Taming Female Vocal Ensembles

Lately, I’ve had time to be more intentional about listening to great music. I bought a phenomenal set of speakers for my listening room, and have enjoyed throwing the best recordings I can find at them. One of my experiments was Mark Knopfler’s latest album, Tracker, which I bought as 192Khz/24 bit AIFF files. To say it sounds amazing is an understatement. One of the songs, Wherever I Go, features a female vocal I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up Ruth Moody and discovered The Waillin’ Jennys. As I sit here listening to their live album—which is most excellent—I got to thinking about mixing multiple female vocals live. 

The Dreaded Mid-High Build Up

The Jennys sound amazing because they have an actual alto, mezzo and soprano. When they sing together, they are singing different parts in different parts of the frequency spectrum. Plus they’re really good. 

In many churches, you’ll have 3-5 (or more) female vocals on the worship team. But because we’re not dealing with professionals, and we work with what we have, they’re not usually all different parts. What you’ll have is 3, 4, 5 or more women singing the same part. And when that happens, things can get a bit shrill. 

This is Not Criticism

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not making a statement on women in general, women on the worship team or women’s voices. I’m simply pointing out that when several of them sing the same part, amplified through a big PA (which itself may be a bit on the bright side), it can get a bit edgy as the volume increases. It’s usually not a problem at moderate levels, but when the energy and volume go up, harshness is likely.

But we’re problem-solvers, it’s what we do. And we have amazing technology at our disposal, so I’m going to share a quick tip on how to fix this. 

Enter Dynamic EQ

The dynamic EQ and its cousin, the multi-band compressor are your best friends in many female vocal scenarios. They both have the ability to reduce the level of a frequency band based on incoming level, though they do it differently. Which one you use will largely depend on what you have available. Some consoles have both, like my favorite DiGiCo’s, while others will only have a multi-band comp. Don’t fret over it, use what you have. 

All you’re going to do is bus all your female vocals to a group, and put a dynamic EQ or multi-band compressor on that group. If you have a dynamic EQ, pick the mid-high band, and widen it out so it covers roughly 1-4 Khz. Set it for about 3-6 dB of cut, then set the threshold so it only starts kicking in when you start hearing that shrill, painful mid-high build up. Those are starting settings, of course, your mileage may vary. Just don’t take too much out or it will sound unnatural.

With a multi-band comp, use the mid band, and set it so it encompasses the same 1-4 Khz range. Go for a slow-ish attack and release of 150-200 msec, and a ratio of 2:1 to start. Then set the threshold so it kicks in when things get shrill. You may have to increase the ratio. Or not. Again, adjust to taste.

The Goal

All we’re trying to do here is take the edge off the frequency build up. You want this to be subtle, and not at all obvious. The end result should be that the women can sing their hearts out without it feeling harsh. Get that right, and the worship music will be more engaging and less distracting.

Better Sounding Video, Pt. 2

As I mentioned last time, in honor of my SALT class on getting better audio for video, I’ve dug up some of the very first posts I wrote for ChurchTechaArts, way back in 2007. The previous post focused on the reason for close-mic’ing your talent, and how to use handheld and shotgun mic’s for that purpose. Today, we’ll consider a few other options. 

Wired Lavaliere

My second favorite way to mic interviews (after a shotgun mic), is the wired lavaliere. I have used these extensively professionally with great results. You don't have to worry about interference and the sound quality is excellent. For wired mics, I really like Sony's ECM-77, though the ECM-66 and 55 are pretty good too. The 77 is great because it is tiny, can be hidden almost anywhere and sounds terrific. If you can’t find those, the Countryman B3 or Tram TR50 are great options. DPA also makes some fantastic (and fantastically small) lavs, though they are spendy. 

Wireless Lavaliers

Ideally, you would use a wireless mic that has a camera mount receiver, such as the Shure FP series. The wireless option gives you the most flexibility because you have no wires to connect you to the talent. As long as you stay in range, and choose a clear frequency, things work great. Be wary of cheapo wireless mics, however. If a camera mounted receiver and body pack combo doesn't cost $400-500 at least, keep looking.

The other big downside to wireless is the simple fact that the RF spectrum is shrinking as the Federal government keeps selling it off. We already lost the entire 700 Mhz band, and it looks like we have about 3 years to vacate the 600 Mhz band. When you use a wireless mic, you’re competing with everything else in the area for clear spectrum, and that’s going to become harder. My rule of thumb is that if the talent isn’t moving, there’s not reason to not wire them. 

Another Wireless Option

A final option is to use a wireless mic that you would use in a live sound application. I used to do this a lot at church because we didn’t have a camera mount wireless system. I’d just take one of the Shure ULX-P (back in the day) mics, set the receiver on the floor next to my tripod, and strap the transmitter on the talent. It works great, though it is a bit of a pain every time I move the camera.

Plugging It All In

All of the applications are assuming your camera has XLR inputs to work with (though the camera mounted receivers usually come with an 1/8" cable). Each of these mics are professional grade solutions for prosumer cameras and above. If your camera has only a 1/8" mic jack, all is not lost. You might be tempted to make up an adapter to take XLR to 1/8". Don't do it. The pre-amps on consumer grade equipment will not function well with these types of microphones.

The better solution is to use an adapter box made just for this purpose, such as the ones from BeachTek. They have a variety of solutions that include phantom power, metering and variable gain. They are well worth the investment (as low as $199).

Now that many people are shooting with DSLRs, a better solution is to buy a small recorder from Zoom or Tascam and capture your audio that way. I’ve shot quite a few trade shows with a Tascam DR-40, and it works great. I have a headphone Y-cable on the headphone output jack and take one side to the mic input on my DSLR (for later audio synchronization) and use the other for monitoring.

Listen Live 

Finally, when you are recording, plug some headphones in and listen to what you are recording. I am amazed and confused when I see people recording audio, but not monitoring it (and I've seen it with professionals as much as non-professionals!). When you listen in, you can hear trouble before it is too late. Make sure you use good headphones that provide good isolation. I've been burned before using cheap "walkman" type headphones and thinking I was hearing clean audio, when what I was really hearing was the person talking in the room.

Hopefully you've found this helpful and you will be on your way to making better, more effective videos that will tell the story without being distracting.

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Better Sounding Video, Pt. 1

This week, in honor of SALT and my class on getting better audio for your videos, I’ve reach back into the archives—way back to May 2007. This was part of a series on making better videos. I’ve updated it to include some new equipment, but the basic principles are still sound. That’s the great thing about solid fundamentals; they are timeless. 

Repeat after me—I will not use my on-camera mic for anything other than general sound. I will not use my on-camera mic for interviews. I will not use my on-camera mic for short films. On-camera mics have one major drawback that simply cannot be overcome—they are too far from the sound source. I don’t care if it’s the cheap built-in mic on your DSLR or a $3,000 Schoeps, too far is too far.


Let's talk physics for a moment. There is a law in physics known as the "inverse square law." It has many different uses, but for our purposes in sound reproduction, it applies thusly: As the distance from a sound source is doubled, the acoustic energy is reduced by 75% (or 6 dB).

So, let's say you have someone speaking on camera, and that person is 8 feet away. A mic right next to their mouth may receive a signal of, say 65 dBA SPL (normal talking). As the mic moves from 3 inches away to 6 inches away, the signal level drops by 75%, or to 59 dB. When we get to 1 foot away, it's in down 75% again, or 53 dB. At 2 feet it drops by 75% again, to 47 db. By the time we get to 8 feet (where the on-camera mic is), the once strong 65 dB signal is now down to 35 dB. Now, this is all true in free space; but in a room, there are reflections which will minimize the drop. But it’s still significant. 

Can an on-camera mic pick this up? Sure, but the problem is the noise floor of everything else in the room is at or above the signal level of the talent, including the sound of the tape transport in the camera! To paraphrase Alton Brown, that is not good sound.

Always Close Mic the Talent

The answer, of course, is to get the mic closer to the sound source. If you can't get the camera to within 6 inches of the talent's face (and you probably shouldn’t for other, non-sound reasons), you need a remote mic. You can use something as simple as a hand-held dynamic mic (like an SM 58) and use it like a television reporter. If you are going to do a lot of "reporter" type shots, the hands down way to go is a noise canceling mic like the EV 635 or better yet, its shock mounted cousin, the RE50. Long favorites of ENG news crews, these mics will allow the talent to stand in the middle of a football stadium and will still deliver great sound of just the talent.

If you want to be a little less obtrusive, you can use a shotgun mic (like the Audio Technica AT 8035), and either suspend it from the ceiling, a mic stand or a fish pole. A fish pole is an extendable aluminum or carbon fiber pole that is designed to be held overhead by another person, and allows the mic to be placed just out of the frame above or below the talent.

If you plan on using the shotgun on a fish pole, make sure you use a shock mount.

The purpose of a shock mount is to isolate the mic from the inevitable handling noises that a fish pole will cause. The shotgun on a fish pole gives you a lot of options if you have a second person to hold it. That person had better have strong arms though. I really like this option because the sound quality is generally pretty good, and it doesn't cost a fortune. I recently purchased a shotgun mic, shock mount and fish pole for our church and spent less than $300.

Of course, you can also put the shotgun mic on a mic stand. We shot more interviews than I can count when I owned my video production company, and we almost always used an AT853a on a boom stand right over the subject. We set it so it was just out of the shot, and got great audio every time. Sometimes, if the shot required it, we would position the mic below frame and point it up; this was key if we were shooting in a room with concrete floors. I still recommend the shock mount, even if you’re using a tripod, though. 

Next time, we’ll look at wireless mic options, including one that might surprise you.


Today's post is brought to you by DPA Microphones. DPA's range of microphones have earned their reputation  for exceptional clarity,  high resolution, above all, pure, uncolored accurate sound. Whether recording or sound reinforcement, theatrical or broadcast, DPA's miking solutions have become the choice of professionals with uncompromising demands for sonic excellence.