell Randy from accounting that your department had expenses that he can clearly read off the freaking paper right in front of his face.

It’s for this magical reason that vocal coaches often tell people “let the mic do the work.” For sure, that’s important – if you amplify somebody who’s yelling, it’ll just sound like loud yelling, and depending on the system (or engineer) it may just sound like distortion (here’s an example of mic distortion and giggling metal people). When you’re giving a speech, you definitely want to sound human and normal, so you should be a little quieter and let the mic take care of the loudness.

But, microphones have a dark side. As anyone who has had to make a heartfelt speech at a microphone in a movie knows, microphones can cause feedback (especially when it’s awkward), a sound that makes you want to rip off your ears and set them on fire. I think everyone knows the sound, but just in case you want a reminder, here’s 12 hours of it. Enjoy.

Put very simply, feedback happens when you turn a microphone up too loud, or when you get that microphone too close to the speakers. It’s generally pretty avoidable by just not doing those things, but that’s often a problem. If the person speaking is too quiet, the only way to get it loud enough is to turn it up, and sometimes that means I have to turn it up so high that feedback happens.

Related to this problem is if someone holds the microphone too far from their face – the closer you are to the mic, the louder it gets. Even if you’re yelling but are 10 feet from the mic, when I turn it up enough to pick you up, there will be feedback.

Very few people will naturally yell when they have a mic in their hand. I get very angry when I hear people say “let the mic do the work,” not because it’s wrong, but because they’re usually telling someone who is a naturally quiet speaker, who actually needs to do the opposite – they need to help the mic be ABLE to do the work. In ALL cases, when you’re speaking at a microphone, you should speak louder than you would in a conversation – theatre people call it “projection.” Don’t get so loud that your voice sounds harsh or yell-y…

…but be loud enough that if the mic suddenly broke, a good chunk of the audience would still be able to hear you.

If you get loud enough that you should legitimately “let the mic do the work,” not only are you in the maybe 1% of people who already know how to project, but your sound guy will definitely tell you. Otherwise, ignore those people and, for my sanity, please be louder.

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Beyond the Machine

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If you’re wondering where I was over the past few weeks, I was knee deep in some interactive technology for Juilliard’s annual Beyond the Machine show. I don’t have videos or photos yet, but here’s some more info about the show: http://www.juilliard.edu/degrees-programs/center-innovation-arts/beyond-machine?destination=node/19440

It was a great time that incorporated tons of video and some crazy interactive control. I can’t wait to get the photos and share what it was all about.

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