A Primer on Microphones
By Jim Boratko
If you recall my last Tech Talk article, our current focus is improving your sound system. That article centered on how to improve your speakers. As I mentioned in that article, if you are unsatisfied with your current sound system, the place to start is the speakers you are using.
Let’s assume your speakers are satisfactory or you’ve upgraded them to speakers that perform better in your space. The next aspect you should consider to improve your sound system is your microphone system.
Selecting a microphone can be a daunting task. There are many types of microphones in all different configurations, and the technical terms the salesperson uses can be confusing. Rather than address this topic by describing all these terms, I will focus on the type of mic you may need for specific situations. There are websites associated with music store outlets that can provide you with that technical information if you want to learn more.
For our first scenario, let’s consider a speaker at a podium, be that a lectern, pulpit, or other need. If you watch any news outlet, you will eventually see some figure addressing a crowd from a podium with either a microphone in the front or two microphones on either side. These microphones are known as dynamic cardioid mics. These mics can be used as a hand-held mic or slipped into a mic stand and are the most common mics available. These mics have a pick-up pattern similar to the one in the chart below.
Assume you are looking down on the speaker standing where the red “X” is in this diagram. The upside-down heart shape is the field of sound that the mic will pick up. The farther you go from the center of the diagram, the softer the sound will be, and the harder it will be for the mic to pick it up. Stage performers often use these mics. If you recall how they use them, they hold the mic directly in front of them and speak/sing into the mic that way. It means it will not easily pick up sounds on the side or behind them, which is desired in this case. The mic should be aimed directly at the speaker’s mouth to pick up the best sound.
There is a tendency for speakers to hold these mics like a tv mc for a game show. That means that when they speak, they project the sound over the top of the mic instead of directly into it. When that happens, the sound will fade and go in and out because the person is not speaking into the mic.
An example of this type of mic includes the Shure SM58 (pictured on the left), which sells for approximately $100 if you want a plug-in mic cord (XLR) model. A wireless version is available for $350.
The limited pick-up field can be a problem, especially if the person using it tends to move out of the field or turn their head away from the mic, as is customary in many church service environments. A wireless headset is an excellent solution in this case. Similar to the dynamic hand-held mic, this mic must be set up in a way that the mic is close to the speaker’s mouth. These mics are usually very small, with an attachment that fits over the person’s ear. They typically come with small, sponge-like mufflers that fit over the mic to eliminate the popping sounds when speaking harder consonants into the mic. These mics tend to be a bit more fragile than the hand-held mic, so, if possible, see if replacement mics, wires, and mic are available separately. The Shure Duraplex model is shown here and is available for $400.
One thing to be mindful of is that these types of mics come with a transmitter that the speaker must wear and a receiver attached to your sound system. The speaker transmitter has a mute button, which will turn off the mic when required. Sometimes the speaker will turn it on by mistake or forget to turn it off, so it would be prudent for someone to be able to mute the mic from the sound control board if convenient. The transmitters typically are battery powered, so check the battery level before each use and replace them if they are getting low to avoid having the headset go dead in the middle of the service.
The final scenario to discuss in this article is when you want to mic an instrumental ensemble or choir. In these situations, you want to be able to pick up the sound around the instrument and the room. If you think of a violin soloist playing in a concert hall, you need to include the reverberant sound in the room and the instrument to sound realistic. In this scenario, you would use a condenser mic, similar to the Audio-Technica AT2020 shown to the right.
I’ve used this mic on many recording sessions with excellent results. It is a very inexpensive mic ($80), but it produces professional-level results. This is an omnidirectional mic, which equally picks up sound from all directions. If you live stream your services, you will want to use a mic like this to pick up the sound in the space, specifically for things like congregational singing, the organ, or spoken responses.
One final word - many more mics are available at a substantially higher price. However, microphones in the specified price range will provide excellent results for most purposes.
Next time we’ll delve into the world of audio mixers. ■
Jim Boratko has been an organist and music director for nearly 40 years. He retired from his corporate IT job in 2015 and now devotes himself full-time to his passion for music. His technical IT and network support background merged with his musical experience as we navigated from in-person experiences to virtual rehearsals, concerts, and worship services.
Jim will share some of his tips in a recurring column concerning the use of technology in worship. If you have any questions or want to suggest a future topic for him to address, please get in touch with Jim at email@example.com.
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