With the obvious exception of talent, nothing is more important in live sound than the microphone. The microphone is the “ear” that captures the sound, and everything else that happens downstream—preamp, equalization, compression and effects—can only manipulate the raw material provided by the mic. This is why it’s really unfortunate that all too often churches haven’t considered their microphone choices since the sound system was first installed. I commonly find this to be one of the biggest areas of need for improvement, and in terms of expense, there’s probably no other place in your live sound budget where you’ll see a bigger bang for your buck.
Writing any definitive guide is challenging for a few reasons: 1) There are so many good choices in the world in 2019 and it’s hard to cover them all, and 2) since every situation is different (style of music, size of room, stage layout, and on and on) sometimes the answers are different. If you’re struggling in this area, I’d be glad to help. That said, here is a list of affordable tried and true solutions, curated with the help of a few trusted colleagues in the industry.
Drums: Still using the $500 “all seven microphones in one box” starter kit? Please, please let me help.
- Kick drum – you have no idea how many leftover cheapo microphones I’ve seen thrown in kick drums. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t know what you did. Also, it sounds terrible. Try a Shure Beta 52 ($189) for extra low-end heft, or an AKG D112 ($199) for a little extra beater attack. Both microphones are aggressively “pre-EQ’d” to sound good on modern kick drums. Play with (and pay extra attention to) placement.
- Snare – the Shure SM57 ($99) is a classic here for a reason, and will always reliably get the job done. The Beyerdynamic M201 ($299) is a great “step up” option—the hypercardioid pattern means great rejection of hi-hats, and it has a more natural EQ response. If your drummer has a great sounding, properly tuned snare, the Beyer will help that come across clearly.
- Toms – The Sennheiser e604 ($139) has been a favorite of mine for a couple [of] years in this application. They’re small, light, relatively cheap, attach to a drum’s rim, and sound really good. I use them both live and in the studio a couple [of] times a week. The Heil PR28 ($149) is another great option with tons of body. Both mics have built-in upper midrange EQ boosts that will help your toms cut through the mix.
- Overheads – I am in love with the Line Audio CM3 ($145, only available direct from [the] manufacturer or on eBay) because it is the most delightfully boring, vanilla, sounds like nothing microphone I’ve ever heard. The issue with cheap condenser microphones (the ones that came in your $500 starter kit box) is, well—they’re awful. They are made to be really bright so that when you first plug them in you are impressed with how hi-fi they sound. In practice, that bright sound makes every single cymbal and hi-hat hit irritating. Often, my first step when I’m running sound at a church with cheap overhead mics is the mute button. The CM3 adds absolutely nothing to your sound. Getting a mic that truly does that is usually really expensive. If your kit sounds good, the CM3 will translate that. If your kit sounds bad, it will sound exactly the same way through the CM3, and you probably need new/different cymbals, a conversation for another day. The other great thing about them is they have a very wide pickup pattern, meaning they are forgiving in terms of placement, and often one can get the job done. The Shure KSM 141 ($399) is another great option, providing a full sound that’s a little more pre-EQ’d in comparison to the CM3.
Bass: (Yes, we’re talking about mics, but since we’re not usually mic-ing a bass amp, let’s talk about the first thing the bass sees—the direct box.) Running the bass through a cheap DI isn’t making things easy for the front of house person. The Aguilar tone hammer ($245) is a super flexible tone machine that can make it so you’re sending a nearly finished bass sound from the stage. The Avalon U5 ($715) is a well-known studio staple DI with EQ presets for glorious bass tones. You’ve definitely heard it on some of your favorite records, and it rocks in live situations as well.
- Like it is on snare, the SM57 is a classic for a reason. The EQ curve of the mic tends to benefit what you want to hear in the mix from the guitar. However, in situations where you want a more neutral place to start from, the Cascade Fathead ($159-195) is a fantastic option. It’ll give you a fuller low end and a more natural midrange, with a pleasantly rolled off high end. The Fathead is a ribbon microphone and therefore has a figure-8 pickup pattern, so it’s ideal for a situation where your amps are off stage.
- Acoustic guitars – Again, we’re talking about DI’s here, but as with bass, having the right thing is a pretty big deal (and there are more options than ever before). Looking for a great sounding DI with no controls to mess up? Try the Radial JDI ($199). Looking to be able to control your guitar from the stage and send a more finished sound to the front of [the] house? Try the Fishman Platinum Pro EQ ($299). I have one and love it.
Keys: Usually what you’re looking for here is a quality DI that will transmit your sound purely without degrading it. The Radial is a great option here as well.
Horns: If your church uses horns, please stop using those cheap clip-on mics. If you ever solo those things in your headphones, you hear something like a terrible harmonica, regardless of the brass instrument being mic’ed. Shoved down into the horn isn’t necessarily the best place to mic anyway—a little bit of space is your friend. If you have extra SM58’s, they can do a great job. Another really cool option is the Electro-voice RE20 ($449)—they are full sounding with a really great midrange.
CHECK PAGE TWO FOR VOCAL MICS AND THE PASTOR’S MIC