Pick a Mic, Any Mic!

Wow! There’s a ton of misinformation in Magic Land about microphone selection! This guide, like all the others at MagicRoadie.com, will not include advice on brands or models to purchase or rent, and won’t make much mention of the underlying scientific principles that are at play, although it will mention more science than the other articles. It’s more like an “applications” guide, with proven advice on how to evaluate your needs, select an appropriate product, and put it to good use. That’s right, I said proven advice, based on solid fact … not hearsay.

Now don’t be thinkin’ I’m gonna tell you which type of mic is best for you! By reading this guide, though, almost all of you will be able to make your own decision easily, and to your own best advantage. There is no “best mic” any more than there is a best type of magic. The decision must be based on your own needs, and should be based on a clear understanding of the facts.

First, we’ll take a look at the four most common types of mics. Second, we’ll look at a couple of microphone “pickup patterns”, and the characteristics they lend to the mic. Finally, we’ll do an honest to goodness “apples to oranges to peaches to pears” comparison of all four types.

By the way, it’s important to know that all three types can be used wired (with a cable), or wireless (with a transmitter and a receiver). It’s also important to note that pretty well any lav or headset can be wired for use with pretty well any wireless beltpack.

Right arrow free iconMic Types

In the music world, the handheld mic is most common type of vocal mic. It can also be mounted with a mic stand or a neck holder. Since you can use a handheld to pass from one person to another, it’s also common among magicians for onstage spectator pickup.

Lav, also called Lavaliér (lav-ah-leer), or Lapel
A lav can be clipped onto a shirt-front, or, as is common in professional theatre, dressed into the front hairline or sideburn. Lavs are not very visible, and are therefore very popular among magicians.

An earset is actually a lav that is adapted to sit closer to the mouth than a lav normally would in order to improve GBF. The one in the photo is very compact, and comes from the factory exactly as you see it.

A headset mic, often referred to as a “Madonna”, places the mic’s “element” in front of the mouth. A good headset sounds as good as a handheld, and has comparable GBF. Headsets are often larger than this, because many require the addition of a foam “windsock” over the element.

Right arrow free iconMichael Sibbernsen submitted these extra insights, from the perspective of a mentalist.

“I thought you may wish to note in your “Pick a Mic” section that wireless handhelds, although not the best for magicians as you noted, are almost universally preferred by mentalists and hypnotists. Besides the high sound quality and high gain-before-feedback, the reasons being;

1) The ability to easily control the volume of your voice, from high to none at all (for talking privately to participants).

Dan’s note:
This is done, quite simply, by moving the mic closer to/farther from your mouth!

2) The ability to control the “sound” of your voice.

Dan’s note:
Remember from a couple of paragraphs ago, that the sound of a unidirectional mic (which includes every handheld mic used in live performance), changes as you move closer to/farther from it. As you move it closer, your voice sounds bigger and warmer. (Please keep in mind that these are relative terms, and the words “bigger, warmer, more authority” are much different through a small speaker than through a massive PA.)

3) The ability to directly “interview” participants.

Dan’s note:
Yeah, just like a television interviewer does! It also allows you to cue the volunteer so that he/she knows exactly when he/she is expected to (and not expected to) speak.

4) The psychological “sense of authority” that a handheld microphone seems to impart.


Right arrow free iconPickup Patterns
Each mic is designed with a particular “pickup pattern”. An “omni” (omni-directional) doesn’t care from which direction sound is originating. A “uni” (uni-directional) rejects sound from its sides and its rear. These design differences also impart a couple of important characteristics.

Actually, the side & front rejection of a uni is mostly in the high frequencies. Another way of looking at that is that its sound changes dramatically at its sides and rear. The frequency response (which, for our purposes, equals sound quality) of a uni also changes as it moves away from your mouth.
The sound of an omni is the same from all directions, and sound quality doesn’t really change as the mic moves farther from, or closer to, the mouth.
At this point, if you’ve been reading along, you’re probably wondering why the heck anyone would ever use a uni! Well, since uni’s reject sound form their sides and rear, they are often chosen because they can reject the sound coming from the PA speakers, and therefore serve to reduce feedback.
It gets much more involved than that, but sparing you any more science, the bottom line for use with a PA system is this. Handheld’s and headsets are always uni’s. Lavs can be either, but are more often omni’s. Earsets can also be either.

Right arrow free iconGain-Before-Feedback
The ability to get loudness out of a mic before it begins to feed back is called “gain-before-feedback” (GBF). When comparing mics of similar quality, handhelds have the best GBF. Headsets are next, followed by earsets, and finally lavs, which have the worst GBF. Gain-before-feedback is especially important in a noisy environment, because you need to turn the mic up more, and that increases the possibility of feedback. The most obvious example of this applies to street performing, because of crowd and traffic noise. A less obvious example is the performer who uses music in his/her act. Since you have to be heard over the music, you need to turn the mic up more, and, again, that increases the possibility of feedback.

Right arrow free iconPhysical Appearance and Non-Audio Practicality
Lavs are least visible, followed by earsets, headsets and handhelds.
Lavs, earsets and headsets are “hands-free”, but can make some quick costume changes and any water submersion impossible. Handhelds are only hands-free if placed in a neck holder or on a mic stand. A neck holder can be a very awkward, un-elegant compromise, since bending over or moving quickly can allow the mic to fall to the stage floor, but can be a good “last resort” solution. Having a mic on a stand ties you to a single place on the stage.

When choosing between the hands-free options, some magicians don’t like the fact that a headset is visible, so they choose a lav. While this is a perfectly valid choice, the only problem here is that a headset has much better GBF than a lav, and sounds better. Again, bear in mind that we’re comparing properly used mics of similar quality.

In the past year, lots of magicians having been choosing the middle ground of an earset (see above), because it is not as visible as a headset, has better GBF than a lav, and better sound quality than a lav. The drawbacks are that a good quality earset is more fragile than the other types, and it’s more expensive.  Remember, too, that the GBF of a full-size headset is much better than that of an earset.

Right arrow free iconThe Bottom Line

  • Handheld
    Since they’re not hands-free, handhelds likely are not the best choice for magicians. Using a handheld with a neck holder is an awkward, un-elegant solution that forces you to move too restrictively. It’s also very large and visible, and can easily get in the way of your hands. In my opinion, this is not a professional choice. If you already own a handheld, need to be hands-free, but can’t afford to replace your mic, a neck holder (or a silent act) is your only option. If this is the case, use one, and save up for a professional hands-free system.
  • Lav
    A lav is the best choice if you need hands-free and “mouth-free” (maybe you’re a balloon sculptor), or if you’re one of those who thinks that a magician’s mic should be “heard and not seen”. While a lav can be virtually invisible, its sound quality is inferior to every other type, as is its GBF.
  • Headset
    A headset is hands-free, has excellent sound quality, and has excellent GBF. If you need the aforementioned “mouth-free” use (I can’t believe I’ve used that expression twice!), or if you subscribe to the aforementioned “heard and not seen” principle, then a headset’s not for you. Remember, though, that by rejecting a headset, you’re rejecting the best possible hands-free sound quality, and the best possible hands-free GBF!
  • Earset
    Less visible than a headset, but more visible than a lav. Sound quality & GBF are both better than a lav, but not as good as a headset. Many magicians are choosing these lately, finding them to be the best compromise between invisibility & GBF.

Right arrow free iconTips
Regardless which mic you choose, here are a few facts about feedback.

  • As you raise the volume of your PA, the likelihood of feedback increases.
  • As a mic moves closer to the speakers, the likelihood of feedback increases.
  • As a mic moves out into the audience, the likelihood of feedback increases.

Well, there ya go, my friends! Go forth and amplify!