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Don’t tap the mic, and other tips for speakers

When I was in college, I did a bit of work in the college theatre as a backstage technician. Among other things, this meant dealing with sound systems, where I was taught an important rule: don’t tap on the microphone. It’s a common cliche, but rarely a good idea.

Tapping creates a sudden, loud noise in the microphone, which can cause damage to the microphone and/or the speaker that plays it back.1 If you want to do a sound check, speak or sing as you’ll be using the mic live. It’s a more realistic test, gives you an opportunity to hear what you’ll really sound like, and is more pleasant for anybody listening.

I was reminded of this tonight when reading the speaker guidelines for Nine Worlds, which gives an entirely different reason not to tap the mic:

Please don’t tap the microphone, as the amplified sudden noise can cause pain to D/deaf2 people present since it will be transmitted directly into their ears.

(In the same vein, you should always use a microphone if one is provided, even if you think you don’t need it. It makes a big difference for anybody with a hearing aid, and for the quality of sound on the recording.)

If you speak at or run events, their guidelines haves lots of good advice. As well as how not to abuse your sound equipment, there are suggestions for things like handling your tech and A/V (multiple layers of backup, arrive well in advance); referring to audience members in a gender-neutral way; and providing appropriate content warnings on your talks. I recommend giving them a read.

  1. It’s only some types of mic/speaker that are susceptible to this damage, but I can never remember the difference, and equipment is expensive enough that I don’t want to risk it. ↩︎

  2. Something else I learnt tonight: there are “small d” and “big D” identities in deaf culture. Based on a quick search, it’s a distinction between the hearing loss, and being in the Deaf community — but deaf people have written about it more detail, and can explain it better than I can. ↩︎