Live Performance Microphone Techniques

By Mark Sandman

Singing into a microphone sounds like a no brainer, but learning how to use a microphone correctly can be one of the most challenging things for a new open mic performer to master.  This blog discusses basic live performance microphone techniques.

Almost all mics, used at live performance venues, are what are called top addressing unidirectional mics.  This means that they are designed to pick up sound from directly in front of the microphone (top) versus from the sides or from behind to minimize background noise being picked up by the microphone.  So, rule number one rule is to sing directly into the top of the microphone.

The next important thing to know is that both the output (volume level) and sound characteristics will change significantly depending upon how close or far away you are from the microphone.  This is called proximity effect.  As a generalization, you want to maintain a consistent distance from the microphone.

Moving your head even a few inches away from or to the side of a microphone makes a BIG difference in the sound level coming through the PA system.  Maintaining a consistent distance and singing directly into the mic can be challenging if you are reading music or lyrics while performing because you tend to turn your head back and forth looking at the audience and looking at the music stand.

It can also be a problem if you are playing a guitar or other musical instrument and move your head up and down looking at the audience and looking at your guitar so you hit that F# m7b5 chord correctly.

In both cases, the result is your voice coming through the sound system is going to get louder and softer.  This will also drive the poor guy or gal at the mixing board crazy as he/she tries to maintain a constant volume level.

Knowing this, there are several things to keep in mind.  If you are using a music stand, place it in a location where you can look back and forth from the music to the audience with minimal movement.  If you need to occasionally look at your guitar or keyboard while performing you might want to place the microphone a little lower and angled up so you can move your head up and down while still always singing directly into the microphone.

When you first step up to the microphone, there will usually be someone to help set up and position the microphone for you.  Don’t be shy about asking to have the microphone height and angle adjusted to where it is most comfortable for you.

Before you begin performing you should always talk into the microphone (and play a few chords on your instrument) to break the ice with your audience and so the person running the sound system can set the volume levels correctly for you.  There is no such thing as one correct setting, because no two voices are the same, and some people prefer to be closer or further away from the microphone.

As a general rule, you want your mouth to be a few inches away from the microphone.  However, there are times that you will want to move a little closer or further away from the microphone.

If you sing some musical passages significantly louder or softer than others, you can move closer or further away from the microphone to avoid distortion on the loud parts and to assure softer passages can still be heard.  This takes a lot of practice to get right.

If you watch an experienced singer with a wide volume and frequency range at a live performance or on TV (Christina Aguilera, comes quickly to mind), you will see how they move the microphone closer and further away, in essence, using the distance from the microphone as a method of volume control and avoiding distortion.  (In the recording studio, a process called compression is used to electronically make the loud passages softer and the soft passages louder, to even things out.)

Lastly, if you sing directly into most microphones, so that your lips are almost or actually touching the microphone (You should avoid standing in a bucket of water while doing this), it will boost the low frequencies, resulting in what some consider a warmer sound.  For some vocalist, this can enhance the sound of their voice.  This is especially true for softer or thinner sounding voices.  For many vocalists, it can just make things sound muddy.

Here are a couple of articles proving additional information on microphone techniques:

Lastly, a nice video on the subject:

Mark Sandman
Jam’n Java Open Mic

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