I am a musician who plays an acoustic instrument. I want to play electro-acoustic stuff. What should I do about a microphone?

This is a question I have received several times:

I play [flute/clarinet/trumpet/viola/etc]. Please tell me what gear I need for live performance with amplification.

Little Microphones for Live (and also Recording) Micro-Lecture:

The “standard” instrument mic for live situations is made by a company called DPA. You can buy them in kits based on what instrument you play. You can also customize those kits a little bit. The main thing to look for is the DPA 4099 or the DPA 4061 depending on your needs (when in doubt, get the DPA 4099).

The mic system consists of five things:

  1. A tiny microphone.
  2. A gooseneck thingie for positioning the mic.
  3. A long tiny “microdot” cable.
  4. An XLR adaptor (XLR is the standard kind of microphone cable, with three prongs).
  5. Some method for attaching all of this to the performer’s instrument or head.

Here’s what to know about each of these things:

The tiny microphone:
DPA 4099 is a mic that pics up sound primarily from one direction (this is called a “cardioid” pattern). This is recommended for live performance because less sound will bleed in from the people sitting around you.

DPA 4061 is a mic that pics up sound from all over. This can be better in some circumstances and for some instruments (double bass is one of them). But care will need to be taken to prevent bleed and feedback. If you have one of these, be sure the engineer knows ahead of time. Also, understand that you might not be able to get very loud before feedback starts, so be sure to perform at the louder end of your dynamic range.

Both of these are excellent microphones. They will sound fantastic on stage. They will sound fantastic in recordings. When in doubt, go with the DPA 4099.

There are two basic flavors for these mics: Loud SPL and Extreme SPL. If you play a truly loud instrument like drums or trumpet, go with the Extreme SPL. Otherwise the Loud SPL is just fine.

A note about microphones: While not extremely expensive relative to other microphones, the DPA 4099 and DPA 4061 do cost a fair bit of money. In order to take care of your mic, do not ever blow on it. This is true for all mics. But now that you own this one, be especially sure not to blow on it. The proper way to test a mic is to speak into it or snap your fingers nearby. If you play an instrument like flute where you are blowing across a surface, position the mic so that it is outside of the primary airstream. You’ll get better sound that way too.

The gooseneck thingie.
The tiny mic will be attached to a gooseneck thingie. You will use this to position the microphone in the spot that gets the best sound. Experiment with this. The place that gets the best sound might not be obvious or intuitive. Now that you’re an owner of a microphone, you can take the time to learn what sounds best without having to rely on an engineer who, nine times out of ten, has no idea what to do with your not-electric-guitar anyway. Find the sound that you like and then always set up like that.

The long microdot cable
There is a tiny cable coming out the bottom of the gooseneck thingie. The thing to remember about this cable is that it exists and if you trip over it you will either break the cable, the microphone, or yank your instrument out of your hands and onto the floor. The cable is necessary to transmit sound. Practice being aware of this tiny cable. When in doubt, move slowly.

The XLR Adaptor
This is the thing that will turn that skinny microdot cable into the mic cable (also called XLR cable) that a sound engineer can use.

There are a couple options in the XLR Adaptor. You can get one that has no filter–all the sound that enters the microphone goes out to the engineer. Or you can get one that has a “bass cut” filter at 80hz. If you play a not-bass instrument like flute or trumpet, then the bass cut filter is nice. But it also isn’t necessary, the engineer will likely have a filter on their sound board that they can use.

If you play a bass instrument you will want to make sure you have the version without a filter.

The XLR adaptor can be configured with a belt clip. So if you prefer to keep it clipped to you instead of dragging on the floor you can do that. It comes prepared to do either so go with whatever works best for your preferred wardrobe.

Attachment thingie
There are many different attachments for different instruments. Select the one that works best for you. There are clamps and string grippers for violin-family instruments, gripper thingies for brass instruments and percussion, and a loop thingie called the Universal Mount that tends to work well for things like flute or clarinet.

The thing that makes these mics fantastic is that they mount directly to the instrument. This means that if you move while you play the microphone moves with you and your sound doesn’t fade in/out. It helps keep your sound even. The mount also means the microphone can be close to your instrument which helps prevent other sounds from bleeding into your microphone.

All of these things make the sound engineer’s job much easier, it means they can spend more time making everything sound better instead of setting up mic stands and selecting mics etc etc. Plus, since the microphones are small and attached to the instrument, the stage doesn’t have to be littered with mic stands and rigs etc. This means the audience can focus more on your performance without looking through a forest of mic stands. And also you have less junk to navigate on stage.

Once you get your mic
Once you have your own mic, experiment with finding the best way to mount it and where to position it to get a sound you like. This is something that takes time and you will get better at it the more you do it.

Also practice setting it up, walking around with it, and removing it. Get used to that tiny cable so you don’t accidentally break it or trip over it etc. Learn to be aware of it without being anxious. It’s a new thing in your performance kit so you’ll want to be comfortable.

Figure out how you will pack it in your performance bag. You can avoid any pre-show jitters of stressing out and forgetting stuff if you have a standard performance bag setup. Make sure your new mic has a place so you don’t have to juggle things on the way to your transport.

After your microphone…if you want to go further and mess with this stuff on your own
This is the extra credit section.

In a live performance, a sound engineer will plug an XLR cable into your XLR adaptor and turn on your microphone and hopefully you won’t have to worry about anything more.

But you’ll want to play with your mic at home too and the XLR thingie doesn’t work with a typical guitar amplifier. They are different audio systems.

If you want to play with your microphone at home get a small portable mixer with phantom power. Many companies like Behringer and Mackie make inexpensive 2-channel mixers that have at least 1 XLR jack and phantom power. Also, get an XLR cable. Now you can plug your own XLR cable into your mic’s XLR adaptor and the other end into the mixer (this is exactly what the sound engineer does!) and then turn on phantom power (phantom power is the electricity that runs your DPA microphone). Now, turn down the mixer and plug it into your guitar amp with a guitar cable.

Now, with the mixer main output still turned all the way down, turn up the gain and the channel that your mic is plugged into. Put them both about halfway up. Then very very very slowly turn up the mixer main output. If it starts to feedback turn it down.

From here, we move into a different topic called “gain staging” but the tldr; is that you juggle the gain, channel fader, and main output fader until it sounds pleasant to you without feeding back.