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On Stage Tips

Using the microphones on stage
(and other on-stage issues) -- some advice

The microphones used at the Alaska Folk Festival are the type most often used in live performances. They have a very close pickup pattern which reduces feedback. Every year "mic shy" performers sabotage their sets by backing off the mic. Ideally you should be very close.

Keep the microphone, between your mouth and the specific eye contact areas of the audience. These elements should be in a straight line. When you use a stationary microphone, move your body around the microphone as you vary your audience eye contact, always maintaining the mouth-mike-eye contact area line. This technique provides a constant level of amplified sound. If you turn your head sideways without moving either your body or the microphone then the sound system cannot amplify your voice at a consistent level.

Frequently, singers will sing loud and talk quietly. This gives both the audience and the sound engineer fits. You make life easier for everyone if you sing and talk at about the same level of loudness.

If you have experience with mics you know it is possible to "work" a microphone, pulling back slightly to blend harmony levels, or singing just to the side of the mic or just over the top to avoid popping P's. That's great. But if you haven't practiced this, just sing like you do at home, but right into the mic.

When you come on stage, stand where you need to be and let the stage crews set the mics up in front of you. Look at the number on the stand and say, "Check, check, number (number)," in a loud, clear voice. The sound man and the monitor board operators need sound to work with. Sing a little, make sure you can hear yourself in the monitor. Make sure you can hear your bandmates before you start your first song.

If you are playing an instrument, it's the same drill. Give the board operators something to check the mic with. Play normally. If you do a sound check one inch from the mic and then pull back five inches when the song starts, you will disappear from the mix.

If you have experience working a mic, you can mix yourself during a song. If you position a guitar, banjo or fiddle two or three inches away for the sound check, and then play your rhythm chops at that distance, you should be just right in the mix. Then when you take a lead break, you can move right in to the mic or play harder and louder and you will stand out at a lead volume level.

If you play with a pickup in your instrument, you and your bandmates can still control your dynamics by playing harder or more softly as needed. Test your cords and pickups before the moment of truth on the festival stage. Make sure the battery is fresh. Bring the cords you need and make sure they work.

Sometimes musicians are too eager to make the most of their 15 minutes. They storm the stage, forgo any sound check, and launch into the first song. The result is the first song (or two) IS the sound check.

Instead, devote the first couple minutes to the sound - make sure everyone is on mic, plugged in and working properly. Don't rip into that first tune only to discover halfway through that the levels are bad or the pickup's dead. Time a 12 minute set, counting between-song talking, and let yourself relax a little.

(More) Advice Regarding the Monitor Speakers:

If you back off the mic then your bandmates can't hear your in the monitors. Often, they will then ask the monitor board operator to turn you up in the monitors. This is sabotaging your set. Cranking the monitors creates tubby, reverby sound, encourages the mics to feedback, and causes the musicians to back off their mics because they seem too hot.

If you need adjustment a particular mic in the monitors or of the overall monitor levels, let the monitor board operator know. At the AFF they are just off stage left. They are there to help you.

(More) Advice regarding guitar pickups (applies to ALL pickups):

We can't count the number of times a guitarist has plugged in on stage at the Festival with a pickup set-up that was not working. Check your's out BEFORE the Festival. If it takes a battery, put in a fresh one. Make sure your pickup works and sounds good.

Tighten the 1/4" cable jack on your instrument to make sure there isn't a loose ground to cause snapping and popping after you plug in.

If you are bringing your own 1/4" cable to use, make sure it is in top shape, maybe even brand new. Loose connections WILL cause bad sounds (snapping and popping) from the sound system whenever you jiggle them the tiniest bit. (Note: We have to use phantom power in the Festival's sound system. With this voltage in the sound system cabling, good connections are essential. Marginal connections will soon become very obvious.)

You don't want to find ANY of these problems while you are getting set up on stage for your 15 minute set or during your first song. Get things checked, fixed, replaced before the Festival.

More microphone tips, courtesy of John Palmes:

Sing to the Microphone:

The microphone is both your audience and your instrument. You may want to sing to some attractive person in the front row, but you need to sing to the microphone.

Distance from the mic:

Your mouth should be within 6 inches (a hand span) away from the mic, usually about 2-4 inches. If you work in a middle distance, you can then move in or out to change volume.

Most microphones also have a "proximity effect," that is, if you get right up on the mic so that your lips are close to touching the wind screen, the mic sounds warmer and the voice sounds deeper and fuller. As you get out past 6 inches or so, there is a loss of presence and fullness and you sound "off mic."

Distance from the mic is extremely important. Decreasing the distance by half increases the volume to the microphone by 4 times. Your voice or guitar at 12 inches will be 4 times louder at 6 inches and 24 times louder at 3 inches. At 1.5 inches you will be almost 100 times louder than at 12 inches. You can't play your guitar 100 times louder without breaking strings - just move in on the microphone.

Now, if you back away from the mic, it is sensitive enough to "hear" you. But it will also be hearing the monitor system and the main speakers almost as well as it hears you. If the sound crew has pity on you and turns you up, they turn up the same sound that the microphone is hearing. This leads to feedback.

The signal goes into the microphone at the speed of sound, through the sound system at the speed of light, and out of the speakers and back into the microphone again at the speed of sound - a cycle that repeats and repeats. This is feedback, and the longer it goes on the worse it gets. The closer you stay to your mic, the easier it is for only your sound to be amplified and controlled.

Mic Placement:

Vocals: If you sing directly into the mic, your p's (and f's & t's) will pop and explode as that big gust of wind hits the microphone diaphragm. Avoid this by singing over the top of the microphone or off to one side.

Guitar and other stringed instruments: Aim the mic at base of the fingerboard of the instrument, just above the sound hole on the guitar. I like to angle the mic across the sound hole and aim it at the base of the fingerboard. Aiming the mic into the sound hole gives a booming sound that is hard to control and can lead to feedback. However you can use this effect to change the sound of the instrument by moving towards or away from the sound hole as you play.

Not everyone likes to mic instruments the same way. For instance, some guitarists like to aim the mic at the face of the guitar, below and behind the picking hand. The stage crew should let the performer decide if they have a preference.