The unsung heroes of the Grammy Awards may well be the microphone operators responsible for making sure winners and presenters sound pitch perfect when they take the broadcast stage. An added challenge: adjusting the ever unpredictable height of the mic stand.
Microphone gaffes are legendary in the entertainment biz, and music’s biggest night is no exception. In fact, this year’s Grammy nominees are an especially tall bunch: New artist contender Omar Apollo towers at 6’5” — the same height as Machine Gun Kelly, who found himself hunched over like a giraffe bending toward a zoo visitor as he picked up an American Music Award for favorite rock artist in November. And Jack Harlow is not far behind at a statuesque 6’3”. (Not nominated but also challenging ceilings everywhere: hitmakers Jvke, Tai Verdes and Yung Gravy, all around 6’7″.)
The women are no slouches either. Taylor Swift is 5’11” and Megan Thee Stallion comes within an inch of her, and that’s not including heels.
The fixed height of the standard microphone stand is set at 5’2”. Raising that in the spur of the moment? Virtually impossible, it seems.
“Most of the microphone stands out there don’t adjust,” says veteran mic operator David Mounts, who has worked the Grammys for years. “And be cause we don’t know the winners beforehand, some guy has to run out onstage and move it to a height that he thinks is going to be right. And then a person comes out and gets their award, and then another person comes out [to present], and there’s just not enough time in a busy show to allocate labor to do that. Nor does anybody want to see it on camera.”
The safe approach, as deter mined by the trade over decades of experience, has been to set “the mic too low rather than too high, because blocking people’s faces and having them shout up into it looks a bit cheesy — especially on TV,” Mounts adds. “It’s better to have it down below the mouth.”
We have sent men to the moon; we have developed the artificial heart — can we not find a solution to this perennial problem? Turns out there is hope in the form of the PopUp microphone, invented by Mounts’ father. According to tech Tom Streible, PopUp mics are adjustable and controlled re motely, but require a hole cut into the stage.
“There’s a mechanism — the mic collapses, like a whip antenna, down under the stage,” says Streible. “So for that thing to be out of sight, it has to have a certain physical space. A lot of times the stage just isn’t tall enough to fit the mic underneath.”
Making the staging adjustment is a production in itself, with the position of the hole requiring approval by the lighting and art departments as well as the show’s director.
And PopUp mics are not easy to obtain or to manufacture. There’s a limited supply of them, with some of the parts custom made in Germany. That’s another reason why the Grammys tend to favor the standard non-adjustable microphone, though both will be used this year. “As audio engineers, we know that if everyone used PopUp mics, we could hear better and we could see better,” says Mounts, who is working on the Feb. 5 broadcast. “But you have to convince the show to spend the money, or redesign the workflow. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem that’s high on their list.”