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Flute Amplification by Melissa Keeling

My very first gig happened to be the first time I played flute into a microphone. I was in the eighth grade and had been asked to perform at a church service. Standing behind the microphone felt incredibly daunting, as if every tiny error would be magnified. I had no clue how to position the microphone or where to stand in relation to it. Though the service went fine, it took many years of playing with microphones before I felt comfortable with them. 

In college, I discovered many contemporary pieces which required amplified flute. I played through microphones again while making various audition tapes and recordings. After graduation, I began playing with microphones and effects pedals, and I will never forget hearing my electric flute sound pump through the speakers for the first time. The exhilaration I experience while playing with effects pedals has been the driving force behind my musical inspiration ever since. 

Even though microphones have become an inevitable part of any musician’s life, this is an unexplored domain for many flutists. In addition to increasing the volume, amplification offers other possibilities, such as creating better home recordings and using effects pedals such as loopers, distortion, and delay to manipulate the sound. 

There are two primary components to amplifying the flute: a microphone and a speaker. This article addresses how to choose a microphone and a speaker, lists recommended gear, and explains how to set up the equipment.

Microphone

The ideal way to amplify the flute is to use multiple microphones placed about six feet away. However, this is only practical in unaccompanied performances. For most situations, the trick is to use a powerful microphone at a very close range (the flute should be almost touching the microphone). This way, the microphone doesn’t pick up sounds from other musicians.

Helpful microphone terms:

Dynamic microphone – no power required, durable, can withstand loud sounds, less sensitive

Condenser microphone – power required, good frequency response, more sensitive

Phantom power – power sent to a microphone from a preamp or mixer (requires XLR cable)

XLR (microphone) cable – cable used to connect a microphone to preamp, mixer, or amplifier

¼” (instrument) cable – cable used to connect guitars, microphones, and effects pedals

Preamp – a device that boosts microphone volume (built into many mixers)

Audio interface – a device that connects a microphone to a computer

There are many types of microphones on the market. Which one you should choose is based on your preferences, budget, and application. Here are three possible setup models:

1. A dynamic microphone, such as the Shure SM58 (usually used for vocals). Using this setup, the microphone is placed on a stand and the flutist stands directly behind it.

Dynamic microphone

The pros: these microphones are usually easy to find; distance to the microphone is more flexible (for example, the player can move closer for low notes, father away for high notes). 

The cons: less freedom of movement while playing.

2. A clip-on microphone, such as the K&K Silver Bullet. The clip-on mechanism easily clips onto the headjoint of any size flute without causing damage to the instrument. These are condenser microphones that require phantom power.

K&K Silver Bullet, with ¼” output
(the box in the center holds a 9-volt battery to power the microphone)

The pros: greater freedom of movement; less chance of feedback; many affordable options. 

The cons: takes time to switch between instruments; distance to microphone is constant; most are not cordless. 

3. A headset microphone, such as the Countryman Isomax, a condenser microphone which is used by rock flutist Ian Anderson. 

Headset microphone

The pros: cordless; quickly switch between instruments; less chance of feedback; great sound quality.

The cons: usually higher price.

What I Use:

Clip-on condenser mic – K&K Silver Bullet with ¼” output

I began using the Silver Bullet eight years ago and it has worked flawlessly ever since. I use the Silver Bullet model with the ¼” output jack so that I can plug into effects pedals. The microphone features an adjustable gooseneck so you can bend the microphone to the desired position. As this is a directional condenser mic, it should be pointed towards, and be close to, the embouchure hole (see image above). Keep the microphone out of the direct path of your airstream to avoid extraneous air sounds from being amplified. 

For C flute, alto flute, bass flute, and glissando headjoint, I clip the microphone onto the barrel of the flute. For piccolo, I clip the microphone around the crown area. 

Amplification

Though many venues have an amplification system, owning your own speakers provides many advantages. Primarily, you can use your own equipment in performances, which eliminates technology-related anxiety such as renting equipment, wondering what type of microphone and amplifier you will be using, and playing on unfamiliar gear. Like any other technique, you should practice playing with a microphone so that you are free to concentrate on the music during performance. 

One of the biggest difficulties in amplifying the flute is controlling audio feedback. Feedback is the loud, undesirable screeching noise that sound systems occasionally emit. Feedback occurs when sound gets “stuck” on an endless loop between the speaker and the microphone (sound leaves the speaker, enters the microphone, then travels back out the speaker again). 

The most effective way to reduce feedback, in my experience, is to use a PA system with a mixer. This allows you to have more control over the sound, such as adjusting gain and EQ levels. When I have tried amplifying the flute with guitar and bass amps, the feedback is uncontrollable. 

Other ways to control feedback are:

  • Point speakers away from the microphone 
  • Lower the volume of the speaker
  • Lower the microphone gain
  • Lower the microphone sensitivity
  • Avoid effects such as distortion

There are many different types and brands of amplification systems available. Take your flute and microphone to a local music store and ask if you can test their gear. Experiment with different speakers until you find what works for you and your setup. 

What I Use:

A mixer and PA system – Powerwerks PW100 (four-channel mixer with two 100-watt speakers)

I found this PA system at a local music store and tested it with my microphone (the K&K Silver Bullet) with great results. The speakers are loud enough for a decent size venue, yet small enough to be portable.

Powerwerks PW100 PA System, with mixer and two speakers

Setup

To connect the microphone to the speakers, use an ¼” or XLR cable (depending on your microphone output jack) to connect the microphone to the mixer/preamp. 

Basic setup for amplified flute: (1) play the flute into a (2) microphone. Connect the microphone to (3) the mixer/preamp using either a ¼” or XLR cable. Connect the mixer/preamp to (4) the speakers using speaker cables.

Checklist

Recommended equipment for flute amplification:

___ K&K Silver Bullet microphone, with ¼” output

___ PA system 

– two 100-watt speakers

– mixer (4-channel mixer recommended)

___ ¼” instrument cables

___ BOSS VE-20 Vocal Effects Processor (optional)

The Bottom Line

Playing with a microphone is inevitable for twenty-first century flutists. Like other techniques, it works best with consistent practice so that the microphone and speakers feel like a natural extension of your instrument. 

Experiment and enjoy the journey! 

Melissa Keeling

melissa@melissakeeling.com

www.melissakeeling.com


Acclaimed for performing repertoire ranging from orchestral literature to experimental electronic music, flutist and composer Dr. Melissa Keeling is a Trevor James International Flute Artist based in the New York City area. She is also the leader of SONYQ, an electric flute project; SONYQ’s debut solo album was released in 2010. Melissa is an Endorsed Artist by K&K Sound.

As a performer and composer, Dr. Keeling regularly presents chamber and solo music across the New York City area. She has appeared at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, and the Firehouse Space, and at festivals such as the National Flute Association convention. As an orchestral musician, Dr. Keeling has served as principal flutist, piccoloist, and soloist with orchestras such as the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra and the New York Harmonic Band. Internationally, she has performed solo in Italy with Grammy-award winning artist Rhonda Larson. Dr. Keeling’s compositions have been premiered at the National Flute Association conventions and the Make Music New York Festival.

As a teacher, Dr. Keeling has led masterclasses on Baroque performance practice, music technology, performance health, and improvisation. She has experience teaching undergraduate flute lessons, woodwind methods courses, and coaching chamber ensembles. Dr. Keeling has adjudicated a range of music competitions, including the Flute Society of Kentucky High School and Collegiate Soloist competitions. 

She is a member of Pi Kappa Lambda (National Music Honor Society) and the National Flute Association. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Flute Society of Kentucky.

Dr. Keeling holds degrees from The Graduate Center, CUNY (D.M.A., Music Performance), Middle Tennessee State University (M.A., Music Performance), and Western Kentucky University (B.S., Music Education). She has performed in masterclasses with Michel Debost, Keith Underwood, Alexa Still, Brad Garner, and abroad with Rhonda Larson in Italy. Dr. Keeling has studied with Robert Dick, Deanna Hahn Little, and Heidi Pintner Álvarez.