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Microphones Explained

So many microphones... Which one do I need?

Why are there different types of microphones? The simple answer is that there are so many types of musical sounds. Vocals, electric guitar, clarinet, drums, keyboards, violins… all generate different frequencies or combinations of frequencies.

The major differences between microphones are the transducer type and the pickup pattern. The transducer is the element inside a mic that converts sound waves to electrical impulses. The pickup pattern is the area around the mic where sound can actually be "heard" by the microphone.

First, let's look at microphone pickup patterns.

Omnidirectional: Picks up sound from all directions; good for ambient sound and group vocals

A mic that is equally sensitive to sound from all sides is called an omnidirectional mic. Omni mics are great for picking up natural room sound and are also very good for capturing group vocals.. Omni mics also tend to be more "forgiving" because they pick up sound even when the mic is rotated at different angles.

Be careful working with omni mics in the studio. If they're not positioned correctly, you may end up with too much ambient sound in your recording.

Cardioid: Picks up sound only in front of the mic; is the most common type of microphone

A unidirectional mic is sensitive to sound only in a specific direction. The most common type features a cardioid (heart-shaped) pattern that rejects sound coming from behind the microphone. This can be very useful for reducing bleed when recording a guitar amp sitting next to a drum kit. A supercardioid mic has an even narrower pickup pattern, further reducing bleed from nearby sound sources.

Sometimes it's better to stick with cardioids when you first start recording. They're a good balance between the omnis which have the widest pickup pattern and the supercardioids which have the narrowest.

Supercardioid: Has the tightest pickup pattern; is ideal where multiple mics are used.

Cardioid and supercardioid mics are good for crowded spaces (like group recording sessions) where multiple microphones are positioned close together.

Now let's look at the two basic microphone transducer types: dynamic and condenser.

To understand the difference between these types of microphones, you have to know something about how they work (which gets a little technical).

In a dynamic mic, a coil of wire is mounted on a diaphragm, which sits inside a magnetic field. When the diaphragm is moved by the sound source the resulting fluctuations in the magnetic field create an electric current that travels from the mic through the rest of the recording system.

Dynamic mics are rugged and can handle high sound pressure levels, like those delivered by kick drums, snare drums, and high volume guitar amps. They're also good for loud, aggressive vocals. Most people start out recording with dynamic mics because of their lower cost and high durability.

A condenser mic utilizes a constant electric charge, provided by a battery or phantom power in a mixer. Because condenser diaphragms have less mass, which requires less energy to move, condenser mics are more sensitive than dynamic mics and are very responsive to high frequencies produced by an acoustic guitar or cymbals on a drum-kit.

Small-Diaphragm Condenser Mics

Some condenser microphones are called "small-diaphragm" condensers. This configuration is used for vocals in live performance, and for live and recorded instruments. Here are some examples of small-diaphragm condenser mics.

Large-Diaphragm Condenser Mics

Large-diaphragm condenser mics are often chosen for recording vocals. These condensers may be considered a luxury for people who are new to home recording, but they're a good investment if you want an immediately noticeable upgrade in recording quality.

Phantom Power and Bias Voltage

The type of power needed by the condenser microphone and the way that it is provided are important issues that may affect whether a particular professional condenser microphone will work with particular sound card, and how the cable connecting them together should be configured. One type of power, called bias voltage, provides power for a small transistor inside the microphone element or ‘head’. The other type is called phantom power, and is used to operate a small preamplifier which slightly amplifies the signal or provides frequency contouring. The preamplifier may be housed inside of the microphone handle or -- in the case of small lavalier or gooseneck microphones -- in an external tube or pack.

Some professional condenser microphones are designed to accommodate an internal battery, while others require phantom power from a microphone mixer or power supply. The microphones supplied with computer sound cards often operate on bias voltage supplied by the sound card through the Ring portion of the stereo miniplug connector. So far, sound cards cannot provide the phantom power used by many professional condenser microphones.

Computer Multimedia Microphones

Computer multimedia microphones are usually relatively cheap condenser mics. The sound quality produced by these mics leaves a lot to be desired, and it is recommended that they should only be used for entry-level sound recording.

Most sound cards are wired to provide a bias voltage of 3 to 9 volts DC to the mic on the Ring portion of the stereo miniplug connector. This is different to the wiring required for a professional microphone, so sound cards cannot provide the power required by most professional condenser microphones.

A transformer or a USB sound card (with an XLR mic input) is usually required to connect a professional microphone to a computer.

Portions copyright (c) Shure Incorporated. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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