Music Production Equipment - Microphone Basics

Obviously, the first thing that you need in order to record sound in general and music in particular is a good microphone. In earlier recording history, the only method to record sound was by using a conical shaped object that made impressions on a wax disc and could only take a single mono input. Now, with today's ever advancing technology, musicians have it relatively easy because the choice of recording equipment ranges from the simplest most modest home studio setup at an extremely affordable price to the high-end professional international standard quality audio gear made for the creme de la creme. Since this article is made for the DIY musician though, today we will look at the basics of microphones so that we can make an educated purchase that suits our budgets and our artistic aspirations when the time comes.

Microphones are divided into 3 main categories:

1. Dynamic microphones, also known as moving coil microphones. They are called moving coil mics, because that is the mechanism with which these kinds of mics work - by using a movable coil that receives stimulus from vibrations in the air and then translates that movement into electrical energy to be fed into the signal chain. It is also called a dynamic mic, because these types of mics are usually used for live performances, or to record relatively loud and strong sounds, like kick drums or electric guitar cabinets. The main character sound of a dynamic mic is that it sounds slightly dull due to the inherent frequency response allowed by the moving coil. But this is traded with durability and endurance: dynamic mics are the strongest mics around, so they are often used in live performances when the conditions on the stage can be too dynamic for sensitive equipment. The ubiquitous dynamic mic (that is hailed as the must have in every studio) is the Shure SM57.

2. Condenser microphones, also known as capacitor microphones. Like the dynamic mic, the capacitor mic receives its nickname due to the mechanism it uses to receive and translate mechanical energy into electrical energy - by using a capacitor (or conductor) to translate the vibrations into electric currents. Condenser mics are the studio engineers favorite for sound sources that are soft, fragile, and have a high frequency content i.e female vocals, violins, acoustic guitars, and cymbals. The advantage of condenser mics is that they have a better frequency response for high frequencies, so they are good for catching material that have insinuations or rich in high frequency harmonics. There isn't a ubiquitous example of a condenser mic like there is for a dynamic, but beginner standards include the Rode NT1A and the Audio Technica AT2020.

3. Ribbon microphones. I am sure you must have seen one of these unique looking mics, if you are a musician. These are the mics that you see in classic 1950's movies, where the female singer in the bar with the red dress holds the mic stand and sings into a mic that is shaped like it has grills on the side. Ribbon mics use a very sensitive method of transducing electricity from vibrations, and are therefore the most fragile of the three types of microphones available. They're sound is a blend between the warm quality of a dynamic, but can also catch the high frequencies like a condenser. Ribbon mics are usually used for specific purposes, because if you can use it right, you can create a signature sound that can't be achieved with garden variety dynamics or condensers. The unique usage of ribbon mics make them the most expensive on the list, when compared to the other two types.

By using the correct type of microphone, we can achieve a better quality of sound recording. Granted, that art is limitless, and there are no hard and fast rules. But it always helps to have a guideline so that we can make an educated guess, and aim to achieve the same sound quality as we hear on our favorite records.

To your mic choosing prowess,
Endy

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