Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Shure Super 55 microphone test - does your bias fail it? Probably.

If you casually browse any forum devoted to k-pop, you'll quickly see that there's a lot of nonsense going around the place about the relative talents of vocalists, as if vocal talent is a criteria that actually means something in this style.  I mean, come on people, since when was vocal talent suddenly a requirement to make production-line pop music?  I must have missed the latest memo that was circulated on that topic, because it seems that there's tons of fans fighting over who can sing better and who is the most knowledgeable and talented musically, versus who is just a nugu to music that is just being told what to say, what to play, how to stand, where to go, and is the musical equivalent of the "airhead" reporter on Broadcast News (decent film from the 80s, worth a look) who just reads lines from cue and smiles and doesn't know what the fuck he's actually on about or what any of the news stories really mean. Of course, most k-pop fans believe that their bias COULD NEVER BE LIKE THAT and is THE BEST EVAAAR AND KNOWS EVERYTHING ABOUT MUSIC, so I thought that even though I personally have no vested interest in this topic whatsoever, it would be interesting to devise a test to set the record straight and see how much they really do know.  Even better, I thought, if this test didn't require any knowledge of actual music production or vocal skill on the part of  the tester or even any listening to the songs and anybody with access to a computer could do it in an instant.

I have devised just such a test, and I'm going to break it down for you in a nice long tl;dr post only because I know you're all into that sort of thing here at AKFG.  Details after the jump.


Introducing our test platform, the Shure Super 55 Deluxe microphone.



Shure is the leading manufacturer of live stage microphones in the world and the Super 55 Deluxe is a rechassied version of their popular SM58 vocal microphone (as seen on literally every live stage ever) with a retro design and a supercardioid response pattern that when superimposed on the microphone looks something like this:


"Gosh, that's a pretty picture - but I'm so confused!  Whatever could it mean?" I hear you exclaim.  Well, every microphone has a response pattern.  Microphones that are used in live performance are not designed to pick up sound equally from all directions, because if they did, they would pick up not just the singer's voice but also the sound of the sound system, creating a feedback loop (that's what happens when someone turns a microphone up really loud and you hear that awful squealing noise).  There is a bit that you are supposed to sing into, and other bits that you are really not supposed to sing into.  To break it down more simply for those of you who need this dumbed down:

 

There's actually an approximate 10dB drop in loudness when singing into the microphone from the top.  10dB might not seem like a lot, but remember that the dB scale is logarithmic by a scale of 10, like the Richter scale for earthquakes, where an earthquake at a strength of 8.0 is actually ten times more powerful than an earthquake of 7.0.  So if you're singing into the top part of this microphone because you have never seen one before and don't know anything about them fancy microphone things, you're actually only going to be approximately 10% as loud as you should be.  It's sort of the equivalent of trying to get a sound out of an electric guitar by blowing on the strings - not impossible, but certainly not the most efficient method or the one that is going to get you the most volume.

So how can we use this information to assess the relative merits of our favourite (or not) k-pop stars?  Well, someone who is trained in music can instantly tell by the way someone holds an instrument, even when miming, whether that person can play or not.  For instance:

 
Here's Ace Of Angels performing "Get Out" (one of the best songs last year IMNSHO) on Music Core.  Sure, they're miming, but you can tell from the way they hold their instruments that they are at least capable of playing them to some standard and are not just models holding them for the first time because the video director suddenly thought it would be a good idea to thrust instruments into their hands.  Someone who is musically trained will instinctively hold their instrument in the correct way, even if they're just pretending to play it, and it's actually really difficult for them to hold it any other way.



 Hyoyeon from Girls' Generation however clearly has no fuckin' idea, and probably had about 30 seconds of guitar coaching before being given that thing for the So Nyuh Shi Dae video (which is a real guitar that exists, by the way, not a toy ). The posture and silly "omg I'm like, holding a guitar" grin gives away her complete lack of experience, but in motion the impression is even worse - she just doesn't move the way a guitarist does - it's obvious to any guitar player watching the video that she knows nothing about guitar, period.

The same thing applies to singers.  If you're a real singer, with real singing experience other than miming to a backing track, and training actually worth a damn, I think it's fair to say that you probably know a little bit about microphones.  Someone has probably at least shown you which part of the thing to fucking sing in, just like your average electric guitar player also knows how to use an amplifier to some extent, or at least that the sound comes out of the big round speaker thingy.   As previously mentioned, someone with training and experience will automatically use their chosen instrument or device the right way without thought, whereas someone without any knowledge is liable to just use it any old way.

Therefore, as just about every k-pop singer has at one point or another used the Shure Super 55 Deluxe as a prop because of their fashionable retro look, by looking at the way these people use them, we can ascertain quickly who is a dunce and who knows what time it is when it comes to microphones and vocal performance.  Let's take a look at a few random samples that I dug up in about ten minutes of searching, and see how our favourite k-pop idols fare on the vocal scale.


Here's Taeyeon belting out a note, once again from the So Nyuh Shi Dae MV.  Now that's absolutely perfect microphone positioning - if the sound was coming out of her left tit.  I'm told she's supposed to be the "most vocally talented" one, so this is pretty shameful.  But wait, SNSD were nugus back when this came out, right?  Perhaps we shouldn't be so harsh on this early example, maybe she's learned how to sing into a microphone correctly in the many years of intense coaching and performance that SNSD have undoubtedly endured since this video came out which would have surely included basics such as how to hold a microphone and sing into it correctly...


...or maybe fucking not. Here's a still from the "Twinkle" MV five years later, where we can see not only Taeyeon doing it wrong, but she's spread the cancer to Tiffany and Seohyun. Rock those microphones, girls, just be grateful they're not plugged in.

Let's not let the guys off the hook.  Yesung from Super Junior clearly has no fucking idea what to do with that thing in his left hand.  I'd say something like "maybe he's about to deepthroat it" but I don't want to inspire any creepy fanfiction, so let's just say that this guy is clearly a model, not a singer, and leave it at that. Microphone training courses at SM Entertainment clearly = nil.


Other labels are no better.  If the biggest label in k-pop (well, not really - but that's a subject for another blog) couldn't be fucked telling their highest-earning stars how to use the tools of their own trade, you can imagine how much more all the other labels suck at it.  Here's Minzy from 2NEwont (as in "won't come back on schedule", "won't produce anything worth a damn with will.i.am", "won't return my texts" etc) in the "Scream" video (great song btw), looking so gangster holding the microphone all crooked and shit. The point where she's singing into the microphone is in fact the very worst place of all to sing into because it's right where the dip in frequency response occurs - if she did that on a live stage you wouldn't be able to hear her voice at all.


I don't know the name of this guy but he's from C-Clown and this is a still from the "Shaking Heart" video, where at the start a Super 55 Deluxe descends dramatically from the ceiling, this guy grabs it, and raps "Let me show you the C-Clown swag!"... with the microphone on a 90 degree angle that would cut out approximately 80-90% of any vocal "swag" present. Oops, I guess it's back to swag school for you.

And before any of you wacky k-pop loving "I've got 100 YG videos on my hard drive and I go to dance classes and I order my clothes from G Dragon's G-Market so therefore I know everything about hip-hop" people get started, it IS possible to hold or dangle the microphone "hip-hop style" and still utilise it correctly so a sound comes out of it. Here's L.L. Cool J. (of all people) doing exactly the same upside down thing but correctly in the "Mama Said Knock You Out" video:


If someone whose name stands for "Ladies Love Cool James" can use a fucking microphone, I don't see why it has to be so hard for everyone else. But enough of western rappers being surprisingly proficient, that's no fun, back to k-pop stars failing.


Here's KARA's Seungyeon, from the MV for her solo song "Guilty". Guilty of not knowing what the fuck she's doing and making it up as she goes along, it seems.


Back to AOA's "Get Out" and if I was positioned directly to the right of those keyboards because I wanted to cop a good perv at whatever this girl's name is without the Nord Electro 2 getting in the way, then the microphone would be perfectly positioned to pick up all my "sweet nothings" as I stared at her (keyboard) rack.

What about Brown Eyed Girls, now they're a bit older and wiser, and great singers too, surely they can get it ri...


Never mind. This is from the "I Got Fooled By You" MV, a song title seemingly about the microphone itself. Interesting that instead of micing up their own tits like SNSD and SuJu, BEG's microphones are twisted 180 degrees the other way and are actually pointing towards the air about half a foot in front of them which is a shame because I think Gain's tits deserve their own microphone.

And on and on it goes.  Have fun finding your own Super 55 failures, it seems that literally nobody in k-pop knows anything about this shit so far apart from me (and now, all of you.  Don't thank me all at once, now.)

BUT WAIT.

THERE IS AT LEAST ONE OTHER PERSON WHO KNOWS.


Yes, it's Juniel. This girl with her cheap tacky $2 guitar stickers because she can't afford a custom guitar like IU is so fucking irrelevant that I bought one of her CDs from the only decent k-pop store in my city, which is run by a girl who is Korean and has been listening to k-pop since the 90s and she was all like "you know, I don't even know who that fucking nugu bitch is". But Juniel's "Pretty Boy" MV is honestly the only example I've found so far in k-pop of someone who actually knows what they're doing with the Super 55. I guess maybe she had a bit of performance experience under her belt before getting involved in the k-pop scene, that's the only way I can explain it. In any event, she's now better than all of your biases, because she knows how to use a microphone AND she can play guitar.  Fuck me, I think I'm about to faint.

If you find any others like her, put them in the comments below. Maybe we can get them to train the rest. There is hope.

63 comments:

  1. about Juniel tho, she had peformed as indie in Japan for a few years before going back to Korea. so she pretty much knows her shit from that experience.

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    1. Ahhhh yes. Makes sense. I thought something like that might've been the case.

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    2. Except for little things like not coming off as a robot with her singing and having a shred of nuance in her guitar playing.

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    3. Juniel's guitar playing is heavily gated on most of her recordings, which pretty much kills all the dynamics. Not sure why but this seems to be a trend for k-pop acoustic guitar.

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    4. http://youtu.be/IA79GZffhEg

      Still poop.

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    5. Sounds okay to me - and I'm a qualified professional guitar teacher. Sure, it's nothing special but it's not meant to be - it's perfectly functional for what she's doing. Sure, a really good guitar player would add more dynamics and probably spice up the arrangement a lot more, but it's k-pop not Tommy fucking Emmanuel.

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    6. Hey - no speaking ill of Juniel around here. I absolutely adore her and think she is doing fine for her age and "style" in a pop-oriented playing field.

      *completely not biased*


      Also (I should have said this much earlier in your first article here, but...) welcome, Kpopalypse! I quite enjoy your existence on our team.

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    7. Cheers! I'll do my best not to suck acres of cock in the future.

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    8. Yeah well I've been active in all sides of music of various types for over 15 years, so let's not pretend knowledge necessarily changes personal tastes. I'm not talking about complex vs basic I'm talking about making the song connect. She's like a damn robot in both vocals and playstyle. She's so vacant it's even kind of creepy. There is a difference between mashing out some chords and mashing them out with heart.

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    9. I guess I really dig creepy robots. Must be all that Kraftwerk I listened to.

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  2. J Rabbit puts their recording sessions up on youtube all the time. They have some FUCKING NICE mics too.

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    1. I had a look at some videos. I saw them using several studio valve condensor microphones including the Blue Bluebird, the AKG C214, and a clone of a Neumann U47 that I couldn't identify. You're right, these are fucking nice microphones and worth a few thousand bucks collectively. They also used Shure SM57s and 58s in some songs. They don't seem to own a Super 55 - which makes sense, as the Super 55 isn't designed as a studio vocal microphone anyway, it's a live showpony microphone for looking cool - the SM58 is half the price and sounds more or less exactly the same.

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    2. They specified on some of their videos. The one like a U47 is a Miktek CV4 then they also have an AEA A840.

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  3. good analysis. However, there are two things i don't really comprehend. First off, sound frequencies are waves that transverse through space. Therefore, the intensity drops off proportional to 1/r^2. Designing a mic that way can would make a big difference? Given the fact that the mic is probably containing a very low/high impedance, with a correspond high pass/low pass filter. Then there is a secondary stage where the op amp has a very high input impedance to attenuate all the background and static sound (an ordinary one is like 10^9 ohms or so I believe).

    I've made my own microphone/speaker circuit before...and even with crappy materials, it didn't seem to interfere that much with the help from the high pass filter and the op-amp. Since the distance from the singer's mouth and the music in the background are very distinguishable, why must a mic be design that way? Sound waves don't just travel as straight lines anyways.....

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    1. I could answer this in detail but I'll save it for a different post. The physics concerning directionality of microphones is something that I've glossed over in this post because it gets frankly a bit too technical to be entertaining and isn't completely relevant - all the layperson needs to know is that the Super 55 is a directional microphone for vocal performance, there is only one correct direction in which to use it, and that most k-pop artists don't know what direction that is.

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    2. you don't have to write another post for it. It's just that i'm a physics student, and I've taken an analog circuit class that specializes on amplifier and op amps, as well as some of the applications. I'll just do some research on my own on another weekend. Although I guess every bit of the setup can help attenuating the noise during live performances

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    3. If your question is "why would someone make a microphone that looks like that", in this case it's just fashion, really. Old vintage microphones looked like this before the typical baton-style microphone design came into vogue, and the Super 55 is a new version of this old style of microphone, however electronically the guts of it are more or less the same as Shure's baton-style SM58. There's no reason why the vocalists couldn't use the SM58 instead but the Super 55 is more trendy and retro looking so video directors sometimes prefer it to the rather boring-looking SM58 depending on the video.

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    4. i wouldn't care to ask about fashion if i tried to explain my situation above lol. But anyhow, thanks for informing me with all the musical facts. Like most people here, I am not too knowledgeable in those singing facts. It just came across me as you mentioned the decibel scale, and the intensity of sound waves based on its direction :)

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    5. Kpopalypse, You just revolutionized the FISH culture. Thank you oppa.

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    6. You'll have to tell me what you mean by that as I have NFI.

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    7. Oppa can we collaborate. I need your azn knowledge to make an equipment for a more accurate spectogram reading.

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  4. Wow thnx Oppa!! I learn something new everyday!

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    1. You're welcome. Now get me on the line to SM's video director.

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    2. Finally an intelligent article on AKF.
      Now don't get yerself fired...and KEEP WRITING!
      I'm a fan.

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  5. wow.. this is surprisingly educational

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  6. "since when was vocal talent suddenly a requirement to make production-line pop music"

    I would rather hear Ailee sing all day than that plastic aBOMination

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    1. Maybe so, but my point is that Bom having a train-wreck voice didn't stop 2NE1 from being a successful group. It's NICE if people can sing well, but it's not a requirement to get the job done.

      To be honest I dislike listening to "excellent" vocalists, because they have a tendency to show off and warble around showing their amazing vocal skills instead of sticking to the goddamn melody in the way that a more basic vocalist will. It's just like the guitarist who can play a million notes an hour with perfect precision and technique often isn't as pleasant to listen to as the one who can play three crusty out of tune notes but knows when to play them, and when to shut up. Excellent vocalists often have a drastically poor sense of what vocals actually serve the greater good of the song.

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    2. Holy shit something I can second. It's been a long time, since I've done that.

      The perfect vocal singers often have to do very little work, and as such, never hit the "why" and "how"'s of singing, because they've rarely ever hit a limit or some kind of wall slyly bypass. They're told to lower their voicebox to go higher and vice versa, boom, that's it.
      People that have had nothing, but worked smart, if only achieved mediocre, can do ever so much more, with the limits they are given, and if they hit a wall, they won't climb it, no, interestingly, they'll walk around it. Lead singer of 'Finch' comes to mind as an example.

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    3. "Maybe so, but my point is that Bom having a train-wreck voice didn't stop 2NE1 from being a successful group"

      I hate to say it but they are pretty famous, god knows why.

      "To be honest I dislike listening to "excellent" vocalists, because they have a tendency to show off and warble around showing their amazing vocal skills instead of sticking to the goddamn melody in the way that a more basic vocalist will."

      I actually hate this too (see Ailee's cover to "On Rainy Days" by b2st), but I think its not fully the singer's fault, I believe that sometimes they actually may have been told to do so.

      I don't know maybe it's just me, I tend to really value good vocals in kpop, I mean I know that in reality, it's not as greatly appreciated as I thought.

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    4. There's always a niche audience who appreciate technically excellent performance.

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  7. The inference I'm taking from this article is that many KPop artists don't know what they're doing, but the evidence presented merely shows that they don't know what they're doing with this particular mic.

    When would they use it? Every time I've seen 'em in a studio it's with a condenser mic & filter; when they're on stage it's a handheld or a cheek mic; practical choices. The only time this type gets used is for aesthetic purposes such as MVs.

    And I want to stick my penis in Seolhyun.

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    1. Condensors and the 55 don't look that different, though. If you can work out that you need to sing through the side of a condensor in a studio, upon seeing a 55 which has a not-that-dissimilar shape you'd naturally think "well, this looks like a condensor, so...". If nothing else you would surely understand that air needs to get inside the microphone somehow to make it work and you're not going to achieve that by singing directly into a solid metal shell with no gap. Unless you were a dumbass.

      But then, maybe it's the fault of the video directors. Maybe Gain tilted it correctly and the video director tilted it back and slapped her on the wrist and said "I'm the boss here missy, you'll do as I tell you". Maybe Juniel had to fight tooth and nail with whoever directed her MV for the permission to not look like a total dunce and she got her way but now she's been blacklisted as an argumentative troublemaker and it'll be three years before her next material. In any event I think it's all pretty fuckin' hilarious and it needs to be highlighted for the good of society and for my entertainment (mainly the latter). Who knows, maybe word will filter back to the people who make this shit and they'll start doing it the right way for a change. I live in hope.

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    2. Obscuring faces would be a big no-no for many directors, yes

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    3. Yeah I reckon so. The directors probably have a drawer full of these things that never get used except for props.

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  8. They don't care and they're not technicians.
    I'm more amazed by how nobody told them.

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    1. Given that someone, I mean at least SOMEONE, from the production staff should've been experienced in music, it's really dumbfounding how no one made things more accurate.

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  9. It's a music video. Nobody cares about the positioning of the microphone.

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    1. Imagine if every single music video that showed people playing a piano showed the artists playing it in a way which couldn't actually produce any sound in practice, like say, blowing on the keys. Sure, it wouldn't be a big deal or anything, it doesn't REALLY matter, because they're just pretending to play it after all... but if you saw that in almost every single video, by almost every single artist... wouldn't you start to question the deficit of intelligence that caused this trend to exist in the first place? Maybe you wouldn't, but I certainly would.

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    2. There is a very big difference between blowing the keys of a piano and singing into the top of a microphone. Plus, this is k-pop. A majority of the groups lip sync their songs badly during their live performances. That should bother you more than singing into the top of a microphone.

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  10. If Hyoyeon and her butterfly guitar are wrong, I don't want to be right.

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    1. Hyoyeon is supporting the neck of her instrument with her left hand instead of taking the weight on the guitar strap. If she was a real guitarist trying to play a difficult passage that way, she could snap a wrist tendon. No real guitarist would hold the instrument like this though because it's so impractical, unless they were lying down and playing (which you should never do, for this reason).

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    2. Lol, just jokes. They're faux band is a complete mess ;)

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    3. Actually I reckon Sunny can actually play the drums, and whoever's on the keyboard also looks reasonably convincing. The rest of them - hahahaha nope. I always liked the first part of the video the best where they've got the names on their shirts because I always get some of them mixed up, they should have just done that for the whole thing.

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  11. Holy shit Kpopalypse, between this very educational article and this quote:

    "To be honest I dislike listening to "excellent" vocalists, because they have a tendency to show off and warble around showing their amazing vocal skills instead of sticking to the goddamn melody in the way that a more basic vocalist will."

    ...in which you totally read my mind, you are the best shit ever. Continue writing here please!

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  12. The new hyori vid.. lol thanks man now I cant unsee those mistakes

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    1. Yep, add that one to the list. You're welcome. ;)

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  13. This is extremely educational o.o

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  14. Been lurking here for a long time and finally signed up. This is a very good and an informative article.

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    1. OMG I signed up a "lurker". ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED. Thanks!

      And thanks to the others who are saying nice things that I'm too slack to comment on individually. I'll try to blog again sooner rather than later next time.

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  15. Not only very educational, as many have already pointed out, but also extremely witty written. I had many a good laugh.

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  17. "you know, I don't even know who that fucking nugu bitch is"

    ^ She's so underground... like cool underground.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I bet she rides a fixed gear bike.

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  18. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAeTra88UAA


    can't be sure whether they're holding it right or not. hanbyul (blond one) seems to be doing it right but his hand is in the way a lot

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    1. The blonde guy gets it right sometimes, when he's holding the mic. The dark-haired guy never gets it right. However neither of them should be putting their hand over the mic while they're singing, that's another no-no but I'll save the technicalities of that for a different blog post.

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    2. about that photo of yesung though. that was at an outdoor kry event a couple of years ago when i was into SJ, they actually did sing there and i that was just a photo that was posed for. can't be sure though. i wish that photo had the damn date written on it.

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    3. Another picture of Yesung at the same gig, this time singing through the mic - incorrectly. http://www.freeimagehosting.net/ndhay

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  19. Okay, wow. I'm actually really glad this was covered. I work with live sound, and a lot of artists at the venue I work for use this mic. So naturally when I started listening to kpop this became a giant pet-peeve of mine. The first time I recall seeing someone use it properly was in Nevermind's Hoi Hoi MV. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09Taj2mvSA4

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  20. See, this is why I like Japanese music, they know their shit.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_k-M6DfIw7Y

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    1. Yeah if Visual Kei can get it right, k-pop can't use the "it doesn't look good in an MV because it blocks all the effort we spent on making the singer's face pretty" excuse.

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