Welcome to a new series of three articles dedicated to choosing the right microphone. We will guide you through types and models available, whilst offering a critical examination based on their applications, keeping the information simple and easy to understand. In this first episode, we deal with studio and broadcast microphones.
Today we touch on another topic that is very dear to those who deal with audio - the choice of the microphone. For some, this is almost a sacred decision, so how do you go about choosing the right microphone? Which models are most suitable for recording vocals, guitar or acoustic instruments in general? And again, how much budget should I allocate for a professional microphone?
Before answering these questions, it is necessary to provide an overview of the suitable microphones. In our case, we will base this overview on the context of use, rather than on the type of microphone.
On closer inspection, in addition to the typical manuals for individual microphones, the internet is flooded with articles that deal with the types of microphones and comparisons of their technical aspects. In this article, we will focus ourselves on giving you some interesting links and hints specific to their use.
The classification of microphones is often made according to the technology adopted - primarily Condenser, Dynamic, Valve and Ribbon types. Additionally, they are classified by their polar pattern – primarily Cardioid, Hypercardioid, Omni, Figure of 8 and Shotgun.
At this point, it’s best to face the decision from a practical point of view.
We have therefore identified two distinct categories. However, as we will later find, some models may very well be used effectively for both applications.
The two situations differ mainly in the “environment”; in which the microphones are used. On the one hand we have an ideal environment, created specifically for microphone recording, such as the recording studio. On the other hand we have a live situation, where we cannot enjoy the advantages of a soundproof room and the comfort that a recording studio offers. Broadcasting is a situation that sits somewhat in the middle, but still shares more controlled similarities with a recording studio.
Some rules that always apply…
In the field of audio and acoustic physics
in general, some basic rules that are dictated by acoustic physics always
apply. A classic example refers to speakers. We know that there are tweeters
and woofers and that an 18” woofer will be suitable for reproducing low
frequencies, but would be unable to reproduce high frequencies, and vice versa.
This example is trivial, but it clarifies how physical laws impose limits.
Similar situations occur in microphones, and a crucial mechanical element in
their operation is the diaphragm or membrane. This is the element that, when
exposed to impacting acoustic pressure, moves to produce an electrical signal.
Diaphragm and mass The membrane - also called the diaphragm - can be more or less large and equally more or less sensitive to incoming sound. Based on these characteristics, these microphone types are variably suited for certain instruments or contexts.
Typically, dynamic microphones have a more durable membrane, which makes them more suitable for less “delicate” situations such as live vocal microphones. Condensers on the other hand, feature a thinner and lighter membrane. This typically does not have enough mass to generate a sufficient signal and therefore need a special current (Phantom Power) to amplify the signal.
Here, in fact, we are faced with the first major differentiation, between passive (or dynamic) and active (or condenser) microphones. The shape and size of the diaphragms largely define the attitude of the microphone to pick up sounds. Generally speaking, a light and small membrane is usually more sensitive and reactive, making it capable of capturing the spectrum of frequencies with definition and care, especially high frequencies that have a shorter wavelength and less impact force.
A heavier and larger membrane, on the other hand, will have less speed and accuracy, however will be able to withstand significant acoustic pressure much better and will certainly have greater durability.
The recording studio: an ideal environment
What differentiates a recording studio from a location of a live
The first factor is that the recording studio, be it a home studio or a more professionally equipped studio, is a closed environment. This means it is sheltered from bad weather and humidity (hopefully!), and specifically designed and built for recording, ideally with acoustic treatment. Because of being such an ideal environment, it is therefore more practical and
effective to use a wider spectrum of microphone models, some intrinsically more delicate and difficult to use in a live situation.
In the studio, each instrument can be played individually and edited with care, whilst live recording of the whole band simultaneously inevitably generates interactions and re-enters the microphones at a relative distance.
In the studio, when possible, you can also
have the “luxury”; of placing multiple microphones to record the same
instrument, so as to choose the best combinations and find the right balance
for optimal sound. In live situations, however, we often follow the rule that
“less is more”.
We’ll discuss microphones for recording further in our second and third articles in this series.
Which studio microphones?
The general premise is that, in a recording studio, the microphones are less likely to be incorrectly handled and, for obvious reasons, are handled with more care when they are. Because of this, any type and model can be used.
On the other hand, we once again have to deal with our old friend (or enemy), the budget. We aim to be objective and realistic in this report and therefore we will make our selections factoring in the number of microphones we are looking to invest in.
If we are just looking for a single microphone capable of doing a little bit of everything, then the choice is practically made for us. Here we would look for a nice all-round condenser - capable of recording acoustic instruments and voices efficiently and effectively. This is a situation where research and discovery is recommended, as there are many microphones
on the market from lesser-known manufacturers that can return great results.
For around 300/400 euros, you can purchase a decent microphone, potentially with selectable polar patterns.
This means that the user is able to focus or widen the angle of recording, as well as apply a frequency cut- off filter. A shock mount will usually be included, an accessory that is essential.
A clear example of this is the Lewit LTC60 microphone, where the polar pattern can be easily selected from the microphone’s front panel.
If instead we decide to opt for a second microphone, we come to a crossroad: choose another identical capacitor (often available in matched pairs so that the sound is as similar as possible), or opt for a classic dynamic. This dynamic may be less sensitive and perhaps less “refined”, but often more suitable for recording percussive instruments and, in
general, acoustic and electrical instruments with higher emissions (for example a snare drum, trumpet or guitar cabinet).
For just 50-70 euros, you can purchase a super-reliable and performance dynamic microphone. But don’t be fooled or lured in by “brand appeal”, as on closer inspection we can tell you that many models, inside, are very similar to one other, if not identical...
It might be that two or even three microphones aren’t enough? Maybe
you want to record a full drum-kit to obtain more refined sounds and nuances? In this situation, you can opt for a complete microphone set to pick up the drums, of which there are many models to choose from.
These are available at a variety of price-points, from tube models providing warmer and velvety sounds, to splendid ribbon microphones - beautiful for medium-high frequencies in
their characteristic of having a very sensitive and precise reel made just like that of a tape.
Ready to choose?
The world of microphones is one that every artist involved in music will explore at one time or another. Moreover, the microphone is the first link between our instrument (including the voice) and the rest of the signal chain. It is precisely for this reason that a microphone should be chosen after a hands-on test, particularly if primarily being used for vocals.
Here, we have to find our sound, something that cannot be expressed pruely in words or technical data. Remember that although a lot can be done during editing and mixing, it is impossible to perfect a sound that starts off with a flawed recording.
In this article we have addressed the issue from a different angle to the norm, choosing to avoid the usual pseudo philosophical distinctions between the types of microphones, polar patterns and other factors. After all, you can already find a great deal of further info in the links that we have inserted in the text. Instead, we are focused on giving advice and
clear, useful practices.
So, on the crucial question: how does one ultimately choose a home recording microphone? What factors should we consider, assuming we only have to choose one?
● diaphragm type
● versatility (possibility to choose polar diagrams)
● high transient resistance
The condenser type is certainly the most suitable for the first and only microphone, above all because it is so versatile in its usage, even more so if featuring an assignable polar diagram.
Likewise, a microphone that can withstand
more subtle transients well, perhaps at the expense (though not always) of the
sensitivity of the membrane itself. However, for an extra 70 euros or so, it is
not such a bad idea to invest in a second robust dynamic microphone as well!
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