Microphones! How to Talk Into a Mic
Sure, professionals do it all of the time; radio, television, public speakers and even telemarketing agents know how to articulate and manipulate the audio words we hear. But “every day” talkers who find themselves in front of microphones must know how to “speak” so that their audiences can hear and understand the messages.
Have you ever entered a fast-food restaurant’s drive-through lane where you just didn’t understand what was coming out of the speaker? The restaurant employee said “yada yada yada” but all you heard was “blah blah blah.” When this happens, yes, it is always possible that the problem is faulty equipment — frazzled wiring or a blown speaker — but most often the issue can be resolved by the person who is talking into the microphone. He or she must be aware of his/her own voice; how to use and direct it so that the listener is able to understand the sounds from "here to there."
The Technical Side
Actually, we won’t be getting too technical here because unless you’re an engineer or an expert on physics, the "from here to there" can be rather daunting. But it all begins with the microphone.
A microphone (also called “mic” or “mike”) absorbs acoustic sound, which is then translated into an electric signal.
Microphone types vary for use in telephones, radio receivers, hearing aids, tape recorders, live stage performances (musical, theatrical, etc.), recording studios and the like. Popular types include:
- Condenser Microphones: Inside a condenser mic, thin metal plates work against stationary plates when sound pressure is applied. Their inside-workings are very delicate; changes in temperature (which cause condensation) can result in a “fizzling” sound. Condenser mics have a dynamic range, wide frequency and are very sensitive to sound — they are generally considered to be the best option for studio recordings (although not necessarily for live performances). Condenser microphones can be freestanding but are also built into telephones, karaoke machines, tape and digital recorders, video cameras and computers.
Dynamic Microphones: Inside a dynamic mic, a conical structure “sucks in” the sound; this pressure moves the cone’s attached coils in a magnetic field. With a process called electromagnetic induction, the dynamic microphone works like a stereo or Public Address system speaker but in reverse; sounds move the coil which generates a voltage. A loudspeaker works the opposite way; its electric current drives the sound outward. Dynamic mics, because of their low output and high frequency response, are not typically used for most recordings, nor are they built directly into computer and video systems. These mics come in a variety of sizes and are most often used for live performances.
Ribbon Microphones: Inside a ribbon mic, a thin metal strip is suspended in a magnetic field. The ribbon connects to the microphone’s output, which vibrates to generate the electrical signal. The strip tends to produce thicker sounding tones as it accents lower frequencies. Ribbon mics are fragile and used most often with Public Address systems.
A Short Look at (a Long List of) Other Microphones
Carbon mics have low-quality sound with a limited frequency range; they were once commonly used for telephones. Crystal mics use a process called piezo-electric pressure; it induces voltage to convert vibrations into electric signals. Piezo (crystal) electric microphones may be used to amplify acoustical musical instruments in addition to recording sound in particular environments. Laser microphones pick up signals produced by vibrating sounds. Lavalier mics are tiny units that clip on to items of clothing. Wireless microphones are used in live musical performances but also with Public Address systems. With no attached cords, wireless mic users can move around freely within the unit’s frequency range. Headset mics, such as those frequently used at fast-food restaurants and call centers, are sensitive; they set close to the user’s mouth and thus, pick up outside background noise.
During a presentation, sound is everything! Because room sizes and their acoustical properties vary, a sound check is very important. If an audio technician is at the Public Address system's soundboard before and during your presentation, he or she will adjust the microphone settings and amplification speakers to determine the right balance between you and the audience. However, if the technician sets up the system but isn't available to sound check or run the board during the presentation, you can test audio levels in different areas of the room by asking someone to “be the audience.” Their input will help you determine how well the sound travels and is heard from the furthest point in the room.
The Vocal Side
Microphones will amplify your voice but unless you speak into them properly, they won’t make the sound coming through speakers clear or pleasant to listen to. Speak into a microphone by using your “radio voice.”
Wait, you don’t have a “radio voice?”
Yes you do, but you must learn how to use it. Using your “radio voice” can be much like your “every day voice,” but it takes a little more thought and a little more practice.
- Rehearse what you’re going to say. Whenever possible, avoid the “off the top of your head” scenario of mumbling phrases and sentences without having given them previous thought. Either write the words down (to read them as if you’re reading a script) or formulate them in your mind before speaking. Whether you are leaving a telephone voice answering machine message or addressing a group of people, it is always helpful to know what you’re going to say before you say it … no matter how you say it.
- Warm your voice up a bit to avoid that crumbly garbled sound that comes from silence. Moisten your throat with lukewarm water — other beverages, while often consumed by professionals and amateurs alike, are not recommended because of damage that can occur to the microphone.
- Stand (or sit) up straight. Your body is a structure — your voice is an instrument! Let the air flow through as you breathe. If you are sitting — don't slouch or let your ribcage fall into your abdomen. If you are standing at a podium or on stage, find a comfortable spot that will allow you to speak over the microphone but not directly into it. Twisting around too much will cause sound discrepancies.
- Be sure the mic is turned on. Some microphones have “on-off” switches directly underneath the head — some do not (these are completely controlled by the soundboard). Know when the mic is “hot” (turned on with the volume potted up) and when it’s off … watch what you say; a hot mic can lead to some embarrassing moments!
- Place the microphone a couple of inches away from your mouth; don’t “swallow” it. If your mouth is right on top of the mic, it will produce a distorted sound and pick up every hiss, breath, pop and crackle. In addition to distortion and noise pickup, talking too closely into the mic-head may produce loud screeches or feedback. (A windscreen may help lessen or eliminate background noise when mics are used outside). Remember, your voice should flow over the mic, not directly into it.
- If you’re using a lavalier microphone, clip it about 8 inches below your chin onto a lapel, necktie, or any piece of loose clothing that sets down firmly. “Lav” mics can be wired or wireless; a wireless mic’s transmitter pack must be clipped to your body. Take care with jewelry, clothing and hair — the mic can pick up jingling and rustling sounds.
Now It is Up To You …. Delivery Is Everything.
Speak! Loudly, Clearly, Slowly. Be sure to annunciate your words. Pitch, volume, rhythm, inflection and speed are all part of public speaking, so listen to the little voice in your head while you say the words. What do you hear? Is it --------------- “LALALALALAlalalalalaBZZZZBZZshshshshsWaaWaaWaaWaa?” Or do you hear each word spoken with crispness and clarity?
What Can You Do?
Prepare: Prepare yourself for stepping up to the microphone, whether you are giving a scripted speech or just saying a few words. Think about what you’re going to say. Remember, what you hear in your head isn’t the same as what your audience may hear.
Practice: Practice your speech and rehearse its inflections, rhythm and delivery. Know your material.
Listen: Listen to the voice inside your head — it can tell you when you’re talking too quickly or too slowly. That voice can help you decide whether your presentation sounds interesting or dull. Is your vocal pitch too high? Too low? Too monotone? Are there too many inflections or not enough? Listen to others who speak into microphones; can you understand the words? Are these people talking too fast or too slowly? Are they conveying information in a clear and concise manner? Also, listen to the radio; is the announcer speaking slowly and succinctly? Can you hear the text clearly? While it’s true that some radio announcers are better than others, they are all speaking with an audience in mind. Announcers know someone is listening. Don’t forget that when you’re speaking, people are listening to you, too.
Talk: Talk and read out loud. Read a newspaper out loud as if you were broadcasting news on the radio. Talk into a digital recorder and then listen to what you’ve recorded. What does it sound like? Can you understand everything perfectly? Are you interested in what the speaker (you) says? By the way, radio news broadcasters and disc jockeys frequently record and then listen to their vocal presentations; air-checking is part of the trade.
Learn: Learn the art of speech, communication and public speaking. Your local library, school district or community college may offer continuing education programs.
I am a news broadcaster and Program Host by trade, having spent many years on the air for a variety of radio stations. I am also a powerful, full-range vocalist with a lot of stage and studio recording experience. While I’m no techno-geek, I do love sound!
No, I’m not perfect. There are a few words I (try to) never use in broadcast copy because, even after all these years, I still have trouble saying them. And, I do have trouble understanding some accents … that goes back many years, too.
But yes, I do have a few pet peeves. (For instance, when “stripe,” “stream,” “strawberry,” and “straight” are pronounced “shtripe,” “shtream,” “shtrawberry” and “shtraight.” This happens often (maybe it's a dishtrict thing), but it is especially frushtrating and dishtracting to hear broadcasters and professional orators turn the s-t-r sound — on any and all words that use those letters in that order — into sh-t-r). One big issue, though, is listening to (some) people talk into Public Address systems; they ramble or talk very softly. They chew gum or food. They talk at their audience instead of to their audience. And the audience ... made up of actual people ... loses interest. I can see people around me — they are bored, distracted and not interested in the spoken words coming at them.
Poor communication and poor sound equal a lost message. So, as simple as it sounds, that’s why it is so important to know how to speak into a microphone,
What you’re saying may not be the way the audience hears it, so … make eye contact and speak clearly, loudly, slowly, succinctly and rhythmically. Not too fast or too slow. Don’t crowd the microphone by laying your mouth directly on it; speak over the top. Rehearse what you are going to say, clear and moisten your throat, be sure the mic is turned on and do not slur words. Take note of surrounding noise that can feed into the microphone; eliminate nearby distractions.
Your voice will be heard!
© 2012 Teri Silver