I recently received the following e-mail:
> My band played to a loud room of people tonight. We had one hot mic for vocals and the crowd essentially drowned out instrumentation at times. I tried to play into the mic when possible but it didn’t really pick up the mando. Seems you have to almost chew on that mic for vocals to be heard. This was frustrating as some of our playing was inaudible to the crowd. Question: Are specific mics used for the step up style of amplification? Good thing we were not being paid.
This is a problem a lot of bands face, so I thought I’d offer my thoughts here.
You’re describing a basic problem in this type of music. Modern microphones used in PA work are designed for pop and rock music, where the instruments have electric pickups and are connected to stacks of amplifiers behind the musicians. This means that the mics have very “tight” pickup patterns, whose sensitivity drops off drastically with distance. If this were not so, the mics would cause distortion and feedback from the instrument amps and drums behind them.
Practically, what this means is that the vocalist or instrumentalist must be within an inch of the PA mic for it to work efficiently. Thus, if you have a 3-piece group, each with an instrument, you would ideally need six mics for sound reinforcement. This can get expensive, complicated, and constraining for the performers involved. Some musicians use “acoustic” instruments with built-in mics/pickups, but I have never heard such an instrument that really sounds good/natural to my ears. Using a built-in mic means loss of dynamics in the sound: one cannot vary the volume using distance from the mic. Use of pickups means one looses the natural overtones of the wood and replaces natural sound with electromechanical distortion.
There are some specialty mics that have broader pickup patterns, but they can be expensive (eg. Audio-Technica AT4033).
Part of stagecraft involves learning to use mic and speaker placement (eg. speakers should not be behind or pointed into the mics) to get the best possible sound. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Learning to “work” a microphone is just as an important skill as is playing or singing. Of course, early old-time musicians didn’t use microphones — they didn’t exist. Bluegrass is really the first musical style that was actually built around a microphone, with the sound blended by distance of each performer from the mic. Watching a band that knows how to do this is a real pleasure, a form of “musical ballet” if you will. The role of the microphone is not well-known, even today. A bluegrass band playing without any mic simply cannot achieve the tonal balance intended for this music. That’s what makes this music different from any other.
Of course, the best solution is to find gigs where your audience is quiet and listening to your show!
Best of luck,