If you are a classically-trained woodwind player, playing into a microphone might be a new experience for you.
A rock band that I play in (flute and saxophone) does a lot of shows in small clubs and bars, and the sound guy (or girl—I’m using “sound guy” from here on out, with gender-neutral intent) is usually used to miking vocals, guitar amps, and drum sets, and may or may not know what to do with a woodwind instrument. I can often help things along, and make sure the band and I sound our best, by coming armed with a small amount of knowledge.
Here are some basic tips for looking and sounding like you know what you’re doing. I’m assuming here that you’re not doing anything fancy gear-wise (there are plenty of options if you want to buy a clip-on mic), just showing up with your instrument and using the venue’s basic sound equipment.
- Hopefully this one goes without saying, but be nice to the sound guy. Running audio equipment for a live performance is a thankless job—if everything goes well, the sound guy goes completely unnoticed, but if anything goes wrong, he takes the blame. A cooperative and grateful attitude from you will be appreciated, and may help make sure you get the assistance you need to sound your best over the PA system.
- Basic microphones work great for woodwinds. If your venue is well-supplied and your sound guy is well-qualified, there might be some additional possibilities to explore. But the warhorse Shure 57 and 58 microphones that are staples of virtually every live venue are very reliable options.
- Know where to point the microphone. The problem that non-woodwind players may not be aware of is that the sound isn’t emitted from any one point, the way it is from the bell of a trumpet. Every tonehole on a woodwind is a potential sound source, so you either need a whole lot of microphones or a good mic placement compromise.
- For flute, aim the mic at the embouchure hole. Raise the microphone up too high, then angle it down—this makes sure you’re not blowing into the mic itself.
- For straight reed instruments like oboe, clarinet, or soprano saxophone, aim at approximately your left hand or a little below. This works pretty well for bass clarinet, too.
- For alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, you can aim the microphone down into the bell, or just a little higher. Remember that most of the sound doesn’t come out of the bell, but that mic placement happens to catch the instrument at about the left-hand-or-below spot that works well for the straight instruments. Be aware of your low notes, which may suddenly blare into the mic. Some players use this as an effect, and some like to lean away from the mic a little to avoid it.
- For bassoon, I often see a microphone suspended above the bell, but personally I usually bring the mic a little lower, a few inches closer to the center of the instrument. There are toneholes all along the length of that thing, and in situations where a bassoon is going to be miked, it’s probably not playing those lowest bell notes much.
- Play into the microphone. Get up good and close, like within an inch of it. If you usually tend to move around a lot when you play, don’t. Keep track of your proximity to the microphone throughout the performance to make sure you haven’t drifted away. If at any point in the performance you get too loud, the sound guy can turn your volume down, but if you get too far from the microphone, he can’t turn you up. Staying close to the mic makes sure the sound guy has plenty of your sound to work with. And it’s perfectly okay to adjust the microphone stand so that you are comfortable.
- Make sure that you can hear yourself well in a monitor. (Those are usually wedge-shaped speakers at your feet.) What you and the sound guy might not realize until it’s too late is that you need the same kind of monitoring that a vocalist needs in order to hear what you’re playing, especially if you’re working with electric guitars and drumsets. If you can’t hear yourself, it will be hard tell whether you’re in tune. With something like flute, if I don’t have a good monitor, sometimes I can’t even be 100% sure that I’m making a sound at all.
- At the sound check, when it’s your turn to play into the microphone so the sound guy can adjust some things at the sound board, don’t be shy. Play as high and as low as you’re going to play during the show. Play at your “normal” volume, but also do some very loud playing. The sound guy needs to know what to expect out of your instrument.
- Be forewarned that this could be a lot louder than your usual playing situations. You can get inexpensive musicians’ earplugs—I use these—that lower the overall volume of the sound around you. Other kinds of earplugs may filter sound unevenly; often you lose more of the high frequencies. Musicians’ earplugs are designed to let you hear everything in balance while protecting your ears. One thing to consider is that these do create the occlusion effect, like closing an ear with your finger while playing so you can hear yourself better. This can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on what makes you comfortable. The way to avoid the occlusion effect is to spend some extra money and have an ear doctor take deep ear molds so you can have custom in-ear plugs made.
- Hopefully this is another no-brainer, although it can be a pitfall if you’re not used to microphones: be aware that the microphone is on. If you make a comment to the musician next to you, will the entire room hear it? Even if the curtain is closed, the audio may be live!