It’s time. You’ve been cracking your fingers, belting out your new piano composition so many times you can recite it with your eyes closed.
You spent ages last night listening to your favorite artists, noting down their best lyrics, reflecting their talent in your own lyricism. You’re ready to record.
The only mic available to you – a chewed-up, ancient Singstar piece of plastic – ought to do the trick, right? Sure, it’s no Neumann, but music is about the feel, not the gear. Right?
Sure, that’s all well and good, until you’re in the middle of your final chorus, belting out the best damn performance of your life when you see a huge spike in the sound you’re recording.
Panicking, you play it back and hear this overwhelming KSHHH intersecting with all your great lyrics, rendering your vocals unusable. Every time you so much as dared to breathe, the Singstar mic would have a fit, distorting the audio and destroying your take.
Oh dear. It might be time to think about buying a new microphone.
What Is a Microphone?
History of the Microphone
The framework for the microphone’s invention was set in motion upon the advent of the telephone in the late 19th century, but attempts to craft an instrument capable of amplifying the voice had been attempted for centuries prior.
The philosophy of the telephone – being able to transmit an audio signal from point A to point B – is essentially the same concept as the modern-day microphone, with the exception of amplification being the purpose of design.
There is some controversy over who modeled the first successful microphone, but it was invented some time in the late 1800s – a carbon microphone – allowing for sound to be converted to an electrical signal.
It was this style of microphone that was used during the beginning of the radio era at the dawn of the 20th century. As technology advanced, so too did the microphone, with the condenser and ribbon microphones being invented soon after.
There was an interesting ebb and flow with the progression of the microphone and its functions through this time. As microphones became better, so too did the quality of broadcasting, musical recordings and eventually, television. And as these forms of entertainment developed – often due to better microphones – their new demands required, you guessed it, better quality microphones.
And so round and round it went, leading to the ocean of available, high-fidelity microphones today.
Right now, you may be asking how does any of that help me know what kind of microphone I should use for my auditory purposes? Well, the answer is, it doesn’t. It’s just cool to know. I think.
How Do They Work?
As briefly touched on in the article about audio interfaces, microphones are essentially a transducer – that is, they convert energy from one form into another.
A diaphragm – a thin sheet of a particular material – is responsible for the initial reading of these sound waves, and almost every microphone has one.
The vibrations of the diaphragm as it picks up audio is sent along the microphone, and this energy is eventually transduced to an electrical signal.
Microphone signals are often extremely low in volume and almost always require some sort of extra amplification before they can be physically heard.
Such amplification methods include: external amplifiers, small, active amplifiers within a microphone, pre-amps and line amps.
The technical aspects of how a microphone works can get quite complicated and ends up involving… maths and physics … (did you shudder too?) so we’ll just go ahead and skimp over that and leave it simple for now.
If you really want to learn more about this, a trip to this site will give you all the information you could possibly want, and some more.
The most important part of how microphones work for the average consumer to understand is the type of conversion they employ. There are three commonly used methods: dynamic, condenser and ribbon.
Types of Microphone
The magneto-dynamic microphone is an extremely popular microphone with a huge number of potential applications. As its name suggests, this mic uses a magnetic field to produce its electrical audio current, as the movement of an attached coil causes this current to flow.
This method of signal conversion generally doesn’t require external (phantom) power and dynamic mics can sometimes be used without an audio interface — though sound quality and loudness may suffer.
Known for their versatility and durability, dynamic mics aren’t as sensitive as other types and are perfect for recording loud instruments like electric and bass guitar, as well as drums.
Dynamic mics are often the go-to for live performances. They are far less likely to break or distort when confronted with extremely loud signals, and certain builds can often be tossed around in the back of vans by drunk musicians and live to tell the tale. I’m looking at you, Shure SM58.
Condenser mics vary from dynamic mics in way of signal conversion. They create an electrical current through causing its diaphragm – often gold-spluttered mylar or aluminium – to vibrate. This essentially works the same way as a capacitator.
Due to its construction, a condenser mic produces almost no current during this process, thus the requirement of an external power source for a signal to manifest.
Condenser mics are pretty much agreed upon having the best sound quality out of any microphone type available. They offer a wider frequency response, lower noise floor and higher sensitivity outputs than their counterparts.
This makes them perfect for podcasting, singing, streaming and most-other detailed studio applications.
Poor recording rooms, background noise and electrical whirring can all present problems for tracking with a condenser mic, as their higher sensitivity can cause unsolicited sounds to bleed into your recordings.
Ribbon’s have lost some popularity over the years but are still an important type of microphone to consider.
Similar to dynamic mics, ribbon mics use a magnetic field to produce an electrical current, however do away with the coil, instead utilizing a thin sheet of metal.
In a very, very, very, basic sense, they are a weird hybrid of the condenser and dynamic microphone.
This comparison isn’t really accurate though, as ribbon microphones don’t react to sound pressure level (SPL) but instead changes in air velocity. Yep, the physics never seems to end.
Ribbons have a dark, warm feel to their recordings, due to the way they interact with audio. Simply put, this means they pick up lower frequencies more than higher frequencies.
They are quite sensitive, but less so than a condenser providing a nice compromise between the other popular types of microphone.
They are perfect for recording orchestral instruments, including strings, brass and drums. This is partially due to their frequency responses, which muffle annoying sibilance and brings out the warm character of these typically mid-range centric instruments.
The ribbon microphones fall from grace – after dominating the microphone scene in the early 1900s – was due to their extreme fragility.
The ribbon responsible for converting audio into an electric signal is so thin you can barely see it (think of Kramer’s meat slicer), leaving it susceptible to damage at the slightest bump.
Today’s ribbons are sturdier however, and should present less of a challenge in preserving their functionality.
A microphone’s polar pattern is an important element of what makes it suitable for a particular function. Essentially, this pattern describes the direction in which the microphone processes audio from.
here are 4 main patterns (though many more exist) that you will encounter when looking into a microphone. An easy way to compare them is visually – polar graphs simply demonstrate where a mic will best pick up audio.
Cardioid microphones are a staple in pretty much every industry that utilizes a microphone. They essentially represent 180 degrees of signal – picking up sound coming from in front of it and rejecting noise from behind it.
The application for such a pattern is vital for uses like podcasting, live performance and broadcasting where sound coming from behind the microphone (such as another band member’s instrument) needs to be avoided.
They are also handy for removing annoying noises like room fans or computer hums. Just turn the microphone away from the sound sources and voila, you have a clean recording.
Supercardiod mics work in the same way cardiod mics do with one major difference – they reject more audio from the sides but pick up a little from the rear.
The benefit of such a pattern is that they are more directional, meaning they have a narrower axis of sound. This can prove superior for sound isolation than a generic cardioid mic, so long as there’s no bleeding coming from behind.
The graph for these polar patterns kind of looks like a jellyfish. That’s not relevant to anything whatsoever, just something I noticed. Anyway…moving on.
The hypercardioid polar pattern is extremely similar to the supercardioid – they reject most sound from the back, some from the sides and most from the front.
The only major difference between the two is that the supercardiod is a little more directional.
Omnidirectional mics are kind of self-explanatory. Their polar pattern is, well, omnidirectional. It processes sound on a 360 degree axis, meaning it picks up everything.
Using an omnidirectional microphone has a large list of benefits – it has the widest and flattest frequency response and can pick up multiple instruments simultaneously in high-quality recordings, making it perfect for an orchestra.
That being said, being omnidirectional sets users of this mic up for failure if they are recording in a poorly treated room. Sound will bleed easily into this mic, leaving you begging for the planes incessantly flying overhead to just STOP for one hour.
Bi-directional (Figure 8)
It really is quite nice when the name of something is practical. The figure 8 polar pattern looks, unsurprisingly, much like a figure 8.
As discussed in the ribbon mics section, this means that it records sound from in front of and behind the mic’s face while rejecting side axes noise.
Such a pattern is fantastic for interviews or broadcasting where two people are stationed at opposite ends of the microphone, cutting down on required cables and equipment.
It is also great for stereo recording applications (like the Blumlein technique) and offers a unique frequency response relative to other polar patterns.
There are two other polar patterns, though less common than those listed:
The shotgun polar pattern looks like, as its name suggests, like a shotgun. It is an extremely directional microphone style that is often used for film-making, where specific sounds need to come from specific locations.
The subcardiod is essentially the same as a cardiod polar pattern, with the differences being that subcardiod mics pick up more sound from behind and the sides.
Essentially all microphones utilize XLR ports to send their electrical signal to a desired receiver. XLR cables are readily available, mass-produced and high-quality – perfect for nearly every application.
However, mics that utilize these cables require external amplification such as an audio interface or a mixer, which may be unwieldy or beyond your means, especially if you’re using a mic for a non-musical application.
XLR to USB cables. These cables are kind of bad. They offer no phantom power, have firmware issues and with the exception of rare circumstances, I would not recommend using these to anyone.
USB microphones. Though USB microphones are sometimes scoffed at by gear snobs, the advance of technology, social media and YouTube has had a positive influence on the accessibility of high-quality microphones connectable via USB.
Models such as the AT2020 provide a fidelity and convenience to podcasters and streamers at a reasonable price-point that traditional microphones couldn’t offer twenty years ago.
Wireless microphones. Using Bluetooth or transmitters, wireless microphones are frequently used for live performances, seminars and backstage communication.
Just imagine if walkie-talkies could reproduce high-quality, accurate audio signals that could be both recorded or amplified.
Now stop imagining this – because wireless microphones exist. They are versatile and provide a great number of applications beyond that of the musical world.
As touched on previously in the article, microphones require amplification for their signals to be readable.
Though their circuitry converts audio into an electrical signal, this signal is generally extremely quiet—ranging from -60 dBV to -40 dbV.
For comparison, a typical line level signal – direct input of a synth or guitar – will be 0 dbV.
To counteract just how quiet microphone levels are, there exists a few methods of amplification so their signal can be heard (or digitally read).
Preamps, available as standalone hardware or built-in to mixers and audio interfaces, perform a very simple task. They increase the level of a microphone’s signal to something closer to ‘line level’, making what it is picking up, well, actually audible.
Many audio interfaces, preamps and mixers come equipped with phantom power, which you may also see as +48V switch on some of this hardware.
Essentially, phantom power is vital for the aforementioned conversion process of condenser microphones, as it provides an electrical current to the microphone. Without this current, the microphone would be unable to amplify and record any sound, even if attached to an external amplification source.
Dynamic and most ribbon microphones, due to their separate methods of signal conversion, do not require phantom power.
As with guitars and pianos, you can also use an amplifier or PA system assuming you have the right cables to do so, but this will generally only work with ribbon and dynamic microphones due to most amp/PA systems not providing phantom power.
How to Choose a Microphone
PHEW. Finally. The technical mumbo-jumbo is done with. Hopefully you can retain most of the information we went through above, but if not, all is forgiven.
Pulling out the line ‘are you aware of how a thin sheet of gold-spluttered mylar is integral to creating a detailed frequency response in condenser mics?’ probably won’t get you much of a standing ovation at parties. Nevertheless, let’s move on.
Quality of Build
Cheap Chinese microphones (and products in general) are often lamented for their poor builds which can result in microphone signals distorting, fading or simply not working after minimal use.
With the proper care and consideration, most contemporary microphones that aren’t cheap Chinese knock-offs – and even a lot of them are quite sturdy nowadays – should be built well enough for most small-time applications.
While build quality isn’t the most important consideration for the amateur home studio, touring artists that constantly need to transfer a microphone from point A, to B, and then sometimes to C, might need to think about mic durability when choosing.
While dynamic mics are often the best in this regard, a poorly constructed dynamic may still be more susceptible to damage than a well-built ribbon, so build quality is always a worthy contemplation to have.
Well, yeah. Obviously. Nevertheless, it needs to be said – the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is simply accurate for most musical equipment.
With that in mind though, if your budget is really low it might be worth considering a less-durable but well-respected Chinese brand mic such as an iSK or MXL – the recording quality of which is reaching fantastic levels now – over, say, a Neumann.
Of course, for a professional studio, a really good microphone is going to set you back half a grand at the very least.
Assuming it is in good condition, it is a popular strategy to target used microphones, saving yourself potentially hundreds of dollars for an almost invisible decrease in performance comparative to a out-of-the-box microphone.
Do you have an audio interface? Do you have an XLR to USB microphone? Do you have a DAW? These are all things you simply must think about before you buy a mic.
You can’t simply go out, spend 1k on a microphone and only then think to yourself oh, now how do I get this thing to actually record?
For any serious microphone recordings, you’re going to want to have an audio interface before you go out and buy one. These are vital for amplifying the microphone signal to an audible level.
The alternative to this is using a microphone that doesn’t require any extra analog to digital conversion – that is, a USB microphone.
USB microphones are catching up in quality and are a cheaper alternative for casual musicians and streamers that don’t want to shell out for an audio interface, DAW and XLR cables.
Certain microphones, particularly condensers, are so sensitive that even the slightest brush can cause your recording to be completely ruined. The necessity of shock mounts and sturdy microphone stands is often overlooked.
Ideally you would have both for recording instruments, a floor stand for vocals and a desktop stand for streaming/gaming.
What You Need a Microphone For?
Perhaps the most important thing of all to consider is this: What are you actually using the microphone for? The internet has made it so mic’s have such a large-scale of potential functions that what you might buy just for music may become your go-to for gaming communication.
Recording instruments with microphone is an interesting and somewhat topical debate in the music industry.
The continual progression of VST software, integrated digital instruments and analog-digital converters has theoretically eliminated the need to record any instrument other than vocals.
It’s easy to ask: Why bother recording instruments at all? I can get a VST for that cello and trumpet, or I can emulate a guitar amp and plug my guitar directly into my audio interface’s line-in jack, so what’s the point?
For some – there is no point. Digital emulation of instruments has reached an impressive fidelity since the blossoming of the Internet age, and expense of such plugins is plummeting.
That being said, many musicians and producers (myself included) believe nothing beats the sound of real instruments and amps. There are certain dynamics, a certain musical feel, a certain analog charm that can’t be modeled no matter how impressive modern virtual instruments are.
The reality is there’s no obvious answer to the question: why record instruments? It entirely depends on the artist’s intended genre, their budget and their current equipment. One thing I can tell you is this though.
Top-of-the-line music studios will nearly always veer towards recording instruments and not modeling them. Though it does naturally depend on the musical style and availabilities of any given artist – there’s no point buying a microphone to record a piano when you don’t own one! – the musicality, versatility and raw sound live analog recordings offer beats out the convenience of virtual instruments nine times out of ten.
Different types of microphones are purposed for recording different types of instruments. Strings may best be replicated with ribbon or dynamic mics, while condensers may work nicely for overheads on drums or guitars.
It is important to see the microphone’s specifications and user reviews to best understand what its optimal use is prior to making a decision.
Most people’s instant reaction to the words “music” and “microphones” is … vocals. The market for microphones designed entirely as singing mics is huge, and the differences between such pieces of equipment and other, non-streamlined mics can be really confusing.
The reality is, “vocal mics” are often more versatile than what they’re marketed as, and the same can be applied for the reverse.
When you’re the next Jeff Buckley (as I’m sure many of you reading this aspire to be) you take the vessel of your vocals to the rest of the world, be it as an MP3 or at a stadium filled with thousands, very seriously.
But there is no obvious “best mic” for any given person on any given situation.
Musicians and vocalists are today blessed with so many great options that your best bet (as is with most pieces of equipment) is to try it yourself.
Failing that, mic shootouts for all sorts of budgets and applications are plastered over YouTube and music websites making your decision less of a stressful one.
A microphone that might work for your best friend may be horrible for tracking your voice. Some microphones have bright responses, some are warmer – some are better for female vocals and live performances, others for baritone singers.
For example, Sufjan Stevens effectively used an AT4033 for many of his vocal recordings, but a more powerful, deeper male voice may not be so well-reflected with this microphone.
It’s crazy how lucrative the YouTube and podcasting industry have become of recent years. Superstars like Pewdipie have amassed net worth in excess of 20 million USD, and the industry continues to grow substantially.
As professions such as podcasting and YouTubing begin to usurp radio broadcasting, many are trying their hand at such work from the comfort of their own home.
In the past, simple, low-tier mics would’ve sufficed for amateur kids, teens and adults looking to get into the business, but such is its global success, serious investors in YouTube and podcasting need better-fidelity equipment to match the industry’s demand.
For example, the previously mentioned Pewdiepie employs the use of an AKG Pro C414 – a multi-thousand-dollar microphone popular for recording vocals, acoustic guitar, and now, the voice of the most successful YouTube star ever.
A good instrument or vocal microphone will be more than sufficient for most basic podcasting and streaming needs. For this purpose, a lot of users won’t have access to an audio interface or the ability to convert a traditional “XLR” microphone to a projectable audio signal.
USB microphones are a wonderful middle-ground for those who are serious about home broadcasting but don’t quite have the funds, space or time to invest into the extra hardware required for non-USB mics.
In terms of streaming, some headset microphones provide extremely crisp, clear and professional sounding amplification of the user’s voice and are super-convenient for filling an intended purpose.
With that said though, standalone microphones, USB or otherwise, will present a noticeable step-up in quality as you ascend in value.
The world of microphones is a complicated one – whether it be the physics, the transmission of electrical currents or the breadth of options available, no one article can completely cover the nuances involved in how a microphone works and how to select one. A book might, but who has the time for that? (I kid – a book is a great option to really get into the nitty gritty of microphones).
Hopefully, this article and its follow-up (which will dive into specific microphones, giving reviews, price points and summaries of their intended application) will at least allow you to wet your feet in the glorious spectrum of audio recording and attain enough knowledge to confidently select a microphone for any possible desire.