Is This Thing On?
Check one, check two, check three. Yup, I’m on!
Are you looking at that middle aged man in his khakis, gray button-down, scruffy beard, over-sized glasses, sweating and squinting to see the sound technicians in the sound lab? You are? But he isn’t the act you came here for, he’s not the main event! In fact, you don’t even know his name. Bill. His name is Bill. Actually, it doesn’t matter if he’s Bill or Beyoncé, because no matter who he/she is, it’s the sound that made you look. It was the fact that their voice was being projected over everyone else, as if they were in control. Whether you intended to or not… you looked.
If you were sitting in the nosebleeds of section Z in an arena, you’d be thanking whoever made the microphone with all your heart. Without it, all you’d hear is yourself hyperventilating in anger because you can’t hear a single word from the person on stage. I am going to give you a moment to thank David Edward Hughes, the man that successfully received a patent for his design of the microphone. Although the microphone is only slightly over a century old, it has faced exponential growth in development. Today the microphone can be as small as a pea and completely wireless. But with that said, most microphones today hold a very similar shape in comparison to its first build. I will focus on singers because I have had personal experience with those mics for 13 years. For most singers, mics are shaped like a cylinder with the metal crossover section rounded at the top, where the sound is picked up. These mics tend to be wireless and hold a power source, usually batteries, within the base of the mic. Other mics that are attached to wires, usually placed on a stand, are plugged into a public address system, commonly known as a PA. If singers are not dancing around, wired mics are best to control sound, directly through the PA. Wireless mics run the risk of cutting out and not holding enough power to the many settings that can be applied.
You may be wondering why performing artists like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, etc., use microphone pack belts. This is a hands free microphone which requires a power pack to be attached someplace on their body. The reason behind this annoying, box that the audience can still see protruding out of their outfits, is because it holds back-up setting in case something happens to the settings during a live show. These are a just a few of the popular live microphones used. There are many variations and styles of live microphones. A lot of the microphones used in a live show has to do with the performer’s preference.
Since we have come this far, I should let you know that recording microphones are completely different and exponentially more expensive. Recording mics are fragile and requires a learning process prior to usage. The technical branches of the musical industry revolve around the capability to enhance recording quality and editing. “Currently, the best of the conventional microphone designs comfortably outstrip analogue pre-amplifiers in terms of noise and dynamic range, and both have significantly better performance than digital converters,” (Robjohns 6). Conventional microphones are the most commonly used recording device for vocals in the competitive musical industry. These mics are conveniently able to pick up subtle intricacies of a person’s voice, while working with software that can easily add and remove other parts just as easily.
In the thirteen years I have held, taped, set-up, and stood in front of a microphone, I have learned the many ways in which a certain type of microphone can change the entire sound and feel of a song. Without having the right settings and the right mics, there is no way that the projection or sound of the musical piece is attainable. While singing solos there is less work gone into the process of picking or practicing with one mic.
For many singers, the need to adjust amplification upwards is the issue. For me, it has always been the opposite. I had been taught musical theater and classical as my basics for 10 years as an alto, which left me as a voice that came with its own speaker. For me, finding the “right mic” has always been a reversed process. Because I am able to project to a wide range without a mic, my struggle would always be finding a mic that had a strong compressor. A compressor regulates the highest and lowest volumes on the vocal range. The mics that had this feature were usually the most expensive, because they required more work in the making of the mic itself. Due to this expense, many venues didn’t have a compressor mic available, which gave me the opportunity to learn how to be my own compressor and learn the limits and infinities that so many of these microphones held. Aside from the actual build and capabilities of a microphone, the mic itself has given me so much that I have not thought to look at until now.
Being a musically involved child who moved around from city to city every couple years, I learned that the microphone would become my new best friend. When I would shy away from student activities and clubs in elementary, I would make sure to participate in the talent show so that I could let people hear my voice through my mic. In high school I took part in all the musical events I could get my hands on. The microphone that others dreaded to speak into, became an extension of my arm. Even if I wasn’t loud in the classroom or on the playground, I could project my emotions and voice through this device that could grasp the attention of hundreds at once. The microphone gave me strength. The microphone gave me an inexplicable joy of attention I hadn’t craved before. The microphone gave me thirteen years of authority spanning the length of a vocal acrobatic.
Authority. A strongly recognized word in which many abide by and others rebel against. But there is always a level of authority that a majority does not dare to cross. This level is placed at different places for every individual. Authority may seem to go hand in hand with power, but in reality the two can be dissected into two very different things. To clarify, I will tell you the definition of power and authority I will be using. Power can be “the ability of a person or a group to influence the beliefs and actions of other people. It is the ability to influence events. Power can be personal power. A person gets his personal power from his personality or from his expert knowledge. Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Programmers, etc. get their power from their expertise and professional knowledge. Power can also be legitimate or official power. This power comes from a higher authority,” (Bennis). Conversely, authority is always something that rests above anybody in power. While power can be replaced, given away, taken, added to, and removed, authority does not have that ability. Authority “cannot be bought or sold, given or taken away. Authority is about who you are as a person, your character, and the influence you’ve built with people [it is one’s expression of one’s self, which is treated thoroughly by… power erodes relationships. You can get a few seasons out of power, even accomplish some things, but over time power can be very damaging,” however authority is something that sticks and that is an influence of an action or state (Bennis 2). In other words power is the ability to control others and authority is the influence you have on others.
That being said, the person with a microphone in their hands is essentially given some level of authority. This microphone is giving them the ability to project over all the others in the room, having them listen to what they are saying. In the case of performers, specifically singing, the audience is usually seated or standing, while the performer is elevated on a platform. This person or multiple people performing on state are projecting their voices among tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people at once. These performers are able to influence the audience to listen to them and to essentially remember them. The act for performing itself is done by choice. Singing at a talent show for example. Not all the audience members are there to listen to one person. This means that the performer has a song’s time-span to grasp and hold onto the attention of the audience. This in itself is asserting a sense of authority among the audience. Whether the process is intentional or not. People can be influenced by the performer to either stay quiet and listen, scream, or sing along. The mood and the ability to project a certain way is given through the microphone. The microphone itself can give the performer authority. When the person with the microphone begins to sing, the settings are intentionally louder than anything else in the room. This is to show the authority of this person in the moment. In the popular Adam Sandler film The Wedding Singer, Sandler’s character says, “Well I have a microphone and you don’t so you will listen to every damn word I have to say!’’ Although much of this was comedic, it also shows, that he’s stating his authority over everyone else because he has a microphone in his hand. He can project over everyone and have them listen whether they are voluntary or involuntary about it. Without the microphone, this sudden realization of authority wouldn’t be possible. With a simple “is this thing on?” all eyes in the room will be set on this single person. This person may not even know, but the audience has become an attentive audience. The microphone has been able to unveil an authority within people that had not previously been uncovered. So, next time you hear “check one, check two, check three” and you look over, remember that person influenced you look at them, knowingly or unknowingly. You’re looking at them because they are louder than everyone else. Does that mean they have an authority over you? Well, you looked… and I’m quite sure you’ll continue to listen to Bill whether you like it or not.