Live Sound

Top-of-the-Line Handheld Mics

TAKE A GREAT LIVE VOCAL PERFORMANCE TO THE NEXT LEVEL 1/01/2010 7:00 AM Eastern

From left: Audio-Technica AE5400, Audix VX5, Blue enCORE 200, Heil Sound PR 35, Neumann KSM 105, Violet Design Pearl Vocal, Telefunken M 80, Shure KSM9

Every day, thousands of bands and artists around the world are getting ready to perform. With any show, there are a lot of details that need to be just right to create a distinctive sound. Pro musicians spend countless amounts of money and time selecting the right combinations of new and vintage guitars, amps, drums, horns and keyboards that complement their performance. Yet for some reason, the selection of vocal mics is too frequently left to chance; whatever's available at the venue is handed to the singer just before hitting the stage.

And with the important part vocals play in most music shows, it's sad (and somehow ironic) that after all the rehearsals, pre-production and preparation, the lead vocal mic — the single element that the entire production hinges on — often costs less than a top-end bass drum pedal, a couple stomp boxes or even the road case used to transport the power amplifiers.

The availability of quality handheld mics is hardly an issue. In surveying top-of-the-line offerings from various manufacturers, we encountered a dazzling array of models from which to choose, with most priced in the $200 to $700 range and another dozen priced even higher. These prices are MSRP, and for the most part, street prices are well below that — good news for the savvy shopper.

So the variety's there, and the good news is that the sound and performance specs of today's handheld mics are better than ever. Unlike rare guitars or classic studio mics, this is one area in audio where new gear easily outperforms vintage models. And at the same time, new handheld mics are coming ever closer to providing full-on studio performance in a rugged, compact package. Sennheiser's e 965 and the Shure KSM9 feature switchable cardioid/supercardioid response; Audio-Technica incorporates capsules from its 4050 and 4033 studio mics into some of its Artist Elite models; and an increasing number of companies typically associated with studio mics — such as Neumann, Schoeps, Milab, RØDE, Blue, Pearl, Violet Design and Telefunken — include handheld mics in their current lines.

Beyond audio specs and “sound,” other issues are important. A tight polar response pattern may be great for reducing bleed from onstage high-SPL sources (drums, amps, wedges, etc.) but may not fit the performer's style. A vocalist that moves around a lot while singing is probably better suited to a cardioid or wide-cardioid pattern, and in such cases, the mic's off-axis response may also be key in the selection process. Speaking of patterns, a mic's rear-lobe response can be critical in the placement of wedge monitors. Hypercardioids are better suited to wedges slightly off to the side; for monitors in line with the mic's rear, cardioids are preferred.

With a huge available selection of great-sounding mics (dynamics, condensers and ribbons) at nearly every price range in the accompanying chart, this is a great time to check out something new while helping educate artists you work with on the affordable pleasures of a truly great vocal mic. After all, isn't their performance worth a little extra?


Mix executive editor George Petersen operates a small record label and performs with the Bay Area rock ensemble Ariel.

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