Microphones and Old Time / Bluegrass Music

I recently received the following e-mail:

> Peter,
> 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.
>
> Greg

This is a problem a lot of bands face, so I thought I’d offer my thoughts here.

—————–

Hi Greg,

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).

AT4033 microphone

AT4033 microphone

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,

-Peter

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs.

Peter founded Santa Barbara’s Old Time Fiddler’s Convention (1972), UCSB’s Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps – three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled “The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music” (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 – 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, “BlueGrass West!”, based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California.

Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America’s musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.

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3 Responses to Microphones and Old Time / Bluegrass Music

  1. Hi Peter,
    we’ve carefully read your answer to Greg about the use of mics and, particularly about using cardioid panoramic mics such as Audio-Technica AT4033 in bluegrass music. This is just what we were looking for, since we’ve just bought it and would like to use it with an SR 150plus amplifier. The problem is that we’ve immediately learned how feedbacks or Larsen effects can be a challenging issue. We have even got a feedback destroyer to try and face this big trouble but without success.
    Any advice for us?

    • Hi Danilo,

      Attaining maximum volume while avoiding feedback problems will be a constant struggle. It’s best to think of it as a learning experience! 🙂 You will need to consider:
      1) Mic placement
      2) Speaker placement (remember that to place the mic(s) in front of the speakers invites problems.
      3) Other reflective surfaces in the venue, which can bounce unwanted sound waves back to the mic.
      4) “Tuning in” the system, using a graphic equalizer. (I’ve found that the lows and mid-low frequencies are often the most problematic, since they can “bend” around the room and return to the system more easily than the high frequency tones. Feedback destroyers can help, but they are not perfect.
      5) Try to balance the sound volumes by adjusting the distance between the various instruments and singers.
      6) Experiment, experiment, experiment!

      Good luck and best wishes,

      -Peter

    • Mics like the 4033 are more difficult to use without getting feedback. You will need to experiment with mic levels, placement (not in front of speakers or reflecting walls), and EQ, which can make a big difference.

Your comments are always welcome!