Bluegrass Bands and the Single Microphone

by | 23 Jan, 2009

rca44bAs one moves around the festival circuits both here and overseas it becomes apparent that more and more bluegrass bands are discovering the benefits of utilising the single microphone technique in their performances.

The single mic technique involves musicians – generally in an acoustic band – grouping around one microphone to deliver their vocal arrangements and often the same setup to deliver instrumental backup and solos. The other- similar – method involves having a second microphone in which soloists deliver their lead break while the remainder of the band back up around the single vocal mic. There are are almost as many opinions on this approach as there are microphones available for the task.

Bob Cherry, a frequent contributor to the Cybergrass pages, recently wrote of the growing popularity of utilising the single microphone technique by bluegrass bands. In his article, he highlights the visual and an audible camaraderie that results from the single mic technique.

I decided that I only ever wanted to use a single microphone after seeing the Sawtooth Mountain Boys perform with one at the Weavers Arms in October 1990. Their movements on stage as they clustered around the microphone and almost fought one another to get sight of it fascinated me, but what impressed me most was the realisation that the microphone was more than capable of picking up every sound. I could hear every backup mandolin chop and banjo roll, even when the instruments were shielded behind other musiciansPaul Brewer New Essex Bluegrass Band.

Andy Highfield writes for Transatlantic Bluegrass and states that when considering the role of the microphone in traditional bluegrass bands, it is very important to understand both the context in which sound reinforcement was gradually introduced, and the technical factors that applied at the time.

The singe mic method has been around for many years. Indeed, many of us have seen video of groups such as Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs in the early bluegrass years an others like Hot Rise and JD Crowe & The New South in later times. Here in Australia we have our own Bluegrass Parkway who have mastered the art and built choreographed movements into their performances.

Bruce Bartlet on the Crown International Website comments on advantages of this technique such as a stage that looks cleaner. Gone is the forest of mic stands, booms and cables and foldback speakers. Instead you have a low-tech, old-fashioned look that fits in well with the style of music.

Other advantages can include setups being much quicker; just place the mic, plug it in and you’re done. The band determines the mix, rather than the sound mixer, who might not be familiar with the music, of course, musicians are happier with this arrangement than are audio mixers. In addition the band gets to play as they have rehearsed, acoustically.

Using two microphones for each musician (vocal and instrument) is much easier and more convenient than using a single microphone. The first thing to over come in adopting the single mic technique is to learn to avoid people getting tangled up in each others instrument necks or being stabbed by a protruding string from a headstock or the fiddler’s bow.

Andy Highfield also writes an excellent technical article citing a host of pros and cons of single mic technique, as well as a detailed history of the development of PA systems and microphones which can be found on the Bluegrass Wales Website.

Andy cites a warning for those wanting to head down this path. In comparing microphone technology on today with those used in earlier times, one reason why the one-microphone method worked well in the 1930’s through 50’s was that the microphones used were relatively insensitive, while volume expectations were extremely low compared to the demands of today’s concerts. He suggests that the older technology mics may be better suited to this technique than are some of the more modern microphones.

For those less technical minded Crown Audio has a KnowledgeBase which you can interrogate on the subject. Shure Microphones also has an excellent technical resource booklet available in PDF form. – <download here>

Happy experimenting.