Mic Technique for Live Readings and Panels

As an author, you will probably find yourself reading live at events at some time or another and it’s important to make yourself heard by your audience Paying attention to how a microphone works can greatly enhance your performance, and the audibility of your reading. After all, you are there to share your work with an audience, so it is worth doing what you can to make sure that they can hear you well and enjoy the performance without straining. It can be the difference between coming off as a professional rather than an amateur.

Most venues will be equipped with a dynamic microphone, most likely an SM58 or SM57 (see image 1), rather than an ultra-sensitive condenser mic (found mostly in recording studios). Dynamic mics have a unidirectional pattern (commonly known as a cardioid pattern) meaning that the mic picks up what is directly in front of it and cancels any sound coming from behind the mic, audience sounds etc. This type of microphone is useful because it tends to prevent any background sounds from being picked up, enhancing the clarity of your speaking voice. But it also means that if you do not speak directly into the mic your voice will not be picked up, and therefore not heard by the audience or recording device.

The cardioid pattern looks much like the shape of a heart (see image 2), and if you are speaking outside of this invisible pattern your voice will not engage the diaphragm of the microphone. Dynamic mics are also sensitive to the distance between you and the mic. The closer you are to the mic, the louder your voice will be, the farther away, the quieter. So, if you need to yell into the microphone as part of your performance you should back off of the mic several inches (at least).

Likewise if you plan on whispering a section of your piece you should get closer to the mic. In this regard you can think of the microphone as an instrument that requires some amount of skill to use correctly (although easy to learn with a little practice). Watch some videos of one of your favorite singers at one of their live shows to see examples of how effective altering your distance from the mic can be. Not all singers have great mic technique, but those that do tend to sound much better than those that don’t. You will see that as they raise their volume they pull the mic away from their mouth, and bring it closer as they grow quieter. It is also important to make sure that the mic is not being pointed towards the PA system speakers, as this will cause feedback issues (that horrible high-pitched squeal). Cupping your hand over the mic will also cause this issue, so while you may be inclined to cover the mic to prevent feedback you will actually be exacerbating it. If feedback is a problem at the venue, it is also possible to alleviate the problem at the mixing board. While it may be tempting to turn down the high frequencies on the equalizer (since this is the sound of feedback) you’ll actually want to turn down the low frequencies on the equalizer, counterintuitive as this may be.

At panel discussions, or multiple author readings, there isn’t always a mic for each presenter. In this case it is worth passing the mic around between readers, as the pattern is not large enough to cover the area of an entire table, and only those close to the microphone will be heard.

With a little practice, mic technique can be greatly improved and the better your mic technique the more your reading will be clear to the audience. After all, if they can’t hear you, how are they going to be able to enjoy your work?

Jean-Paul L. Garnier

Jean-Paul L. Garnier lives and writes in Joshua Tree, CA where he is the owner of Space Cowboy Books, a science fiction bookstore, independent publisher, and producer of Simultaneous Times podcast. In 2020 his first novella Garbage In, Gospel Out was released by Space Cowboy Books and in 2018 Traveling Shoes Press released Echo of Creation, a collection of his science fiction short stories. He has also released several collections of poetry: In Iudicio (Cholla Needles Press 2017), Future Anthropology (currently being translated into Portuguese), and Odes to Scientists (audiobook - Space Cowboy Books 2019). He is a two time Elgin Nominee and also appeared in the 2020 Dwarf Stars anthology. His new collection of SF poetry, Betelgeuse Dimming has just been released and is available as a free download audiobook / ebook at spacecowboybooks.bandcamp.com. He is also a regular contributor for Canada’s Warp Speed Odyssey blog. His short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in many anthologies and webzines.