The Optics of Microphones

Nestle $100,000 Bar TV Ad - 1983

Picture quality in a T.V. ad from 1983 is, to our modern eyes, surprising poor. But if you look closely, the young woman here is singing into a wired handset phone. She has closed herself up in her bedroom to enjoy a Nestle candy bar. When the phone rings, without even knowing who has called, she flips the handset over and belts out the ad jingle to her captive audience of one.

Simply by flipping the handset, the normally intimate telephone is transformed into a microphone for performance. The cord comes out the top of the thing rather than the bottom, but that only emphasizes the young lady's ingenuity.

Her pose is familiar to anyone who has seen a rock star on stage:

Steve Perry - 1981

The microphone has, for the last 70 years at least, been an essential visual component of vocal performance. In many situations a microphone is needed, of course, to amplify the singer's voice for a large crowd or to capture it for a recording. This short history, though, considers a different aspect of microphones -- not what they do but how they look, and what that means for both the performer and the audience.

Controlling the Room

A microphone is power. It projects a person's voice across a room or throughout a stadium. That in itself is a great power, one that before amplification was only available (on a lesser scale) to trained performers such as opera singers and orators. An amplified voice reaches everyone, and can overcome any competing speaker.

A microphone also has visual power. It is a signals who has our attention. Children playing with a toy microphone, with no actual function, will argue over whose turn it is to hold the toy and speak into it. They know that this object makes them the center of attention and silences others.

The more microphones a person commands, the more visual power (and attention) the speaker enjoys:

Donald Trump - 2019

That power can be shared, as talk show hosts in the 1980's and 90's did with their iconic microphone jaunts through the audience. Before the internet, this was one of the few venues for otherwise anonymous people to present their spontaneous thoughts to the nation:

Phil Donahue 

Oprah Winfrey

The microphone, handled expertly by the host in these situations, kept the public discourse under some control. Audience members knew that they should speak only when the microphone was held up (always in the host's hand) in their direction.

Comedy Club

Stand-up comics rely on several visual devices to hold an audience's attention, with the microphone as the most important. In a large venue, of course, voice amplification is necessary. But even in a smaller room the microphone appears essential.

Lenny Bruce - 1950's

For a comic, the microphone is both a sign of control and a shield against the audience. Without it, the performer would be even more exposed.

Tig Notaro - 2018

Along with the stool and the water bottle, the microphone (and the mic stand, which often goes unused) place the comic apart from the audience and are accepted conventions that define the performer's role.

Seth Myers - 2019

Unlike singers, comedians rely on almost constant audience feedback (laughter) to reinforce their performance. Heckling by unruly audience members is always a risk. The visual power of the microphone bolsters a comic's tenuous control over the room.

Vocal Performance

Comics, politicians, and talk show hosts aside, the people most consistently associated with microphones are singers -- specifically popular music singers rather than choral or operatic performers. Popular music became popular only after microphones were invented. 

Recording technology that allows for the wide sale of a performer's work depends, of course, on microphones to capture sounds. And live performance in front of a large audience also requires technology to amplify and mix sounds from voices and instruments. As popular music evolved along with this technology, the image of the performer with a microphone became an essential part of how we think singers should appear.

Elvis Presley - 1955

Performers such as Elvis Presley used the microphone as a part of their act -- at times more or less dancing with the mic in its floor stand, caressing it, pushing it out and snapping it back by its cord. The Shure 55 microphone in the image above required a stand due to its size. Elvis and others transformed a technical necessity into an object that contributed to the performance. The very oddity of this act made it attractive to fans -- using an object that most people had no experience or contact with in their daily lives, and that was associated with professionals, in such an intimate and accessible way. 

As the technology of handheld performance microphones evolved, so did the way in which they were used visually by artists. The Shure SM58 microphone became as iconic in the 1960's as the old 55 model was in the 50's. Roger Daltrey of The Who was famous for swinging this microphone by its cord, and then snatching it out of the air as it came around:

The Who - 1973

The handheld microphone, and its cord, became an important prop for many performers -- something to do with their hands while singing, and a way to show visual mastery of their medium. Facility with these functional parts of performance equipment implies experience and ease with items that are still not something most people commonly touch or operate.

Some of this changed in the 80's and 90's with wireless versions of the Shure handheld mic (see the earlier photos of talk show hosts). A wireless mic was a benefit for those hosts. For some vocal performers it was also freeing -- but others have stayed with the corded microphone. In some cases that may be for its visual appeal, as acoustic performance between the two types is similar.

The other side of vocal performance is studio work. Here, there is no audience to act for and microphones are tools optimized for a controlled environment. But visuals can still be important. For an aspiring recording artist, entering a studio and using an expensive, sometimes exotic-looking microphone is an exciting experience, and a sign of professional success. The studio mic is also important to fans who see photographs taken during recording.

Sam Cooke - 1964

The well known photo above, of Sam Cooke in a studio, is all about his relationship to the microphone. It seems to be placed unusually high, requiring him to stretch his body to reach it. The microphone is a cold and almost alien object in this composition, but clearly necessary to capture sound. Sam Cooke's effort to fit himself to it, and his upward-facing pose, reminiscent of a classical sculpture, emphasize his humanity.

The Headset Mic

In contrast to studio, handheld, and stand-mounted microphones, a headset mic appears to be designed for the human form. It frees the hands, is optimized for hand-mouth distance, and in some configurations allows for integrated headphones. But it has a somewhat tortured history of adoption in various fields and only relatively recently came into general use for performance. The visual meaning of the headset microphone is varied -- perhaps more so than any other type.

For many years headset mics were associated primarily with telephone operators and later call center employees. Since the early days of telephones through the 1970's, when operators still made some connections for callers, headset mics were standard equipment.

Telephone Operator - 1911

Telephone Operators - 1959

Because operators used their hands to make connections, the headset mic was an obvious and necessary invention. Perhaps because it was strongly associated with a fairly stodgy (and exclusively female) profession it was not adopted by vocal performers. Sound quality may have been an issue with the early headset mics, of course, but the optics were just not good for an industry that emphasized coolness. 

Before wireless microphone technology developed to a workable level for performance (in the mid-1970's) a headset microphone would still have included the encumbrance of a cord. That may have made it less appealing and not much more useful for a live performance than a traditional mic on a stand.

The first performer to use a wireless headset microphone in concert was Kate Bush, in her 1979 Tour of Life. Her equipment was a repurposed commercial wireless mic, modified by her sound engineer using a bent coat hanger to position the mic on her head. Bush's live performance included a lot of dancing, and the wireless headset allowed her to move without the limitations of a handheld mic.

Kate Bush - 1979

Surprisingly, this new use of an old style of microphone did not catch on quickly. The next apparent use of the headset mic for a live performance was by Teddy Pendergrass, during the 1985 Live Aid Concert.

Teddy Pendergrass - 1985

In this case, the headset was used because Pendergrass was partially paralyzed and had limited use of his hands. The singers appearing with him in this photo (Ashford and Simpson) are using the more traditional handheld microphones.


When Janet Jackson's music video Control appeared on MTV in 1986, it was startling. 

Janet Jackson - 1986

Jackson's headset microphone looked seriously odd. It was like something a call center employee would wear. But Jackson herself was so cool, and the headset allowed her to move and dance freely. And the act of doing that was so brave -- she had nothing to keep her hands busy, nothing to hold her in one place.

As is common in music videos, Jackson is actually lip syncing to a soundtrack recorded in the studio. So the microphone here is turned off, and its appearance is the only reason it was used. It added realism to a faux concert staged for the video, but most important was what it implied -- that Jackson was willing to take a risk for creative and physical freedom.

The next mainstream performer to use and popularize the headset microphone was Madonna.

Madonna - 1990

In her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, she used the headset for the same reason Jackson had -- because it gave her freedom to move around the stage. The visual incongruity of her headset contrasts with Madonna's body in the same way Sam Cooke's form contrasted with the studio microphone. The technical clunkiness of the mic makes us even more aware of the physicality of the performer. The weird corset also had that effect.

Women and Men

It is probably not a coincidence that three of the first performers to use headset microphones were women, and that those women chose the headset because it allowed them to dance. Female performers seem to be more comfortable dancing without a handheld mic or some other prop. There are exceptions, of course -- Michael Jackson (Janet's brother) being a notable one. But many of the male singers from the 1990's and earlier, even those who were known for their dance moves, seem to have preferred the safety of holding a microphone or a guitar while moving around the stage.

The association of a headset mic with telephone operators and call-center employees may also have been a factor. Those professions were traditionally female and although neither Janet Jackson nor Madonna would be mistaken for an employee of AT&T, they may have been more likely than the men were to adopt a technology that was generally used by women.

That changed in later years, of course, as quite a few male performers started wearing headset microphones in live shows. Even some who were not known for their dancing:

Garth Brooks - 2009

An interesting sidebar to this discussion is the use of headset microphones by football coaches.

Lovie Smith, Andy Reid, Norv Turner - 2012

In contrast to the female-dominated profession of telephone operator, almost all football coaches are men. Starting in 1994 the NFL allowed coach-to-player communications and, along with the scowl, the headset became a fixture of the football coach's appearance.

In response to this visual standard, TV football commentators began to wear headsets as well:

Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth

Although TV commentators do need microphones (and sometimes an earpiece) those functions can be accommodated without a big headset, and more or less invisibly. News anchors do that all the time. Headsets are used by football commentators only for the look -- it makes them appear somewhat like part of the on-field team.

The Telephone Again

Telephones have always been the most common use of microphones and the only type that almost everyone interacts with regularly. Many people now carry a small microphone with them all the time, integrated into their cellphone. 

That tiny microphone is almost invisible, and therefore visually it is meaningless. Every once in a while, though, the cellphone mic can be an important visual element:

Keira Knightly, James Corden / Begin Again - 2013
A performer with a guitar, singing into a mic on a stand, is a familiar and accepted visual standard. That is how a guitarist is supposed to look. In this image from the movie Begin Again, two of the characters have set up a makeshift recording studio with a cellphone taped to a stand. With its other functions taken away, the telephone is again just a microphone.

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