In stadiums filled with thousands of people roaring as they eagerly await a beloved artist’s performance, a spoken word travels two feet. No matter how renowned, singers are ordinary people incapable of filling a rowdy stadium without vocal assistance. No human voice can do that.
This is where microphones come in, with all the strange ways singers hold them in concert photos.
Why do singers hold their microphones weird? Singers grasp their microphones in various ways for many reasons. In most cases, the goal is to capture as much of the singer’s voice as possible with minimal background noise. Otherwise, performers may hold the microphone as a means of artistic expression.
Why do Singers Press Their Lips Against the Microphone?
One word: volume (not romance).
Common advice for live singers suggests holding the microphone 1 – 3 inches from the mouth. Why 1 – 3 inches? Because captured vocals taper off immensely with each additional inch between the sound source and microphone. If it’s too far, background noise will overwhelm the singer’s voice.
So getting close to the microphone is paramount. Still, why do some singers seem to get even closer than one inch? This singing strategy is “kissing the mic,” and hygiene aside, getting as close to the device as possible rarely presents drawbacks. Instead, it offers several advantages, and singers will intentionally “eat the mic” to:
- Maximize the vocal sound, such as in exceptionally loud environments
- Drown out interference from other instruments on stage
- Be audible when singing softly
- Emphasize low notes
It’s important to note that when referencing older photos, limits in microphone technology made getting super close a requirement. Elvis Presley wasn’t trying to eat his microphone like a bacon banana sandwich for effect, but a necessity.
Why Do Singers Cup the Mic?
Rappers, beat-boxers, and metal vocalists are known for grabbing the microphone by the grill (the part where sound goes in) instead of the handle. We call this “cupping” the mic. Why do singers do this?
There is approximately one valid acoustic reason for cupping: it provides verbal feedback for the singer. However, the cons outweigh the pros here. Cupping traps the sound around the microphone and amplifies overall feedback, muffling the sound.
Otherwise, singers cup the mic because they:
- Want to make a visual statement
- Are striking a pose for concert photos
- Don’t understand how a cardioid stage microphone works.
Unfortunately, many savvy observers on the internet have criticized mic cupping for its inefficiency. It also can damage microphones over time, and they tend to be expensive. Therefore, singers seeking artistic expression are better off abandoning this technique to avoid ravenous ridicule.
Why do Singers Pull the Mic Away?
Pulling the microphone away is the opposite of “kissing” it. While kissing the mic increases sound pressure, pulling it away decreases it.
While moving your lips closer is a good technique for enhancing bass notes, moving them away is suitable for high notes. The idea here is that higher notes generally require a higher volume.
However, if the microphone receives too much input or distortion, signal clipping happens and creates an unpleasant sound. Therefore, singers pull the microphone away to reduce the volume while maintaining pitch.
Fortunately, audio engineers are usually able to deal with these technical dilemmas. Additionally, they typically prefer the microphone to be held at a constant distance throughout a performance. This request is because extreme changes in distance between vocal microphones and mouth make it harder to adjust gain, compression, and sound level.
You might see a distance marker reminding vocalists to keep a consistent range.
However, pulling the mic away remains a form of habit and expression for many singers. Logistics aside, nothing highlights the power of a singer’s vocal cords quite as much as an apparent need to pull the microphone back so that it can handle the fire it’s about to receive.
Why Do Singers Use Two Microphones?
While it’s not as common nowadays, photos of vocalists (in the 1970s especially) reveal a standard practice of securing two microphones together. Using two may seem extraneous when one mic is enough to pick up vocals and background noise. Why would singers use two microphones?
Firstly, it’s an efficient noise-canceling technique — microphone splitters were unreliable back in the day. This setup worked because with both microphones receiving input, the audio engineer could essentially “subtract” the background noise of one mic from the other.
Thus, the output would be relatively free of unwanted noise. The Grateful Dead is well-known for doing this. The band would often perform in front of their speakers rather than behind them.
Secondly, two microphones will record different versions of the vocals. Even if the microphones are only slightly different, the audio they record will vary enough for sound mixers. And sound mixers allow editors to do fun things, like:
- Create a unique mood for a song
- Combine the audio from a condenser mic and a dynamic mic
- Provide extra flexibility for vocal tone adjustments.
The final circumstance for a singer to use two microphones is a live performance recording. In this case, one is for the PA system for the singer to interact with the audience while the other records vocals for the live album or single.
Why Do Singers Wear Earpieces?
You’ve probably noticed that earpieces are typical. It seems curious that singers would need to listen to anything other than the music filling the stadium during live vocal performances.
Why do singers wear earpieces? We’ve established that cupping the microphone might provide some feedback, but the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. In most instances, earpieces or headphones are a singer’s best bet. Most professionals call these earpieces “in-ear monitors” because they allow vocalists to (you guessed it) monitor their voices with the rest of the band. How and why is this helpful?
- It eliminates the distraction of other instruments (as a natural filter)
- Speakers facing the audience aren’t for performers. In-ear monitors are.
- Singers can customize the sound levels of different elements. This allows individual vocalists to follow the song in the best way they know-how.
- Concerts get ridiculously loud, especially on stage near the speakers. Earpieces provide proper protection.
- Earpieces are a guiding source of familiarity for the singer. Audio engineers can make sure that sound levels are consistent between performances.
With everything considered, it’s hard to see a good reason for a singer not to wear an earpiece.
Singers hold their microphones in specific ways for many reasons. Most of these reasons aren’t “weird” at all (exception: cupping the mic) because they provide the singer, live audience, sound engineer, and casual listener with numerous benefits.
The effect of the distance between the singer’s mouth and mic cannot be understated. The chosen microphone technique can create completely different experiences.
When singers press their lips against the microphone, technical reasons are promoting it. When singers pull the mic away, there are valid technical reasons for that too. Audio is one hell of a beast, and it takes the work of a team of technicians and the performer/s to get everything just right.
Ultimately, you can thank dual-microphone usage, “kissing” the mic, pulling the mic away, and earpieces for making music enjoyable instead of a garbled mess. And sometimes, singers need to express themselves in their unique way. Music is all about expression, after all, just as much as it’s about sound science.
Just say “no” to microphone cupping. That’s the worst.
Why do some singers close their eyes?
You’ve probably heard the incredible, true tales of humans who lose their senses. To compensate for the loss, many people develop one or more existing senses to an astonishing degree. Or maybe you’re familiar with the way couples may close their eyes when they lock their lips. Either way, the same principle seems to apply to singing.
By closing their eyes, singers are better able to immerse themselves in the music. This is because, simply put, seeing is distracting — especially for a singer staring into a crowd of riled-up, often-drunk fans. In many cases, singers do this without realizing it because they’ve subconsciously picked up on how it helps them zone in. Other times singers do it intentionally for the same reason.
Otherwise, singers may close their eyes to express the mood of the music visually. This is especially common in slow songs and ballads with emotionally dense lyrics.
What’s the difference between condenser and dynamic microphones?
A quick Google search will reveal two primary types of microphones for vocalists: dynamic and condenser. What’s the difference?
Dynamic microphones are what you’ll see a live vocalist hold. These microphones use pretty straightforward technology: a vibrating diaphragm receives sound waves and converts them into an electronic signal. It is a simple handheld microphone design.
Because the concept is basic, it’s understandable that dynamic microphones are older than condensers. They are also less sensitive, making them better in concerts where they’d be bombarded by volume.
Condenser microphones are a bit more complicated. They use something called “variable capacitance,” meaning they require a power supply to handle changes in voltage. A magnetic plate behind the diaphragm converts sounds into electricity. In practice, condenser microphones are far more sensitive, making them ideal for studio recording.