What Every Singer Performing Live Should Know - a sound engineer’s POV

A while back I wrote an article where I gave advice to DJs from a sound engineer’s point of view. This time around I want to focus on the singers. So if you are a singer, wanting to know more about the sound engineering process or if you are a sound engineer that wants to be more effective in their communication with vocalists, you came to the right place. 

You are holding the mic where?!?

The first thing I want to address is a pet peeve of mine and something that I want to really emphasise to all singers out there: hold the microphone by the microphone’s body. Somebody, somewhere, a long time ago decided that it was okay to hold the microphone by the microphone’s head and that this particular pose looks way cooler. And you can still see it with the majority of rappers and metal singers and just about everybody who wants to look more aggressive on stage. That’s the caveat, though. It might look better, but it sounds way worse. The shape of the microphone head is designed in such a way that it provides directivity to the microphone, making it pick up sound from the front and reject it from the sides and the back, depending on the microphone type. By holding the microphone by its head you: a) lose all that delicious directivity; b) make the sound of the microphone much more prominent in the mid-range; and c) because of a) and b) make the microphone more prone to feedback. Unfortunately, there is no magic button on my audio console to fix it. Sure, I can fiddle with the knobs and mask the effects of this microphone torture a bit, cut out some of the most annoying frequencies, filter out the most disturbing feedback issues from the monitors, but if the sound is distorted and mangled at the input, there is no amount of fiddling with the knobs that will make it sound as good as it could be if you just stopped cupping the mic. And if you think I'm exaggerating this point, try it out on your own. Use the same microphone, sing the same song and don’t change anything, but the position of the hand holding the mic. It becomes painfully obvious - when you hold the microphone by the microphone’s body, the sound is clear and present. When you start cupping the mic, it becomes nasally, distorted and obnoxious. Now, the choice will ultimately be yours, but if you do decide to cup the mic to look cool, please be aware of what that does to your sound and don’t expect miracles from behind the mixing console. 

Control the Distance

The second point is to learn how the distance of the microphone from your mouth affects your sound and use it to your advantage. Most of handheld microphones out there, regardless of their brand and type, are meant to be held about 2-3cm or an inch away from your mouth, with your mouth pointed directly at the center of the microphone head. Moving the microphone further away will make the microphone sound more thin, because a lot of the low end frequencies get lost. Alternatively, when you move the microphone really close to your lips, you get a very prominent boost in the low frequencies. This phenomenon is known as the “proximity effect”. As a sound engineer, I would ideally like to have the distance between the microphone and your mouth as consistent as possible, so I can dial in the sound of your vocal with greater precision. I'm also aware that during a live performance that is not going to happen, but by being aware of the microphones position relative to your mouth you are basically helping me place your vocal on top of the mix and keeping it there. Once you have mastered keeping the distance relatively the same, you can then experiment with creating deliberate vocal effects by changing the distance from the mic, like getting really close for whispers or moving further away for airy, distant soundscapes. Mind you, even these movements can be really minimal and still have quite an effect on your sound.

Just Keep Singing

Tip number three: If you want to be really effective during sound check, sing into the microphone consistently, even if you can't hear yourself. I still have major issues with singers approaching the microphone during sound check, saying check one two and because they don't hear anything, they step away and wait. While I rarely ask a singer to step up to the mic without having at least some levels ready for them, in situations where there is a lot of time constraint and we are trying to move as quickly as possible, that is not always an option. Plus, the behaviour is usually the same even if there is already some signal coming from the monitors or the PA system. If you want to help out your sound engineer during sound check, when you're asked to check your microphone, just step up to the mic and start singing one of the songs from the set. Keep singing with the same loudness, attack and attitude that you will use doing your performance. Having the same content during the sound check allows me to set the input gain, all of the dynamic processing, the EQ, and also your monitoring level correctly. I can't do that efficiently if I don't have the proper input, in this case you singing into the microphone the same way as you would during your set. Choose a song beforehand, sing it as you would during a show, and don't get scared even if you can't hear anything. Keep singing until I tell you to stop. Here is an added tip. When you hear yourself from either the PA system or the monitors, raise your hand, letting me know that you need more of yourself in the monitors. I will start raising the levels until you give me the okay sign. That will cut down the sound check time even more. 

Avoid Feedback - Unless Well Intended

IEM earphones hanging around your neck can be a potential source of feedback. Photo by Marko Alpner.

IEM earphones hanging around your neck can be a potential source of feedback. Photo by Marko Alpner.

The next thing is more advanced. Experienced live vocalists figure out potential feedback situations and try to avoid them. I have already mentioned that microphones tend to be directional, meaning that they pick up sound most prominently from the front. Pointing the front of the microphone away from any elements of the PA system can greatly reduce the possibility of feedback. So not pointing your microphone directly at the monitor wedge would be a great place to start. It usually doesn’t even happen intentionally. Maybe you simply lower your microphone-holding hand between songs or go meet a fan in the front row and step directly in the path of a front fill speaker. That is why the same rule applies to any front fill speakers, side fill speakers or any other speaker that is being used for your show. Just take a moment doing sound check to look around and determine what your potential feedback sources might be. By being aware of them and moving either yourself or the microphone away from them can ensure that we don't have any feedback issues during the show. A bonus tip: in-ear earphones that you have taken out of your ear can also be a potential feedback source. If you are using IEM, be aware that they can become a potential issue when you take out one of your ear pieces. Although I never recommend doing that, if you absolutely have to, then let it hang down your back or tuck it under your collar, preventing it to get too close to the microphone. 

How Low Can You Go?

And the last tip on this subject: train yourself to perform with lower monitoring levels. Reducing stage volume is something that helps a sound engineer immensely when shaping a live performance sound. I suggest that you start with the lowest possible monitoring level where you can still discern all of the timing and pitch information you need. That way you help me get a more detailed sound with less bleed from the monitors, less chance of feedback and more punch, since your signal is not being masked by a lot of the ambient sound. If you deliberately start your sound check and your performance with lower monitoring levels, it can give us a better starting point for a better overall sound. Keep repeating that mental exercise and see how much you can actually reduce your monitoring levels while still feeling comfortable and confident on stage.

A sound engineer’s job is to make the artist sound as good as possible in a given situation, but we can only do so much. When singers apply these strategies on stage, it makes for a much better sonic experience for the audience, which is always our common goal.