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Gain after feedback: live vocal mics

An investigation of how the mic industry is reinventing the lead vocalist’s second-greatest asset.

In the studio, the vocal mic is a sacred cow: untouchable, shielded from spit but never short of polish. It connects with the singer only as an x-ray connects with a patient, delicate and remote, peering into the very bones of a performance from a glass cage.

On stage, well… seize it, bite it, caress it, wrap it around you like a lover and – if you’re really good – do this in a way that becomes your signature, a gait or a grasp as recognizable as the voice itself. Think of the way Elvis leaned into the stand, the way Roger Daltrey coiled the cable like a whip in a rodeo, even the way Alvin Stardust held the mic above his head in a gloved hand as if he couldn’t find a seat on the Northern Line. From sublime to ridiculous, the lead vocal mic is the epicentre of a production.

Two worlds collide
The industry has always observed an according divide. Condensers were the fragile conduits of recording, while dynamics bounced along from one venue to another with the robustness of a coach full of drunken pensioners. They were made differently, for very different purposes. But, over the past few years, this divide has come under scrutiny and is now showing signs of being breached – precisely because, everywhere else in the system, noise is down and quality is up.

Live sound has improved incrementally, an evolution kept in motion by a series of breakthroughs that generate the next adaptation fit for survival. In-ear monitoring brought down on-stage SPLs, exposing signal paths elsewhere and inviting better loudspeaker solutions. These in turn prompted greater access and control, made available by digital consoles, management systems and networks – ever more forensic analysis of the unpredictable behaviour of wave forms when exposed to a paying audience.

And so we arrive at a point where most of the major manufacturers of microphones and their ancillaries are re-examining the possibilities of the live vocal mic in the light of these gains. “I think as sound systems and monitoring systems have become more sophisticated, the choice and use of studio-type condenser microphones has opened up,” says Chris Pyne, renowned FOH engineer for Kylie Minogue, Il Divo and others and now product specialist at Martin Audio.

“As well as this, the more advanced sound systems still allow for the nuances of mics that have been around for 30-plus years – like some old favourites of mine, the AKG 451 and 414 and the good old Shure SM57. Both large and small diaphragm studio-type mics have appeared more frequently on riders: the advancements in construction and materials have allowed them to become more roadworthy but still retain their quality and sensitivity.

“Radio systems and vocal mic capsules seem to be the area that’s leaped ahead over the last few years, with the advancements in signal processing and the movement into digital processing. Sennheiser linking up with Neumann certainly changed the game in the early 2000s. I remember trialling and testing Neumann 105s with Kylie Minogue on the Fever tour, and these mics allowed me to push that little bit extra and gain more headroom and clarity.”

“As a matter of interest my current role at Martin Audio is to train and support clients using the Martin Audio MLA multicellular speaker system. We believe it does allow for studio-quality sound and controls the acoustic environments in a way that helps these new, advanced microphones shine through,” concludes Pyne.

Sebastian Schmitz, Sennheiser’s portfolio manager for wired microphones, agrees. “Our e965 vocal condenser, a double-diaphragm microphone with a 1-inch capsule, is used on rock and roll stages now – Rihanna, for example,” he says. “It has switchable polar patterns, between cardioid and supercardioid, because today we can accommodate this kind of sensitivity live. But even if people are not using condensers, the dynamic capsules are now sounding high-end too – our MD5235 has special aluminium/copper voice coil technology.”

Read the rest of Phil Ward’s feature in our Digital Edition