The Basics of "Live Sound" Microphones
A controlled studio environment is a far cry from most live venues; limited space and set-up time, changes in temperature, and awkward acoustics are only some of the variables faced by touring musicians. As a result, setups for studio microphones can differ greatly from mics in a live setting. And while microphones aren't usually distinguished as live or studio, particular traits like durability and portability are ideal onstage. For example, a $5,000 vintage ribbon mic might excel in your studio, but it's not built for the wear and tear of touring. Below you'll find a quick run-through of four microphone categories, and how to make the most of each in "live" settings. But remember to trust your ear; mic selection and placement always come down to personal preference, and the needs of each performer.
Dynamic mics are the most popular live sound microphones; they're extremely durable, and can handle sky-high sound pressure levels (SPL). The Shure SM57 is an iconic all-purpose dynamic mic, while the SM58 - with its integrated pop filter - is standard for vocalists. The Audix i5 is another rugged model; intended for loud instruments like amps or horns, it can handle up to 140dB. For drums specifically, the Sennheiser e604 is popular for miking live snare and toms. Shure's Beta 52A can handle up to 174dB, and its low end specialization makes it ideal for kick drums. In short, dynamic mics are workhorses prized for their resilience and dependability. It's not uncommon for a band to use exclusively dynamic mics onstage.
Condenser microphones are typically considered to be less durable than dynamic mics. In general, yes: but top-tier solid state condensers can hold up as well as rugged dynamic models. Condenser mics are often more expensive than dynamic models - which explains why engineers are less prone to risk damaging them onstage. Furthermore, most dynamic microphones don't require a power source, while condenser mics do (phantom power).
Why use them at all, then? Condenser mics are known for their highly detailed response; they offer supreme fidelity on and offstage. Shure's KSM9, for example, gives live vocalists huge, clear frequency response and minimal noise. The Audio-Technica AT4033/CL lends detail and depth to a wide spectrum of instruments: strings, vocals, guitar cabinets, etc. Because of the SM81's small diaphragm, it's best placed over a drum kit, or next to a hi-hat. For recording a live show, some professionals will use a pair of omnidirectional condenser mics - one above either end of the stage. (The Earthworks TC20 Box Set is a good place to start). In general, dynamic mics may be more ruggedly convenient than condensers; but if you're after pristine live sound, condenser mics are a wise investment.
Ribbon mics are both underused and underrated when it comes to live performance. In the mid-twentieth century, older models like the 77DX and the RCA 44 gained a reputation for being extremely fragile. This, coupled with the ribbon mic's unique figure-8 recording pattern, lead many musicians to overlook ribbon mics in live settings. But today's modern ribbon mics (like Royers) can handle the stresses of touring in ways that vintage models never could. Ribbon mics offer smooth, natural sound - for guitar cabinets, overhead drums, brass, etc. For example, pair the R84 with live trumpet, and the R-122 with woodwinds or trombone. Aerosmith's Joe Perry prefers Royer R-121s on his electric guitar cabinets when on tour. But what about bleed from the back of the mic's figure-8? When well-placed, onstage ribbons can offer surprising isolation with minimized bleed, even for shoulder-to-shoulder ensembles.
Wireless Microphone Systems
Dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics are all tethered by XLR cords, while wireless microphones are not. A wireless microphone system comprises three elements: the cordless microphone itself, a transmitter (which can be incorperated into the mic or worn as a beltpack), and the receiver (usually set up near the mixing board). These systems allow total range of movement. Some wireless mics, like the Shure KSM8, have a built-in transmitter - ideal for singers. Public speakers rely on lavalier mics (see Sennheiser's ME 2); these tiny mics attach to clothing, and connect to bodypack transmitters. Wireless headset mics are ideal for singers who need use of their hands - for dancing, etc. Move a transmitter too far from its receiver, though, and the audio signal weakens while noise increases. Sweetwater carries hundreds of microphones suited for onstage use; if you don't know where to start, call your Sweetwater Sales Engineer today.