When recording audio, microphones are nearly always required. When setting up a professional studio, talkback microphones are essential for quality communication.
What are talkback microphones, and why are they important? A talkback microphone is any microphone in a studio environment that allows for communication from the control room to the live room. Talkback mics aid in communication by letting engineers and producers talk directly to talent via headphones or a speaker in the live rooms and iso-booths.
In this article, we'll cover talkback microphones in greater detail and discuss how they're used in studios around the world.
What Is A Talkback Microphone?
The talkback microphone is practically a must in professional studios. It allows for easy communication between the control room to the live rooms and iso-booths.
The talkback microphone picks up sound in the control room and sends audio to any number of live rooms and/or iso-booths.
This is critical for efficient and effective communication between talent (voice-over artists, musicians, etc.) and producers (whether it's just the engineer, a single producer, or an agency).
Note that recording microphones are already being used in the booths, so there's no need for a “live room talkback mic.” The “talkback” refers to the producers/engineers talking back to the talent.
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What Kind Of Microphones Are Used For Talkback Microphones?
Any functional microphone can be used as a talkback mic. However, because the talkback mic signal does not need to be high-quality, we often settle for cheaper mics.
Some studio mixing consoles have built-in talkback microphones that are already routed within the consoles themselves.
Monitor controllers and other input/output devices may also have talkback microphones built into their designs.
These microphones are generally omnidirectional so that the consoles can be positioned more freely while still allowing their mics to capture the sound of the producers/engineers.
Alternatively, desktop microphones can be plugged into studio I/Os and used as talkback microphones. Gooseneck mics are common for this purpose.
As mentioned, though, any microphone can act as a talkback. A Neumann U 87 could be set up in the control room and routed to be the talkback mic (though this is likely not the best use of such a high-quality studio-grade microphone).
In the studio that I've spent most of my career in, we prefer the good old Shure SM57 as our talkback microphone of choice.
The Shure SM57 is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top 11 Best Dynamic Microphones On The Market
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocal
How Are Talkback Microphones Routed?
Studio routing can become needlessly complicated. Here are some common ways in which talkback mics are routed.
First, let's note that talkback microphones can be routed to loudspeakers and/or headphones, depending on the studio.
In the studio I work at, we typically send the talkback signal to headphones in one or more of the iso-booths. However, there have been times with larger groups (such as choirs) where routing the talkback to a loudspeaker was more appropriate.
So how do we get the talkback signal from the talkback mic to the performer(s)?
Talkback Sent Direct
It is possible to send a microphone signal directly through to an iso-booth. This will, of course, still require a mic preamp and/or a headphone preamp.
Talkback Sent Through Monitor Control
Many studios will have a monitor control for various mixes and sends. The talkback microphone may be built into the controller itself or be routed into and out of the controller appropriately.
In the studio, we use the Mackie Big Knob Studio+. This monitor controller has a built-in microphone for talkback purposes, but we typically opt for an external connected Shure SM57 to act as the talkback microphone for the control room.
Although the built-in microphone works fine, it picks up a lot of mechanical noise. The inexpensive SM57 provides a much cleaner signal, and since we have several spare 57s, we decided to put one of them to good use as a talkback mic.
Talkback Sent Through Interface Via Digital Audio Workstation
The talkback microphone can be routed through the studio's digital audio workstation as either part of the headphone mix or as its seperate mix that is also sent to the talent's headphones.
This requires sending the talkback through an interface and routing its virtual channel in the DAW to then send out of an interface and go to the talent's headphones.
With this setup, it's relatively simple to mute the talkback send/bus in the digital audio workstation when not needed.
In the past, I've used Pro Tools to route a talkback microphone through a Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 audio interface. In Pro Tools, I had the line output 7 set as the talkback send, which was separate from the headphone send on line outputs 3/4 and the control room monitor mix on line outputs 1/2.
Turning the talkback on/off is often required during a session. There are a number of ways to do this:
Talkback On/Off With Volume/Gain Control
Oftentimes the most obvious way to stop an audio signal is to turn down the volume or gain knob.
Although this is a strategy for bringing the talkback mic signal in and out of the iso-booths and live rooms, it's not particularly effective.
Turning a knob takes time and energy away from other tasks an engineer should be doing. It is also quite inconsistent for the talent, which can be distracting. For example, the amount of gain in the “on” position is likely to vary over the course of the session and the turning down/up of the send can get annoying for everyone.
Talkback On/Off With Mute Buttons
Mute buttons are naturally the best way to toggle a talkback microphone between on and off positions.
Mute buttons come in all shapes and sizes. Some common mute buttons you'll find in a studio include:
- Talkback mute button on the monitor controller.
- Sends mute or talkback track mute in a digital audio workstation.
To expand on the monitor controller mute button, there are several ways of triggering this switch. The first is obviously the mute button on the physical controller itself. However, this can also be achieved via the following devices:
- Foot switch: much like a piano sustain pedal. In the studio, we use the inexpensive Neewer Foot Sustain Pedal 1/4″. It has a polarity switch, so we have the flexibility to switch between the compressed pedal turning the talkback mic on or turning the talkback mic off. This frees up the engineer's hands and makes for faster workflow during sessions.
- Remote control: when clients/producers are in the room, it's often best to give them control over the talkback microphone. In this case, remote controls are often better than foot switches. In the studio, we've had limited success with the wireless talkback remotes made by twocue.
What is Interruptible Fold Back (IFB)? IFB is a monitoring and cueing system used in broadcast and television for one-way communication from the director to on-air talent. IFB is typically done with the audio sent to a headset or earpiece (worn by the talent) from a microphone in the control room (by the director).
How do headset microphones/headphones work? Headsets work by sending audio in both directions (from the mic and to the headphones) at once via different conductors. Headset connectors vary and may include mono or stereo headphone sends, the balanced or unbalanced microphone sends, common ground, and other pins.
Choosing the right microphone(s) for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Microphone Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next microphone purchase.