Since we’ve had the good fortune to talk to a number of leading sound engineers and artists over the years, we decided to ask two of our favorites, pro audio educator John Chevalier and veteran touring engineer Paris Lahr, for their tips on how to mike live vocals. As you’ll see, the experts don’t always agree.
Clarity and EQ
Davida Rochman First of all, what’s the best way to increase the intelligibility of vocals?
John Chevalier Know your vocalist, and know your microphones. Be familiar with the pickup patterns and sensitivity of each mic. Once you know that, you’ll need to instruct the music director and / or the vocalist on how to hold a mic. If you have each singer holding the mic correctly at the proper distance, you’ll be able to mix more effectively.
Paris Lahr Singing lessons. The notion of “garbage in, garbage out” applies. If the singer is not singing loud enough to cover the stage volume of their band, there is almost nothing you can do. Soundboards are not cauldrons, and engineers are not wizards.
It all starts with a good source. If you have a good singer on a good mic, and all the gear is working right, and you’re still having trouble, then you’re probably using the wrong mic.
DR What’s the best way to EQ a voice?
PL Flat. No tricks. No gimmicks. No “double bussing.” No vocal processors. Patch the vocal mic through the channel, straight to the main L-R bus, with as little EQ on it as possible, and only a high-pass filter on the channel. I use compressors more like limiters. They’re there to keep the vocal from getting too loud, not to color the sound. Add effects as needed.
If you can’t get the vocal loud enough without feedback, something is wrong:
- You’re using the wrong mic
- The monitors are not EQ’d right
- The monitors are in the wrong location
- The PA is not focused right
- The in fills are too loud
- Or any one of a number of other reasons
Make the vocals loud and clear, and as close to flat on the channel as possible. EQ the room and the monitors to the vocal mic, and to a slightly lesser extent, to the kick drum.
If the lead vocal is up in the house flat, at nominal (sounding good), and the kick drum is up in the house, with absolute minimal EQ, hitting the chest hard with every kick, and little to no gating (sounding good), then the PA is tuned. Fill in all other channels as needed.
If you have to resort to “tricks” to make a lead vocal sound good, you need to start at the source, and work a little more with the artist about improving the signal you’re getting from them. That might mean changing the microphones or even the way they sing or handle the mic.
DR Not all singers are created equal: different singers have different vocal characteristics. And they hold the microphones differently. What’s the best way to handle this?
JC Teach everyone to hold the microphone the same way. It’s a tool and needs to be used properly. After that, it’s a matter of knowing the singers (who sings loud and who sings quietly, and the tone of their voices, for instance) and treating them as individuals. Take the time to listen to each vocalist and make him or her sound as good as you possibly can. After you’ve got that down, it’s a matter of blending, which is always easier when you start with good individual sound.
PL Every microphone has a signature. Base your vocal mic selection on the style of your singer as well as how loud the band behind them is.
For example, for a female singer/songwriter sitting at a piano for an entire performance with a single monitor wedge, you would probably want a very sensitive condenser mic like a KSM9. But for that same singer using in-ear monitors, with a live drum kit and three guitar stacks behind her, you might use a cardioid dynamic like an SM58 for small rooms, or a cardioid condenser like a Beta 87C for larger rooms. Again, that same singer with a jazz band behind her, and on wedges, might use a supercardioid dynamic like a Beta 58A.
Singing style is a huge factor as well. If the singer tends to pull away from the mic, you will be forced to use a mic that doesn’t have as much rejection. This means you will need more gain, and will ultimately get more bleed, and more potential for feedback.
The condensers tend to work better for singers who pull away from the mic, as the frequency response stays a bit more level at greater distances, but this also means it’s picking up a lot of high-frequency bleed from cymbals, the snare and guitars.
In the ideal situation, you’ll have a strong, consistent singer who holds the mic at a pretty consistent distance and doesn’t cup the diaphragm. All efforts should be focused on achieving something as close to this as possible, even if it almost never happens. By teaching artists good habits, and discouraging bad ones, you can help them improve as musicians, make your life easier and enhance the performance.
Put the right mic in the right place, and you don’t need EQ, compressors, gates, and processing.
DR Will removing some of the highest frequencies in vocals reduce the potential for feedback?
JC Well, that works if you’re dealing with high-frequency feedback. Not all feedback is in the high range. Learn the difference between high, mid-range, and low-end feedback. Once you know that, it’s easier to identify which bands on the EQ you’re going after. Also, a good thing to learn is that when dealing with feedback, you should always head for the EQ first and not the volume. It’s natural, especially for new soundboard operators to drop the volume first. If you do this, then it’s actually harder to fix the real problem. Go there if you have to, but always start with the EQ.
PL Potentially. It’s a fine line to walk. Some of the nicer desks have a low-pass filter on them; others are set up to turn the uppermost EQ band into a low-pass filter.
While cutting 16-18-20K probably won’t hurt (the average human ear can’t really hear those frequencies anyway), checking for things like a radical EQ in the monitor crossover might be the right solution. Cutting the high end out of the vocal will make it harder to distinguish in the mix, so the artist will ask for more level. As the level rises, you have more potential for feedback at lower frequencies. Sure, you can raise the high-pass filter on the mic some more, but when there are no frequencies left to cut, what do you do? Every situation is different and there are lots of questions:
- Does the mic stay on the stand, untouched for 99% of the show?
- Does the singer wrap the cable around an arm and drool all over the mic while climbing the PA, jumping into the crowd and / or wandering out to FOH?
- Does the artist sing very quietly, then point the mic into the monitors?
Mics that don’t move are easier to get loud and “crisp,” and if the floor monitor is always in the rejection side of the pattern, you’ll be able to make the mic louder with much less potential for feedback.
Artists who climb all over the monitors and drop the mic into horns are going to not only require more prep time for EQ, but certain sacrifices in clarity will need to be made in order to keep the mic from constantly feeding back.
DR A spectrum of solutions, a range of opinions, and a few tricks you can apply in your own live sound applications, whether you’re FOH for a singer / songwriter in a coffeehouse or a metal band on a national tour. One thing they both agree on: it’s all about trusting your own ears.
John began his career as an audio engineer and professional musician, but today, he is an educator and a regular speaker at the NAB and InfoComm events. John teaches Digital Video Technology for the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Career Development / ROP Program and is the co-founder of an Internet-based broadcasting tool created to connect the local community. John is on the Editorial Advisory Team and writes regularly for Technologies for Worship Magazine. Visit his website: johnchevalier.com.
Paris began his professional career at Chicago’s House of Blues, and for the next several years worked at most of the city’s major musical venues before handling tour duties for the likes of All American Rejects, Fountains of Wayne, The Donnas, Plain White Ts, Hoobastank, Broken Bells, and Darren Criss. He has toured as a FOH Engineer, Monitor Engineer, Tour Manager, Production Manager, Stage Manager, Stage Tech and Driver for audiences ranging in size from 50 to 50,000, sometimes on the same tour. Contact Paris at email@example.com.