Buying a Microphone

At the time I accepted the invitation to lead worship at an acquaintance’s wedding, he told me that there would be sound equipment at the wedding chapel that I could use. All I had to do was show up with a guitar. Great! That simplifies things…

The first sign of trouble was the green, spit-bleached foam windscreen cover on the Samson SM58 knockoff. “I can take that off,” I thought to myself as I set up my guitar stand. After giving a copy of the set to the pianist, I finished setting up got a closer look. Embedded in the grill of the mic was dried bits of food.

I was literally singing into someone’s pre-chewed salad.

I stood so far away from that mic, not using it would have been equally effective.

“This must never happen again,” I thought to myself. When I got home that night, I went online and ordered a mic.

Sharing a mic can be almost as bad as sharing a toothbrush. A few of the more thoughtful churches I’ve visited have cleaned shared mics after each service with telephone disinfecting wipes. This is better than nothing, but there’s still a lot of gunk that gets absorbed by the foam behind the metal grill.

Hygiene aside, you may want to consider buying your own mic because you prefer the way it sounds to what is provided. Most churches I’ve visited provide something akin to the Shure SM58, a legendary mic, to be sure, but I’ve always found it dull and uninspiring.

A few notes on mic technology: Most mics are one of two flavors, Dynamic or Condenser. Shure has a great technical write up on the differences, but here’s my thought on the differences in three sentences. Dynamic mics are cheap and sturdy, but have a duller sound quality. Condenser mics are expensive and fragile, but sound more open and sparkly. Condenser mics also require the soundboard to send them power (called phantom power), and will not work if the soundboard can’t provide this power (unless you have an external power supply). This really isn’t as concerning as it sounds as almost all soundboards made in the 20 years have phantom power built in, but it’s worth noting.

Here’s a few of the choices that I have experience with and can recommend, and I’ve listed an alternative in each class that are worth a look too.

Shure SM58

Type: Dynamic
Street Price: ~$100

The Shure SM58 is the industry standard microphone. It’s the Honda Civic of Mics; It’s cheap, indestructible, and doesn’t sound bad. It’s a great first mic. Also, I’d consider this the minimum standard of mic to purchase, don’t bother buying anything less. Beware, the SM58 is the most counterfeited mic in the industry (yes, people make fake mics); only buy from a authorized Shure dealer or you may end up with a low quality knockoff.

Alternative: Sennheiser e835


Shure SM86/Beta 87

Type: Condenser
Street Price: SM86: $180, Beta 87:$250

These are the Cadillacs of the mic world. The Beta 87 might be the second most common mic that I’ve seen in churches, and it was my first introduction to stage condenser mics. I noticed the difference with the first note I sang into it; the mic had a open, shimmery, studio-esque quality to it. I knew I’d never go back to a dynamic mic. That said, I wouldn’t buy one because…

…the SM86 is, in my opinion, Shure’s best kept secret. It’s the lower cost SM version of the Beta 87 and it sounds just as good to my ear, for ~$70 less than the Beta.

Alternative: Heil PR 35 (Note: Dynamic Mic)


Neumann KMS 105

Type: Condenser
Street Price:  ~$700

This is the BMW 7 series of Mics. German engineered, super expensive, probably more mic than anyone needs. I had used Neumann mics in the studio and based on that experience, when I was choosing a mic for myself, their stage mic was at the top of my list. I didn’t have a wife and kids back then and I was leading worship a few days a week, so a $700 mic somehow seemed perfectly reasonable (how things change!). If you’ve got the expendable income, this mic is, in my opinion, unrivaled, but if I had to replace mine now, I’d probably get the SM86 for the best price-to-value ratio.

Alternative: Shure KSM9

Using Pad Loops in Live Worship

The reality of leading worship for a small congregation is that, unless you have an exceptionally musically inclined group, you’re typically not playing with a band. If you lead from a guitar, it can feel a little empty. There’s nothing wrong with this, but a simple tasteful way fill some of the gaps is the use of Ambient Worship Pads.

Pads in Theory

Ambient Pads or Drones take the place that would typically be filled by a keyboardist or an electric guitar player by creating a subtle texture underneath the song. Unlike more structured loops, they have no rhythmic elements or structure and work under any chord in the family of the selected key, so you don’t need an in-ear monitor system to play to a click. Play the file for the key the song is in, and the pads fill in the gaps.

Pads In Practice

I first purchased a set of these pads and experimented with them at a marriage conference before my hiatus. I found them very effective, but when I started leading again, I didn’t want to ease back into it without pulling out all the stops right out of the gate. This last Sunday, I got brave, precariously balanced my laptop on a music stand, and gave it a go again. It looked ridiculous, but it got the job done for a first attempt.

Using the pads filled in gaps and glued the songs and the set together; I felt more free to play less, knowing the pads would carry the simple or quiet parts. The unexpected reaction was most surprising; I noticed that our congregation was singing louder than I have noticed in the past. I believe that this might be attributed to the fact that the pads I used sat in the same frequency range as the human voice, lending a feeling of fullness in that range. I think that gave the congregants and the confidence to sing without feeling like they might stand out or distract those around them.

Setting Up Ableton Live

Triggering pads for playback during a set is actually more difficult than I expected. I thought I had simple requirements:

  • Playback of a File Starts with a Computer Key or MIDI Note Trigger
  • Ability to Define Multiple Start Triggers to Start a file that Corresponds with the Key of the Song
  • Playback Starts with a Fade In
  • Playback of Any FIle is Stopped with One Specific Computer Key or Midi Note Trigger
  • Playback Ends with a Fade Out

Ableton Live is typically my go-to for this type of application; the intro version of the software is only $99 and it’s very easy to assign playback of files in the session view to computer keys or MIDI events. However, for a application that excels in live performance, ending a the playback of an audio file with a fade out is surprisingly difficult. It’s easy to trigger the audio files as clips in the session view, but struggled to find a way to stop them with a fade out until I found an explanation on a forum(1)  that advised some clever routing and use of dummy clips.

I have two audio tracks in Ableton. In the session view, I drop the pad audio files into the clip slots on track one. Track one is routed to track two instead of master. In each of the clip slots on track two set to Monitor In, and on each of its clip slots except for one at the end, there is an empty audio clip that only contains a fade in automation. Then, when a scene is triggered, the audio clip in track one starts playing, and the automation clip in track two fades the file in. In my very last scene there is no audio or stop button in track one, and track two only contains an empty dummy clip that fades out the playback. Then, each of my scenes are set up to be triggered by either a computer key or MIDI event.

In place of Ableton Live, there are iPad apps that can perform the same function. I had used WT Director for aforementioned marriage conference, but it looks like the app hasn’t been updated in years.

My next goal is to replace the laptop-on-music-stand hacked together rig with a small Ableton controller like the Novation Launchpad Mini.

Where to Get the Pads

There’s several worship resource sites that sell packs of pads, typically a pack will contain a file for each key in the chromatic scale. That said, I wasn’t very enthused about what I found out there; most of the pads I found were just a few notes held down on a synth for 20 minutes. That’s fine, but I wanted something with more texture and a more organic sound, so I recorded my own, based on electric guitar swells. You can download my pad set of all 12 keys for free.

Of note: pad loops are are designed to work in major keys, however when playing in minor keys, typically the pad loop for the relative major will work. (2)

  1. http://loopcommunity.com/blocks/software/ableton/fading-out-loops-in-ableton-live-9
  2. “Each minor tonality has a relative major. This major relative is located a tone and a half above the minor tonality. For example, one tone and a half above A is C. Therefore, the relative major of A minor is C major.” http://www.simplifyingtheory.com/relative-minor-major/