Author: Campbell, Bruce

To Plug In, or Not To Plug In?

One of the enduring iconic visuals of classic bluegrass is the band clustered around a single ribbon microphone, usually with some radio station’s call letters attached to it. Despite its acoustic instrumentation, bluegrass has been played through a microphone (or microphones) throughout its history.

A bluegrass band with strong players is pretty loud, but it doesn’t take all that much space or ambient noise to make listeners wish they could hear some aspects of the music better. Once the room gets bigger, or noisier, the guitar and mandolin drop out of the mix pretty quickly, and vocal harmonies sometimes seem to lose a voice (or two).

Gathering around that single microphone is thrilling to watch when it’s done well – there’s an elegant choreography involved in ensuring the featured lead instruments are coming through the mix.

There are several problems with the single microphone method, though. Some bands find the choreography required difficult to master. Some sound companies find getting a single mic loud enough without feeding back very difficult. And some artists feel they need a monitor, which is very challenging with a microphone with a large pickup pattern.

Maybe contributing to a trend away from the single mic is a general modernization of the stagecraft of bluegrass. Audiences may come to the genre from other forms of popular music (as may the artists, for that matter) who are accustomed to seeing performers in a single row on a stage. When there are separate microphones for every singer and instrument, the pickup patterns can be much smaller, and the mics EQ’d for each particular sound source. Of course, when the band is spread out, monitors are needed to ensure the ensemble can all hear each other.

For some time, it was a matter of pride in bluegrass that the sound reached the audience by the “pure” path of an acoustic instrument, whose sound traveled a short distance to a microphone which provide the sound to the speakers. That’s not all that pure, if you think about it. But it certainly seemed that acoustic instruments amplified in this fashion more effectively delivered the pure tones of the instruments than pickups and preamps could.

Then a few years ago, we have seen more bluegrass outfits actually plugging their instruments into a direct input unit (horrors!) and it was usually the top traveling pros, and it sounds pretty good. Amplification this way enables the band to better control their sound regardless of the venue, and minimizes the differences in the venues’ sound support systems.

So what’s the best way? Personally, I take some pride in my mic skills, and single mic choreography skills. And I THINK the instruments sound better when the vibrations travel through some air before reaching a microphone. There could be a placebo effect in play here, but it’s what I think.

But at gigs where the house soundman (or woman, ahem) is not used to mic’ing acoustic instruments, a lot of grief can be avoided if we could plug in. So, I am tempted to get a quality pickup or transducer installed in my guitar (and maybe my bass) to give me the option. It seems like a shame though, like I’m selling out. What do you all think? Plug in, or sometimes plug in, or never plug in?

Posted:  10/2/2013

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