In an era of in-your-face beats and cage-rattling bass drops, when even nominally acoustic performers often stand behind banks of pedals, it’s hard to overstate how radically different it feels to perform with a single microphone. There’s no line of stands, no mess of cables, no DIs, no monitors. Rather than spreading across the stage, your bandmates are right by your side—so close you have to be careful not to deck them with your headstock. Instead of blasting up at you from speakers at your feet, the music comes to your ears directly from mouths and soundholes.
Using a single mic onstage is often considered a retro choice—turning back the clock to emulate the early bluegrass bands with their elaborate dances up to and back from the mic. But in the last 15 years or so, single-miking has been on the rise in the acoustic music scene, as more and more players recognize not only the sonic benefits but the way it transforms performing. “It’s that raw, naked sound,” says Matt Smith, manager and sound engineer at Boston’s Club Passim. “The audience gets something a little more intimate than with all the channels separated out.”
The feeling of intimacy extends to the musicians, says Kenneth Pattengale of the folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, who have used a single Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina condenser mic for the last 300-plus shows—even in front of 10,000 people at the Calgary Folk Festival. “Switching to one microphone represents the culmination of a long-time pursuit in peeling away the distractions and diversions that always seemed to keep us from achieving what sounded best to our ears: playing and singing acoustically while standing next to one another,” says Pattengale. “By the time we added four microphones and two monitor mixes, there existed an excruciating amount of work to achieve the balance and dynamics of a sound that naturally existed when we rehearsed together unamplified. It finally occurred to us one day, why can’t we just put up one microphone and be done with it?”
Bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves, who’s performed hundreds of shows with a single Audio-Technica AT4033 along with such players as Chris Thile and Tony Trischka as well as his own bands, emphasizes how much the single-mic approach affects interaction onstage. “Everyone in the band is listening to each other acoustically and having to pay attention to one another, so it’s a lot easier to pick up on both musical cues and body language,” Daves says. “When you’re not having to stay still in front of a dynamic mic, it’s just much better for musical interplay.”
Another big benefit of single-miking is that it gives the players control over the mix—you can fine-tune the balance of the voices and instruments by moving in relation to the mic. In other words, you mix yourself (which is the same reason not all sound engineers are fans of the single-mic approach—they have much less control).
All Together Now
Single-miking is definitely not for everyone or for every situation. It works best if you meet these four criteria.
You perform in quiet rooms. Single-miking is most effective at a modest volume with an attentive audience; when you need to crank everything up to cut through the din, pickups and individual dynamic mics will do a much better job. “If your audience likes to do shots during your show,” says Pattengale, “I’d suggest you go find the DI for your guitar that most suits your fancy.”
Your unplugged sound is balanced. To get good results from a single mic, you need to have a well-balanced sound with no amplification. If your guitar overpowers your voice or vice versa, or some instruments get drowned out, you have to adjust how you play or sing. If you can’t fix imbalances acoustically, you’ll be better served by having each source in a separate channel (or by using an additional accent mic or DI for instruments that need a boost).
You want a naturalistic sound. A single mic sounds softer and airier than what is normally heard at venues. If you want a larger-than-life guitar tone, with effects or pumped-up volume for leads, plug in.
You’re comfortable with low stage volume. Single-miking works best with no monitors. If you’re able to use any monitor at all without running into feedback issues, the level will be low. With a single mic, both you and your audience have to lean in more to listen.
If the single-mic approach sounds like a good match for your music, here are a few tips for how to make it work.
Single-miking seems simple but takes practice. Rehearse with your mic at home. Figure out how high to place it to get the best balance (higher for more vocal, lower and/or perhaps angled down for more instrument). With a duo or band, find a comfortable way to arrange yourselves around the mic—louder instruments to the sides—and practice the choreography of moving in and out as you trade solos.
You can record the mic signal as a way to assess the results, but Michael Daves has a better suggestion: listen on headphones while you rehearse, so you can adjust the mix in real time. If you’re solo or a duo, all you need is a mixer with a headphone jack (use a splitter cable for two sets of headphones). For a band, you’ll need a headphone amp.
When you’re setting up at the venue, be sure the mic is behind the house speakers, to reduce the odds of getting feedback. If you run into problems, try moving the mic further upstage. Michael Daves recommends using a carpet to reduce reflections.
At sound check, the Milk Carton Kids always ask a venue to first flatten the house system’s EQ and remove any effects. “Even if the house employee insists that their system is tuned, we’ve found that for a single-source show, their corrections always cause more problems than they solve,” says Pattengale. “As you slowly bring the volume up, the most troublesome frequencies will make themselves known. Make those frequencies stop ringing using the graphic EQ. Remove only enough gain on each frequency to make the feedback stop. Don’t cut any more than what is necessary or you will sacrifice important tonal qualities.”
On the mixing board, advises Passim’s Matt Smith, “Be careful of your super highs and super lows, because there’s going to be more of an opportunity for those highs to really ring and for those lows to swell.”
For anyone who’s used to running cables and setting DIs and multiple mics, then checking levels and house and monitor mixes, it’s a shock how quick setting up with a single mic can be. A recent experience at Passim drove this point home for me. My duo partner, Wendy Sassafras Ramsay, and I were playing in a weekend-long festival with performers doing short sets back to back all day, and we opted to use a single Edwina mic. When the band before us wrapped up, we carried our instruments onstage, stepped up to the mic, strummed a chord or two, and got a thumbs up from behind the board. Done. The schedule allowed for 10 minutes of setup, but we were ready in two—and we got to play two extra songs.
You can find large-diaphragm condensers that work well for single-miking without breaking the bank. Here are a few options (with rough street prices as of press time).
Under $200: Check out MXL’s MCA-SP1 and 990 models—each sells for under $100—and Audio Technica’s AT2035 ($149). In this price range you might also find a used AT3035, a popular choice in the past for single miking, but no longer made.
$400 and up: Lots of folk acts these days gather around an Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina ($550). Around the same price is the Shure KSM32, which gets high marks for single miking, as does the Audix SCX25A ($695).
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.