The Basics of Using a Microphone

In this era of personal video and sound recording, it might sound ridiculous to say that many people don’t know how to properly use a microphone. But it’s true. Whether spoken word or a vocalist singing, learning some basic microphone techniques can significantly improve results.

1930s radio studio.

1930s radio studio.

In the 1930s — in the era of network radio — on-air talent knew how to use microphones. Actors and musicians moved in and out, instinctively understanding the changes the microphone would make to their sound. It was a basic skill.

Then came the 1960s. During the rise of rock and roll bands, vocalists practically “ate their mics,” holding microphones against their lips to get louder sound. Those old habits have died hard. Ask any photographer who tries to get a photograph of a musicians’ face when it is constantly covered by a microphone.

Today, with microphones more sensitive than ever, knowing the proper way to use one is essential for appearing on broadcasts, video or podcasts. However, to hear the amount of outright bad audio out there, it is clear that many people are clueless and uninformed about how to properly use microphones.

Anyone in a profession who must work with a microphone should gain a basic understanding of the different types and how they work. Handheld mics can be the most problematic. A rule of thumb is to keep the ball of the microphone a few inches below the mouth and pointed toward the nose. The idea is the air should travel over the mic and not directly into it.

When using a lavalier mic, clip it on the speakers' lapel or collar and have the person speak normally. He or she should forget they are even speaking into a microphone. One can move about freely with a lav, but it is best not to turn the head too far away from where the mic is positioned.

For desk or podium microphones, a good rule of thumb is keep a distance about two hand widths away. Again, speak over the mic, not directly into it. Avoid turning away from the mic, which will give an off-mic sound.

If possible, always do a prior sound check with any microphone. Whether a technician is in charge of the sound system or not, evaluate volume and quality yourself to prevent any surprises before going live. Avoid amateur acts like blowing into the mic or saying “testing 1,2,3,4" in front of an audience.

For those singing, “the best microphone pickup is a few inches off center from the mouth. The mic doesn’t cover the face, there are less popping “p’s” and the sound level is identical, said Michael Pettersen, a microphone expert and company historian at Shure. Great vocalists who used their microphones correctly, Pettersen said, were Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

Frank Sinatra, 1982, with perfect mic technique.  Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Frank Sinatra, 1982, with perfect mic technique. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

For those doing narration or other spoken word material in front of a microphone, there are some basic rules to follow:

Begin by keeping the microphone a consistent distance from the mouth. That’s six to 12 inches, depending on the type of microphone being used. Avoid getting too near to the mic. Proximity effect, which comes as one gets closer to a directional microphone, can cause the voice to sound “muddy” or bassy. On the other hand, when too far away the microphone can pick up unwanted room reflections and reverberation. Find the right balance.

Good mic technique means keeping the mic at a consistent distance and using it from below or above the face. This placement minimizes “popping” caused by plosive consonants like “p” or “t."

Pop filter over Neumann U87.

Pop filter over Neumann U87.

When possible, always use a good external pop filter. Most modern microphones have some limited built-in wind protection, but it is often not enough. An external pop filter provides extra insurance against plosives. It also can serve as a reference to maintain a consistent distance from the microphone.

When working outside a studio, try to keep the microphone away from reflective surfaces. These audio reflections are often caused by hard surfaces, such as tabletops, podiums or even music stands. Be aware of this. Reflections can negatively affect the audio quality of the microphone.

It is important not to speak off-mic. High frequencies are very directional, and if the head is turned away from the microphone, the sound will get noticeably duller.

Using a microphone properly is relatively easy, but it is a learned skill. It's important that any speaker become aware how microphones work. Avoid just emulating someone else, who may not be doing it correctly.

The key rule is to be aware of the kind of mic being used and avoid getting too close to it. Microphones are designed to capture a voice that flows over or across it, not directly into it. Getting too close, means the microphone amplifies every breath, click, pop and hiss. Avoiding this puts the user ahead of most others. 

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