E057 - Make Friends with the Microphone

communication microphones Oct 26, 2023

How do you feel about using microphones? Whether it's public speaking, recording video, or just having to do a speech, a lot of people are intimidated. 

Or maybe you just want to produce quality content but are not sure what to do about microphones when shooting video, or you want to do a serious webinar, presentation or online workshop, and you want to show up sounding good

If you’re any of these, this post is for you.

In this post I’ll look at how microphones work, the different kinds of microphones for different situations, and how to become comfortable with them and use them effectively. Watch the video or read on below to learn more!

If you're putting work out into the world, especially video, presentations, public speaking, or just sharing your work and ideas, you're going to use your voice to project your ideas. It's a well-known fact in the film and content worlds that sound is every bit as important as video, because it determines how believable the output is. If you've ever seen those Instagram posts or YouTube videos where they change the soundtrack to a particular movie, you’ll know they can go from a ridiculously scary scene from Aliens and turn it into something that feels like a children's movie, just by changing the sound.

The same thing can happen with our voice—we can sound completely believable and powerful or we can sound cheap, afraid, and not very credible. So sound is very important, and microphones are a huge part of capturing it clearly when we're putting our ideas out into the world.

Let's look at how a microphone works. Most microphones have what's called a pop shield to protect against wind or breath on top, and you'll find the actual microphone bit right underneath. When you speak, you create sound waves: waves of compressed air go out of your mouth and land on the microphone’s diaphragm, which wiggles to create an electrical current. That electrical current is then translated back into sound through speakers or in a recording.

So fall in love with all the kinds of microphones, make friends with them. Remember that they're just there to support you to deliver your message.

Microphones can capture all the sound in a room or they can be very direct. The Shure SM 58 is a classic stage microphone used by musicians all across the planet, but you’ll find it on stages and weddings and all kinds of things. A singer on stage obviously doesn't want the guitar and the drums and the crowd and the whole venue to be going into their microphone and then out to the speakers, so the classic stage microphone is very directed. You can sing in front of it and it will pick up your voice, but sounds coming from the side—from the guitarist or the bass or whatever else—generally don’t get picked up.

Whenever you work with a microphone, be it on stage or doing a presentation, always ask the sound people or event organizers how far away from the microphone you should be. People often lean back or stand quite far away when they’re doing a speech, but that's generally not a good idea. You want to have it relatively close if you're holding it, just at a reasonable distance, pointing towards your face, not towards your chest or over your head. Speak deeply into the microphone to get the best quality sound.

There are two main types of microphone if you’re shooting video on your phone or on a camera, or even straight into your laptop, and you want good sound. The first one is called a lavalier or lapel microphone, which is an omnidirectional mic that you can clip onto your lapel to collect the sound all around it. You see this with TV presenters all the time. The one I use is cheap, really high quality, has a long cable and just gets plugged into your phone. You just need a little converter and you’ve got brilliant sound. These work close to your head so that they can pick up the sound of your voice easily.

You can also get a little wireless gizmo if you’re presenting. It's kind of bulky, but you can plug a little lapel microphone into it and put it into your belt. So if you need to move away from your camera, the sound gizmos will still talk to each other. Some of them actually have a microphone, which looks a lot like your cell phone microphone.

The second microphone for video is the shotgun microphone,  which is a very directional mic that you can place out of shot but pointed towards your upper chest/neck area. It can clip straight on top of a camera or even on the top of a cell phone. With these microphones it’s important to have it close to you or pointing straight at you so that you don't pick up the rest of the room or the wind, the person speaking in their car, or so on.

If you do a lot of online presentations or webinars, you could use a shotgun microphone connected to your computer and pointed towards you, but you can also use a lavalier, just plugged into your sound card or plugged into your camera—you can even leave the little mic on the table just in front of you.

Most importantly, though, use a quality microphone, because laptop microphones are generally not very good—they're designed to do too many things. You want a microphone that's specific to your context and will pick up your voice and deliver it with premium quality. So regardless of whether you're doing webinars or online workshops or you're presenting your ideas across the internet, a good microphone is really worthwhile.

You can also get podcasting microphones that sit on your desktop. They do look a little bit like a giant sex toy sitting on your desk, though, so that can be a lot if you’re doing video. I prefer not to have something in front of my face when I'm presenting, which is why I use a shotgun mic. You can't see my microphone, but it's doing impeccable work off screen, just above my machine.

Classic studio microphones are good for singing or recording an audiobook. Unlike the stage mic, which you can swing around and rock n roll and which is very direct, studio mics are extremely sensitive and pick up everything. You use this in a very enclosed studio environment and then speak directly into it. This is kind of high-audio gear— they’re beautiful and sensitive, but they're not practical for ordinary use at home.

When you’re doing public speaking, you might have a lectern with a stage mic or a long arm with a small microphone at the end of it. Whenever you're doing public speaking, ask the organizers in advance about their microphones. At the venue, ask them to tell you how far away from the microphone you need to be. Be really clear—what happens if you turn your head, and how directional is the mic? Will it still pick up your voice if you turn to talk to another person on a panel, for example? Or do you need to talk to the person and lean towards the mic at the same time so that it still picks up your voice? Don't be so far away from the mic that your voice is barely audible, but don't eat the microphone, either. Find that beautiful balance where your voice is present.

And remember that you are already actually a pro at using microphones—you use them every day. They’re at the end of your phone, and you constantly adjust your speaking as you move them closer or further away. It's the same thing, just in a slightly different package. These are amazing microphones in their own right, but they're not pro-grade, because they multitask. They pick up environmental sounds as well as voice. So you want the right tool for the right occasion.

In closing, I heartily recommend that you make friends with microphones if you're putting your work out into the world. Take sound seriously: it will pay amazing dividends, and it's amazing to make your voice sound awesome in videos, recordings and webinars. It enhances your ability to put your message out into the world and to show up with confidence and a sense of assurance that you sound beautiful as you put your heart into your work and share it with the entire universe—or maybe just the internet.

*Please note that I'm an Amazon affiliate and earn a small commission for any referrals—that said, I really think these are great mics that can bring you the sound quality you need!