Designing a foolproof microphone

The problem

I see a lot of confusion about the use of microphones at live events. A common scenario:

A speaker begins talking, but his or her voice is clearly not playing through the speakers. The speaker immediately looks down at the mic and starts flicking switches. He or she looks at the tech, who gives a thumbs-up that the mic should be on. Still no audio, because by now the speaker has turned off the mic completely. The tech, who knows that everyone thinks it’s his fault, ends up having to join the speaker on stage to fix the equipment.

What has usually happened is that for whatever reason, the tech was unable to enable the speaker’s mic in time to catch their first words. The mic’s audio was probably muted before because the speaker was talking offstage or rubbing the microphone against their clothing. Neither the tech nor the speaker are at fault. Not every speaker should be expected to be proficient in audio equipment, and the tech can only operate the equipment so quickly.

The solution

If I were designing a microphone (let’s imagine we’re dealing with a wireless handheld), there are two main features I would implement. They both address the fact that many reasonable people, when handed a microphone, do not account for the presence of a mixing board. In their minds, if the microphone has power, the sound comes through the speakers. If there is no sound coming through the speakers, the microphone is off. Here’s what I’d do:

1: Concealed switches
If users can’t find a switch, they can’t turn off the mic. Hide any switches in the battery (or¬†separate) compartment. This eliminates the need for the tech to put unsightly (and easily bypassed) tape over the switch.

2: Power light
If the microphone is powered on, it should have a steady green light. Someone who has read the manual can understand that the light comes on for a second when powered on, then turns off, and only comes on again if the battery is low. A regular user thinks that light on = microphone on.

How you can help

If you’re ever handed a microphone, here are a few tips to help out the audio tech:

  • If you’re about to speak for the first time in the session, bring the mic into position to signal that you’re ready, and then pause for a second or two to give the tech a chance to turn on the mic.
  • Hold the microphone close to, but not directly in front of, your mouth.¬†If you hold it too far away, or even hold it in your lap (I have seen people do this), the tech will have no choice but to turn up your gain, risking feedback. If you hold it “in the line of fire,” you’ll pop your P’s.
  • Keep the microphone at a consistent distance from your mouth. This avoids unexpected changes in volume. One trick you can use is to lock the elbow of your microphone-holding arm to your side. With your upper-arm firmly planted, you’re less likely to move that arm around as you speak.
  • Project, but don’t yell. If you speak just loud enough that you can hear your voice come back to you through the speakers, but so that if you spoke just a little quieter you wouldn’t, you’re good.
  • If the microphone doesn’t work, don’t tap it or blow into it. None of the cool people do this. Test it by speaking or snapping, and look to the tech for instructions before flicking any switches.
  • Turn off your cellphone completely or put it in airplane mode. Not all systems will be sufficiently shielded.

And finally, if you’re ever at one of those music award ceremonies, and as you stand at the podium and the microphone is not at the level of your chin, you do not need to lean down and speak into the mic. Technicians who work on live national broadcasts are smart enough to prepare for tall people.

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