New Essex Bluegrass Band: Single mic
What I Know About Using A Single Microphone
by Paul Brewer
“Whenever bluegrass bands perform, one factor, the microphone, is nearly always present. In the outdoor bandstand, the auditorium, and the recording studio, most of the audience must hear each instrument and voice through the microphone or not at all. An important part of any bluegrass musician’s skill is his ability to maintain the proper relationship, spatially and thus aurally, with the rest of the band and the microphone. A bluegrass band carefully gears its movements and its music to the microphone, and its technique of integrating voices and instruments as a unified ensemble depend upon the use of that device, for without the microphone to give it prominence, the lead part cannot stand out.”
By L Mayne Smith, ‘An Introduction To Bluegrass’, Journal of American Folklore 1965
Let me confess I know next to nothing about PA (public address) or sound systems. In my ideal world all bluegrass music would be played acoustically, either in the fresh air or in a small room, with only the band or a quiet, attentive audience present. This way the musicians can face, see, hear and respond to each other. The only advice I would give in this situation would be, ‘Make sure someone else faces the banjo!’ However, playing to an audience demands amplification in all but the smallest of venues.
I decided that I only ever wanted to use a single microphone after seeing the Sawtooth Mountain Boys perform with one at the Weavers Arms in October 1990. Their movements on stage as they clustered around the microphone and almost fought one another to get sight of it fascinated me, but what impressed me most was the realisation that the microphone was more than capable of picking up every sound. I could hear every backup mandolin chop and banjo roll, even when the instruments were shielded behind other musicians. I persuaded the rest of the Chelmer Valley Bluegrass Band to adopt this approach immediately. The New Essex Bluegrass Band has never used anything else since it started in 1994.
The early bluegrass bands only ever had one microphone to play into, whether performing to an audience or making a phonograph recording or radio broadcast. It has been claimed that without this microphone bluegrass music could not evolved. To understand why requires consideration of bluegrass as a musical form.
A bluegrass song normally starts with one of the solo instruments, banjo, fiddle or mandolin, playing an introduction that suggests the melody and sets the pace. This is followed by the lead singer delivering a verse and chorus, with a tenor and perhaps baritone harmony added to the chorus. A different solo instrument plays a ‘break’ before the second verse and chorus. This sequence is repeated until the end of the song.
This repeated refreshing of parts, up to a dozen times during a song rarely lasting three minutes, ensures that it remains fresh and vibrant throughout. Subsequent songs are performed in different tempos, time signatures and keys. To quote Don Reno, “It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it'll make you want to dance. There’s about seven moods in bluegrass music and when you get your mood changed about seven times in thirty minutes you've got a tiger by the tail, I’ll tell you.” The use of different lead singers and purely instrumental pieces also contributes to the variation. For me it is the perfect music, and so elegant in its simplicity of form.
Throughout all this there is only one prominent activity at any one point in time. The other instruments, including guitar and double–bass, provide rhythmic or back–up accompaniment only, to support rather than compete with the lead. The foreground activity needs to be heard above everything else. Back in my ideal world this can be achieved by the supporting musicians lowering their volume until they in turn become the featured activity.
Onstage this needs to be reinforced by amplification. There are two choices: one microphone for the entire band, or individual microphones for each voice and instrument, perhaps as many as ten or twelve in total. A variation on the latter is for the instruments to be connected directly to the sound system rather than be played acoustically through microphones.
The move from a single microphone to individual amplification was the result of a demand for high volumes and lower cost and greater availability of microphones and PA systems. The popularity of other forms of music eg rock ‘n’ roll led to larger audiences who both needed and expected more volume. These higher volumes were assisted by advances in sound system technology and the widespread use of electric instruments plugged directly into the PA.
High volume has an arch–enemy: feed back. When the sound coming out of the speakers re–enters the system via a microphone, it goes round in circles producing a high–pitched and ear–piercing whistle. This can be addressed in instruments by eliminating the microphone and plugging in instead. But what about the voices? Their level needs to be raised to match the instruments, but just turning up their volume re–introduces feedback. The answer is to use a microphone with only a limited sensitivity range, requiring the singer to move in close. As one microphone can no longer be shared by up to five vocalists, especially if they are holding instruments, we arrive at individual microphones all round.
With between five and ten microphones on stage, there seems to be a compulsion to spread them across the front of the stage to fill all the available space. This also helps prevent spillage of sound into the wrong microphone. As it is natural to want to face the audience, the band members can neither see nor, more importantly, hear each other. This latter problem is resolved by placing monitors at the front edge of the stage facing the band, possibly one each. We have now moved from one item of stage equipment to possibly fifteen, not counting the forest of stands, booms, cables and boxes. It’s a good job prices have tumbled.
Setting It Up
It may have taken us an hour or so to carry all this equipment onto the stage, position it and connect the cables before we can switch on. But anyway, now we’re ready to perform. Well, not quite yet. With all this array of microphones we’re going to need a sound–check. Depending upon the skill and expertise of the band and the sound engineer, and the acoustics of the hall, it may take another hour to set individual volume and EQ levels, and to document them in case they are altered by another band before the performance.
There is even more work for the sound engineer during the band’s performance, if it is to sound at all like a bluegrass band should. He will have to mix the sound from each source to replicate the authentic dynamics of the style. To achieve this he has to raise the volume of the prominent voice(s) or instrument as each becomes the featured activity. As the bluegrass style dictates that this lead changes every few seconds, he will have to be thoroughly familiar with the specific arrangement of every song that the band has chosen.
Keep It Simple
Is it all worth it? Why not keep things simple and go back to using one microphone, so that all this extra work is handled by the band as it performs. And who better to do it? They know the material and the arrangement they have decided to present. All they have to do is move in and out of the microphone as they become the featured part. To echo Del McCoury, “When I started playing in the ‘50s, bands played with one microphone. Then in the mid ‘60s they started using microphones for everything. It got so complicated — the mains, the monitors. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ So, two years ago we started using just one mic. It takes a lot of effort for a soundman to mess up one mic. This way we can mix ourselves on stage.”
Furthermore the choreography resulting from moving in and out of the microphone adds immensely to the visual appeal of the performance.
We now need only one microphone and stand to be on stage with the band members. The band is clearly visible to the audience, rather than hidden behind a forest of stands, booms and monitors, and if the microphone lead is fed of the front of the stage there are no cables to trip over. Furthermore the band can see and hear each other naturally again.
So, if you are sufficiently convinced to be ready to try it, how do you do it?
Simple though I may have made using a single microphone sound, there are some rules. A few of these might appear obvious, but I have seen every single one broken, including by ourselves.
1. Use a suitable microphone
We use an Audio–Technica 4033a. This was suggested as suitable by my good friend Simon Sprott. We subsequently found out it was used by Doyle Lawson and Del McCoury. Over the years we have seen it used by dozens of other bands. We have used it in every single performance since our October 1999 appearance at the Heart of England Bluegrass Venue, from which two of our songs appear on the HOEBV compilation CD.
It is a condenser microphone requiring 48V phantom power, which is normally available from the mixer. It is designed for studio recording, but we have always found it highly satisfactory for our purposes. It cost £289 when new, but I believe the price dropped significantly later. We recently discovered after seven years that you need to place it into the shock–mount the right way round, when it was accidentally inserted the wrong way round and we spent an anxious ten minutes trying to get a decent sound level.
We used to use a GM55, purchased secondhand for £40 in 1995. This is a cheap copy of a Shure 55SH, and although it works, it is neither as clear nor as sensitive as the AT4033a, and is more prone to feedback problems. Being a dynamic microphone it does not require phantom power. We first used it when asked to perform with only a few minutes warning at the Leigh–on–Sea Folk Festival, the day after I bought it. It worked perfectly as we played to a large audience in the open air. The real thing might work even better. There are numerous other copies of this microphone.
Before you rush out and buy a new microphone you might experiment with what you already have. I was impressed with the results a Shure SM58 gave in the club tent at the 2001 A1 Festival, when all the bands used it. Most of these would never have used a single microphone before, yet the sound was more than adequate throughout. I admit the marquee environment would have helped, as would the attentive audience, and I wouldn’t recommend that you purchase this model specifically, or if you expect to play under less favourable circumstances.
We always use our own microphone stand but normally plug into the house PA where available (using their lead so I don’t lose one of mine!). Where we supply the PA we use a Tapco 6306 six–channel mixer (by Mackie) or occasionally a Mackie CFX12 mixer, and Mackie SM450 Active Sound Reinforcement Monitors (speakers to you).
2. Face the microphone
Important though it may be to face the audience, it is more important that you and your instrument face the microphone. This can be done without turning your backs on the people who have paid to see you. Remember they have come to see and hear the band, and they won’t hear you if your music is not picked up by the microphone. The visual effect of the band around one microphone will more than compensate for you not staring straight at them all the time.
Think about where the sound of your instrument comes from. It is neither the neck nor the tuning pegs, so why play your break with these placed up against the microphone? The exception to this seems to be the double–bass. Ernie Sykes, of the Smith O’Reilly band, borrowed Mike’s bass when they played through our microphone and PA in Ipswich. Ernie spent most of the performance with the bass facing away from the microphone, with no loss of volume. We tried this ourselves later with the same result. It’s possible that the same thing would apply to the other instruments, but it’s not practical to play them back to front!
3. Position yourselves correctly around the microphone
Form an arc of approximately 120 degrees around the centre of the microphone. (That’s a third of a full circle for those who failed their geometry paper.)
The guitar player should be to the right. In this position his playing can be heard by the rest of the band, and the neck of the guitar is safely out of harm’s way.
The double–bass should be next, so that the principal rhythm section is together on the right, and directed towards the rest of the band.
The other three instruments will occupy moving positions in the centre and to the left. Think of them as a carousel turning in a clockwise direction as they change roles. Whichever one is playing lead will occupy the centre, or slightly to the left of it. The one who will take over will be behind the lead, perhaps a little to the left or right according to where he can best be seen. And the last position, on the far left opposite the guitarist, is occupied by whoever has just finished playing lead.
These three are therefore constantly changing positions. The one moving in to take his break does so through the centre of the band. He replaces the previous lead, who makes a space for him by moving to the left. Whoever was on the left also moves clockwise, to complete the circular movement. If this does not place the next lead in the right position to take over, he will have to complete a further move by passing round the back of the other player who switches with him.
That’s all there is too it. There will be occasions where someone finds themself in the wrong place, but this will almost certainly be because someone has forgotten who plays next, and didn’t start moving early enough, or at all. This leads to the next rule.
4. Use the microphone during practice
It is essential that everyone knows the order of all parts, not just when it’s their own turn next. All musicians must be constantly aware of who follows whom, to ensure they are in the right place and do not block the path of anyone else. This is equally true for the guitarist and bass player, especially if they sing, when they would normally move in closer and then move back immediately afterwards. Because of the greater length of the banjo neck than the fiddle or the mandolin, everyone needs to give it a wider berth as it approaches the microphone.
The easiest way to learn the moves is to practise them when rehearsing the music. This will also iron out any difficulties. We tend to find that if there is a problem, it’s because we are not following the rules, and that it’s easier to identify and correct where we are going wrong rather than devise an over–complicated solution.
5. Never plug any of the instruments directly into the PA
This will destroy the whole principle of using a single microphone, as you will start to need external mixing, and you will lose the onstage acoustics. We are sometimes told that a particular instrument is not being picked up enough. This is usually a subjective comment and not one necessarily shared by the whole audience. If this is not the case, examine whether the instrument is being played at the right distance to the microphone, or whether someone else is drowning it out with insensitive playing. Look also at the EQ settings, but remember that mega–bass is not a feature of bluegrass.
6. Set the microphone at the right height
This is more for visual effect than aural. We set the top of the microphone fifty–four and a half inches from the stage floor, so that we can see and be seen over it. This sounds very precise, but it wouldn’t make any difference to the sound if it were a few inches either way, just as long as it is approximately mid–way between the instrumental and vocal sources.
7. Don’t leave gaps
Resist the temptation for a musician who is not actively playing to wander too far away to the left or the rear. This is visually untidy and could even suggest that he’s not a committed member of the band, and is due for counselling. If a gap appears in the middle, perhaps between two singers, it is preferable for one of the other musicians to move in behind to fill it. Work close!
8. Keep the floor clear
Tell the sound engineer that you will only need one microphone stand, and ask him politely to move all the others, and their cables, out of your performance area. Remind him to switch off the monitors, and feed your own microphone lead off the front of stage to ensure none of you trip over it. This is not only so that you have the necessary room to move, but also so that the audience can see you. Do this well before the show starts, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Allow enough time for everybody to calm down after he gives his response.
9. Watch your language
The microphone is meant to pick up over a fair distance, and this might include something you might prefer it not to. The attractive young lady you have spotted in the front row might be embarrassed if the whole audience overhears you tell the banjo player the effect she is having upon you. Your wife may be less amused.
10. Don’t break the rules
Rules are not meant to be broken. You may be tempted, as we have, to relax them if you have a stand–in musician playing with you who is unfamiliar with the correct positions and choreography. It is actually easier to teach the newcomer the rules than to try to perform without them. The Highway Code was written to prevent accidents, and you wouldn’t ignore it just because you have a learner driver on the road.
I would never pretend that a single microphone is ideal in noisy venues, where the band is only hired to provide background music while people talk constantly. What do you do in these circumstances? It’s best not to play them at all. Why practise hard to raise the standard of your music, only to have it ignored. Noisy venues are full of people who haven’t come along to listen to you, but to talk, joke and laugh. They have every right to do this, but you don’t have to provide their background music. If you try to raise your volume they will increase theirs, and they will always win. Of course, there will be occasions when you accept a booking without knowing what it will be like, but you’ll just have to put it down to experience. Try to keep the speakers some distance from the audience. Anyone close to them may quite innocently raise their voices to be heard, without realising it, and you’ll end up hearing them more than you can hear yourselves.
Digital Village currently advertise the following microphone prices (August 2009 — and in pounds) but please check availability and price on the Digital Village web site or from your favourite supplier.
I hope you have found something useful or encouraging in this article. Your comments and suggestions would be most welcome via the band’s email.
Last updated: Tuesday, 8th September, 2009, GPS