Your Microphones and You (P.A. Systems Part 2)

By Ralph Shaw – Professional Full-time Ukulele Entertainer

Last time, I gave you some basic tips when getting and using your first P.A. Today we’re looking at important choices to be made when purchasing microphones to plug into your P.A.

Before we discuss microphones I feel it is important to first say a few words about:

The Microphone Stand

Tall, thin, silent and elegant; the presence of a microphone on a stand adds focus and gravitas to a performance. Think of the singer who walks out and stands at the microphone. The seemingly inanimate mic. stand, as it is usually called, is a pedestal for an object that makes humans sound like gods. Somehow it draws the audience focus as much as a bright spotlight. For sheer charismatic appeal, a friend of mine, singer/guitarist Josh Minsky, equates the presence of a microphone stand to having a second performer onstage with you. The microphone and its accompanying stand are seldom pondered but they’re as vital to the performers’ stage presence as the costume and the smile. I urge you to consider this phenomenon if you are considering getting a headset microphone. Such a microphone may be suitable for dancers, clowns, evangelists and anyone else who needs to jump around and wave their arms about. But unless you absolutely need to be fully mobile I’d suggest staying with the traditional setup.

The stand can have a weighted base or tripod style with folding legs. I prefer the latter as it’s lighter and easier to store. In order to make room for your ukulele plus strumming arm you’ll want to stand back a little from the stand, so you’ll need a microphone boom (pictured above). This is a rod that attaches to the top of your stand and holds your microphone exactly where you need it. If you’re also using an instrument microphone then you don’t need to buy another stand. You can get a clamp which attaches to your existing stand. The clamp supports a second boom which holds your instrument microphone.

The Vocal Microphone

The industry standard for vocal microphones is the Shure SM58. It’s the cardioid, dynamic (ice cream cone shaped) microphone you always see performers using. There are better sounding mics in the world but this is a reliable and robust microphone that rarely lets you down. For optimal sound quality you need to sing close to the microphone; say about three or four inches. In other words your mouth needs to maintain a distance from the microphone equivalent to the breadth of a hand. Your body can gyrate all it wants but your head needs to stay still if you don’t want the sound to get louder and quieter.

The Condenser MicrophoneA different way to go is to use a condenser microphone, such as the Shure SM87A. With this microphone the performer, or performers, can stand up to several feet behind the microphone. If you use a condenser microphone to pick up the total sound from both your voice and the ukulele then positioning is very important. The microphone needs to be placed in such a way that the voice and ukulele volumes are in balance. This microphone is more forgiving with movement than the dynamic microphone and the sound quality can be excellent. Sometimes whole bands will stand around a single microphone to play. But it doesn’t work in all situations. Condenser microphones pick up more external sound than you expect, so watch your mouth when you turn away to say things that you think the audience can’t hear. Feedback can also be a problem with these mics. especially in group situations. They also usually require a power supply such as a battery or 48V phantom power (usually supplied by the mixer). Before buying a condenser microphone make sure it’s what you need and that your mixer/amp can supply the phantom power if necessary.

The Instrument MicrophoneIf you want to plug your instrument directly into an amp then your uke needs to have a pickup either built into it or stuck onto it. I will be making another blog post about ukulele pickups soon so keep an eye out here, or better still you can read about all things ukulele and ukulele performance in my book, which you can buy here.Truly though, you’ll usually get a better sound by using an external microphone. Once again the Shure company can claim the most widely used instrument microphone of all. The Shure SM57 invented by Shure engineer Ernie Seeler, is a microphone you can use onstage or in the studio. It shouldn’t let you down, in fact, it’s been used to amplify speeches by every president since its introduction in 1965. Mr Seeler, expected his microphone to be used for classical orchestras. He despised rock music which, ironically, is where his microphone has been most used for the last four decades. There is no word on what he thought of ukuleles.

When buying sound equipment: Remember that being louder does not equate to sounding better. Seek equipment that retains as much of your natural acoustic sound as possible.

ABOUT Ralph Shaw

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