GearHead: Top Vocalists on Their Microphones of Choice
Kurt Elling, Kate McGarry and others weigh in on their favorites
It is widely accepted that Bing Crosby set the standard for future generations of jazz singers. But Bing had help. His meteoric rise in the 1930s was in large part facilitated by the concurrent popularization of microphones. As journalist Paul Ford noted earlier this year in an online New Yorker profile that linked Crosby to modern technology, “Microphones changed everything. Rather than spraying the balcony with emotion … the act of performance became more intimate, the singer more vulnerable.”
Fast forward to the mid-1960s, when Shure introduced the SM58, a remarkably durable, handheld cardioid model that delivered superior sound. Singers of all stripes have long since embraced the SM58 as both a workhorse and a thoroughbred. As Roseanna Vitro observes, “In my early days, coming out of rock, blues and folk, I generally faced a Shure SM58, the classic mic you’ve seen [the Who’s] Roger Daltrey swirl around his head. We used to laugh about them because they’re indestructible. The SM58 has a peak of 3.5K, which provides intelligibility of the voice, cutting through and over screaming guitars and loud drums.”
Most singers are at the mercy of the mic provided by the venue; often it’s a dependable SM58. But mics vary widely from performer to performer. (There’s also the question of hygiene: Lorraine Feather points out that she’s faced more than one mic that was “a Petri dish of lip gloss.”) Better, most agree, to pack your own. To help wade through the myriad options, JazzTimes polled a spectrum of top vocalists.
Rebecca Parris has stood by the old standby, her SM58, for more than two decades. “I look for a mic that has a good range of use for dynamics,” she says, “one with flat response. You want to sound like yourself, not your equipment.” Ian Shaw is also a Shure fan. “At Ronnie Scott’s,” he explains, “they order me the wireless [supercardioid] Beta 58A so I can whisper, Shirley Horn-like, in the ballads.”
Jackie Ryan prefers the supercardioid Neumann KMS 105. “What I look for in a good mic is presence and warm depth in the lower range, no muddiness,” she says. “It takes a great mic to capture all the nuances of a voice, and the tones and overtones. I really need to know that when I go in for the softer sounds my mic will pick it up.” Tony DeSare, also a fan of the KMS 105, adds, “I love a mic that sounds great with no EQ. EQ is a great tool, but it is always better to start off with the right sound in the first place. Since my voice is petty thick in the middle frequencies, I prefer a mic that has a natural bump around 2-5kHz. Jacqui Naylor trusts Neumann too, alternating between the KMS 104 (“less spread for tighter stages”) and the KMS 105 (“more spread for larger stages”).
Kate McGarry has studied mics more closely than most. Over the years, she has owned a Beyerdynamic, an Electro-Voice N/D767a (a mic Denise Donatelli likes for its “higher gain without a lot of feedback”) and the Neumann KMS 105. For the past year, McGarry’s choice has been the Sennheiser e935 Cardioid Dynamic. “This mic has a magic quality to it with my voice,” she says. “[It is] clear and powerful but still warm and appealing, [and] seems to bring out a particular midrange frequency that really helps me feel solid when I’m singing.”
Kurt Elling, who believes that “the use of microphone to accentuate dynamic differences for dramatic effect is among the underutilized aspects of the experience for many singers,” relies on professional advice. Bryan Farina, a top sound expert whose clients include Elling, the Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices, says he marries singer to mic by “getting five or six that I think are of high quality, because they all accentuate different areas of the singer’s range, and have them sing on them.” For Elling, whom Farina says “has the best mic technique I’ve ever heard,” he chose the Sennheiser e965, a large-diaphragm, true condenser mic. “It’s really smooth and plays well in many different environments.”
Farina also stresses, “A stage full of great mics can go bad without the right ears behind the board.” Adds Mark Winkler, who uses engineer Ivan Zawinul (Joe’s son) to manage sound for his L.A. gigs, “The overall sound quality can make or break a show. That involves the mics, the monitors, the speakers and the acoustics, but most importantly having a sympathetic sound person maximizing all these things.”