Microphones for Music, Part 1
By Kristin Pinell & Kurt Reil
July 20, 2011
Ready to record music? Learn basic microphone principles and techniques in this two-part series! We've used all of the techniques presented here countless times in our own pro recording studio with great results. They are, however, meant to be a just starting point because you can achieve so many different results from the same mic.
As you gain experience and more of an understanding of how mic selection and placement affects your recorded sound we encourage you to experiment and find what brings out the qualities you prefer in your own music. Ultimately your application will determine your choice.
When starting out it's advisable to buy name/known brands because you can't really audition a mic before you buy it as there are too many external factors involved.
Though there is an amazing selection of well-crafted "boutique" handmade mics out there you can be assured of the quality from respected manufacturers that have been around forever, like:
Shure, Sennheiser, Audio Technica, Neumann, CAD, AKG, Rode, Electro Voice, or Telefunken, to name a few.
A microphone is basically a transducer that converts acoustical sound into an electrical signal. By controlling that signal through amplification or mixing you effect the final sound quality. The way a microphone is constructed and how it handles this conversion determines its type.
For musical reproduction the most common types are:
With such a wide selection of microphones available these days we wanted to provide an outline of the most useful options and features that are available so you can more easily find the best "fit" for your project and budget.
- Commonly looks like a ball on a stick. The ball provides protection to the capsule and helps to diminish "popping";
- Very sturdy and works well with a wide variety of musical sources;
- Real workhorses that are good for either live use or recording;
- Relatively inexpensive;
- Can handle very loud sound levels without overloading or distorting;
- Great for miking guitar amplifiers, drums, horns, woodwinds but the nature of their construction restricts their high frequency response;
- Shure SM58 or 57, Rode M1, Sennheiser E815S-C.
- Choice of large or small diaphragm effects the quality of the tone (warmth vs. detail);
- Detailed, clear, smooth, accurate, neutral sound reproduction;
- Captures a wide range of frequencies accurately but particularly sensitive to high frequencies;
- Many offer switchable polarity patterns;
- Can be more expensive because of their construction but not necessarily;
- Requires a battery or 48V Phantom Power external power supply, (Many mixing boards have phantom power built in to their mic inputs so you can simply plug the mic into the board for power);
- Great for miking acoustic instruments, cymbals, and vocals because of its ability to reproduce clear, detail from its source (i.e. the strings being plucked on an acoustic guitar or the cutting hit on a cymbal);
- Tube or FET (transistor);
- Shure SM81-LC, MXL 440, Sennheiser 440, Audio Technica 650.
Tube or FET (Field-effect Transistor) Mic?
Anyone buying a condenser microphone is confronted with the choice of getting one with either a tube or FET. Both can sound equally good depending on the overall quality of the components and what outboard gear you're running it through.
Tubes are loved for their warmth and boldness- transistors for their sparkle and brightness but the sonic differences are very subtle. You will have to decide what sounds best for the particular track in context.
If you are considering a tube mic, one possible downside is that the tube will eventually wear out and have to be replaced. You might get some artifacts in your sound, "clicks" and "pops" right before it goes. Also the tube mic comes with it's own power supply that is generally sold with the mic so they can be more expensive than FET type mics.
- A type of dynamic microphone usually prized for their smoothness
- and subtlety;
- Conjures up kind of a "vintage 50's" or three-dimensional sound;
- Good for capturing brass or harsher instruments because of their low sensitivity and less high-frequency detail;
- Lower output levels may require more preamp gain which can add extra noise to
- your signal;
- Close miking can add warmth to the sound by bringing out lows but can also create bass "boominess";
- Not really suited for outside use because it picks up a lot of wind noise;
- Usually very fragile (don't drop it!);
- Can be expensive, but manufacturers have been working on bringing the price down, durability and sensitivity up!
- MXL R77, Nady RSM-2, Royer R-121
- Plugs directly into your computer or DAW for ease of use;
- Traditional microphone construction and varieties but includes built-in A/D converter and preamp;
- Audio Technica AT2020, Samson G-Track, Shure.
Mic Pickup/Polar Patterns
Microphones vary in the way they respond to the sound coming from different directions around them. This directional sensitivity is referred to as a polar pattern and helps control vocal or instrument separation and minimizing the effects of room and reflected sounds.
- Good when you want to pick up room reverb or ambience;
- Low sensitivity to noise and vocal "popping" and can handle bass and kick drum well;
- Not a lot of "proximity effect" (bass boost up close).
- Allows you to focus on and capture sound coming from one direction;
- Good when you are trying to avoid leakage or want to exclude room or background noise coming from the side or rear of the mic.
- Heart shaped pattern;
- Picks up sound coming from a broad angle in front of the mic (mostly from the front and sides);
- Works well for isolating individual vocalists and instrumentalists.
- More front-end isolation. Good when you are trying to avoid bleed from other sounds near it.
- Picks up sound in both the front and the back equally;
- You can record two vocalists or instrumentalists at once or add room or ambiance/air to your sound.
Stay tuned for part two: Which mics to use and where to place them when recording pop/rock music.