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Choosing A Vocal Microphone For The Stage

Top Front-Of-House Engineers Reveal Their Favourites
Published January 2018
By Gary Cooper

Choosing A Vocal Microphone For The StagePhoto: Jan Mehlich

Top FOH engineers tell us which stage vocal mics they recommend — and why!

It isn’t often that one product dominates a market for a single decade, let alone five, but Shure’s SM58 dynamic microphone has done just that. Launched in 1966, the moving-coil cardioid design may have been superseded by the Beta version introduced in 1989, and later the Beta 58A in 1996, but it’s telling that the original SM58 is still considered the workhorse of live music — ironic, really, as the ‘SM’ originally stood for ‘Studio Microphone’.

For many, the SM58 in its various incarnations still represents the starting point for a professional vocal microphone — and, for quite a few, the end point too. It may be utilising positively ancient technology for an industry that thrives on change, but the fact is that Shure judged the SM58 perfectly for its market. Its shockmount design made it relatively impervious to handling and stand-transmitted noise, its directional capabilities made it ideal for use on loud stages, its ruggedness was demonstrated every time the Who’s Roger Daltrey swung one around his head like a lasso, and if the frequency response was theoretically limited, it was very well judged for rock singers, with a response that seemed to suit more or less everyone.

Of course, there’s a ‘but’. Off the record, even Shure’s own people would candidly admit that the SM58 had been so successful that it didn’t just inhibit its competitors in the marketplace, it inhibited Shure as well, and fixed people’s perceptions in an unhelpful way. There was a price the customer paid for the industry standard vocal mic, and that was it. Introducing a better mic at a higher price became difficult when the market was quite satisfied with what it already had, thank you very much. If the SM58 saw off competitors from other microphone manufacturers, it also hindered Shure from improving the breed.

Slowly, over the past 20 years or so, this has begun to change. Other manufacturers have managed to grab market share with new products, Shure themselves have come up with more sophisticated offerings and, perhaps above all, technologies other than the dear old moving-coil dynamic have started to creep out of the studio, now able to withstand life on the road far better than their ancestors. Capacitor mics and then even ribbon mics began to be seen on stage, being used by sound engineers and artists looking for a performance edge.

That leaves the vocalist or sound engineer today facing a wider choice than he or she has faced before, and as it is often the engineer who coaxes a performer to leave the comfort zone and try a different microphone, we have asked some leading sound engineers what they are currently using, why, and what they are looking for in this changed environment. But don’t assume that means the SM58 is dead — far from it, as we are about to find out!

Shure Start

Mark Portlock is one of many engineers who still regularly uses the venerable Shure SM58. Mark Portlock is one of many engineers who still regularly uses the venerable Shure SM58. Mark Portlock is an FOH engineer with wide experience. He’s one of only a few long-standing in-house engineers at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London and has been on the road for 25 years, working on a succession of global live tours and the festival circuit. In that time he has handled monitors for the likes of Feeder, Tricky, Jamiroquai and, more recently, Canadian rapper Tory Lanez. As FOH engineer he looks after a number of US clients including ska-pop act Misterwives, Internet sensations Timeflies, and the new London-based GIRLI.

“It’s funny, we normally always start with the industry standard Shure SM58, and although it’s been around since the dark ages it’s still one of my favourites. In fact I have just chosen to put GIRLI onto a Shure 58 with Shure QLX-D RF system. This was down to a number of factors. The system is incredibly rugged and fits the price constraints of the artist. The mic itself, after trying three or four options, just seemed to work for her and GIRLI felt comfortable with it. The purchase was less about the highest quality, most expensive option, rather the best all-round decision for the artist.

“I am not one of those engineers who has to use Brand X or Y. Sometimes, to the annoyance of manufacturers and distributors, I will move between brands. For me it’s about the artist and what suits their sound and my mixing style, not who sent me a T-shirt this week or gave me discounts!

DPA’s d:facto is an oft-cited model where a capacitor mic is required (and where on-stage volume levels are relatively low).DPA’s d:facto is an oft-cited model where a capacitor mic is required (and where on-stage volume levels are relatively low).“I am also a huge fan of DPA microphones generally and, in particular, the d:facto vocal range. The wireless capsule versions benefit from proprietary adaptors for Shure, Sennheiser and Sony transmitters, meaning I can easily use d:facto capsules without having to change my whole RF rack. A massive consideration when choosing expensive audio kit is its longevity of service. Therefore compatibility, future-proofing and durability are always at the forefront of my mind. Yes, it is important to get a great-sounding mic, but not if you can’t afford a spare or it needs replacing every six months!”

Matt goes on to describe three very different reasons for choosing DPA d:facto mics with three very different artists: “With Joel Compass it was about quality and prestige. It was all about getting Joel onto in-ear monitors and giving him the studio-quality (his natural habitat) sound that he wanted to hear up close in his ears. We also did a lot of TV and radio in the promotion phases and it was great to be allowed to use our ‘live mic’ with renowned broadcast engineers in the studio environment.

“With Keaton Henson it was about what I’d describe as sensitivity and forgiveness. The choice of d:facto for Keaton was because it was the only mic I could find that had the dynamic sensitivity to capture all the elements of his voice, whether he whispered directly into the mic or sang off-axis. Also, in such quiet environments as a Keaton Henson stage, yet with classical and acoustic instruments, it is important for any bleed into the mic to be of the highest quality so as not to colour the orchestra sound in the PA with spill from the vocal mic. Tight polar patterns, great rejection and a flat predictable response are essential here.

“For Timeflies it was about ruggedness and predictability. Creating a pop vocal is about layers; those layers use EQ, effects, compression, and lots of it. Timeflies singer/rapper Cal has a very distinct vocal style: sometimes intense rap, then straight into ballad-like pop. Being able to EQ a fully cupped mic for rap and still have the pattern control to deliver clean pop is amazing from one mic, especially a condenser! Watching a fairly expensive mic hit the floor more than once a night, occasionally followed by a crowd surf, places a new emphasis on robust quality to focus the mind!”

The Right Tool For The Job

FOH engineer Mike Woodhouse.FOH engineer Mike Woodhouse.Mike Woodhouse is another busy touring FOH engineer, touring with Catfish and the Bottlemen, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes and Sigma.

“I do tend to recommend specific microphones to artists more often than not. When working with artists in a live environment, a pretty common issue on stage is that vocalists say that they’re not able to hear themselves once they’re in the mix. There’s that age-old saying, ‘A bad workman always blames his tools,’ however in this case I’ve always found this level issue literally boils down to the vocalist having the wrong tool in their hand. Sometimes engineers say the floor wedges or in-ear monitors just aren’t good enough in the venue, or maybe the engineer’s skill level is poor, and in a couple of scenarios that might actually be the case, but it’s almost always the case that the vocalist will have the wrong microphone choice in their hand. Think of it like using a flathead screwdriver for fastening a Phillips screw into a wall. Yes, it’ll work, and yes, you’ll get the screw in, but you know it’s not quite right for job — it’s exactly the same with microphone applications, but vocals most importantly!

“I find the genre, stage SPL and vocal tone that I’m amplifying really dictates the choice I’ll end up using. You have to listen to the source and its surrounding environment before making a judgement call on the type of microphone you might want to use. You can’t pigeonhole yourself into using a certain type of microphone because it’s really expensive, or because someone like Adele or Kasabian use it live...

“In recent months I’ve been experimenting with a couple of microphones on the Amazons, and after a bit of trial and error, I’ve now moved Matt away from a Shure SM58 to its newer brother, the Shure KSM8. With the band’s stage volume being pretty loud I wanted to stay well clear of condenser microphones to avoid the stage noise and potential feedback as much as possible, and with the KSM8 you get that rejection needed for stages with higher overall SPLs. It also has a similar type of top-end sparkle that works really well with Matt’s vocal tone once in the mix and gives him the clarity he needs in his IEMs that wasn’t quite there before, and I get those vocals loud and proud out front with no real stage noise damaging the mix.

“However, on the flip side, I tried to switch out Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes’ SM58 to a KSM8 as I thought I could get a similar kind of result to what I was achieving with the Amazons. Frank’s stage SPL is a little louder, although not a million miles away from the Amazons’ levels, although the problem here wasn’t the stage volume but Frank’s actual vocal tone. He’s naturally quite sibilant anyway, so adding that extra sparkle the KSM8 gives just becomes a little too much once amplified, and as a result I was fixing more than what it was adding to the mix. Turns out the SM58 is the better choice for Frank and I can’t see him switching over any time soon. He even has one tattooed on his leg!

“I do feel it’s good to experiment with similar types and flavours of similar (and drastically different) vocal mics on artists, as it tends to give you a little more perspective on microphone choices and when to use (or avoid) them in a given situation.

Telefunken’s dynamic M80 was chosen by Woodhouse for the Hunna’s lead singer, Ryan Potter.Telefunken’s dynamic M80 was chosen by Woodhouse for the Hunna’s lead singer, Ryan Potter.“I’ve also recently changed vocal microphones on [UK rock band] the Hunna. I moved Ryan Potter over to a Telefunken M80, which worked really well for him. His vocals have quite a raspy mid-range and top end and this microphone managed to capture the details in a way I didn’t think any other microphone could. It was clear and defined with all the texture that I wanted from his vocals, and with a bit of surgical EQ in the monitors (and PA) I could push it to another level where it’s sitting nicely out in front for a band as loud as these guys — they’re another really loud live band! We did try a shoot-out with a bunch of other ‘industry standard’ microphones but the M80 took the lead this time round. He now personally owns a shiny Hot Rod Red version!

“Another earlier example would be with Catfish and the Bottlemen, where I went down the condenser route and switched [lead singer] Ryan ‘Van’ McCann over to a DPA d:facto II condenser microphone for a good while. It added some excellent detail to his vocals that every other condenser and dynamic microphone we tried couldn’t replicate. However, even though I loved how the d:facto was capturing Van’s husky mid and top end out front, it was a constant battle in the monitors. The noise in Van’s IEMs was just too much, as he always needs a lot of his vocals in his mix, so I had to go back to the drawing board with microphone choices. Their stage volume was the loudest I’ve ever worked with and in turn the microphone we replaced the d:facto with was a Shure Beta 57A. Reasons for this were the pickup pattern on the Beta was so tight, being a supercardioid, that the stage noise in the boys’ IEMs no longer became an issue. Everything just started to sit in place in the IEMs.

“I did miss the extra finesse of the d:facto, but as a rule the artist needs to be happy on stage to give off the best performance for me to amplify, and switching over to the Beta 57 did just that. I also got some nice outboard to help make the Beta 57 hold its own a bit more against the loud band, and with that achieved I was happy losing the condenser. I used an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor inserted on Van’s input channel and a SansAmp PSA 1-1 dialled in on an aux return for some extra growl.”

Quiet Or Loud?

While the singer’s style will obviously affect the choice of mic, there are other factors at play, as Mike explains: “As a rule of thumb, I usually go with the mindset that condensers are great for quieter stages and types of music where vocals need to have that extra detail and delicate top-end sheen to them. I’d usually consider genres like pop, folk, jazz and acoustic as genres where I’d use condenser microphones as a starting point for vocalists. The reason being that you don’t need to push gains too high in these environments, monitoring is generally much quieter, and because of that the chance of feedback is naturally kept quite minimal. With condensers in these genres you can really roll your sleeves up and get into the finer details of what you’re amplifying. For example, vocals generally gain an extra layer of air, sparkle and definition simply unattainable with traditional dynamic microphones.

“With all that said, however, if you happen to be mixing a band that has an exceptional SPL level on stage, big amplifiers pointing at your vocal microphone, or a drummer that has an inability to hit quieter, condensers very quickly become your enemy. In a live situation I need to mic something up using the best tool for the application, but quickly! Often I’ll have 30 minutes to soundcheck the whole band and a condenser microphone is going to give me a hard time when time is precious, especially on a lively stage. I’ve had occasions with Catfish and the Bottlemen when easily half the time was spent trying to get the vocal right in the PA and monitors. As good as it sounded once sorted, it’s just not worth the hassle, and this is where dynamic microphones come into their own and will always be in my personal microphone arsenal. Yes, it’s true that dynamic microphones don’t generally have that extra finesse compared to a condenser, but you can push the gain a bit higher, feedback is generally less of an issue with external pickup noise, and there might be scenarios where you don’t actually want that vocal detail — like I said earlier with Frank’s vocal tone using the KSM8.”

Jukebox Hero

Matt Telford is currently working with Postmodern Jukebox, with whom he has gone through a number of different mics in search of sonic perfection.Matt Telford is currently working with Postmodern Jukebox, with whom he has gone through a number of different mics in search of sonic perfection.Matt Telford, like a growing number of engineers today, has a foot in both live and studio camps. He has been handling both with Postmodern Jukebox for over five years and has toured the world many times.

“Vocal mics are a lot like singers: they come in all different varieties,” he says. “That being said, it is very important to understand how the singers sing and want to be heard. Lots of times your perception of a singer’s voice and theirs differ drastically in a live situation, unless they can hear themselves afterwards through a recording. People will respond differently to their own voice than the voices of other people — it has to do with perception and the vibration of their head while they are singing. Without going into a huge biological discussion, you have to get the singer to trust your ears as well. This sometimes comes instantly, or may be a slow process. A good example of this is Ariana Savalas, one of our singers with Postmodern Jukebox. She hears low frequencies more than higher ones while she sings, so while the monitors will reflect that for her and keep her comfortable, FOH can’t. The slap-back from venues will sometimes be a factor with this as well.

“In Ariana’s case, we tried using three very different mics on her vocals: a Telefunken M80, a Shure SM58 and a Lewitt MTP 550. She has a rather strong voice with lots of presence in the 1 to 1.6 kHz range and will often lower her voice for certain parts of songs. The M80, while crisp on the high end, would lose a bit of that punch at 400Hz. Adjusting this with EQ would not work, due to how she hears her voice. Next up, the SM58 had a fairly good response with her vocals, although during her show she will clip and unclip the mic frequently while singing, and the handling noise, while not that noticeable, was still there. The Lewitt MTP 550 performed better in this case: it had a better response with no handling noise. I went with the MTP 550, and after having her hear the difference, she was very pleased with how she sounded. Not all instances are the same though. For example, Blake Lewis also beatboxes, and with him I went with an Audix OM2 because the response on the lower end with his beatboxing ‘kick’ sound was better than anything else that we had tried.

“Of the vocal mics I like to use, the Lewitt MTP 550 stands out, and during recording, their LCT-series mics are my favourite because they sound amazing and they are able to handle tracking every instrument and vocals in the same room extremely well. This carries over to the MTP 550 vocal mics. They sound great live, don’t have to be feedback corrected as much as competitors, and also just have a great all-round natural response. They actually have dual shockmounts in the capsule so the handling noise on these mics is non-existent.

“I also like Shure’s SM58 — I’ve seen SM58s that look like they went through a nuclear attack, and they still work! They’re extremely rugged mics and anywhere in the world you go you’ll find them. It’s no mistake that they are the mainstay of live performance. Casey Abrams dove into a lake on a floating stage with one and after drying it out, it still worked!

“On female vocals the Telefunken M80 will shine. However, I would stay away from male vocals with them and go with an MTP 550 or SM58 instead. Female vocals are really where these mics are able to translate into a mix. The higher-frequency response on the M80 is great.”

Polar Research

Jon Burton has toured with the Prodigy as their FOH engineer for over 14 years, and is currently also working with Richard Hawley.Jon Burton has toured with the Prodigy as their FOH engineer for over 14 years, and is currently also working with Richard Hawley.Jonathan Burton has worked with a wide variety of singers from Lulu to Beth Gibbons, Kelly Jones to Keith Flint. He is currently working with Richard Hawley and for the last 14 years has engineered for the Prodigy.

“I usually decide on vocal mic choice but, having said that, I would never force a mic on a singer. I usually try a few different mics with the singer and then between us decide what is best. I make recommendations, but usually only present a few shortlisted options. Singers usually have a good idea of what they want, but most are open to suggestions. Occasionally you come across a singer who has their mic, the one they always use. It’s a brave engineer who will make a stand about that, as the choice is often based on years of experience, combined with a certain superstition. You know that one bad show and the new mic will be to blame, whether it was at fault or not!

“I usually try and watch a rehearsal of any new band I work with. I look to see how close the singer works to the mic, how loud they sing, how loud the stage level is. These factors will bear heavily on mic choice. There’s no point trying to use a mic with a tight pickup pattern if the singer wanders off-axis all the time; you need something less directional to capture those moments they are singing more into the side than the front. I have sometimes recommended really tight microphones for singers who struggle with quiet voices on loud stages. After explaining to them how the mic works, how you need to get right on top of it, they often find they can hear themselves clearly for the first time. The important thing is to match the mic to the singer.

“I remember the first time I saw KD Lang sing into an AKG C414 live and thought ‘That’s brave!’ — but it sounded great. Singers deserve the best mic for the job and luckily manufacturers have finally started addressing this issue and offering robust condensers with low handling noise. I would rather use an expensive high-quality condenser on a singer any day. However, sometimes they are just not appropriate. Dynamics still have their place. They are usually more robust and with a tighter pattern and much more suitable in a rugged environment. Do they sound better? On their own possibly not, but in context, they often do.

“I would recommend people try as many microphones as possible. Find out their strengths and their weaknesses. Put some good headphones on and talk into the capsule. Talk closely, listen for the proximity effect, the slight increase in low end as you get closer. Also talk further away; how far can you get and still retain a usable full sound? Talk at the side: how does it sound; how cardioid is the mic; how omni? More importantly, how is the pattern at different frequencies? Often it can sound full at the front but harsh and toppy at the sides. Any spill the mic has from the surrounding stage will be affected by the uniformity of the pickup pattern at that frequency. How does it sound at 1m? At 3m? This will tell how the inevitable spill will contribute to your mix. Remember microphones are stupid, they don’t know they are just for the vocals! They are just as happy picking up the ride and the guitar. When using a really good vocal microphone, the sound it contributes from the rest of the stage is often almost as important as the sound from the vocal. When the singer sings, it sounds great; when they step away the spill sounds great.”

Panning For Goldfrapp

Steven Carr has worked with a number of high-profile female vocalists, for whom he often recommends a Sennheiser e945.Steven Carr has worked with a number of high-profile female vocalists, for whom he often recommends a Sennheiser e945.Steven Carr seems to have carved out a niche for himself working with top female singers. For a long while he has worked with Goldfrapp, handling the vocals of Alison Goldfrapp, whose range and stylistic variations stretch way beyond those of most pop or rock singers. Stretching into the classical realm, he also works with Katherine Jenkins OBE and Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel. His current project is with Chris Rea.

“When working with an already established artist for the first time you usually inherit their vocal mic of choice,” he says. “They may have come to that decision through trial and error with their previous sound tech. It may be a personal choice that they arrived at through experimentation in the studio. Or it could be as straightforward as an endorsement deal where they obtain the microphone for free or at a reduced price. I wouldn’t try to convince them to change unless there was a serious issue with the sound. I have, however, had instances where an artist will want to know if there are better options out there for them. In this case I make recommendations once I’ve established the following information: their style and mic technique, the amount of noise on stage, the mic position (which will dictate build quality and reliability), and the budget.

“One recent experience involved a switch from the vocalist’s favourite condenser mic to a dynamic. For the second half of the tour the stage and lighting plot was redesigned to place the percussionist and drum set down stage centre, right next to the lead vocalist. The drum set was easily picked up by the sensitivity of the condenser microphone despite its cardioid polar pattern. In this case I suggested we move to a supercardioid dynamic to help keep the vocal isolated from the percussion and reduce spill down the vocal channel. The mic we chose has a high-frequency boost designed into the frequency response, and I think this helped in making the switch over to the dynamic smoother for the performer, as it maintained some of the ‘air’ that the condenser had. It wasn’t an ideal scenario, as the singer preferred the condenser, but it was a compromise we were all prepared to make in order to have the stage plot the artist wanted. Sonically, out front the change in sound quality wasn’t a huge shift, however I was able to get a bit more volume out of the vocal mic and I also noticed how the change in microphone very subtly altered the singer’s mic technique.

“I often recommend the Sennheiser e945 for female pop vocalists with good mic technique. It is a solid, well-built, good-value microphone designed for touring and heavy use. It has a frequency response which suits pop vocals, and although (depending on the vocal style) it can get a bit harsh and lively at 4kHz and 10kHz, this can easily be rectified with a little bit of EQ and a multiband. Its polar pattern is tight and great for reducing unwanted spill down the vocal channel. Handling noise is non-existent.

“When I started working with Goldfrapp I inherited the dynamic Heil vocal mic Alison was using — a Heil capsule on a Shure radio system. That was chosen by their previous engineer because it had very good rear rejection for a cardioid capsule and it worked. One of the things that we found with the Heil capsule was that you get a lot of handling noise from it, but when you high-pass the mic it gets rid of it, so it wasn’t really an issue. When I did the second album cycle with them, Tales Of Us, we tried a DPA d:facto in a studio environment but Will Gregory much preferred the Heil because it had a thicker mid-range, whereas the condenser DPA was more airy.

“Generally, I always recommend Shure Beta 58s or Beta 57s on backing vocals. I think it’s mainly because they are so familiar to me. It’s so quick and straightforward for me to get the vocal sounding exactly as I want it. Also, not being too tight in polar pattern, they suit vocalists that sing a little off mic, which backing vocalists often do.

“For jazz or classical, I typically recommend the Neumann KMS105. Again, they are about as sturdy as a condenser mic designed for touring can be, and they have the Neumann sound quality. Singers always seem to enjoy singing into them. There are some other options to note. The DPA d:facto is a wonderfully open natural-sounding vocal mic. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a very natural detailed sound.

“One of the things I try to instil in people is that there are so many other variables that have a direct effect. So much so that the difference in quality between two decent capsules can be relatively insignificant compared to the difference the room or the PA makes, or the signal chain. A compressor can make much more difference than a different mic, for example. Using a Distressor [compressor] on Alison Goldfrapp’s vocals, for example, made a huge difference. People often ask what mic I’m using and when I tell them it’s a Shure SM58 they can’t believe it, so then they ask what I am doing with the signal — and that’s the more prudent question: what are you doing in the signal chain?”

Metal Alchemist

Eddie Mapp has worked with a huge number of rock and heavy metal acts, including Evanescence, with whom he prefers to use Audio-Technica mics.Eddie Mapp has worked with a huge number of rock and heavy metal acts, including Evanescence, with whom he prefers to use Audio-Technica mics.Choosing A Vocal Microphone For The StageEddie Mapp’s forté has been at the harder end of rock where, as you’d expect, on-stage volume can be a trial. He’s been mixing audio for 20 years and touring for the last 18, during which he has worked with bands including Evanescence, Stone Temple Pilots, Paramore, Papa Roach and Black Label Society.

“Normally if I’m starting a tour I’ll speak with the artist as well as the monitor engineer to discuss what’s been used in the past and what the results were, to determine the best mic to choose. If it’s a very loud stage I normally will recommend a cardioid or hypercardioid mic for vocals just to help with cymbal wash, and especially with a quieter vocalist, to help with gain before feedback.”

Mapp also places great importance in doing your research: “Make sure to pay attention to the spec sheets for frequency response as well as polar pattern. Some mics, while being cardioid at 1kHz, can occasionally become omni below that. This may need to be tamed a bit, which is why all of my vocal mics are sent to a subgroup with a graphic EQ to help maintain the individual channel EQ tone, but still allow for more control from the graphic as well as notch filters.

“For condensers I recommend the [Audio-Technica] AE5400, which not only makes for an incredible vocal mic but also works great for nearly anything you stick it in front of. A while back I mixed a show with four AE5400s as my only mics on stage and was able to cover singer-songwriters, a Hammond B3, a small choir, acoustic guitar and electric guitar over the course of the evening. The odd thing was I had to mix side of stage! Knowing that all of the mics had the same frequency response I was able to confidently mix the show while only listening to the reflection of the PA off the back wall. I used no EQ and the show went great!”

Ringing The Changes

Barry McParland, FOH engineer with drum and bass band Rudimental, is a huge fan of Audio-Technica mics, particularly the AE6100.Barry McParland, FOH engineer with drum and bass band Rudimental, is a huge fan of Audio-Technica mics, particularly the AE6100.Another Audio-Technica fan is Barry McParland who is head of audio for drum & bass band Rudimental. “If I’m asked about vocal mics, always and without a doubt it will be the Audio-Technica AE6100 that I recommend,” he says. “I’ve always been an ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ kind of fella, sticking with the old reliable industry-standard SM58. When when I started as the system tech on Rudimental I came across the AE6100 radio mics that both the monitor and FOH engineers were in love with and I had to agree that the sound quality from them is extremely natural.

“But that’s not the best part. The off-axis rejection is sublime, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re cupping the mic like a rapper, or using it in a stand — all that mic is picking up is the face in front of it, and the audio doesn’t change.

“I recently started mixing FOH for Alexander O’Neal, starting with a few festivals in the summer. We had the usual suspects (SM58s or Sennheiser e935 radios) being supplied by festival PA companies, and it was hard work. It’s an extremely loud stage with his full nine-piece band behind him and he’s still got a great voice — but he’s not in his 20s any more. So when we started the recent theatre tour I decided to give the AE6100 another trip out, and I must say it’s like a night-and-day difference. Alex’s vocal is bang on the end of your nose with just a high-pass filter; I’m no longer getting just drums and monitor mixes down the vocal channel.”

Barry is not a great fan of capacitor mics on rock stages. “I’ve tried a few different condensers on vocals and I’m not convinced — whether you’re doing monitors or FOH, one of the biggest objectives is getting the vocals as clear as possible, and although condensers might sound cleaner, the amount of gain before feedback is generally a lot less — by sheer design they are a lot more sensitive. Then again, it depends on the gig; in this industry there are no two gigs the same and no right or wrong answers!”

The Madden Crowd

Chris Madden has mixed shows for Sade, Jessie J, Pink and Anastacia, and is another fan of Sennheiser’s stage mics.Chris Madden has mixed shows for Sade, Jessie J, Pink and Anastacia, and is another fan of Sennheiser’s stage mics.Like Steven Carr, Chris Madden has built a reputation for working with female vocalists including Sade, Jessie J, Pink and Anastacia. Then again, he has also worked at the other extreme end of the spectrum, mixing for Joe Cocker!

“I seem to have become the female pop guy and I inevitably seem to be putting Sennheiser e935s in girls’ hands — that’s been my go-to mic for a long time now. Tonally I always find that Sennheiser have something to do the job for me, vocally and otherwise. Because of the artists I’ve worked for, where I haven’t been able to find the right mic from anyone, they have jumped through hoops to help me. My early background was in studios and my first tour was with the Waterboys back in 2000. When I started it was inevitably an SM58, the same as everyone else used, with a 57 on the snare and everything else. As I started to do more, I started to experiment and then the Sennheiser e935 appeared. I‘d moved on to FOH with the Waterboys by that stage and I suggested we tried the 935 to Mike Scott, who’s got a cracking voice. He loved it and I loved it and the 935 became the go-to mic for me. It sounded less crunchy than the SM57, less gravelly.

“Around 2006 I started with the Sugababes, which was already a Sennheiser gig, using RF G2s with 935 capsules. That sounded great and I was very happy. Then I got the chance to mix Joe Cocker. He, of course, had always used a 58 but I asked him to try a 935 and he loved it. That was two years on the Hymn For My Soul tour.

“I don’t really have the opportunity to use condensers because the stages I work on tend to be too loud. I’ve been with Anastacia for about 18 months, which is with Steve Barney on drums, who is one of the loudest drummers known to mankind. Before me they had a drum screen, but that’s visually horrendous and I don’t even think makes the drums sound very good — it’s like putting your drums in a greenhouse. So we lost that and changed the vocal mic to a 5000-series stick with a 535 capsule. I use the same mic with Jessie J, who I’ve also been working with for quite a long while.”

Consensus Politics?

With so many different solutions to so many similar problems it might seem as if we are no closer to pinning down a choice, but there are lessons to be drawn. Firstly, there is a consensus that although capacitor microphones can sound great, they can be hard to use on loud stages. Secondly, selecting the appropriate pickup pattern is vital, both for the individual singer’s technique and to handle spill from other instruments. The fact that different engineers favour different brands sometimes reflects the support they’ve received from manufacturers and sometimes just the experiences they’ve had and the artists they’ve worked with, but their choices often reflect broadly the same kind of products, the dynamic offerings from the big makers all being pretty good. And even the granddaddy of them all, Shure’s SM58, still seems to take a lot of beating. In the end, as Steve Carr points out, what may matter more than which mic you choose is what you do with the signal. But that’s a subject for another day. Oh, and there’s also the wireless question... decisions, decisions.  

Think Pink

Pink performing at the 2014 Grammys.Pink performing at the 2014 Grammys.Photo: D MilesonAfter Chris Madden’s work with Joe Cocker, his next gig was with pop artist Pink (Alecia Beth Moore), which had a very different set of requirements. “For this gig, Sennheiser specially developed a capsule to go with the 2000 series she was using. Alecia’s headset mic is where Sennheiser really pulled it out of the bag for us. It was developed by Horst Hartmann and myself with Sennheiser, and it had to be very good, because she never mimes, and when she’s flying around on that contraption in front of the PA, shouting and singing — that is really her, there’s no safety track — there’s nothing to cover it.

“We had to have a headset mic, so we asked her what she wanted and the only criterion was that it fitted on one ear, not wrapped around the back of her head. At that time Sennheiser didn’t make a single-ear type, but they made us one. At that time most people were using DPA omnidirectionals, which were no use to us at all because we needed something very directional. Sennheiser made us a very directional capsule that came down the side of her face and just reached to the corner of her mouth. As long as it was fitted properly it was fantastic.”

Published January 2018