Buyers Guides - Microphones

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Microphones

Author - Woodwind & Brasswind

A Buyer's Guide to Microphones

If music is a part of life (or if you're planning to make it so), then it goes without saying that microphones are, too. From recording tracks in a home studio to making a great demo tape to performing live, they're involved every step of the way. In fact, it doesn't even need to involve music: a good mic is essential for any kind of audio production or amplification work, including the simplest podcast setup as well as the most complex PA system.

With so many diverse applications, it's no surprise that microphones come in lots of different varieties and that each one has a combination of traits that make it well-suited to certain scenarios. Choosing the right microphone is a matter of finding the one that delivers on your specific needs while staying within your budget. Fortunately, there are plenty of models out there to choose from so that's not too hard to do - especially once you've read through this guide and learned what to look out for.

Read on for a detailed introduction to all the microphone basics, or, if you're simply looking for a few ideas to consider for your personal recording needs, skip down to the quick reference section to get a brief impression of what to search for.

Measures of Performance

Understanding the numbers, ratings and specifications.

A microphone is a highly technical and precise instrument, so it stands to reason that there are a lot of technical specs to consider with your purchase. Aside from the mic itself, you'll also want to think about the environment where you'll be using it. The performance of the microphone is limited by factors like the quality of the mic preamps it's connected to, and the acoustics of the space - this means that if you're not recording with the benefit of professional studio hardware and acoustics, a mid-range microphone is sufficient because you won't see the benefits of an ultra-high-end model.

That being said, here are the general specifications to keep an eye out for when you're looking at microphones, from entry-level all the way to the top-end studio designs.

Frequency Response

Frequency, as you probably know, is the measurement of a sound wave that corresponds to the pitch it creates. Treble sounds are higher in frequency, and bass sounds are lower. All microphones have an upper and lower limit to the frequencies they can pick up, and this is referred to as the mic's frequency response range. In general, a bigger range is better, but it also depends on the application. For instance, a range of 80Hz-15kHz would be solid for vocals, but for miking percussion instruments like snares and toms, a range starting around 50 Hz is a better choice - and even lower for a bass drum, as low as 40Hz or even 30Hz.

Total range is only half the story, though. To find out how well the mic performs across that range, keep your eyes peeled for a "frequency chart," which you might find on the packaging or included in the microphone's specifications. These charts plot the frequency response as a line and are usually scaled to the range of human hearing (about 20Hz to 20kHz), with the horizontal numbers representing frequencies and the vertical numbers representing how strongly the microphone "hears" them, in decibels. To use frequency charts effectively, you should start by researching the fundamental frequency range of the instrument you're planning to record - or that of your voice, if you're a vocalist. Then, look for microphones that have a smooth, level line across those frequencies on the chart.

A good example here would be the Shure SM57, which is a popular mic for snare drums because it has consistent, flat response along the 150Hz-250Hz range, where the snare's fundamental frequency resides. There's also a bit of a bump at the higher end, about the same frequency as the snare's sharp "snapping" sound. And on the lower end, it tapers off just high enough to avoid picking up the nearby bass drum during recording. This is what to look for in a response curve: neutral response for the instrument's typical sound, a bump for frequencies that could use accentuating and a range that helps filter out other instruments.

Another characteristic of some microphones is something called "proximity effect." You won't hear about this in technical specs, but pay attention for it in product descriptions. The proximity effect produces intensified bass frequencies when the sound source moves closer to the microphone, which can be used to your advantage. For instance, in studio recording, a mic with strong proximity effect will emphasize an instrument's bass tones. On the stage, a vocalist can actually affect the way his or her voice sounds by working the mic at varying distances. If you like the idea of a strong proximity effect, consider using a condenser mic. To minimize it, choose a dynamic microphone instead.

Sensitivity & Sound Pressure Level

Sensitivity is to volume as frequency response is to pitch. That is to say, the sensitivity of a microphone describes how quiet a sound it can detect. There are different ways of measuring this, but as a rule of thumb, just keep in mind that a lower number generally means a more sensitive mic.

Sound pressure level, often abbreviated to SPL, is expressed in decibels and tells you the upper volume limit of the microphone. Think about it as the opposite of sensitivity; while a sound below the mic's sensitivity is simply lost in the recording, a sound above its SPL will come through distorted - and can even damage a highly-sensitive microphone design if it's strong enough. 100 dB is a typical SPL limit for general-purpose mics. Models designed to handle high-volume instruments like drums may be around 130dB or even higher.

Polar Patterns

Polar patterns describe the shape of the soundstage a microphone "listens" to, which allows you to set up your studio or stage to accept sounds from certain locations and ignore others. General types of polar patterns are omnidirectional (accepting sounds from all directions), bi-directional (accepting sounds from front and back while ignoring the sides) and the most common type, uni-directional (accepting sounds primarily from a single direction).

Common Polar Patterns

Here are some of the most well-known and commonly-used polar patterns in the industry:

Cardioid - This polar pattern gets its name from being roughly heart-shaped. That 'heart' is positioned to the front of the mic, and it ignores most sound from the sides and behind the microphone. Cardioid microphones are popular onstage and in the studio, since their rejection of sound sources to the rear helps to limit audience and ambient noise. All cardioid microphones will exhibit proximity effect to some extent.

Supercardioid & Hypercardioid - These are variations on the cardioid response pattern, with supercardioid microphones being more focused in direction than cardioid models, and hypercardioid mics being even narrower still. A key difference between these two patterns and a cardioid mic is that supercardioid and hypercardioid microphones will also pick up some sound from behind. You could think of all three of these response patterns as different steps on a spectrum: as you move from cardioid to supercardioid to hypercardioid, response to the sides decreases while response to the rear increases.

Omnidirectional - In a class all their own, these microphones have no directional bias and will pick up sound from anywhere around them. This makes them well-suited to situations where you want to pick up all sound in a space, including ambient noise. Omnidirectional microphones are also the least susceptible to proximity effect.

Figure-8 - A balanced type of bi-directional polar pattern, the figure-8 picks up sound equally from two opposing directions, while ignoring the perpendicular ones. Essentially, if the mic were positioned to pick up sound from North and South, it would ignore sound sources to the East and West.

Specialty Polar Patterns

In addition to the general polar patterns described above, there are several highly-specialized ones:

Multiple Pattern - Not a polar pattern in and of itself, this term describes a microphone capable of switching from one pattern to another. These usually include omnidirectional, cardioid and figure-8, though there are models that add supplementary patterns as well. One example is the AKG C12VR, which has six settings in between those key three, making for a grand total of nine possible patterns. Other manufacturers, like Blue, have designed microphones with swappable capsules so you can change the response pattern by changing them out.

Shotgun - Shotgun microphones are the most highly-directional type available. They pick up sound from a long and narrow range to the front, and although they do have small lobes of sensitivity to the sides and rear, these are largely cancelled out by the design of the microphone tube, allowing the forward sound source to dominate. Their highly-focused pickup pattern makes shotgun microphones ideal for television and film sets as well as wildlife recording and isolating sound sources in noisy places such as stadiums.

Boundary - The concept behind boundary microphones is a simple one. When a room has poor acoustics, it is usually due to sound waves reflecting off the walls. If the mic is placed against a wall, then it won't pick up those reflected sound waves. A boundary microphone is one designed to take advantage of this, fitting against a wall. This means that they are uni-directional by necessity, but can have different types of uni-directional response patterns.

Microphone Hardware

What to expect from different types of microphones.

Generally speaking, microphones belong to one of two broad categories: condenser mics and dynamic mics. Making the choice between the two involves knowing the differences. For example, dynamic microphones are typically more durable, which makes them favorites for the stage. Whereas condenser microphones are more sensitive but also more delicate, they're right at home in the studio. It is worth noting, though, that these are generalizations and you may run into condenser mics designed for live performance use and dynamic mics built for the studio.

Another key difference between the two types of microphones is that, unlike dynamic mics, condenser models usually require an external power source, either from a battery or from a preamp or mixer providing a "phantom power" supply. This is one reason why, no matter which microphone you end up choosing, it's wise to make sure you have the right hardware to support it.

A third technology for microphones is the ribbon mic, and along with that, there are certain types of mics that may be dynamic, condenser or even ribbon mics, but are further differentiated by their configuration or connection standard. Here we'll take a closer look at all of these various microphone "families."

Condenser Microphones

In studio settings from hobby to professional, the condenser microphone is king. They come in different varieties, including multiple sizes for the diaphragm that vibrates to create the signal and even the choice between solid-state and vacuum tube electronics. This gives you a lot of options to find a condenser microphone perfectly customized for your recording situation. There are a few live sound applications for condenser microphones as well, including choirs, pianos, acoustic stringed instruments and some percussion instruments.

Size Matters

When it comes to the diaphragm in a condenser microphone, there's a lot to be said for size. The diaphragm is a conductive membrane that works like the mic's eardrum, and its width determines the characteristics of the microphone. Traditionally, mics have been grouped into large and small-diaphragm categories, and more recent times have seen the introduction of medium-diaphragm condenser mics positioned as a hybrid between the two extremes.

Large-diaphragm Condenser Microphones: These models are frequently used for vocals and voiceover recording, as well as strings, brass, percussion and more. Adding to their versatility is the fact that many of these mics are multiple-pattern models. Since their diaphragms alone can measure as much as an inch in diameter, they're large microphones best-suited to diverse recording needs where compact size isn't a priority. A large-diaphragm condenser mic is the workhorse of a typical studio. Specialty models are common as well, devoted to miking such instruments as kick drums and toms.

Small-diaphragm Condenser Microphones: Often found in professional recording environments, these mics may give up most of the spotlight to their larger cousins - but when they're in their element, they can't be beaten. Some of the strengths of small-diaphragm condensers include picking up the fast transients of cymbals and hand drums, as well as the percussive quality in the sound of an acoustic guitar. Plus, since they're smaller than large-diaphragm mics, you can easily position small-diaphragm microphones and fit them into tight places such as the inside of an acoustic piano. For high frequencies and for sounds sources with sudden attack or rapidly-changing volume, small diaphragms have no equal.

Medium-diaphragm Condenser Microphones: There's no strict definition for what qualifies as a medium-diaphragm since, historically, most microphones were classified as either large or small. A good ballpark, however, is around the 5/8"-3/4" diameter range. These microphones deliver a good balance between large and small diaphragms, with the ability to accurately capture transients and high-frequency sound, like a small-diaphragm mic, as well as conveying a sense of fuller, better-rounded and warmer sound, like a large-diaphragm mic.

Specialty Condenser Microphones

Not all condenser microphones are created equal. While the standard condenser mic is one with a forward-facing diaphragm and solid-state circuitry, here are a few types that do things a little differently:

  • Side-address Condenser Microphones: Unlike traditional condenser mics, side-address models use a large, horizontally-positioned diaphragm aimed sideways. You can usually pick them out by their wide, flat windscreens. When a side-address mic is mounted vertically, the singer's voice seems to come from the side - hence the name.
  • Dual-diaphragm Condenser Microphones: The setup for this style mic is similar to a side-address model, but with a pair of diaphragms, aimed outward in a back-to-back configuration. They're useful for recording duets or for picking up performers along with ambient noise in a venue. With one of these mics, you'll have a much easier time balancing a pair of sound sources than you would trying to do it with two individual microphones.
  • Tube Condenser Microphones: For many recording enthusiasts, one of these microphones is the pride and joy of their collection. With a vacuum tube at its heart, a tube condenser mic delivers sound with the same sweet, warm character that makes tube amplifiers so popular among guitarists. Tube mics need a lot of power and so they usually include their own dedicated power supplies. They also tend to have continuously-variable polar patterns, meaning that you're not limited to bi-directional, cardioid or omnidirectional: you can turn the knob to create hybrid patterns anywhere in between.

Roll-off & Bass Attenuation Switches

If you're looking for a condenser microphone with maximum versatility, you might want to search for a model with roll-off and bass attenuation switches. A roll-off switch allows you to limit the frequency range, lowering or completely cutting off response below a certain level. This way, you can avoid feeding your recording hardware or speaker system a frequency range outside of what it can handle - and you can also use it to help reduce interference from low-ranged instruments during targeted recording of a high-frequency one, or simply to improve recording clarity. Attenuation switches are similar, but with regards to the microphone's sensitivity: they'll insulate the mic against high-volume sound sources, preventing it from becoming overloaded, and reducing distortion in turn.

Dynamic Microphones

Capable of taking high sound pressure levels in stride, dynamic microphones excel at live sound recording and amplification, as well as studio recording of loud sources such as percussion instruments and guitar amplifiers. Like condenser microphones, dynamic mics use a vibrating diaphragm to generate a signal. The difference is in the electronics that pick up the vibrations, and it's that difference in design that makes dynamic models so rugged by comparison. One big advantage of dynamic microphones is that they tend to be very affordable, and a high-end dynamic mic can be a cost-effective choice even in a studio environment - especially if you're recording vocals, drums, or electric guitars.

Handheld Vocal Dynamic Microphones

There's no doubt that this style of mic is the image that pops into just about anyone's head at the mention of the word "microphone." The venerable Shure SM58 is probably the best example of a handheld dynamic mic, though there are countless others if you'd like to try something different. These models often have internal shock-mounting systems built right in, so you can use them by hand or on a stand without the need for an external shockmount.

Instrument-specific Dynamic Microphones

If you're planning to record or amplify an instrument, you should know that there's a very good chance you can find a dynamic microphone specially tailored for the job. These microphones have frequency response curves and SPL handling engineered for those individual instruments, as well as practical designs that make them easy to mount and use. Here are a few sample types:

  • Drum & Percussion Microphones: The most specific purpose-built dynamic mics are found in this category. Since every kind of drum creates sound with its own unique character, there's a microphone designed for each one. A typical set of dynamic microphones for drums includes individual units for the snares and toms, as well as a large mic for the kick drum. Usually the cymbals are excluded from a set that's exclusively made up of dynamic microphones, since they're better served by small-diaphragm condenser mics instead.
  • Microphones for Brass, Woodwind & Stringed Instruments: With frequency response customized for the individual instrument, and usually featuring a small and lightweight package that attaches easily without weighing the instrument down, these mics are top choices for your acoustic instrument recording or reinforcement. Because they're designed to attach to the instrument, they always stay in the same position relative to the sound source, which translates to more consistent results, even while you move around onstage. As an added bonus, a clip-on dynamic mic for a violin, viola, cello or double bass can prevent you from having to modify a valuable instrument with pickups in order to record it.
  • Bullet Microphones: A niche member of the dynamic microphone family, bullet mics are designed especially for the harmonica. Their stubby, rounded cases - which are where they get their name - are easy to hold in cupped hands along with your blues harp. And with their crystal diaphragm elements, they deliver the slight distortion that the harmonica is so well known for.

Ribbon Microphones

If you're looking for a distinctive vintage sound, ribbon microphones are an option you should consider in addition to tube condenser mics. Ribbon models were very popular through the early to mid-20th century, and their dark, smooth character has recently made a big comeback for vocals, guitars, horns and other recording, broadcast and amplification tasks. They have a tendency to soften the sound, which makes them great for anything that comes through too harsh, bright or strident on a condenser mic - violin, trumpet and soprano vocals, for instance.

Ribbon microphones are considered to be dynamic microphones, but they don't share the durability of a conventional dynamic mic. In fact, they're quite delicate and best suited to studio use. While other microphones respond to air pressure, ribbon microphones actually respond to the motion of air instead; this subtle difference accounts for their unique character as well as their delicacy.

Stereo Microphones

It is possible to record audio in stereo simply by using two microphones, but in many cases it's even more practical to simply use a stereo microphone. These models have two capsules built into a single mic casing, and they excel as room microphones: place one on a tall stand in the middle of a venue, and mix its stereo recording in with the soundboard feeds from your stage mics to give live recordings an enhanced sense of space.

USB Microphones

Computer software is a powerful tool for recording, and digital platforms are the ultimate way to distribute music, podcasts and other types of hobbyist and professional broadcasts - so it's no surprise that USB microphones were introduced to make high-tech recording a cinch. When you need to get a quick demo or audition recorded and sent off in a hurry, or to add commentary to that latest YouTube video, a USB mic gets the job done.

There aren't many limitations on what a USB microphone can be - the only thing they all have in common is their connection type. You can find USB condenser mics and USB dynamic mics, all of which will include built-in preamps and analog-to-digital converters. Most of these microphones are designed to connect to the USB ports on Apple or PC machines, but there are also many choices with interfaces that support Android and/or iOS, allowing you to record on the go.

Wireless Microphones

Another sub-type of microphone is the wireless variety, which are usually dynamic mics. The sound pickup electronics are similar to wired microphones, but wireless models come with battery-powered transmitters instead of cords, allowing total freedom of movement around the stage without being physically tethered to the sound system.

The most affordable wireless microphone systems use the UHF radio band for transmitting, and more expensive systems may use either VHF radio transmission or digital wireless communication to reduce or eliminate the risk of interference, signal noise and dropouts that can be caused by devices like garage door openers and even fluorescent light fixtures. Some systems use "diversity technology," transmitting on multiple frequencies at the same time so that the receiver can choose the cleanest of the signals.

In a wireless system, the microphone and receiver must be on the same frequency in order to work. So if you're thinking about purchasing microphones and receivers separately, make sure to check the bandwidths supported by each of them and verify that they're compatible with one another.

Wireless microphones are most often used for vocals, but there are also wireless microphones for brass, woodwind and string instruments. These wireless instrument mics are typically small clip-on models, and vocal microphones can be the same, in the case of lavalier mics, often used for broadcasting purposes. More common for onstage vocal performances are headsets, which use "bodypack" transmitters slipped into a pocket or clipped onto your belt, and handheld wireless microphones, which generally have their transmitters built-in.

Accessories

How to take full advantage of your new microphone.

So you've picked out that shiny new microphone to get you better-than-ever results in the studio or onstage. Now what? The answer, as always, is to accessorize! There are lots of bare essentials to go along with your microphone, as well as some optional accessories that will help you get even more out of it, or that may be needed for specific recording situations.

Stands

It's common sense that you can't very well use your mic if it's just lying around. While handheld and wireless microphones may be the exception to that, most models will need a stand at the very least. Straight stands work well on the stage for vocalists and presenters. For studio settings or for stage setups where the mic needs to reach over something, such as miking a drum kit, inside the open cover of a grand piano or vocals when the artist is also playing an instrument, look for a boom microphone stand instead. For broadcasting, podcasts, amplifier miking or drum miking, a short floor stand or a desk stand is the ideal solution - and nicely compact, too.

No matter which types of stands you have in your collection, don't forget to shop for bags or cases if you intend to transport them. That's especially true if you have multiple microphones to set up, because that probably means multiple stands - which are a whole lot easier to carry inside a nice, roomy case.

Mounts

Every bit as important as your microphone stands are the mounts that attach the mics to them. Some of these are simple clips, which work fine for handheld mics that have internal shock-mounting. Specialty mounts include stereo bars, which are invaluable for stereo recording with a pair of microphones, since they'll allow you to aim them precisely the way you want to. Last but not least, shockmounts are absolutely crucial when mounting a condenser or ribbon microphone in a studio environment. These mics are sensitive enough to receive noise even from vibrations travelling up through the stand from the floor; think of a shockmount as a suspension system that keeps those vibrations at bay, ensuring your recording quality remains crystal-clear.

Filters & Acoustic Accessories

Adding reflection filters, pop filters ("popper stoppers") and other accessories can be considered an essential step to recording, depending on the situation. In the studio, plosive sounds (like the letter "P") will create a strong burst of air pressure that leads to jarring results in the recording. Pop filters are designed to alleviate this. Reflection filters, on the other hand, are made to cancel out some of the resonant echo from sound waves reflecting back off walls and surfaces - that makes them important equipment in impromptu studios and other less-than-ideal spaces. Planning to take your show on the road? If you intend to record outdoors, be sure to add windscreens to your microphones to prevent the dreaded wind noise from drowning out your sound.

Cables, Adapters & Electronic Accessories

There's no such thing as having too many XLR microphone cables. Keep varying lengths on hand to make rearranging microphone locations (without creating too much cable spaghetti) a breeze, and remember that spares can come in very handy in case something should happen to one of your cables. To prepare yourself to handle any kind of connection challenge that comes your way, it's also a good idea to collect adapter cables. For instance, an XLR-to-1/4" adapter with an impedance-matching transformer allows you to connect a standard mic to an audio system's instrument input. Some accessories are electronic devices themselves, such as cable testers that can easily show you if one of your cables has bought the farm, while others are extremely simple things, like cable ties and reels to help you stay organized.

Microphone Packages & Kits

We've briefly touched on comprehensive microphone packages such as drum mic kits that include a full set of microphones to record an entire drum set. But those are just the beginning. You can also pick up certain types of microphones in packaged sets designed to meet the needs of groups and specialized recording setups, such as wireless microphone packages featuring multiple mics and transmitters. If you're setting up for the first time, you might appreciate a bundle that comes with a full set of cables, stands, filters and other accessories along with the microphone(s) so you'll have everything you need to get started right out of the box. The sky's the limit for what microphone packages and kits can offer you.

Quick Reference Guide

Simple suggestions for common studio recording needs.

Are you the type who prefers to keep things simple and to-the-point? In that case, check out these short, straightforward buying tips for the most common studio recording applications.

Electric Guitar

The optimal setup for electric guitar depends on how many microphones your plans and budget will allow. To use just one, your best bet is a good dynamic mic such as the Shure SM57, positioned near your combo amp or speaker cabinet. If you have room for two, stick with that dynamic microphone and add a large-diaphragm condenser a few feet away, with the attenuation switch turned on (if the mic has one and the speaker volume is high). In rooms with good enough acoustics, this condenser could even be set to omnidirectional, so consider choosing a multiple-pattern model if you'd like to try that. When using a pair of microphones in this way, they can be mixed at the console or recorded as separate tracks; the specifics are up to you.

Acoustic Guitar

The preferred studio setup for acoustic guitar is almost always a single small-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone. However, you can also choose a large-diaphragm condenser or a ribbon mic, depending on the character you want for the recording. Locate the microphone a bit higher than your instrument's position, pointing downward at the 12th fret from a distance of around 6-8 inches.

Percussion

With so many components in a typical drum kit, you're looking at one of the more complicated microphone setups of any instrument. Start with cardioid dynamic mics for your drums, a small-diaphragm cardioid condenser for the hi-hat and ideally a matching pair of small-diaphragm condensers overhead to capture the cymbals (large-diaphragm may also work here depending on what you're going for). For the most adventurous drummers, it is possible to use condenser mics with snare, toms and possibly even kick drums, but make sure you know what you're doing before going down that route. Finally, be open to experimentation: nailing the perfect sound will take a lot of careful repositioning of the mics.

Vocals

The go-to choice for overdub vocals is a large-diaphragm condenser mic with a pop filter installed. Ribbon models are also viable choices if you're going for that vintage sort of character. Since all voices are different, there's no single best microphone for recording vocals. If you can, see if a local music store or studio will let you test a few to find out what sort of mic sounds best in your case. You might even decide to have multiple vocal mics in your collection in order to get a customized sound for each song.

Acoustic Piano

The standard method for recording acoustic piano is to record it in stereo using a pair of microphones. Many pianists and recording engineers use two large-diaphragm condenser mics, which is always a good option, or you can use a large-diaphragm condenser at the low end with a small-diaphragm model in the high registers. As with drum mics, you can also find ready-made kits to eliminate the guesswork. Whichever microphone pairing you choose, you'll enjoy lots of freedom to experiment with positioning until you find the mic setup that suits your tastes.

Strings, Brass & Reeds

For these sorts of instruments, microphone choice can be a simple matter of preference. Generally, your choices will be between large-diaphragm condenser mics and ribbon mics. The quality of the microphone is important to capturing the subtle and nuanced qualities of fine instruments, so it's a good idea to shop toward the upper end of your budget. In the world of microphones, you usually get what you pay for (although there are good affordable performers out there as well).


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