Microphones & Sound Systems for Magicians

This article is definitely off the subject from typical posts, but Ed, a magician friend, just e-mailed me asking about wireless microphone recommendations. I definitely have opinions, and rather than writing a long e-mail figured I would post it here.

Over the years I’ve tried and used different set-ups, and the system I have now really works well for me. Covered in this article are some comments about old-school handheld microphones, wireless microphones (handheld, lapel, and headset), and using music as a solo act. Not covered are speakers, mixers, feedback, and the host of other elements that go into making an act sound good to an audience.

The next time someone asks, “What sound system do you use?” I’ll say, “Read my blog, buddy!” 🙂

Learn to use a Stand Microphone

Using a stand microphone is becoming a lost art. The PTA mom who approaches a microphone and doesn’t know how to adjust the height of a mic stand has a good excuse. Entertainers don’t. The ability to use an old-school stand microphone is invaluable and can save your bacon. Several years ago I took a week and went through all of my school assembly programs using the school’s wired (or, sometimes, wireless) handheld microphone exclusively instead of a headset. I also used a gim-crack holder occasionally, but intentionally wanted to learn how to use the mic stand. I discovered a lot of benefits of a handheld microphone. And, it saved me at least ten minutes of set-up and take-down as I didn’t need to plug in and tech my wireless mic.

In addition to getting comfortable with straight stand microphones, experiment with the “boom stand” style. There are extra adjustments that, in certain situations, are really handy. However, most comics, magicians, and prop entertainers prefer a straight stand. Know how to use both.

My business partner, Rick Anderson, loves using mic stands. From his background in stand-up comedy he is very comfortable with it, and it shows. A handheld microphone is a fantastic prop. It makes a lot of effects possible that can’t be done with a lapel or headset. Tap on the mic. Bring it close to your mouth and whisper. Hold it in front of a spectator so their voice can be heard. And, as a magician, a microphone in the hand is a valuable prop. Items can be naturally palmed in the hand holding the microphone, etc.

Look at comics. They always use handheld microphones because they can alter the effect of their voices so much more with this style of microphone. (And, again, it’s a great prop.) My friend Charlie the Noise Guy does incredible sound effects with his mouth. And he uses? Yes, a high quality wired handheld microphone.


Gim-Crack Saves the Day

Even if you’ve decided to buy a quality wireless headset system, do yourself a favor and pick up a gim-crack microphone holder. Do an internet search and several options will come up. They’re less than $20 and more than worth it. This has SAVED me, and comes in plain handy for situations where you’re asked to perform five minutes on stage (maybe part of several performers), and setting up your own mic either isn’t an option or the extra hassle just doesn’t make it worth it. I have one in my sound system case and another one in my car. Very, very handy.


Wireless Microphone Systems

Assuming you’ll be using your wireless microphone on at least a semi-regular basis throughout the year, it pays to buy quality. Having a quality wireless microphone means no dropouts, higher sound quality, greater range, flexibility to change frequencies when working in an area with other wireless systems or when in a different city, and more options for transmitters/headsets/accessories. Better quality units are built tough (high impact plastic, metal chassis for the receiver, etc.).

I personally like Shure and have used their products since about 1990, but Sennheiser, Sony, AKG, and others all have quality units (as well as entry-level models). I purchase my sound gear from www.ccisolutions.com. They are just outside of Olympia and convenient for me, but they ship products anywhere. If you want to talk with a sales staff, call Dieter directly at (360) 786-9195 and tell him I sent you. He can find out about your particular needs and make recommendations.

Currently I have two Shure ULXP receivers, two bodypack transmitters, and one handheld transmitter. I have both lapel mics and Countryman e6 headsets that can plug into the bodypack transmitters. I have two separate systems for a couple of reasons. It’s nice to have a backup in case one is lost or stolen or I need to set up in two different locations. Occasionally I use both together in situations where two people are talking at once. When I am recording a show from a camcorder at the back of the room, I set both receivers to the same frequency and use one transmitter to send signals to both the sound system (for the live audience) and to the receiver at the camcorder for pristine sound.

Features that I feel are important in a wireless microphone system:

  • quality sound (more a function of the microphone element than the transmitter or receiver)
  • excellent range – further than you think you’ll need, for those situations where the receiver HAS to be placed in a control room out of line of sight of the stage
  • switchable frequencies (yes, I’ve been at the county fair when the emcee of the demolition derby was coming through another performer’s wireless mic receiver)
  • durable (metal chassis for the receiver is nice. Gear gets stacked on top of gear, dropped, etc.)
  • battery monitor/indicator (and carry spare batteries to replace them before they die during a performance)
  • bodypack transmitter should have a jack that allows the microphone to be removed and replaced with the type of microphone you want to use (cheap units have the cord permanently connected)
  • no sound when switching power on/off (cheap systems will have a static noise)
  • receiver should have diversity operation (uses two antennas to prevent signal drop-outs)
  • volume output control on the receiver (handy for adjusting the volume feeding into the mixer)
  • • both XLR and quarter inch audio output connectors
  • visual display showing signal strength
  • visual display showing audio strength
  • ability to adjust the gain to fit with different microphones and speaking styles
  • ability to purchase additional bodypack or handheld microphones that will be compatible with the receiver

My bodypack transmitter has a very handy feature; the gain is adjustable on the fly. Normally mic gain controls require a tiny screwdriver to adjust a board-mounted potentiometer. However, in the ULXP it can be adjusted with a thumbnail. Why is this super-cool? Before the show I move this adjustment to a “middle” setting and set the sound system where I think it’s appropriate. However, acoustics change when the audience is present. I can fine-tune my volume during the show by simply slipping the transmitter out of my pocket and making the adjustment between effects. Voila!


Lapel Microphones

Magicians really need their hands free, and lapel-style microphones have been popular for performers for years. Lapels mics are still popular for things like ENG (electronic news gathering). If you purchase one, be sure to get one with a unidirectional pickup pattern. This means that it exhibits gain in one direction (usually in a cone towards your mouth) and rejects noise coming from the back and sides. This property of a unidirectional microphone gives it greater gain before feedback (volume can be higher without feedback). On the other hand, avoid an omnidirectional pickup pattern which picks up sound in a more circular pattern and is very prone to feedback.

You will want a windscreen for your lapel mic as they are susceptible to wind noise when doing outdoor shows. Be sure that it comes with the proper cable to mate with your bodypack transmitter.

Depending on speaker placement, lapel mics can work great for live performances. That is the catch; as a live solo performer you work in a lot of different venues, and feedback is usually an issue with lapel microphones. Headsets are the way to go.


Headset Microphones

Headsets are better than lapel microphones for most live performing situations. While there are several quality models, the Countryman e6 gets my highest recommendation. I first saw Shawn Farquhar use this microphone about ten years ago, and was blown away by its small profile and sound that rivals quality handheld microphones.

Like the lapel mic, be sure that your headset comes with the proper cable to mate with your bodypack transmitter. Different brands use different types of connectors. You’ll want to use a windscreen on your headset for outdoor shows, too. And some of my juggler friends (like Rhys Thomas) use flesh-colored tape to make sure the mic stays in place while doing crazy stunts.

One caveat with the Countryman e6; it has an omnidirectional pickup pattern. Because it is close to the mouth feedback is rarely an issue, but in a couple of situations (based on speaker location and space acoustics), it has been a problem. I do have a directional headset that I can use in these situations, but I prefer the Countryman.


Cuing Music for Solo Performers

When you get into adding music to your act, there are a lot of different options. (All assume that you’re working solo and don’t have anyone running your sound cues, obviously!)

  • My hypnotist friend Jerry Harris uses a tiny iPod and a Sennheiser transmitter, I believe. The iPod connects to the bodypack transmitter with velcro. He had the music store solder a custom cable (90 degree plugs, etc.) to create a very low-profile package. He stuck a small metal plate to the back of the bodypack transmitter and wears a powerful magnet on his belt. With this “music machine” on his waist it’s easy to pull the unit off (thanks to the magnet), scroll through songs, adjust volume, etc. He has total control of his music. I’m sure that often times he doesn’t even need to remove the device from his belt, and can just press the “track forward” button.
  • For years I used a minidisc player and the Virtual Soundman (marketed by Majiloon). Minidisc players are last-decade, and the Virtual Soundman is no longer made or supported.
  • Kerry Pollack makes very high quality electronics for solo performers, most notably the MP3 Tech, Showtech, and MediaStar. Visit www.wirelesswizardry.com. Many working pros use his units and they are top of the line.
  • With electronics becoming cheaper and more reliable, for many performers an iPod and an RF remote control works fine. (Maxell makes one that I have used. It doesn’t have great range. It’s adequate, but not for professionals.)
  • In shows where, for various technical reasons, I can’t be near my music (sound booth located far away and no audio snake), I’ll use my second wireless microphone system and something similar to Jerry Harris’ system outlined above. However, instead of having the iPod and transmitter on me, I clip the transmitter under my table and have the iPod sitting on top of the table. Cuing is easy, as I simply hit “track forward” at the right time. Volume adjustments are easy, too. If you don’t want to be seen approaching your table, throw a RF remote into the mix. Now you’re controlling your iPod by remote, but it’s only a few feet away from you. The audio signal from the iPod is then wireless sent to your receiver by the reliable wireless transmitter.
  • My magician friend Clinton W. Gray makes his own remote music control system, literally buying long-range RF transmitters and interfacing it to circuits that play mp3 files on an SD memory card. None of us are likely that technical, but it means that he can customize the system to do exactly what he wants.


Putting it All Together

I use a small 5-input mixer that goes into a padded laptop case that holds all of my sound system gear (less speakers). I can walk into nearly any auditorium, stage, school, etc. with this bag on my shoulder and know that I’ll be able to plug in and sound great.

  • wireless microphone receiver and transmitter
  • lapel and headset microphones (in protective cases, with wind screens)
  • handheld microphone and screw-on mic stand holder
  • various XLR and 1/4″ mic cables
  • various XLR, 1/4″, 1/8″, and RCA connectors and adapters
  • iPod and remote control
  • custom made cables for connecting the receiver and iPod
  • extra batteries for the handheld microphone, bodypack transmitter, and iPod remote
  • gim-crack adapter
  • extension cord with triple-outlet connector
  • outlet checker (Is there power? Is it wired correctly?)
  • gaffer’s tape (for taping cables down)
  • mini screwdriver (for adjusting gain on handheld microphone)


Another Trick: Split Speakers and Send the Signal Wirelessly

I mentioned earlier that I have two complete wireless microphone systems. There are some situations where you need to have speakers separated by a large distance and cables aren’t a good option. In this case place one speaker near you, and run an output from the mixer to a bodypack transmitter which sends the signal (which can be a mix of your microphone and music) to a receiver located at the other location. This means that you don’t need to run a speaker cable up a balcony, around a pool, outside, etc.

When I’m being introduced and the room doesn’t have their own sound system, I just grab my handheld mic and have the emcee use it to introduce me. I set both the bodyback transmitter and handheld microphone to the same frequency. As soon as the emcee introduces me, I take the mic, turn the power off, and turn my bodyback transmitter on. I’m ready to go. If there is ever a problem with my bodypack transmitter, or if I want someone else to be able to talk (for instance, a spectator reading instructions), I flip my bodypack transmitter off and switch the handheld on. (Of course, if it is important and worth the extra time to set up the second receiver, you can have both transmitters live at the same time. Depends on the circumstances.)

OK readers, your comments are welcome. This is obviously a HUGE subject and I’d like your wireless microphone suggestions and solo-performer music tips and tricks.

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2 Responses to Microphones & Sound Systems for Magicians

  1. Ed says:

    Jeff, thank you for your insight! Just today, I purchased a Shure SLX/SM 58 wireless unit from Musician’s Friend. I found this very helpful video in making my decision for this line of Shure Wireless, if anyone wants a run down of different lines from Shure, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbNm35uiblM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    Jeff, thanks again for spilling the beans on this subject. You’re definitely one of the nice guys! Talk with you soon!

    And, here is a bonus video if you have the time. Don’t be like this guy:

    • Jeff says:

      That’s an excellent choice, Ed! I’ve been really happy with my Shure and am sure that you will be, too. That’s an excellent video that you linked to, also. And down the road if you want to add a bodypack transmitter, you can always do that too.

      Not often, but every once in a while I’ll walk into a venue and discover that their house system uses the same Shure system that I have. All I need to do is get permission, then change the frequency on my transmitter so I can use my own headset (that I’m used to) with their receiver. It makes it sooo easy to patch in.

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