MICROPHONE TECHNIQUE: “Can You Hear Me Yet?”
Submitted by Kathy Jessup
Awhile back I presented a performance workshop to local storytellers in my area. The workshop was broad ranging, but one of the components included the opportunity to learn about (and practice with) different types of microphones. As a former broadcaster, I am very familiar with microphones, but I’ve noticed many storytellers are loathe to use them because they are uncomfortable with the technology. They insist “I don’t need a microphone, I’m loud enough.” They then proceed to tell their story, perhaps starting out with satisfactory volume, but slowly getting quieter and quieter without even realizing it. How many times have you sat in an audience and missed part of a Teller’s story because they weren’t using a microphone and you couldn’t hear them well enough? It is a very frustrating experience for the listener! A Teller needs to consider that, aside from their own vocal power, competing venue noise can be a real issue in many “live” performance situations. So, long story short: unless you are telling in a very intimate story circle, YOU NEED TO USE A MICROPHONE.
Which mic to use? You can easily do an internet search and learn everything you could possibly want to know about microphones. But without getting too technical, here’s a quick primer: there are several different types and the one you need might vary depending on the situation. Some mics pick up sound all around you, while others have a very narrow field; move out of that field and you are "off mic." You don’t have to become an audio engineer, but it is definitely worth your while to try out all sorts of mics and see which one best suits your telling style. You might even want to change the type of mic you use depending on which story you are telling. For example, headset microphones are great because they allow you to be “hands free.” So if your story involves props or gestures, this MAY seem like the best mic for you. However, headset microphones are very touchy. They have to be positioned just right or you’ll “pop P’s,” sound overly sibilant (whistling S’s) or perhaps you’ll sound too “breathy” as the mic picks up every nuance. You also can’t raise your voice much with a headset mic. Therefore if your story involves a wide range of vocal power, perhaps a headset mic is not the best choice for that particular story. Microphones which are set on a stand also allow you to be hands-free, but this style requires a bit of practice. You need to learn how to move your body and your head without drifting away from the microphone’s field. You don’t want to stand like a statue glued stiff in front of the microphone, but on the other hand if you move too much or inadvertently tilt your head, your words may drift away... Tricky? Yes, but with a little practice you will get the hang of it!
The participants in my workshop laughed when I began the afternoon by giving each of them a large carrot! No, it wasn’t for a nutrition break; the carrot was meant to simulate a hand-held microphone (a common type offered in performance situations.) I explained that Tellers should begin by viewing the mic in their hand as a friend--- NOT as a foreign object they hang on to with a death grip and which becomes the focal point of all their anxiety! Likewise, I encourage you to think of the microphone as an extension of your arm. Hold it in a relaxed way, comfortably switching hands, and simply get used to having the mic in the corner of your view as you Tell. Rehearsing your story with a carrot, a lint brush, or any similar shaped object gives you the FEEL of a mic and allows you to get comfortable with mic movements. Of course at some point you also need practice time with a REAL microphone so that you can perfect your audio technique as well. During solo practice with a mic and you can easily experiment and learn how to avoid “popping” etc.
You also need to realize that a microphone is not magic. Even with a mic you still need to project your voice. If you speak too quietly, the microphone gain will have to be turned up so high that the mic will also pick up every other little noise in the room, and may even result in the dreaded feedback squeals. Another question I’m often asked is: How close do I have to be to the microphone? Well, that depends. My rule of thumb is: the noisier the venue = the more I need to project my voice, and the closer I may have to hold the microphone. If the mic is close to my mouth there is less chance it will pick up all of the other noise in the room. BUT… having said that, in a normal performance situation, where the audience is being quiet, AND you are projecting properly, you can have the mic further from your mouth. This is always the preferred position. It’s not as enjoyable watching a storyteller who is holding the microphone jammed up to their mouth, blocking a clear view of their face. If you can, keep the mic below chin level, (5 fingers away) leaving an unobscured view of your lovely, expressive face! Practice in front of a mirror and you’ll see for yourself what a difference microphone positioning can make in terms of what the audience sees of you.
And that brings me to my final point: microphone tests. I’m amazed at the number of people who waste their mic test opportunity. They approach the microphone self-consciously, mumble a few “mic test 1-2-3” lines and off they go! Remember, the whole purpose of a mic test is to get a reading on the loudness of your performance voice. Come prepared to test a portion of your story as you would actually tell it during the show. That means your mic check sample should include: loud, soft, P’s, S’s and any sound effects you may be planning to use. It is your golden opportunity to hear in advance how the mic will pick up your voice in those varied situations. Most of the time we are not working with a technician who can constantly adjust mic levels as we go along. Usually it’s just us, the microphone and the speaker box. You get ONE opportunity to set your mic level and that’s it. If you plan on yelling, speaking softly, or using sound effects in your story, it is up to you to learn how to adjust the mic position in relation to your mouth to yield the best effect (ie: back the mic away if you’re going to yell or do a messy sound effect, or you can even turn your head a bit to the side so the mic doesn’t pick up the full sound.) These tips and more you can learn for yourself but it takes lots of concentrated practice in front of a microphone. If you’re serious about improving your mic technique, borrow the equipment from your storytelling group (if you can) for practice. You can even get a few tellers together to rent a variety of microphones and the necessary speaker etc. and split the cost of your practice day. It is money well spent and it will make a big difference in the quality of your future storytelling presentations.
Kathy Jessup is a storyteller and contributor to the "How to be a Storyteller" book.