How not to be a douche?

June 8, 2012 7:37 PM

Are headset mics inevitably douchetastic?

So my band is starting to kick into gear and my singing is getting (a lot) better but I'm having a really hard time with mic technique while playing the guitar. I find it really hard to keep a consistent volume, especially when glancing at the neck to find chords higher up on the neck.

A headset mic would completely solve this but I can't get past the look of the damn things. They're like the opposite of rock'n'roll.

I use one all the time for pitching stuff on conference calls and I totally love it, have for years. I get the occasional "Can I have fries with that" from smart asses when I tell them I'm putting on the headset, but I love the way I can wander around the room and gesticulate.

I have the same thing to a lesser extent with the guitar. I always end up with the guitar lead twisted about 100x clockwise, which is annoying but doesn't affect the sound at all.

Any comments/insights? Anyone used a headset mic and remained cool?
posted by unSane (29 comments total)

I think a lot of it is context. I mean if you're playing a stadium and doing a whole bunch of choreographed dance moves with a team of shirtless male dancers behind you, it would work.
Maybe I'm the douche in this scenario, but my first instinct is that there's a chance I'd make a quiet snarky remark to a friend if I went to a bar and the local band had a singer wearing a headset mic.
Being able to work the mic and play guitar at the same time just seems like part of the deal if you're standing still on a stage.
Or maybe I wouldn't, I don't know. If the band blew me away I might not care. If it lets you play better then who cares? People will probably be judging your shoes just as much. I haven't played live in a while but when I did I tried not to overthink how I looked because (1) I'd be paralyzed with insecurity and (2) I'm sure that many people would find something dorky about me nomatter what I did.

Maybe just hold off on getting a pair of those flesh-coloured in-ear monitors until your first SNL appearance.
posted by chococat at 8:56 PM on June 8, 2012

Aside from how dorky they look, it seems to me the biggest problem with headset mics is you can't work the mic. You can't back off it when you wanna shout, you can't creep right up on it when you wanna near-whisper. Changing the distance between your mouth and the mic is, what, 99% of what "mic technique" is all about, no?

Now, as far as your problem with inconsistency of level... just something that's gonna come with practice, I think. Just hours logged onstage. Or, maybe offstage as well: is mic techniqe (while playing) something you can practice at home? if so, go for it, I'd say. It's technique, like anything else.

One thought: I don't know how you're angling your mic on the stand/clip, but I'd suggest not doing that angled-down-from-above thing that some singers like Michael Stipe (IIRC) go in for. It seems to me that if you've got your mic angled up toward your mouth, and slightly down just a bit, you should be in pretty good shape to glance at your guitar neck without going off mic.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:12 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Anyone used a headset mic and remained cool?

Laurie Anderson. But she's a special case, I think: with her the headset just kind of played into her whole "I am a technical worker" sort of aesthetic. Like a flight controller or something. She made it cool.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:14 PM on June 8, 2012

Anyone used a headset mic and remained cool?

I've seen Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel rocking the headset mic as well. Maybe it's a Genesis thing.

I don't think cool would be the exact word i'd use, though.
posted by palbo at 12:35 AM on June 9, 2012

I think you nailed it, actually, Flapjax. We have a rehearsal room in our Quonset hut with a PA so I've been trying to log some hours in there. It's just a hard thing to get used to when you've never done it before.

I also find the vocal monitor thing a bit of a knife edge -- too loud and I tend to mumble, too soft and I can't sing in tune.

Chococat, for our all-Canadian-all-out Canada Day set this year we're doing this (not me singing, I hasten to add). So you are much closer to the truth than you thought.
posted by unSane at 4:59 AM on June 9, 2012

I also find the vocal monitor thing a bit of a knife edge

Hey, who doesn't? Onstage sound is so often lousy, in some way or another. It's a whole other discussion: how to get used to bad stage sound, cause it's just a sad fact of life.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:49 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, well let's talk about it!

I've heard some folks talk about pointing guitar and bass amps in from the side of the stage so that the sound guy is wholly responsible for FOH and you can focus on the sound on-stage. You need a decent PA to do this though.

(They're also not shooting right into the vocal mikes if you do that so you get a lot less spill).

I do really hate it when the sound guy gets you to turn your amp down so low that you can't hear it, and then tries to pipe it back to you through the floor monitors instead. That never seems to work. Having some spacial separation between sound sources onstage makes a huge difference. When it's all in the monitors it seems like a big mess to me.
posted by unSane at 6:25 AM on June 9, 2012

So my band is starting to kick into gear and my singing is getting (a lot) better but I'm having a really hard time with mic technique while playing the guitar. I find it really hard to keep a consistent volume, especially when glancing at the neck to find chords higher up on the neck.

Don't take this the wrong way but my immediate reaction to that was: practice. You need to get the guitar parts off to the extent that muscle memory takes over so you don't have to look at the neck. And practice in this context means doing it standing up - "assume the position" as it were.... And maybe if the guitar parts are too complex you need to delegate them to another guitarist so you just focus on the vocal and basic rhythm guitar?
posted by MajorDundee at 2:58 PM on June 9, 2012

Yeah, I know Major, but we don't have another guitarist right now and I'm reluctant to add one just yet. It's a good point though. I know myself well enough that I'm never going to be confident about landing on a C# barre chord from an open E, say. If it's within about three frets I can feel my way, but it's those blind leaps that get me.

I agree about assuming the position. I've been fairly studious about doing that and it really helps.
posted by unSane at 7:36 PM on June 9, 2012

Sort-of related: as a keys player I quickly learned that on stage I'm pretty much guaranteed to never have adequate representation in the monitors. I've had to learn how to hear my parts in my head, even as I'm playing them live. It works 95% of the time, and the 5% of the time I do end up fluffing some notes, I just act like I meant to play it that way and then everybody just thinks I'm some mad improv genius. *FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT*
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:54 PM on June 10, 2012


Hell yeah! Don't be shy and apologetic with your flubs! WRONG AND STRONG!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:14 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hell yeah! Don't be shy and apologetic with your flubs! WRONG AND STRONG!

Ha! I remember playing in club bands where we would deliberately play bum notes to (a) see if anyone was actually listening and (b) to try to throw the singer or least, that's what I used to tell myself......
posted by MajorDundee at 11:49 AM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

My biggest problem is with solos. I'm pretty much incapable of improvising them, or at least improvising them in an interesting way, so I have to learn them. It's much worse when I'm having to play some cover with a really well-known rip-roaring solo (like that Shania Twain track I posted upthread). The band gets to that bit of the song and then they all look at you as if to say 'go on then'.

And then they judge whatever you play against the damn solo that some session cat comped together from 19 different takes.

So basically you have to then go off and learn the damn thing, which means first of all you have to transcribe it, because the online tab is invariably completely wrong. Which means that you have to figure out about ten different ways of playing it before you finally stumble on the one that makes sense which is the way that the guy played it in the studio without even thinking about it.

And I really don't believe that shit about their being no wrong notes. Maybe if you're playing jazz. When you're playing Shania Twain, trust me, there are wrong notes.
posted by unSane at 1:05 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

(possibly all of them)
posted by unSane at 1:07 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sooooooo . . . . .

I've seen my share of headset mics. Frankly, most of them kinda suck sound-wise. The best of the bunch is generally acknowledged to be the Crown CM-311A or the CM-312. Which go for $350.

Other headset mics can be made to sound OK but often require a totally different EQ & gain structure than "regular" vocal mics, which will not endear you to the soundguy when you show up and wanna plug in your headset mic.

They have small diaphragms, so there's an inherent "AM radio" quality to them, and tiny diaphragms tend to distort easily, which actually doesn't work so well when you can't work the mic. Plus there's the added bonus that since the mic never leaves your lips, if you've got an energetic set the audience gets to hear you panting like a dog in heat in between songs . . .

I can think of two non-Britney-Spears kind of acts that used headset mics that actually kinda worked. One was a borderline hair-metal (think Warrant, Cinderella, etc.) band, and another was a Garth Brooks tribute act. (So that should answer any question you have about the "cool" factor . . .) And the thing is, both singers had actually developed a technique to seem like they were belting it out without actually doing so. Furthermore, when the Garth guy actually HAD to belt it out, he would raise his hand to the mic and pull it away from his lips. So they actually WERE "working the mic", just in an odd way.

My 2 cents is you might as well learn to work the mic the normal way.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:41 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few things:

1. Maybe it goes without saying, but you are singing into a mic with a boom, right? The extra space really helps to get comfortable.

2. That Shania Twain song is awesome, it has an incredible groove, and those vocal "whoa uh ohs!" are pretty sweet sounding, you shouldn't knock it (but also, you shouldn't ever try to sing it yourself).

3. Can you arrange your guitar parts so that you're not moving all over the neck when you're singing?
posted by grog at 8:25 PM on June 11, 2012

Yeah, I love the groove on that song. I play it as a really dirty early-ZZ-top-boogie all the way through, even the choruses. Someone told me that Eddie Van Hallen played the solo but actually it's country dude Dan Huff. I can't do the pinch harmonics like he does but I figured the rest of it out.

Our (female) singer for that song gives us all a dirty look and says 'let's go, boys' at the beginning, which always cracks me up.

I totally use the boom -- you're right, it really helps.

I will look at the arrangements again. I think that' s the key. Like I say, the difficult bits tend to be going from an open E to a C#m or a B variant, like 9-11-11-9-0-0 or 7-9-9-8-0-0 which have quite a characteristic tonality and tend to crop up in choruses because they have such a full sound.

This has been a really helpful thread -- thank you.
posted by unSane at 8:52 PM on June 11, 2012

Oh, lord, this Dan Huff instuctional video is a thing of wonder.
posted by unSane at 9:12 PM on June 11, 2012

And I really don't believe that shit about their being no wrong notes. Maybe if you're playing jazz. When you're playing Shania Twain, trust me, there are wrong notes.

Semi-seriously - I believe its true that there are no wrong notes. You can play any note - it just depends where, when and how. And it doesn't have to be jazz (why does everyone always shove anything slightly off the wall into the jazz it's some kind of disease.....cough, scratch....).

The standard blues scale - that a lot of the music that finds its way onto here owes something to - actually has what could be deemed wrong notes. Interestingly they're the notes that make things blue. I don't have the theoretical knowledge to explain that, except that there are dissonances in a blues scale that, if played slowly enough, would make many a musical purist cringe. I think I'll set myself a challenge to upload something with a solo that uses loads of these dissonant notes just to make the point. They can be exceptionally powerful if used in the right way.

Exhausted now........ please insert one imperial pint of strong English ale if you require further Major bullshit.
posted by MajorDundee at 1:09 PM on June 12, 2012

I agree you can make any note 'right' by context - in a chromatic run to take a trivial example, or by bending the shit out of it on a guitar. Or by being a genius, which also helps.

One thing I've realized is it's the dissonances and their resolutions (or otherwise) that make music music. To give you another example from our Canada Day set, kd lang's Constant Craving. In the 'aha, constant craving' vocal section the harmony moves from G to D to C, and the melody moves from G to F# down to E, all pretty rote, but the vocal melody suspends on F# (cra-ving) before dropping down to E. So you have a big fat diabolus in musica sitting there, between the root and the melody, and it sounds lovely.

And even a straighforward dominant seventh has a tritone in there between the third and the seventh.

Constant Craving is an interesting song because the bass does all sorts of strange things... masses of slash chords in there (like C/D and Bm7/F#). I don't know how much of this was in the writing and how much was the session bass player getting creative but it's very characteristic, and if you play root notes on the bass instead, the song basically disappears.

I've been trying to figure out ways to use jazz chords in pop music without sounding like a wanker for a long while. I cram them in whenever I can. But slash chords are the next best thing... to take the July challenge, for example, Radiohead is absolutely full of them. You can play the entire chord sequence for Airbag (Dm-A, then Am B7 E7sus4 Am more or less) over a pedal A in the bass, and it sounds great.
posted by unSane at 2:32 PM on June 12, 2012

Hey unSane, the key with improvising is not caring if you fuck up. And once you get to that point you kind of stop fucking up. For a solo, you don't have to do the note for note thing, just play what you hear in your head when you imagine the solo. By that I mean, what is the general feel of the solo.

There's probably a strong beginning, some middle, and a finish. If you get the strong beginning you can kind of noodle through to the end, because people really only hear the beginning unless there is something trademark in the rest of the phrase(s). Once you get over the hump in terms of your confidence, you will surprise yourself and just unload years of emotional baggage through thundering, cathartic riffage... or maybe a Shania Twain solo.

posted by dobie at 6:56 PM on June 12, 2012

My problem is that I've don't really care about soloing enough to learn how to improvise it fluently.

What I mean is I'm not good enough to play what I hear in my head in real-time. I can get close, but I'm not there. As a result my improvised solos always start out blazing and fine and then collapse in a train-wreck about halfway through. I love to play up and down the neck but I lost my orientation and suddenly I'm completely, totally lost and the notes I'm hearing aren't coming out of my fingers.

I've never built up a library of riffs for soloing, which I think a lot of people rely on. That side of things really doesn't interest me. I just wish I had enough fluency with the fretboard to be able to play exactly what I hear. I can do that on a keyboard, near enough. I'm not sure what the stumbling block with the guitar is -- maybe just that it's never been that important to me.

For playing covers, I find it easier to just learn the fucking solo. It usually takes me WAY out of my comfort zone, which I think is quite helpful. I simplify a bit here and there but only when I've figured out what the bugger did on the track.
posted by unSane at 7:30 PM on June 12, 2012

Don't take this the wrong way but my immediate reaction to that was: practice.

Beatin' on this erstwhile horse, but here's one more reiteration of that. You just have to get used to the fact that there's you, and there's a mic, and you have to sort of know where each other are and manage your head position and distance and angle around the need to deliver sound there directly. It's a skillset, and a handy one (handy even for recording at home), and buying a headset won't help you there.

And as much as I am fundamentally in the "fuck 'em, do what works for you" camp on musical execution stuff, playing in a rock band with a headset is a bigass handicap. Maybe maybe maybe if you can find some way to make the fact that you are rocking a motherfuckin' headset work for your act, okay. Otherwise it's like showing up at a car show on a skateboard. Even if it gets the job done it's not what people want to see.

3. Can you arrange your guitar parts so that you're not moving all over the neck when you're singing?

This. If complicated guitar parts + singing = frustration, simplify the guitar part or re-arrange the song to avoid the overlap entirely. Do a less-fancy version of the guitar bit while your mouth is moving; generally no one will care, and if anything you can do simple vs. fullthroated guitar bits as a contrast thing where the guitar will pop a bit more during it's spotlight bits.

The alternative is to just get a whole hell of a lot better at simultaneously singing and playing complex no-peek guitar bits, but that's kind of a taller order than the mic-discipline thing. Awesome if you can make it work but I feel like that kind of cross-coordination is getting farther into superpowers territory.

Hey unSane, the key with improvising is not caring if you fuck up. And once you get to that point you kind of stop fucking up.

Kind of true, kind of not. I'm a shameless improviser; it was only through unusual effort that I even mostly-regularized the solos I played in bands I've been in, and even at that it was more of a "get the core idea down, have fun with the details" sort of thing because I really don't memorize my improvisations well.

And it's true that when you get more comfortable with improvising and just sort of running with it, it gets less stressful and recovering from or leveraging unexpected finger surprises gets easier. But there's no guarantee the recovery will be graceful, and there's no guarantee that the improvisation will be particularly interesting, and it's still entirely possible to just plain fuck shit up.

There may be no wrong notes in some notional "anything can be turned into a Thing" sense, but there are sure as shit bad improvisations and genuine fuckups. If you end up a fret up for a couple seconds before you figure out the problem, you are gonna have trouble polishing that turd sufficiently.
posted by cortex at 10:36 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

As long as I've played guitar and simultaneously sung, I've still yet to get to the point where I'm regularly doing both of those onstage, but whenever that happens, I'm going to seriously consider it. I really don't care how dorky it is if it works and I don't feel self-conscious about it.

Also, while not rock n roll, I'm pretty sure that way the hell back when I bought the crown cm-311 I still have, it was advertised as being used by Garth Brooks, who while not exactly the epitome of cool, is nowhere near a Madonna or Britney Spears type.
posted by bitterkitten at 10:24 AM on June 15, 2012

The Garth Brooks angle is interesting because it cuts to the sort of expectations and classifications thing a bit more subtly than the obvious starkness of e.g. Madonna vs. Mastadon. Because the fact that he's a guy who I can clearly see a headset on ties in for me with the fact that he is (or was?) just about the biggest of the big mainstream country pop acts, which is still closer in some ways to a big pop starlet show than to some downscale dirty country music bar band stuff.

Insofar as Garth is a really talented performer who plays his own guitar on stage while he's singing, it's a credit to the validity of the headset mic for something that's genetically closer to a rock act, but insofar as there's some serious plasticky pop veneer to a lot of big mainstream country production and performance it's not such a clearcut distinction as all that.

Which, again, this is all just image stuff and the ultimate answer to that if you disagree is "fuck you, I do it my way and I'm the one who's up here playing a fucking rock show", but as far as the superficial stuff goes it's tricky.
posted by cortex at 2:37 PM on June 15, 2012

Hmmmmmm . . . . . .

Well, leaving aside any attempt to parse the relative "coolness" of Garth vs Madonna, the thing is they're both mega-stars playing the local Enormo-Dome to 50,000 people. The stages are huge, plus extensions out into the audience, plus, I dunno, flying rigs so the stars can swing out over people's heads or whatever. So if they wanna sing AND do anything else - play guitar, bust some serious dance moves - and still be able to work the stage, well, wireless headsets are the answer.

In the context of a local band playing the local watering hole, it seems sillier, because it's like, "Really, dude? You need a wireless headset? Where ya gonna go? The wall's 5 feet to your left."

Also, cortex, it's MastOdon. MastOdon.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:23 AM on June 16, 2012

posted by cortex at 6:18 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by unSane at 6:56 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Finally got around to watching the Michael Jackson movie, This Is It tonight. Speaking of headset mics. But damn, his vocal performances in rehearsals were, with a very few exceptions, just fucking impeccable. Whoa.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:04 AM on June 16, 2012

« Older Loveless recreated   |   Help me be a folk bassist. Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments