The lyrics are memorized; rehearsals are done; the spotlight is on, and you’re on stage holding the microphone, ready to sing for the audience. From my experience on the stage and as a sound technician, I have come to realize the significance of proper microphone holding technique. So how should we hold a microphone when singing live?
How do we hold a microphone when singing live? The best way to hold a microphone when singing live is at a close distance of 1-3 inches from the mouth. Point the capsule (front) of the microphone slightly off-axis from the mouth and grip the microphone in the middle. Keep a medium grip, flexible wrist, and relaxed arm and shoulder in order to reduce body tension and improve vocal performance.
Practicing proper microphone holding technique will vastly improve live vocal performances. I assure you this seemingly small detail will provide considerable benefit. So without further ado, let’s get into the details of how to hold a microphone when singing live!
To learn about my recommended microphones for live vocal performance, check out my article Best Microphones For Live Vocal Performances.
How To Hold A Microphone When Singing Live
The way we hold the microphone directly impacts how we end up sounding through the public address system. When singing live into a handheld microphone, the goal is to capture the voice as clearly as possible while rejecting other sound sources. This often proves to be a difficult task during loud live performances.
Holding the mic steadily at a distance of 1-3 inches from the mouth is optimal for capturing the vocal performance for a few reasons:
The closeness of 1-3 inches from the mouth means that the microphone will be subjected to the voice more than anything else.
The Inverse-Square Law tells us that sound level intensity decreases by 75% for every doubling of distance from the source. In simpler terms, sound intensity is quartered for every doubling of distance.
Holding a microphone two inches from your mouth theoretically results in an audio signal 4 times greater than if you were to hold the mic just four inches from your mouth, and 16 times greater than holding the mic eight inches from your mouth.
A directional microphone 1-3 inches away from the mouth is close enough to effectively “reject” unwanted sounds. The vocals are so loud relative to everything else in the microphone and so the signal is mostly vocals.
The signal won’t be as pure as a vocal performance in a studio isolation room but will be clean given the circumstances.
Holding the mic 1-3 inches from your mouth will also require less gain to boost the mic level signal to a usable line-level signal.
Applying too much gain to compensate for a quiet or distant vocal performance will boost extraneous sounds and introduce noise to the microphone signal and increase the likelihood of dreaded feedback.
Remember that vocals are paramount in most music and ideally should be heard above the other instruments.
To learn more about microphone gain and feedback, check out my articles What Is Microphone Gain And How Does It Affect Mic Signals? and 12 Methods To Prevent & Eliminate Microphone/Audio Feedback, respectively.
We typically don’t want the microphone too close to (or touching) the singer’s lips.
From a hygiene perspective, if a singer doesn’t bring their own mic to a show, chances are the microphone they’ll be supplied with has been through a few performances before them.
Looking back on the number of times I’ve pressed my lips against a sweat and beer-soaked SM58 is quite off-putting!
Another reason we don’t want the microphone too close to the mouth is to reduce pops and plosives. Avoidance of breath noise and mic “popping” are also the reasons behind holding the microphone slightly off-axis from the mouth.
Holding the microphone slightly off-axis could mean pointing it between the bottom lip and chin or between the upper lip and nose. Pointing the microphone to the sides of the mouth toward the cheeks also works, but makes for an awkward grip.
The key point is to be comfortable without pointing the mic directly toward the mouth and, therefore, the plosive energy.
To learn more about plosives and their effects on microphones, check out my article Top 10 Tips For Eliminating Microphone Pops And Plosives.
Consistency is crucial when delivering a solid vocal performance.
If you turn your head, move the microphone so that it stays in the proper position relative to your mouth. Turning the directional microphone away from the sound source will inevitably result in a poorer capture of that sound source.
The obvious caveat here its the fact that moving the microphone away from your mouth can be used to great effect. Learning the rules and then breaking them is part of creating art and music! Some examples are:
- As the singer holds the last note of a line, they pull the microphone away from their mouth to give the effect of fading out.
- The singer shakes their head back and forth while holding the microphone steady (or vice versa) to create a cool vibrato effect.
- The singer pulls the microphone away during a louder note to maintain consistent levels with altered vocal delivery.
Hand Position On The Microphone
The ideal hand position is in the middle of the handheld microphone.
Holding the microphone near the base doesn’t allow for as much physical control over its position. In this position, the mic is wobbly and requires a tighter grip to stay in the ideal position.
This is uncomfortable for the singer and has the potential to decrease microphone performance as the mic moves in and out of its ideal position.
Holding the microphone by its head or grille is not optimal either since it blocks the rear ports of the capsule. This effectively turns the directional microphone into an omnidirectional microphone.
Now it doesn’t matter where you point the microphone because it will capture sounds equally from all directions. Of course, this is not ideal on a loud stage. Vocal clarity will diminish and the risk of feedback from sound monitors will increase.
Holding the mic in the middle gives us more control over the mic position without affecting the mic signal.
Comfort And Optimal Singer Performance
Now that you know the essentials of holding a mic properly when singing, it’s time to talk about optimizing your performance with a handheld microphone.
We want the microphone to be held in such a way that it doesn’t intrude on the singer’s ability to perform.
A medium grip is preferred over “too loose” or “too tight.”
If you need to squeeze on the mic during powerful vocal passages, go for it! Just try not to grip the mic so tensely all the time, as this will affect your hand, arm, shoulder, neck, and ultimately your voice.
All this is to say it’s all about the performance. This How-To guide is simply a guide! Learn these idealities and tailor them to your performance style or, conversely, tailor your live performance style to better suit the ideal microphone position!
How Can Singers Hear Themselves Better On Stage?
Relying solely on muscle memory when singing isn’t a quality strategy. Hearing yourself as you sing helps tremendously in performing the way you intend to.
Without clear monitoring of their voices, many singers become “pitchy,” which is rarely a positive occurrence! So how do singers hear themselves better on stage?
Live stage shows typically utilize one or both of the following monitoring methods:
- In-ear monitoring
- Foldback monitoring
In-ear monitoring is when performers have earpieces in their ears to monitor the sound of their performance. Oftentimes different performers will have specific mixes tailored to the critical instruments they need to hear. The singer would typically have an auxiliary mix (different from the main front of house mix) with boosted vocals so they hear themselves better.
Foldback monitoring is when “wedges” (loudspeaker monitors) are laid on the floor pointing toward the ears of the performers. Like the in-ear monitors, different mixes are sent to different monitors based on the musicians’ needs.
When relying on foldback monitoring, it is critical to stay in front of a monitor with enough vocal in its mix to hear yourself singing. For this reason, singers with handheld microphones shouldn’t stray too far from their respective monitors.
If you’re having a hard time hearing yourself through the monitors, don’t be shy to signal to the audio technician to turn up your monitor mix!
Proper Microphone Position
As discussed in the main paragraph of this article, holding the microphone in the optimal position will help a singer to hear their voice on stage. The cleaner the signal, the more the vocal will “cut through” the monitor mix!
A More Physical Approach
There are situations where the monitoring is subpar (shout out to the dive bars!) and the above techniques fail to improve vocal monitoring.
An alternative solution is to plug one of your ears with your free hand while holding the mic with the other hand. The resonance in your sinuses will essentially amplify your voice inside of your head. Although it doesn’t necessarily look “professional,” I’ve seen this technique live and have heard the improvement in performance that often comes with it.
How To Avoid Microphone Feedback
Feedback is everyone’s worst enemy at live, amplified performances. A singer holding a microphone also holds the great responsibility of avoiding microphone feedback!
Mic feedback is a type of positive gain loop between a microphone (input) and loudspeaker (output). Feedback happens when a microphone picks up sound emanating from a speaker, sends that signal back to the speaker and therefore picks up even more sound emanating from the speaker.
This loop stacks up quickly and the system overloads. This results in the speaker outputting a terrible squeal.
So how is this avoided? Directional microphones are a good place to start.
Nearly all microphones used in live vocal performances are directional. The cardioid polar pattern is the most common. Cardioid mics are sensitive to where they point, less sensitive to their sides, and barely sensitive at all to the rear.
The Shure SM58 (pictured) is the most popular live vocal mic. It is a dynamic top-address microphone with a cardioid directional pattern.
If you’re interested in checking out the price of the Shure SM58, I’ve added a link to Amazon here.
Shure is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.
For in-depth reads on the directional mics, the cardioid pattern, and top-address mics, please check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• A Complete Guide To Directional Microphones (With Pictures)
• What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples)
• What Are Top, End & Side-Address Microphones? (+ Examples)
This is why pointing the capsule (front) of the microphone at the mouth works. The null point in the rear of directional microphones allows for foldback monitors to be placed on the floor in front of the singer.
Take heed of the following list of “do not’s” in order to avoid feedback with a directional vocal microphone:
- Do not point the microphone at the foldback monitors.
- Do not position the microphone in front of the front-of-house loudspeakers.
- Do not cup the head or grille of the microphone. This reduces the directionality of the microphone. More sound from monitors and loudspeakers will get captured by the mic.
- Do not turn the gain up too high on the microphone channel.
For more information on microphone feedback, check out my article What Is Microphone Feedback And How To Eliminate It For Good.
How To Exploit The Microphone Proximity Effect
The proximity effect is inherent in all directional microphones. It states that the closer a sound source is to the microphone capsule, the more bass response the microphone will have.
The proximity effect is often exploited in radio to get a rich, low tone of voice. However, the proximity effect is another tool in the singer’s toolkit if they understand how to use it to their benefit.
So, if your voice happens to lack low-end richness, try moving the microphone closer to your mouth. Listen carefully to hear the difference the proximity effect makes.
Conversely, if you have a very deep voice, perhaps shying away from the microphone would benefit your particular performance.
For more information on microphone proximity effect, check out my article What Is Microphone Proximity Effect And What Causes It?
A drawback of bringing the microphone close to the mouth is the increased risk of pops and plosives. This is why pointing the capsule (front) of the microphone slightly off-axis from the mouth is recommended.
Notes On Microphone Hygiene
Looking back on all the shows I’ve played, I wish I had brought my own vocal microphone with me. It’s unnerving to think about all the sweat/spit/beer-soaked microphones I’ve sung into.
The best tip I can give in terms of microphone hygiene is BYOM (Bring Your Own Microphone). That way, if the microphone is dirty, at least it’s your own doing!
Bringing your own microphone also alleviates any guesswork from using spotty equipment (shout out to dive bars once again). Some singers even take their own mic cables with them to performances.
How To Clean Your Vocal Microphone.
Practically all live performance vocal microphones are directional moving-coil dynamic microphones. Moving-coil dynamic microphones are somewhat resistant to moisture and so cleaning them is an easy task:
- Remove the grille/head from the microphone.
- Soak the grille and windscreen in water with a bit of detergent.
- For extra cleaning, gently scrub the grille with a toothbrush.
- Allow the grille and windscreen to completely dry before re-assembling the microphone. A hairdryer on low-heat can help speed up this process.
To read a detailed description of moving-coil dynamic microphones, check out my article The Complete Guide To Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones.
If the grille is not removable, extra caution must be taken when cleaning the microphone. There is a limit to how much moisture can get inside a dynamic microphone.
- Hold the microphone upside down to prevent water from leaking into the mic.
- Dip a toothbrush in either mouthwash or detergent solution (mixed with water).
- With the damp toothbrush, gently scrub the grille of the microphone.
- Allow the microphone to dry, preferably while still upside down.
How do you hold a microphone when giving a speech? Holding a microphone when giving a speech is similar to when singing live. The best way to hold a microphone when speaking is at a distance of 2-10 inches from the mouth and at a 45-degree angle downward. Aim the capsule (front) of the microphone at the mouth and hold the microphone in the middle. For comfort, keep a medium grip, flexible wrist, and elbow down.
For a more detailed answer, head on over to my article on How To Hold A Microphone When Public Speaking And Presenting.
What are the best handheld microphones for singing live? Cardioid-type directional dynamic microphones make for the best handheld microphones in vocal performances. They are durable, rugged, and resilient to moisture. Their directionality allows them to capture the voice while rejecting other sounds on a noisy stage. Their null point (back of the mic) helps reduce the risk of feedback.
To learn more about My New Microphone’s recommended live vocal microphones, check out the following articles:
• Best Microphones For Live Vocal Performances
• Best Handheld Microphones For Live Speaking
• Best Podium Microphones For Live Speaking
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.