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In the microphone world price does dictate the level of quality and fidelity of the sound that can be reproduced by the microphone but that does not mean you always have to spend fortunes on buying one, if you are equipped with enough knowledge optimal choices can be made easily.
This article aims to aid your purchase decision and will try and guide you if you’re relatively new in the audio space. While there would be mentions of technical concepts and terms throughout the article; this article is for your general understanding and not a thesis on these technicalities.
Two important questions one could ask before purchasing any studio equipment is how that device is going to be used? And where would it be used most of the time? When buying a microphone, it becomes trickier as you have to match the environment and the gear you would be using it with. This is especially important as; in most cases, this would be the input device for your voice or an acoustic instrument. When thinking about conducting music as a business it just becomes pragmatic to get the most optimal gear for the situation of the recording.
Whether you are setting up your home studio or looking for your microphone for live applications, the information in this guide would help you make a sound buying decision. Understand that your microphone’s performance would be dependent on various factors such as the environment it is used in, the purpose it is used for, type of interface, interference of other signals and waves, etc. is crucial.
Understanding Microphone Specifications
When browsing online for microphones one would come across a wide gamut of terms used to describe the capabilities of a microphone, below are some overviews of what they exactly mean:
A polar pattern is the shape of the microphone’s field of sensitivity or in simpler words the directions it accepts or ignores incoming sounds to the microphone’s central axis. Usually, this is classified into Omnidirectional, Bi-directional, and Unidirectional. Omnidirectional as the name suggests responds to sounds coming from all sides. Bi-directional microphones/ figure 8 mics pick up sounds from the east and west of the mic while excluding sounds from the north and south of the mic. A unidirectional mic primarily hears audio from one direction and excludes audio from the other directions.
Most microphones are unidirectional. They come in 3 polar patterns; cardioid, super-cardioid, and hyper-cardioid. All three patterns reject sounds from their rear axis and off-axis meaning from behind or sides of the mic. The cardioid pattern roughly resembles a heart symbol and is derived from Latin.
Polar patterns are important when rigging microphones in a noisy environment hence it is important to know which pattern your mic uses to understand better if it would suit your particular needs.
Alternatively, there have been microphones that are engineered so that their polar patterns can be interchangeable. For example, going from omnidirectional to cardioid. This adds versatility for the microphone to be used in various recording conditions.
Anyone who has been slightly exposed to audio must have come across the term frequency response. In microphones, this refers to how well the components of a microphone reproduce the audio signals that it picks up. The range of frequencies from low to high that it is capable of picking up. This range is depicted by the lowest and the highest frequencies in hertz (Hz).
For vocal applications, a mic with a range of 80 Hz to 15 kHz would be a good choice. Whereas for drums a range that starts lower would be ideal, at around 30 Hz. The way all of this is measured is through a frequency response graph that comes included in all professional microphones. If a certain note/ frequency comes out weaker/ more powerful than it was at the time of recording this would be visualized by a dip or a hump in the graph respectively. Frequency response is a vast topic and this is a simplified explanation of how it works.
Sensitivity & SPL Handling
This would be one of the specs you would come across while buying any microphone and the first part is quite easy to understand. The sensitivity of a microphone indicates how sensitive the microphone is in picking up sound meaning how quiet a sound can it detects. Keep in mind the lower the number the higher the sensitivity.
SPL is the acronym for Sound Pressure Level and is normally measured and expressed in decibels (dB) This is nothing but the maximum volume a microphone can handle it is the complete opposite of what sensitivity is, this becomes extremely important with loud instruments such as drums.
Determined by how close you are to the microphone; the microphone will accentuate the low-end frequencies more causing the results to be much more bass-heavy. This is particularly noticeable in condenser microphones than dynamic but you must have witnessed this effect at least once. The proximity effect does not come as a specification but is an important characteristic.
XLR, USB What do they mean?
XLR and USB are the connector types for the microphone to interface with the device it is being connected to, USB or Universal Serial Bus is the most convenient way to connect a microphone to a computer running a DAW/ audio recording software. Most USB microphones have a cardioid polar pattern hence pick up audio from the front making them ideal for podcasts, voice overs, streaming.
If you are however looking for a higher quality recording especially that of vocals or instruments XLR is the way to go. XLR Microphones can be slightly more expensive than USB Microphones, and they additionally require an audio interface with the appropriate ports to connect them to a computer. But the investment is worth it for those who are looking for a more superior quality than USB microphones.
The main reason for the difference in cost and the way they are connected; plug and play vs through an audio interface is because of how they are designed internally. XLR stands for External Line Return and carries two channels for sending and receiving currents. This helps in cancelling out unwanted noise and makes the signal balanced. USB on the other hand consists of a single channel within which it sends and receives currents making it prone to interference and distortion. This does not imply that USB microphones are unusable it just means that for a higher fidelity of sound one would prefer XLR. USB is a digital interface whereas XLR is an analog one.
Understanding Types of Microphones
Most microphones either fall under one of the categories; dynamic or condenser. They are different in several ways.
Generally, dynamic microphones are more durable and rugged in their make. These are ideal for on-stage use cases. Condenser Microphones on the other hand are sensitive in pickup hence delicate in make and are mostly used in studio environments. However, specific models have been made to operate otherwise.
Price is another factor that differentiates the two types, a robust dynamic mic can be had for way cheaper than its condenser counterpart. This is mainly because of the construction and design that they are intended towards. Add to that the requirement for a shock mount/ suspension mount and an interface that is capable of output phantom power to power the condenser microphone.
Since studio environments are built keeping in mind a specific use case a microphone having greater sensitivity would be preferred hence some format of a condenser microphone so that no part of the audio being performed is ever missed.
Whereas a microphone with some type of baffle that avoids some frequencies and noise would be preferred in a live environment where the ambient sound level tends to be higher than a studio environment. The chance of breakage too is higher in live applications. The delicate build of most condenser microphones works against it whereas a Shure SM 57/ 58 are veteran choices. Let’s now understand the different types of microphones and their uses.
A condenser microphone is a kind you must have come across when looking at studio environments. A condenser microphone has a thin conductive diaphragm which is located close to a metal plate called the backplate. This helps it become a capacitor. This capacitor configuration is usually powered by phantom power from the interface that it is connected to. The pressure of the sound waves makes the diaphragm vibrate and this changes the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate causing a variation in the output voltage. This variation creates the signal from the microphone.
Several types of condenser microphones have been engineered to suit specific use cases hence it is important to pay attention while purchasing which type of application your choice of microphone is suited best to, below are the main types of condenser microphones;
1. Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
2. Side Address Condenser Microphone
3. Dual-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
4. Tube Condenser Microphone
5. Small Diaphragm Microphone
Check out our recommendations for the best condenser mics on a budget here.
This type of microphone is called dynamic because of how they function not because they capture a high dynamic range or offer a dynamic performance. Typically, when an electrical conductor moves in a magnetic field a small current is generated. Dynamic microphones convert sound into an electrical signal by the means of electromagnetism. Dynamic Microphones generally have a high SPL tolerance and are built in a more rugged manner, this makes them suitable for live and on-stage applications. Majorly there are two distinct types of Dynamic Microphones;
1. Moving Coil Microphones
2. Ribbon Microphones
While these are the two major types there are application-specific dynamic microphones that are engineered and tuned to capture certain frequency ranges making them ideal for intended use cases. Some examples would include;
1. Drum & Percussion Microphones
2. Microphones for Brass, Reed, Woodwind, and Stringed instruments.
3. Bullet/ Harmonica Microphones
Check out our recommendations for the best dynamic mics on a budget here.
Principally wireless microphones are similar to wired microphones apart from the fact that they are equipped with a transmitter allowing for a greater range of movement. This style of microphones typically needs two parts to function the transmitter in the microphone itself and a receiver unit to convert the signal into the PA System through a mixer.
The signal is transmitted using Radio Frequencies (RF). The most common microphones usually use Ultra High Frequency (UHF) or Very High Frequency (VHF). Most common and affordable systems use the UHF band. The high-end systems use digital technology to optimize quality and eliminate any noise in the signal. Since this system is wireless it is prone to interference. This interference can be caused by a host of electronic devices in the same area as the microphone system. Systems using digital technologies usually are able to mitigate such interferences.
There are several types of wireless microphone systems some of them include;
1. Hand-Held Microphones
2. Clip-on Lavalier Microphones
3. Head-worn Microphones
4. Plug-In transmitters.
The most convenient way to connect a microphone to your computer, USB microphones have gained popularity in recent times. They are also relatively inexpensive and are a great starting point for someone who just wants to dip their toes into the world of audio.
This is the kind of microphone you must have seen at sporting events or broadcast shows where a person would hold them on a boom arm. This particular type of microphone has a very narrow cardioid pattern and they excel at picking up specific sound sources from a distance.
These microphones usually are placed on a flat surface such as a floor, table, ceiling, or wall and use that to gather sound. Generally used in a setting where coverage of a large area is concerned.
Points To Keep In Mind
• Research is of the utmost importance when buying any studio equipment especially a microphone
• Consider the environment the microphone is going to be placed and try to isolate that place from external noises for the best recording experience
• When using condenser microphones is it best to use a shock mount/ suspension mount and keeping the position of the microphone as stable as possible
• Depending on your environment you might eventually want to consider getting a pop filter, windscreen, isolation screens, or a combination of them
• Start with basic soundproofing to make the room as isolated as possible, if possible, use a separate room to record from your mic
• Your needs will evolve so will technology. Start with what you feel is correct for your situation and progress from there. A piece of equipment is only as strong as its user