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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > Oct 17 > THE COMPLETE GUIDE To Microphones

THE COMPLETE GUIDE To Microphones

Welcome to the new MusicTech Beginner’s Section, designed for newcomers to the world of music production. We’ve looked at the core of your studio, the computer and the main software it uses. Here, we explore what you need to plug into it to record: the microphone…

MT Beginner’s Guide

We’ve covered the heart of your studio, the software and the instruments you can use to make music. Last time, we looked at the interface you’ll need to connect it all up to the outside world and now we look at the main item that plugs into that interface: the microphone.

The humble microphone is very much the start of the recording process. It’s what goes into the musical pot – the raw ingredients, whether that be a voice, a drum, a guitar or an orchestra. A microphone can also be described as both similar to, and actually the opposite of, the end point of the production process; the speaker. One takes in and records the vibrating particles that are sound; the other spits them back out the other side in a similar manner. Both use similar components – a diaphragm in the mic that records the vibration and a diaphragm in the speaker that causes the vibration. Thus, music production, on a very basic level, can simply be described as a human being manipulating particles between a couple of vibrating diaphragms. And you thought you were getting into something quite glamorous, right?

Music production is a human manipulating particles between two vibrating diaphragms. Not quite so glamorous, after all

Since microphones are the starting point in the audio chain, they’re arguably the most important. Actually, not ‘arguably’ – let’s say ‘definitely’ the most important item in the audio chain (warning: we will be saying this about speakers in the future, too!). This is simply because it’s always best to get your recorded source to sound as good as you can; capture a beautiful recording and you’ll need to do less to it down the line. Capture a bad one and you may not be able to rescue it.

Unfortunately, the world of microphones, as with so much of music production, is littered with terms, specs, types and the kind of language developed by scientists more interested in impressing other people with specifications and figures than in delivering an incredible piece of music. This guide is designed to cut through a lot of that. We won’t be ignoring it – indeed, we’ll try and explain the most important stuff – but our message will be simple: a microphone is important and we hope that after reading this guide, you’ll select the right one for your purposes. Yet when we’ve asked every record producer we’ve interviewed – and that is a lot – the best way to capture the best guitar/vocal/drum, they inevitably reply: ‘Get the best performer.’ So it turns out that the human being making those particles vibrate could be the most important part of the chain…

Microphone types

Okay, here’s the science bit. We’re going to divide our mic types up into two broad types. The first is called a dynamic microphone. These use a wire coil, a magnet and the aforementioned diaphragm. Sing into it and the air particles you shift as pressure waves will vibrate the diaphragm, which will move the coil backwards and forwards. This generates a current by way of electromagnetic theory which represents your sound in electric form. If you then put an amplifier on this signal, send it to a ‘reversed’ version of a dynamic mic – a speaker – the signal is then converted back from a now-larger current to a bigger vibration, which moves more particles to give you bigger waves and a bigger sound. There. We’ve just explained the science behind singing into a Karaoke system in just 100 words.

Dynamic mics are the basics of the mic world. They are simple, very useful, often cheap, require no extras like power and you can record a whole variety of stuff with them. They are also sturdy and can handle big sounds, so tend to be used as live mics.

Next up are condenser mics, which are sensitive and fragile compared to dynamic mics and tend to record a lot more detail. They have two plates that act like an electrical capacitor that stores charge. One of the plates is fixed and the other one moves, so generates differing charges depending on the depth of the sound pressure wave hitting it. This process requires external power – a battery or phantom power, which can be generated from a mixer or interface that you plug the mic into. Condensers tend to be able to pick up a lot more detail than dynamics, but they don’t like loud sounds so much. Think of them as nuanced and sophisticated – maybe like cats. Yes – cats for condensers, dogs for the bigger and slightly dumber dynamics. Yes, that’s good. We’ll use that.

There are several other mic types based around these first two. Ribbon mics capture sound in a similar way to dynamics. Whereas dynamic and condenser mics record changes in pressure, ribbon microphones respond to velocity. They have a very thin film of electrically conductive material – called the ‘ribbon’ and often made of aluminium – that is placed between two poles of a magnet and moves in response to the sound. It’s a similar process to the dynamic mic, but the ribbon is a lot more sensitive and has more freedom to move and respond than the more rigid diaphragm used in a dynamic mic. This means ribbon mics tend to be the best at capturing everything, yet don’t capture so much noise, as they are more focused on what is coming from the front or back, rather than the sides. They used to be the more expensive and more fragile option – at one time, you only had to say ‘boo’ to a ribbon and it would run off crying – but newer models have become more sensibly priced and a little more hardy.

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About MusicTech

The new issue of MusicTech is on sale from Thursday 21st September where this month we go all out and show you how to record EVERYTHING! Across 12-pages we cover the best ways to position your microphones and accurately capture the vast majority of instruments you’ll ever need to record. To help you along the way, our Beginner’s Guide this month takes an extensive look into the world of dynamic, condenser and ribbon mics. Elsewhere we sate our inner geek with our in-depth interview with the pioneering Radiophonic Workshop, whose rich history begins way back in the early 60s, where they painstakingly created innovative soundtracks for the BBC, most notably the theme for Doctor Who. As if that wasn’t enough we’ve also assembled a special 24-page supplement full of our favourite reader and pro studio interviews, free with this issue.
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