Head-Worn Microphones – Up Close and Personal
By Ken Hamberg
Head-worn microphone design has come a long way since it first entered our collective consciousness in the form of the bulky headset gear atop the well-coiffed pates of our favorite television sports announcers and newscasters. The modern head-worn mic is much smaller, the headbands are much lighter and worn discreetly behind the head and the microphone arm and boom may be adjusted with considerable precision for optimal clarity of the singing or speaking voice.
We thought it would be interesting to take a close look at head-worn microphones as both a wired and wireless microphone alternative to their handheld brethren for a variety of presentational, instructional, and musical applications. We also decided to test a few of them with the idea that one might improve the sound of a wireless system, and therefore one's presentation or vocal sound by simply upgrading the microphone.
Free Up Your Hands
Head-worn mics are a great alternative to handheld and lavalier mics for singing drummers, keyboard players, lead vocalists, singing dancers and actors, lecturers, presenters and clinicians, aerobics instructors and educators. What do they all have in common? The need for complete mobility and a clear, consistent vocal delivery.
Good speakers, actors, and entertainers move about and gesticulate to enhance and emphasize their words. Drummers and keyboard players, while largely stationary, are constantly using their hands (and feet) in order to perform on their instruments. It's kind of cool to have the microphone attached to your body, perfectly positioned. There's no microphone handling noise, you don't have to lean over toward a microphone stand (nor do you need one), your hands are completely free, and after a while you forget you're wearing it.
Head-worn mics are often exceptionally small and lightweight, nearly invisible from the audience's perspective, and reproduce the singing or spoken voice as well as or better than many handheld mics. They usually exhibit high gain-before-feedback characteristics and therefore eliminate a lot of feedback-related problems associated with P.A.'s and stage monitors. The headband is worn unobtrusively behind the head and secures comfortably behind the ear. They are often available in a variety of flesh tones, enhancing the invisibility factor on stage as they blend with the costume and skin color of the performers.
The proper positioning of the microphone arm and boom is important in order to ensure a clear, consistent vocal delivery. The optimal placement of the mic is usually 1-2" from the corner of the mouth. Positioning the mic directly in front of the mouth is not advisable, as plosive distortion and exaggerated bass response (called the proximity effect) will undoubtedly occur. We recommend using omnidirectional polar pattern head-worns for most applications. They are easy to use and provide excellent quality audio. We have found that omni mics offered a surprising amount of ambient isolation, probably because of the close proximity of the mic to its source and the small size of the capsule. Omni's tend to be much more forgiving off-axis in terms of signal pickup and exhibit little or no proximity effect compared to cardioids. Directional polar patterns are sometimes better suited for situations where there are loud monitors, extreme feedback or environmental noise.
Making the Connection
Most head-worn microphones intended for use with an audio mixer or interface are equipped with a beltpack, and are usually wired with a standard 3-pin XLR microphone connector. Head-worn microphones intended for use with a wireless microphone system are available with a variety of connectors and pin configurations, depending on the connector of the beltpack transmitter to which they're meant to attach.
While this may be a bit baffling initially, if you know the type of connector your beltpack is equipped with (consult your manual) you won't have a problem matching the right mic with it. Most Shure wireless systems, for example, include a TA4F (mini 4-pin female, a.k.a. TINI-QG) connector on their beltpack transmitters, while Lectrosonics systems mostly use a TA5F (mini 5-pin female). Many Sennheiser wireless systems use a locking 1/8" TRS mini plug, while Audio-Technica systems often use a locking coaxial 4-pin HIROSE connector. Again, check the manual if you need the correct nomenclature.
Testing: Check One, Check Two
In the interest of satisfying our curiosity in a fair manner to see how much of a difference a mic makes in the wired and wireless worlds, we chose to use two very affordable, easily-operated systems you'd find in use in any home computer setup, aerobics gym class, or stage in a club. For the wired evaluation we used a Digidesign MBox Mini audio interface for Mac or Windows. The wireless mic system we chose was a Shure PG Series Head-worn system. Both systems offer clean, no-nonsense sound with decent headroom and almost instantaneous setup time, the idea being that the mics would speak for themselves without any elite studio or stage gear to enhance or color the sound. We decided the bare-bones policy would best simulate a variety of everyday location conditions, as opposed to a studio-perfect locale.
The mics were chosen for us and basically represent a low- to mid-priced selection, matched in a way to the systems we were testing them on. All monitoring was done through headphones, affirming the flexibility and light weight of the modern microphone headband. In conclusion, we found that the head-worn microphones we used definitely made a big difference in the sound of the systems, and each had its own sonic signature that was clearly revealed.
All the mics performed well for their given applications, and represented a good value for their respective markets. We kept in mind that the expectations and requirements of an aerobics instructor or presenter are different from those of a lead singer, and we put each mic through its appropriate paces for a little real-world perspective. The premium was on both sound quality and comfort, and it was nice to hear and feel the difference. The results are shown in the chart below.
Countryman offers three models of head-worn microphones, with 40 connector options and variations including: Color options, polar patterns, sensitivity, and cable diameters. Our new Countryman store makes it a breeze to find the right microphone for your wireless transmitter or hard wired application. To configure a Countryman microphone for your system, please refer to www.bhphotovideo.com/countryman.
Thank you for reading this Pro Audio Insight article. If you have any questions about head-worn microphones or choosing the right connector for your wireless transmitter, please contact us at 1-800-415-5090.
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