The Right Mic

I admit it; over the years, I've come do develop what some might say is an unhealthy obsession with microphones. Hi, my name is Mike and I'm a micaholic. In reality, I've been fascinated for years that the same basic components, put together in essentially the same way can have such a diverse effect on sound. For example, all dynamic microphones are built from a diaphragm attached to a magnet that moves through a coil. But no one can disagree that an SM58 sounds radically different from an RE20. The trick then becomes figuring out which mic goes best with which source.

This really has been the object of my obsession over the last few years. It really all started back in Ohio when I joined a good-sized church there. They had a decent group of musicians on stage, but terrible equipment to reproduce the sound. I joined the tech team and immediately set about improving our lot. I started with the vocal mics first, as they were the most cost-effective to change out. Once I found out how much the sound improved could be by swapping one mic for another, I was hooked.

Over the last few years, I've been slowly doing the same thing at Coast HIlls. When I arrived, all our vocalists were on the same mic, the EV N/D757. Apparently, someone got a deal on them since we have 12 in the mic locker. Now, they're not a bad mic, but they don't sound a whole lot better than an SM58 in many cases. Once we made the switch to our new UHF-R wireless mics, I started upgrading capsules. I purchased a KSM9 for our worship leader, but we didn't like how it sounded for him, and we moved it around to different vocalists. I never did find anyone in our team who sounded better on it, at least in our PA. So I sold it.

When I discovered the Heil RC 22 and RC 35, the game changed. We immediately noticed a significant improvement in both clarity and detail. What I find interesting is that on most vocalists, the 35 sounds great. However, we've had a few people on whom it just didn't work. But when we swap it for a 22, we're back to great. Our current student ministries worship leader is a great example. I tried the 35 on him and didn't like it. But on the 22, he sounds fantastic.

Now I point this out not just to pimp Heil mics (I do use a lot of them and they are great) but to illustrate the case that it's important to match the source to the mic. In fact, I would dare say that changing mics is the single most affordable thing you can do to improve your sound. Simply figuring out which mic works best for each instrument and voice on stage will make your job as an engineer far, far easier.

To further that assertion, I've received quite a lot of high praise for the sound in our room lately. Now, I'd like to think that my mixing skills are improving (and I'm hopeful they have), but I doubt that's the only variable. We've not done any significant tweaking to the PA tuning, nor have we been able to address the poor coverage or lack of acoustic treatment. However, what we have done is change out almost every mic on stage.

The drum kit is now almost exclusively Heil, with the exception of the kick mic which now rocking an EV RE320. Our vocalists sing through the aforementioned RC 35s and 22s, along with the occasional Beta 87 (since I've lacked budget to pick up more 35s...). We moved our AKG C414s from overhead duty to dual mic'ing the top of the Leslie, and put the PR48 down on the low horn of that great old cabinet. I've had the chance to try out a few mics on the guitar cabinet of late, my favorite being the relatively new Shure KSM313 ribbon mic. Sadly, budget constraints will likely keep me from buying of those, though it is absolutely killer.

The point of all this is that it may take some experimentation—we've spent weeks trying different mics on vocalists until we were happy—but you can get there. Talk to other engineers and find out what they've had success with. But don't stop there. Sometimes, using something different than everyone else will give you better results. For example, everybody knows you're supposed to use condenser mics on the high hat, right? I know I always have. However, I've never really liked the sound. When we put a dynamic mic on it (the Heil PR 22), we were blown away. Finally, the hi hat sounded like a hi hat in the PA. Same with the overheads; the PR 30 is by far my favorite overhead mic so far. But that doesn't mean I'm not open to trying something new. We used the PR 48 in the kick for a while, but were never really happy with it. Within a few hits during line check, we knew the RE320 was a keeper. And now the 48 is slammin' on the Leslie.

By now you know that I'm not really concerned about what the rest of the crowd is doing; for me that's just a starting point. I want to know what works in our room. And that should be your goal. I encourage you to give some new mics a try. You might be surprised at how much your sound can improve.

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