Getting electric shocks unexpectedly is no fun at all, especially not when it has to do with working (or playing) with microphones. As a guitarist, I’ve experienced electrical shocks in multiple venues when touching the mic and guitar strings at the same time. These shocks could potentially be lethal, and so I’ve done some research on the topic and am here to provide some insights to you.
Why would you get an electrical shock when you touch your microphone? Electrical shocks happen when a relatively large amount of current flows through your body. If you get shocked when touching a microphone, there is a grounding issue somewhere in the electrical system and you’ve become part of the shortest path to ground. These shocks are potentially lethal.
Because of the serious nature of this post, I will try to be as clear as possible when sharing the information I’ve researched.
DISCLAIMER: NOTE THAT THIS BLOG POST IS ONLY TO HELP PROVIDE YOU WITH INFORMATION. I AM NOT AN ELECTRICIAN. IF YOU ARE HAVING ISSUES WITH ELECTRICAL SHOCKS OF ANY KIND, PLEASE CONSULT A PROFESSIONAL ELECTRICIAN.
Why Do I Get An Electrical Shock When I Touch My Microphone?
Electrical shocks happen when a sufficient current at a high enough voltage travels through our bodies. So let’s think of a situation where an external electrical current would flow through our bodies when we touch a microphone.
This electrical shock happens when your body becomes the “shortest path” for the electrical current to get to ground. If all the electrical equipment is grounded properly, there shouldn’t be a situation where you’re the shortest path to ground.
However, sometimes audio equipment can be faulty. Other times it’s the AC power outlets that may have grounding issues.
If either of these cases is true, your gear may be carrying stray voltage (electrical potential) that will flow toward a lower potential if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, that path may, at some point, be you.
Note that the issue is very rarely, if ever, the microphone itself. Typically it comes from the difference in ground potentials or the lack of proper grounding in other parts of the system.
Let’s look at the 3 most common scenarios that present a shock hazard when touching a microphone:
Ungrounded Mixing Console
An ungrounded mixing console chassis could potentially have stray voltage on it, which proves to be dangerous.
The outer case/chassis of a microphone typically connects to its input on a console via the ground pin of the XLR cable.
When a microphone is connected to an ungrounded mixing console, there is always a risk of that stray voltage reaching the microphone. The voltage may very well travel through you as you touch the microphone if you’re the shortest path to ground.
When using any mixing consoles, please ensure they are grounded properly.
Ungrounded Guitar Amp
If you play guitar and are connected to the amp via a cable, the strings are connected via the cable to the metal chassis of the guitar amp. If the guitar amp chassis is ungrounded, it could have stray AC voltage/current on it.
Unfortunately, many guitar amps are ungrounded to rid of the dreaded “ground hum,” which is sometimes brought about by a grounded connection and causes unwanted noise in the amp’s output.
If this happens to be the case, there usually isn’t a huge issue with just playing the guitar. Although touching the strings would make you part of the circuit, your body, shoes, and the floor will likely not allow electricity to flow through you.
The issue, then, is when you touch a microphone and the strings (or any other conductive part of the guitar) at the same time. In this scenario, the stray voltage from the ungrounded guitar amp would flow through you into the microphone and then to the mixing console, AC mains, and ultimately a ground somewhere.
Essentially you’re closing a circuit and allowing stray voltage to pass through you, resulting in a shock. To make things worse, your lips are typically the first point of contact with the microphone.
So when playing guitar, please ensure your amp is grounded properly.
Faulty AC Outlets
Often times we believe all our equipment is properly grounded but the power mains have different ground potentials. If any of the AC power outlets are wired with different ground potentials, there is a likelihood that there will be shock hazards with the audio equipment.
In these situations, electricity will flow from higher potential to lower potential. Therefore, is socket grounds have a difference in potential, electricity will flow to whichever ground is lower.
Let’s say we have a microphone plugged into a grounded mixing console that is connected to one wall plug and a grounded guitar amp that is plugged into another wall plug with a different ground potential. In this case, if we were to touch the guitar strings and microphone simultaneously, we would create the electrical connection and the voltage would flow to the lower ground potential. This may very well result in a shock, particularly if there is a significant difference between the socket ground potentials.
The same goes for any wall socket that is not grounded properly.
I would always suggest that you test the power outlets of any new room you plug into. I’d even suggest testing your regular jam spot from time to time. We can easily test our outlets with an inexpensive receptacle tester. I recommend the Sperry Instruments GFI6302 (link to check the price on Amazon).
A common strategy, if you do have a discrepancy between power outlet ground potentials, is to plug all equipment into one socket to ensure a common ground. This isn’t always possible, but it’s worth a shot for smaller setups. Use a power bar if need be.
If you’re getting shocked, please do not ignore the problem. This dangerous situation requires fixing. Get your audio equipment inspected by a qualified technician and get a qualified electrician to fix the AC outlets.
What Is An Electric Shock?
Electric shocks happen when a sufficient current at a high enough voltage travels through our bodies.
Notice that the electricity must travel through our bodies and not just be present in our bodies. This is why we can often avoid shocks in faulty systems up to the point where we touch a microphone and close a circuit, allowing electricity to travel through us.
Note that the resistance of human skin varies from person to person and fluctuates for each person depending on many factors, including the moisture on and in the skin and if the skin is broken or not. Ohm’s Law tells us that when we’re subjected to electricity, the amount of current that would flow through us is equal to the voltage of the current divided by the resistance of the medium (skin).
Ohm’s Law: I = V/R
I = current
V = voltage
R = resistance
Both alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) can flow through the body and cause electric shock. The potential amount of AC current able to flow also depends on its frequency. AC current (which is typically measured by root mean square rather than by peak-to-peak) is considered about 3 to 5 times more dangerous than the same amount of DC current.
The effects of electric shock are determined by the voltage; current; resistance to flow; duration of contact with the source; the pathway of flow; and the type of current (ie, direct or alternating).
Effects largely depend on the amount of current and the voltage of that current.
Effects range from:
- Tingling sensations
- Skeletal muscle tetany
- Respiratory muscle paralysis
- Ventricular fibrillation
- Tissue burns
It’s important to note that the human body actually needs electricity in order to function.
The nervous system requires electricity to send signals throughout the body and brain, making it possible for us to move, feel, and think. The body’s cells effectively create electricity with charged ions within the body called electrolytes. Our bodies do a great job with what we produce but don’t fare so well with external sources of electricity (especially when these sources provide great amounts of electricity).
What Is Ground?
Electrical ground is commonly described as a source capable of absorbing so much charge that, compared to the rest of the system, it remains unchanged.
It is the reference point in a circuit from which voltages are measured. It’s also a common return path for electrical current.
Current flowing to ground can be visualized similarly to other physical occurrences where matter or energy from a higher potential goes toward lower potential. These occurrences include:
- Objects falling (think of an apple falling from a tree to the earth)
- Fluid moving from higher pressure to lower pressure (think of a vacuum cleaner)
- Heat moving from hotter to colder (convection, conduction, and radiation)
So basically electricity always wants to get to ground and will do so even if it has to travel through you to get there, shocking you in the process.
Troubleshooting The Issue
There are multiple ways to troubleshoot and/or solve the issue of electrical shock from your microphone. Here are a few:
- Outlet Tester
- Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter
- Same Circuit
- Pinky/Forearm Trick
- Voltmeter or Neon Tester
- Go Wireless
By placing a foam windscreen over the microphone, we effectively add a barrier between the microphone chassis/grille and the mouth of the singer/speaker.
Although this may prevent some electrical shocks, it does not fix the underlying problem whatsoever and so I would not recommend doing this.
As mentioned before, we can troubleshoot the shock issue by checking the ground potentials of the power outlets in the room.
To ensure proper grounding of your equipment, first, check to see that all outlets are in fact grounded and then make sure that the outlets being used have the same ground potential.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter
A GFCI protects against the most common form of electrical shock hazard, the ground-fault. It also protects against fires, overheating, and destruction of wire insulation.
These devices are put inline and act as circuit breakers designed to shut off electric power in the event of a ground-fault.
If it is possible to plug all equipment into one grounded outlet, we effectively ensure that all the equipment is grounded at the same ground potential.
Playing guitar and singing into a microphone is the most common way to get an electric shock from a microphone.
An easy test to check if there’s a shock hazard is referred to as the pinky/forearm trick, where the pinky touches the microphone grille and the elbow touches the guitar strings.
If there isn’t an electric shock, the microphone is likely (though not certainly) safe to use.
If there is a shock, the electricity is only flowing from your pinky through to your forearm. This is much less dangerous than testing from your mouth to your hand because the heart is not involved in the circuit.
Voltmeter Or Neon Tester
A voltmeter can be used to test the potential difference between the guitar strings and the microphone. If there is a significant difference, there will likely be electrical shocks when a circuit is made between the two devices.
A wireless microphone and/or wireless guitar pack will eliminate the direct physical connection to ungrounded consoles, amps, and outlets. Therefore, wireless systems will greatly reduce the likelihood of electrical shocks.
To learn more about wireless microphones, check out my article How Do Wireless Microphones Work?
Why does my microphone have static noise? Static noise in microphone signals is typically a product of electromagnetic interference, which comes from power mains and/or electromagnetic signals (include radio frequencies). This noise could also be produced by the active components that add gain or otherwise boost the signal including amplifiers, tubes, transistors, and transformers.
For more information on microphone noise and how to reduce it, check out my article 15 Ways To Effectively Reduce Microphone Noise.
What is a microphone shock mount? A mic shock mount is a device that effectively holds a microphone in place at the end of a mic stand/boom while also providing mechanical isolation for the microphone. Shock mounts are designed to hold mics in such a way that mechanical noise (rumbling, handling noise, etc.) is not picked up whatsoever by the mic.
For more information on microphone shock mounts, check out my articles What Is A Microphone Shock Mount And Why Is It Important? and Best Microphone Shock Mounts.
So now you know the reasons why you’re getting electric shocks from your microphone. You’re also now equipped with the knowledge to effectively troubleshoot the issue. Remember it’s always best practice to solve these electrical issues as soon as they’re detected and to not continue using equipment that has the potential to electrocute you.