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The Basics of Microphone Technology

The Basics of Microphone Technology

WFM Pastor's Guide: Narrow the search for a microphone that works best for you

Microphones are the first link in the chain of a sound system; the first piece of technology our vocal messages touch. Whether it's your first or your last, choosing your next microphone is a complex and surprisingly intimate process. The fact of the matter is, the process isn't about getting the newest technology and the most expensive model; it's about discovering the best model for you, personally.

WFM spoke with a number of performers, church leaders, and sound professionals at houses of worship to draw the curtain back and reveal the basics of microphone technologyand help you narrow down the search for the microphone that best helps you speak to the spiritual needs of your congregation.

THE FIRST RULE OF THUMB

What is your goal? You want a microphone that accurately and richly captures sound, without distracting the congregation from the worship experience. Microphones must be simple tools for sharing talents and inspiration as effortlessly as possible.

"Start by considering how the microphone will be used," says Chris Huff, author of Audio Essentials for Church Sound. "Microphones are made for different purposes. For example, a Shure SM57 is great for use on a snare drum, but it's not the best for a piano or even as a vocal microphone. There is no one-perfect-microphone to rule them all. A microphone that sounds great for one female vocalist might sound not so great for a male vocalist. And don’t think you have to buy a $500 microphone every time. The SM57 is commonplace for snare mic'ing, and it retails for around $99."

THE SECOND RULE OF THUMB

Before you make a final decision on a purchase, it's a good idea to demo different microphones in the areas you will use them in. Listen to at least a couple of different microphones that you think you might like to use. You may occasionally discover that an earset works best for an interior location where the speaker needs an intimate, face-to-face feel, or a handheld microphone might just feel right.

While there is no single, perfect, all-around microphone for a house of worship's toolkit, the right tool can be selected by paying close attention to the sound quality. Seriously consider purchasing more than one type of microphone, or at least a modular system, so you can be confident in your flexibility and potential to grow.

THE DYNAMIC WORKHORSE

The handheld dynamic micthe old-school "steel mesh ball-on-a-stick," is still widely used in houses of worship, and for good reason. They're relatively inexpensive, don't need their own power supply or batteries, and are tough enough to take a ridiculous amount of abuse and still function. Fragile, these are not. The technology behind dynamic mics makes them ideal for fairly loud, mid-range sounds, but not for capturing richly detailed sound.

THE CONDENSER

Condenser microphones have a similar physical look to dynamic mics, but use different internal technology. When compared to dynamic mics, their sound is richer, but condensers are physically delicate and much more expensive. They require their own power supplies. Like dynamic mics, condensers are popular in handheld varieties and are frequently mounted on lecterns or pulpits.

THE LAVALIER

Lavalier (lav) microphones are small, fastened to clothing with a clip, a pin, or a magnet, and are designed to keep the speaker's hands free. Lav mics are very convenient and allow freedom of movement, particularly the wireless variety, which connects the mic to a transmitter kept in the speaker's pocket or clipped to a belt.

THE EARSET

An increasingly popular type of microphone in churches is the earset. Sometimes called headworn or over-the-ear mics, earsets are comfortable, providing more consistent sound quality and fewer feedback problems than many other types of microphone.

A TIP ON CAPTURING ONLY THE SOUND YOU WANT

Most microphones selected for houses of worship should be "unidirectional," rather than "omnidirectional." Unidirectional mics are very sensitive to sound that comes from one direction. This is very useful for focusing the microphone's attention on one sound sourcesay, a worship leader's voicewhile avoiding unwanted noises from other voices or instruments. Unidirectional mics help prevent feedback and, in general, make it easy for sound engineers to perform their jobs well.

WIRED OR WIRELESS?

As of this writing, the current state of technology places wired and wireless microphones nearly on par with one another in terms of performance. A wireless system equates to a cleaner stage, with less clutter from cables. The real key to successful wireless microphone operation is choosing a clear frequency. Having more than one wireless microphone on the same frequency usually results in none of them working properly.

Frequency follies can be avoided by choosing a microphone like the BLX Series from Shure Inc. based in Niles, Ill. According to Gino Sigismondi, manager of technical training at Shure, "The BLX makes use of the UHF television band. As an entry-level system for houses of worship, the BLX is ideal for future expansion: it can handle 12 compatible systems per frequency band, and multiple bands." The Quickscan feature allows user to find the best open frequency channel with a single tap of a front-mounted button.

THE INSPIRED SPEAKER

According to Huff, "Pastors like to use lavaliers and earset microphones, with a bend towards lavaliers. Some pastors equate the earset with the idea of preaching at a mega-church,' as if it's too fancy. The big problem with lavalier microphones is they are easily bumped, and the congregation hears the subsequent thump in the house speakers." Huff recommends that pastors of any sized congregations strongly consider earset microphones.

"Moving from a lavalier to an earset is often the single most cost-effective sound improvement a church can make," according to Chris Countryman, president of Countryman Associates Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif. "Placing a microphone on the head also eliminates the dramatic changes in sound from turning or dipping the head that you often get with lavaliers and podium microphones. Working with houses of worship is always excitingwhere else can you find dynamic public speakers, rock bands, dramatic performances, and every other imaginable event under the same roof? Because a good earset can travel from the pulpit to the stage to the breakout room, it becomes a versatile tool a church can use for years." Countryman Associates' most popular microphone for houses of worship is the E6 Omnidirectional Earset.

THE SOLOIST

Either a handheld or earset mic is ideal for capturing solo vocals. A delicate, breathy voice in particular will benefit from the responsiveness of a condenser mic.

THE CHOIR

Hanging microphones and stand-mounted mics both work well with choirs. Condenser mics work well when capturing the harmonies produced by a choir; they are sufficiently sensitive to work well at a medium distance, and have a flatter, more natural-sounding frequency response.

Gene Houck, house of worship and commercial sound product specialist for Wilsonville, Ore.-based Audix, relates his experiences mic'ing a choir: "Choirs are considered extremely difficult to mic because they require distant pick-up of the sound source. Depending on the configuration of the choir and whether or not there is music accompaniment, one cardioid condenser mic will be able to adequately pick up 15-20 singers. For larger groups, a horizontal spacing of approximately six feet is recommended to reduce phase cancellation from mic to mic. To get complete coverage from the front row to the back row, mics that are two feet in front of the front row should be two feet taller than the tallest person in the back row. Choir groups of many rows should be covered with additional rows of microphones as needed; again, approximately six feet apart."

THE PODCASTER

Podcasts of sermons are popular with many churches and are relatively simple to produce using free software or the pre-installed programs on most PC and Apple computers. The smartLav, a new lavalier microphone developed by Rode Microphones LLC with U.S. offices in Long Beach, Calif., makes the process of recording professional dialogue even simpler. Instead of connecting to a digital recorder or running through expensive wireless packs, the smartLav connects to a smartphone or tablet computer (either Apple or Android) via a standard TRRS connection. The savvy house of worship can fit a smartLav to the worship leader and simply place the mobile device in their pocket. At the conclusion of the service, a professional quality recording is ready to share with the congregation.

THE INSTRUMENTS

Mic placement for instruments is an art unto itself, but a simple one. Microphones like Stow, Ohio-based Audio-Technica U.S. Inc.'s UniPoint U853R cardioid condenser hanging microphone are designed for suspension from a ceiling for reinforcement of an instrument group. Also, according to David Marsh, Audio-Technica marketing and sales director for installed sound, "Placing two to three mics inside a grand piano can separate and reinforce the different octaves."

The stand adapter, included with the U853R, can transform it into a point microphone for reaching over the shoulder of a flute player, or easy positioning for intonation near an acoustic guitar. An isolation instrument mount, an optional accessory from Audio-Technica, can be used to clip the mic on the bell of a brass instrument or the rim of a drum.

A WORD ON WARRANTIES

Most brands carry a two- or five-year warranty. An exception is the Sennheiser E-900 series, which carries a 10-year warranty. Andrew Kornstein, house of worship market development manager for Sennheiser Electronic Corp. in Old Lyme, Conn., says, "We've found the 10-year warranty is a huge differentiator."

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