How to Sing with a Microphone

Most public singing today involves using some sort of microphone. Onstage, the microphone (and attendant amplification) lets you be heard over other amplified instruments, without straining your voice. In the studio—well, the microphone is how your voice gets captured for the recording. Used properly, the microphone can enhance your natural resonance or allow you to “float” those high notes in a very intimate and easy way. Used incorrectly, however, the microphone can amplify bad technique or distort an otherwise good singing voice. Here are some of the most important dos and don’ts for singing with a microphone.

Let’s start with how close you want to position the microphone to your mouth. In this regard, different types of singing require different techniques—in particular, the distance you hold the microphone from your mouth should vary with the dynamic level of your voice. When you’re singing in full voice, pull the mic away from you a little bit. For those really soft, intimate vocal moments, you can hold the mic much closer. Just don’t rely on the microphone to provide your control and support on soft passages or you’ll find yourself going flat. And remember that putting too much volume through the microphone’s sensitive pickups can cause an overload and create feedback and distortion.

Microphone distance also affects the quality of your vocal tone, due to what is called the proximity effect. The closer you are to the microphone, the more low-end sound the microphone picks up—which makes your voice sound warmer. So if you want a warm, intimate tone, sing close to the mic.

Another thing to keep in mind is consistency—that is, you want to place the mic in front of you in one position, and then keep it there. While you can vary the distance from your mouth, don’t change the angle. This can be more difficult that you think, especially with hand-held mics. When you’re moving onstage with a hand-held microphone, you need to think of the mic as an extension of your vocal pathway. When you turn your head or body, keep the mic aligned with your voice. Be careful not to hold the mic in one position as you turn your head, or you’ll get a real uneven and unprofessional result.

Something else to keep in mind when using a hand-held mic is which hand to hold it in. Actually, right or left doesn’t matter, but you need to pick a hand and stick to it. Shifting the microphone from hand-to-hand makes you look nervous, like an amateur, and can also affect the consistency of the sound. Figure out which hand is most comfortable for you and sing with the microphone in that hand 90 percent of the time.

As to how you should hold the mic, the middle is your best approach. Most microphones are made to physically balance fairly well when held in the middle of the shaft. This is the correct place to hold the mic, regardless of what you see on YouTube and VEVO. (You’ll even see a lot of singers put their hands over the ball of the mic, even though this affects the microphone’s sound—and neutralizes the proximity effect.) Just hold it in your hand as you would a banana, not too tight but also not so loose that it wiggles and wobbles as you sing.

In many situations you don’t get to hold the mic; it’s positioned on a microphone stand, instead. I suppose that’s one less thing to worry about, and a necessity if more than one singer is using the same mic at the same time. Just make sure that the stand’s adjustment is right for you—before you begin to sing. We’ve all witnessed the annoying distraction of the singer who constantly adjusts and fiddles with the stand during the performance; try not to be guilty of that yourself. In addition, you may think it looks cool to tightly grasp the mic stand during your performance or to swing it about while you’re singing, like the big rock stars do. Well, it may look cool, but it also affects your sound; unless you’re more interested in the show than the music, leave the stand alone and concentrate on your singing.

You’ll never see a handheld mic in the recording studio. Instead, mics (often very expensive ones) are typically hanging from some sort of overhead boom. A good recording engineer will position the boom so that the mic is in front of and slightly above you; this encourages singers to sing upward for a better tone. Oftentimes the mic will have a windscreen in front of it, to help reduce popping and sibilance. The engineer will instruct you to stand a specific distance from the mic and to keep that distance. (If you tend to weave back and forth when you sing, you’ll hear about it from the engineer!)

The windscreen you see in the studio helps to mitigate some of the peculiarities of how sound is picked up by a microphone. In live situations, you need to handle these issues yourself. In particular, know that consonants such as “p,” “b,” “k,” “s,” and “t” can cause an explosive “pop” in the mic that is too percussive to be pleasant. Most microphones are very responsive, so you’ll need to soften or modify your articulation to avoid this type of popping. You can also minimize popping by pointing the microphone toward your chin instead of directly at your lips. This puts the mic out of the direct explosive bursts of air from your mouth.

When you’re singing live, another thing to keep in mind is where you point the microphone when you’re not singing. Point the mic towards a speaker and you’ll hear the result, in the form of ear-splitting feedback. Just remember to keep the microphone pointed up (and away from your mouth) when you’re not singing; don’t let it dangle or angle sideways. (For the same reasons, don’t stand too near the speakers when you’re singing; feedback is not your friend.)

The best advice, however, is to do whatever your sound person or recording engineer says you should do. These folks know a lot more about sound reinforcement than you do; they’ll know the best ways to get the best sound from your voice.

Want to learn more about singing? Then check out my book, Idiot’s Guides: Singing, 2nd Edition, co-written with Phyllis Fulford.

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