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Southern Gospel Times Feature Article

Microphone Characteristics: The On/Off Axis

I like bluegrass music. I don't like hours of it but I like twenty minutes of it. I especially enjoy the Isaacs. I like them because they have taken bluegrass music to where I always wanted to see it go. I also like them because they are just plain old GOOD, period. And, I like them for a third reason. I'll get around to why later. You may be asking yourself why I would include this in my article, or, maybe you couldn't care less. Either way it's there.

I am going to follow up last week's article with another that deals with similar aspects of mics. This one is going to deal with the on/off axis of the mic's characteristics. When I refer to "on axis" I am talking about being directly in front of the mic at a very direct angle. To be at either side of or even above or below the mic is considered "off axis" even a little. I mention this because as a performer moves to the left or right, above or below this direct point the mic's responses change considerably. When you are on axis to the mic diaphragm, this is the most effective direction you can be for frequency response and mic output. As you look at the diagram it is representing an above, looking down view of a person at the mic. This is a flat plain representation, but in reality this is a spherical application which is why I stated above or below the axis.

If you have a diagram of the on axis response pattern for a specific mic you will see a circle with numbers on it very much like that of a compass rose. Beginning with zero, (0) and moving to the left or right the numbers will be represented in degrees. The numbers can start at any number and contain additional increments as they progress around either side of the diagram. Basically, regardless of direction, left, right, above or below this zero reference the response will remain consistent. Now then, as you can see by the different lines this is an idea of what the various frequencies will be on axis. The frequencies will be represented in three or possibly four different ways. Check the legend to see which line type represents a specific frequency or group of frequencies. The easiest way to get familiarized with this chart and avoid much confusion is to select one specific line and study it as the changes in direction take place. As you move to the left or right, (above or below) this line changes its signal strength in those frequencies. Signal strength is represented by the inner circles within the chart, and measured in decibels. Each line representing a frequency or group of frequencies will be drastically different in strength as the off axis position shifts in any direction.

So now, why is that important and what does it have to do with the Isaacs? My biggest problem with the purveyors of bluegrass music is their overall lack of technical knowledge about mics, PA systems and other stuff. I say this because bluegrass musicians do not realize just how much even the slightest directional change can affect their music. This is relevant because almost every bluegrass musician considers themselves to be musical purists. Meaning nearly ALL of them usually always choose the very best in acoustic instruments without any kind of electronic transducers attached. It violates some kind of creed or something. The bluegrass pickers absolutely do NOT want pick-ups on their prized Martins, Gibsons and Nationals because it compromises the "natural sound" of the instrument. Instead they will insist on using...ready...MICS. Why? “Mics reproduce the natural acoustic quality of the original instrument.” Bull-loney! Every mic has such extreme response characteristics built into them it is absolutely impossible to defend such attitudes. Even with the exceptional quality controls in the companies themselves mics can convey discernible variations in responses. A Shure SM58 does not sound like an Electro Voice, or a Beyer dynamic or an Audio Technica or a Crown or... you get the point.

When you take this into consideration along with what happens when a performers axis changes direction, coupled with a change in distance it isn't long before that acoustic integrity rational goes flipping right out the old window (I was going to say "goes south" but didn't want anyone to think I was being disparaging. I love the South and everything represented by it and would never demean it in any form). My ultimate point is this: the moment anyone ads ANY type of electronic transducer to an acoustic instrument it becomes something else. It's inescapable!

I was watching a group of bluegrass pickers one evening and I noticed the mic had tilted downward at the resonator guitar (see, I didn't say Dobro). The person playing it never corrected the situation because I doubt they had any concept of just how much this was affecting their performance. Frequency response changes, output levels are reduced or enhanced drastically and both of these combine to create a radically different sounding instrument, good or bad, usually bad.

One thing I have always stressed when involved with sound is this: it is NOT the sound person's responsibility to compensate for a performer's laziness, apathy or ignorance about their equipment. It's as much or more so their responsibility to make sure the various aspects of equipment, placement and overall use of said equipment is done professionally. The sound person is not, or should not be, a baby sitter for lazy, indifferent, or uninformed and ill-informed musicians and singers; it's not the sound person’s job. If an individual doesn't care enough about the quality of their performance, then why should anyone else?! There was a singer who had let their mic drop down very far away from their mouth and the sound guy, (it wasn’t me) kept pushing the fader trying to keep them in the mix. Naturally they ended up with that wonderful screeching howling feedback sound so prevalent in churches. I instructed them not to try and compensate for the singer’s unprofessional laziness. It only made the sound person look incompetent and became an unnecessary intrusion and distraction. If the performer doesn't care about the sound, neither should the sound person.

About the Isaacs. I mention them because they are one of only a few bluegrass groups who WILL use add on transducers in their presentations. They use the stick-on type pick-ups on their high end top of the line instruments and always put out a stellar presentation live or recorded. In spite of this fact, even those stick-ons can have adverse affects on some frequencies but not to the point where it damages or compromises their songs. If you are going to insist on using mics only, fine, but at least try to understand the basic characteristics of those things before you start spewing misinformation, especially to the technically uninitiated. By the way, misinformation is far worse than no information.

Tip: I play bluegrass music and I do it on a bright red Fender STRAT. It sounds just as good as it does on the other instruments, maybe even better. I even add distortion sometimes. Bluegrass on a Strat ROCKS. I personally think guitar music is the most beautiful music that can be played bar none.

I'm right, right?! Let me know what you think unless you disagree with me about this. I just don't think I can stand to be wrong about this one.



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Reader Comments:


Traveler says: Amen my Brotha! I too LOVE a little Blue Grass DONE RIGHT, as in The Isaacs, truely the standard to which all other B/G groups should aspire!Unfortunatly though, it also seems to me that most B/G groups seem to have the ability to make every song they sing sound exactly alike. It doesn't matter,Fast, slow, good, bad, same same, it's beyond me. Like you, what few B/G groups I've run sound for been challenging to say the least. They all want to stand in a circle 2 feet off from one mic and have all their instruments and voices balance, all the time... with no feedback, outdoors, on a windy day. Interresting!
Sound Guy says: Traveler, your last sentence is EXACTLY what I'm talking about. Very well put and so right on target. It's those kinds of things that make potentially great music so mediocre. A very good point! It's because they don't understand what is actually taking place when they do stuff like that. Thanks for contributing my friend. The saddest part is...they never seem to get it. Your point about BG groups always sounding the same same is exactly why I like the Isaccs so much. They have such diversity in their music, and, they use stick on transducers. Am I right about guitar music being the prettiest music in the world?
Traveler says: Yes,no & maybe!? Oh man, so nice to see you writing with conviction & enthusiusm!I love em all in the right place at the right time...but mostly by the right magician, oops, I mean artist! I think I do enjoy a guitar in longer solo doses than most other instruments. I've always loved a good acustic guitar, but lately I've taken a real liking for some of the "bent" or "warped" sounds from an electric guitar. Now I know it's not a solo instrument, but I really enjoy the full rich sound of an upright Bass, and I enjoy them even more when played by someone thats not afraid of having fun and dancing around a little while playing them!Oops, sorry, Christians arn't supposed to dance are they? Nope, David doesn't count, he was a Jew!
WOFsr says: I'll admit that it is kinda fun to see a group reinact the old days and sing around a single mic for a song or two. There is something somewhat magical and innocent about the "old days". The truth of the matter is that the single mic technique was driven by the technology and the cost of modern contraptions in the day. I much prefer the sound Quality of the equipment available today. If I wanted the old sound, I'd still be listening to vinyl on the the ole Victrola! Perhaps B/G lovers are a bit like the church... they value the tradition above the standard!
SG says: I think you "hit the nail on the head" WOFsr with that last statement. I'm sure there is a lot of that very attitude in their decisions. That and a fear of making changes because it's difficult. That kind of insightfullness is valuable, keep it up.
tellin the truth says: I will tell yuns whats wrong with churchs today. Its the women.They want to be in charge of everthing and all they no how to do is mess things up.they started in the garden of edin and have been makin messes ever sinse. They want to be in control but don't want to learn how to do nuthin right and wont learn. I won't go to a chucrch service where i no a women is in charge cause I no it ain't going to be done the way it otta be. women should have stayed in the kithcen where they belong and leave the organizeng to the men like it says to in the bible. A women ain't sopposed to useurp athority over men but they want to and things just get messed up when they do it.
toofly4asoundguy says: I agree with you partially with the lack of caring from musicians, and yes it is very prevalent in blue grass music. However, I have never heard a pickup that sounds good or captures the true sound of an instrument. Keep in mind that an instrument was designed to be heard from the outside, not from the inside. So the best sound would be a mic from the outside. And the best of both worlds would be to use both. But all in all good thoughts in the article!
SG says: Thanks for the response toofly. All comments are welcomed and helpful. I personaly prefer the sound of an acoustic piano and enjoy other acoustic instruments, including guitar. I do wish though that many musicans would be more careful about how they use mics, especially with bluegrass music. Mics do however exhibit extremes in response patterns when used in pickup patterns that vary or, are different types and brands. This greatly affects the way instruments are going to come across to an audience. Even holding an instrument alters many of the frequencies an acoustic instrument is capable of producing. Extrememe lows and extreme highs are greatly attenuated simply by the fact we absorb them while pressing an instrument close to or against our person. This happens because these lows and highs have a lesser energy than other frequencies and also tend to lose that energy sooner.
Bill F. says: I have a friend that has a pretty impressive home studio. He also runs sound for local bands and local and traveling stage groups. I've had some very interresting conversations with him concerning sound and sound equipment. He may not have the education of the SG, but I've been very impressed with his knowledge, mostly because he agrees with my techniques!Anyway, he is always willing to experiment and was telling me a couple of days ago that he finally "captured" the sound of his acustic guitar, sorry I can't remember the model, but to him it was a big deal. He used one mic in front (I believe it was a shotgun) of the sound board, and a second mic above the guitar to capture the ambiance, and mixed them to his liking. Perhaps a bit more difficult during a live performance, but it may be worth a try.
Bill F. says: I have a friend that has a pretty impressive home studio. He also runs sound for local bands and local and traveling stage groups. I've had some very interresting conversations with him concerning sound and sound equipment. He may not have the education of the SG, but I've been very impressed with his knowledge, mostly because he agrees with my techniques!Anyway, he is always willing to experiment and was telling me a couple of days ago that he finally "captured" the sound of his acustic guitar, sorry I can't remember the model, but to him it was a big deal. He used one mic in front (I believe it was a shotgun) of the sound board, and a second mic above the guitar to capture the ambiance, and mixed them to his liking. Perhaps a bit more difficult during a live performance, but it may be worth a try.
SG says: I'm not saying using mics is NOT the right thing to do. I'm saying that ANYTIME a mic of any sort is used things are not exactly like the original sound of the instrument. I do understand and am convinced that any high quality mic does a superb job getting close to re-creating the initial sound but even by combining any number of mics there will be a variation of the TRUE acoustic sound. Good mic-ing techniques will create an excellent quality when using them on amps or acoustic instruments. I only want those using them to be careful about using them peoperly and with care so the truest, DESIRED sound comes through. This is GOOD and thanks.
SG says: Several times now I have seen in both mine and many of the other features the comments about the VISUAL aspects of musical performances. These have been made by both feature writers AND feature readers. It is not possible to seperate the two, visual and audio when presentations are made. Men tend to be more responsive to the visual where as ladies are more responsive to touch. Because of these aspects of human nature to see comments about the visual aspects relating to human endeavors is re-enforcing my position on live musical representations as opposed to sing-a-long. It, (the visual) makes as much of an impression on us as the audio does, maybe more so. To be able to watch a good guitar player zip around the neck of their guitar or a drummer flailing away at a drum set OR to see, "a bass player who's not afraid to have a little fun and dance around a bit" just adds so much to a presentation. Just a thought.
Bill F. says: Like most groups that use what is referred to as "canned music" even though it's from our own projects, we do so not by choice, but of necessity. I too love to watch the music being played, it's a wonder to behold! My problem is that not only do I not know how to play an instrument, I can't read a note of music. Then there's all the spare time I have to learn how to play an instrument between my fulltime job, my weekends on the job with my group, and my Grandchildren and home chores, blah, blah, blah! My challenge to you SG should you choose to accept it (strains of Mission Impossible playing here)is to teach the ignorant but willing how to play one of those glorious guitars in no time at all! I'll even dance a little if you can pull that off!
Bill F. says: Like most groups that use what is referred to as "canned music" even though it's from our own projects, we do so not by choice, but of necessity. I too love to watch the music being played, it's a wonder to behold! My problem is that not only do I not know how to play an instrument, I can't read a note of music. Then there's all the spare time I have to learn how to play an instrument between my fulltime job, my weekends on the job with my group, and my Grandchildren and home chores, blah, blah, blah! My challenge to you SG should you choose to accept it (strains of Mission Impossible playing here)is to teach the ignorant but willing how to play one of those glorious guitars in no time at all! I'll even dance a little if you can pull that off!
Bill F. says: Like most groups that use what is referred to as "canned music" even though it's from our own projects, we do so not by choice, but of necessity. I too love to watch the music being played, it's a wonder to behold! My problem is that not only do I not know how to play an instrument, I can't read a note of music. Then there's all the spare time I have to learn how to play an instrument between my fulltime job, my weekends on the job with my group, and my Grandchildren and home chores, blah, blah, blah! My challenge to you SG should you choose to accept it (strains of Mission Impossible playing here)is to teach the ignorant but willing how to play one of those glorious guitars in no time at all! I'll even dance a little if you can pull that off!
SG says: Bill F. I responded to this same thing in Janet's column but for the sake of those reading this article I'll respond again. I taught guitar classes at a career center near me as an Adult Education instructor for four years. I am going to estimate that between this center and other entities I have had approximatelt 300 to 350 students. Of this 300 plus students I can honestly say I have seen at least 50 to 60 highly acomplished, profecient players. The course went for six weeks, two hours an evening, for one evening a week. I started with the basics and progressed to very advanced levels of playing. Most of these people never had a guitar in their hands nor could they read music, which, by the way is the same status as many of Nashville's musical elite. It doesn't matter my friend. I taught how to play incorporating chord rhythm, melody notes to make the tune recognizable and then showed them how to add some nifty little harmony parts. Three parts from one picker. It's EASY! I'm more than up to the challenge, I've already had tons of success and, provided a person follows my formula it IS POSSIBLE for anyone to play the guitar very well. As for playing the bass guitar, two days of fundamentals and three more of some mildly advanced stuff and you could have a bass player who, although not a bass whiz- banger could contribute some very stylish music to your program. I had a gal playing Dueling Banjos in just four sessions, because, she adhered to the process and practised. She, by the way was a mom, wife, worked a job, active in her church and busy with her extended family yet because she WANTED this and applied herself she became an amazing player and singer. Too busy was never a legitimate excuse when people came to my class and wouldn't achieve. Am I "up to the challenge"? You bet your keyboard I am. I've done it. You should hear my Jimi Hendrix version of How Great Thou Art. Which I play LOUD.


Past Articles:

Boundary and Pressure Zone Mics   (4/18/2012)

How loud is too loud?   (4/16/2012)

Amps - Amazing Little Contraptions   (3/5/2012)

All About Headroom   (1/22/2012)

Pro Audio is Better Than Home Stereo   (11/23/2011)

It's Only Six Miles Away   (10/25/2011)

Are PA Systems Devices From Hell?   (8/14/2011)

Practical Application   (7/16/2011)

Reducing Room Reflections   (5/15/2011)

Application and Use of Sound   (4/19/2011)

How A Microphone Works   (2/21/2011)

My New Rationale   (12/10/2010)

Missed Opportunities   (10/15/2010)

The Semester Exam   (8/1/2010)

Proper Mic Usage   (6/8/2010)

Since All Things Are Possible With God, Why Can't We Get The Sound Right?   (4/27/2010)

The Critical Distance   (3/22/2010)

Watts the Problem?   (2/19/2010)

Integrating Others' Equipment Into Your System   (12/22/2009)

"Ringing Out" Controls Feedback   (11/23/2009)

Different Microphones for Different Applications   (11/13/2009)

Microphone Characteristics: The On/Off Axis   (10/22/2009)

Microphone Characteristics   (10/5/2009)

A Major Can of Worms   (9/23/2009)

The Hurdles of Outside Sound   (9/2/2009)

Speaker Placement   (8/13/2009)

The Controversy of Reverb   (8/3/2009)

The Art of Mixing   (7/22/2009)

Configuring the System   (7/8/2009)

Using the Auxiliary Sends   (6/23/2009)

Understanding sound and how it behaves   (6/16/2009)

Introducing: The Sound Guy   (6/8/2009)




 
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