Before we can comfortably decide on a microphone, there are an overwhelming number of choices to sort through. This can be frustrating when you don’t have a clue where to start. Any time you’re preparing to make a purchase, it’s always wise to have a little knowledge of your own about the purchase so that a salesperson does not influence your decision based on his or her preferences. With a little knowledge, you can use discretion to determine if what they are selling you is right for your needs.
In this article I’ll show you how to narrow down your microphone choices by explaining what types of microphones there are to choose from, which microphone will work best for your style of music, and how to get the most out of your microphone.
There are many uses for a microphone, from live performance to cinema sound design, but in this article we will be looking at microphones used during the songwriting and music composition stages, more specifically composing instruments and recording vocals.
The different types of microphones
Microphones come in all shapes and sizes, but a basic understanding of how they work will help you avoid the frustrations of selecting a microphone and help you make a better choice. All microphones function in a similar fashion. They have a diaphragm or a ribbon that responds to changes in air pressure. A movement or vibration is then converted into an electrical signal that gets amplified to produce a sound. The main types of microphones are ribbon, condenser, and dynamic microphones; however, condenser microphones are the recommended choice for studio recording when it comes to urban music.
Dynamic microphones can handle high sound pressure levels (SPLs) and are less sensitive to sound, which is why they are often used for miking loud kick drums and guitar amps at close range. They are also very durable, which means they can be dropped and beaten up without effecting the way they sound very much. Unlike condenser microphones, dynamic microphones don’t require phantom power to work, which makes them convenient for live events or mobile situations.
Although dynamic microphones have a unique sound, you typically don’t see them being used for studio recording for too many situations because of their limited frequency range and response to higher frequencies. However, there is no set rule for which type of microphone to use. In fact, as well as being a widely used mic for broadcast, the Shure SM7B dynamic vocal microphone has been used in many of the best selling records ever made. Bruce Swedien, who engineered Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller,”said: “When we were doing “Off The Wall,” “Thriller,” and “Bad,” I ended up with six Shure SM7s. That is a fantastic mic.”
Condenser microphones are very sensitive to sound pressure changes. They can pick up every nuance of a performance, or they can pickup many unwanted sounds like your washing machine and dryer or passing traffic. A condenser mic has one or two electrically charged gold or nickel plates, and some have transformers built into them. They require an electric charge through a battery, phantom power, or an electric charge in the microphone’s materials to work.
Microphones come in many sizes, but a condenser microphone with a one-inch diaphragm is ideal for vocals and/or any instrument where you’re trying to pick up the low end. Small diaphragm condensers have a diaphragm that’s anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 inch, and are a good choice for instruments that have a lot of high frequency energy, like acoustic guitars.
When recording vocals or live music instruments, you want the recording to be as crisp and transparent as possible. Condenser microphones have a wide and even frequency response and greater dynamic range than dynamic microphones. This is why they are the popular choice for recording vocals or instruments in a recording studio.
A microphone’s pickup or polar pattern refers to the range of its area of focus. In other words, it refers to how sensitive the microphone is at picking up sound in a focused area. Most microphones have a fixed pattern, but some studio microphones include multi-pickup patterns, which can be selected with a switch on the side or sides of the microphone. The three basic pickup patterns are omnidirectional, bi-directional, and cardioid.
An Omnidirectional pattern can pick up sound 360 degrees around the microphone. This pattern is useful for recording a choir or when you want to pick up everything going on in a room.
A Bi-Directional (Figure-8) pattern is sensitive to sound from the front and
back of the microphone, but rejects sound from the sides. This pattern is useful for recording a duet of singers or instruments.
A Cardioid (Heart-shaped) pattern is
sensitive to sound directly in front of the mic but rejects most sound from the sides and rear of the microphone. Basically it captures the source it’s pointing at the best, making it a very popular pattern for recording a solo vocalist in a vocal booth.
Creative ways to use a microphone
Making beats for someone else or an instrumental for your own songs might not seem like a situation where you need a microphone, but there are some situations where you’ll benefit from owning a decent microphone. Some of my favorite uses for a mic while making beats are when I need to record some beat boxing or a weird vocal sound effect. Owning and using a mic while making your beats can add lots of creativity and feeling to your tracks, making them unique and innovative.
A microphone is one of the most powerful tools in an artist’s toolbox. A big chunk of our time is spent brainstorming to come up with melodies, patterns, lyrics, and harmonies. When I’m writing a song, I like to keep everything for that song in one place as much as I can. So if i’m brainstorming melodies or even writing lyrics, I like to use my studio microphone to record my ideas directly into the DAW so that I can keep adding on and tweaking things in the actual song.
There are times when I’ll use my iPhone and the memo app to record melody ideas, but most of the time after the fact I wish I would’ve recorded even the rough sketch ideas with my mic into the DAW I’m using to add production, edit the final vocals, and mix the song. Other times I’ll come up with the melodies or patterns on the fly to lyrics I’ve already written. I’ll press record with the lyrics in front of me and freestyle melodies and patterns. It’s a trip because hearing high quality vocals being recorded and played back sort of inspires new ideas to push into your head, which helps you to write and complete songs quicker. Sometimes to get through a creative block you just need to press record and see how it turns out. It’s not until you actually hear the lyrics, melodies, and patterns from the vocals in realtime that you start to actually feel like you’re making real progress with your song. Writing and re-writing lyrics and trying to make them perfect can actually be a form of procrastination. This can distract you from completing your song. Grab your microphone and start recording something and watch your song come to life.
Pop filters or pop shields are great for limiting the number of sudden puffs of air like ‘f’and ‘p’sounds, otherwise known as plosives. Most of the time you can get rid of this later in the mix with EQ or compression, but there are some times where they can actually ruin a vocal take. My suggestion is to use a pop filter to save yourself time and headache later while you’re mixing. Even if you plan to have someone else mix your songs, they will thank you for putting a little extra care into the vocal recording.
If your microphone has it, I would also use the high pass filter feature. This can roll off some of the low rumble and frequencies where plosives are the most active.
A shock mount is useful because it prevents unwanted low frequencies like rumble and bumps from getting into your recordings. This is normally caused by bumping the mic or mic stand. Most studio microphones come with some kind of shock mount to prevent this from happening to you.
Unless you plan on holding your condenser microphone while you record your vocals (not recommended), you will need to get a mic stand. I recommend a mic stand with an adjustable arm so that you can make it work for any situation or studio setup. But you can also get a small desktop mic stand.
I believe arming yourself with well-rounded information about the gear you are purchasing will put you in a better position to choose the right gear for your setup. In summary, when you’re selecting your microphone,
a good checklist should look something like this:
Frequency Response: Does it boost certain frequencies and enhance the vocals, or does it put out a more natural sound?
Pickup Patterns: Does it have the pickup pattern you will likely be using the most?
Dynamic Range: Can the mic accurately pick up the softest and loudest sounds?
Microphone Capsule Size: How large is the capsule of the microphone? If you’re recording vocals, it should be a one-inch capsule
If you’re still unsure about which microphone to choose, an easy way to have a good starting point for deciding on a microphone is to see which microphones are the most popular in your genre of music. You can watch the behind-the-scenes studio session videos on YouTube and Vimeo and try to figure out which microphones they are using. If you can’t figure it out, post a comment on the video. There is no right microphone; just like anything else, you will have a trial and error period before you find the right microphone for your voice, style of music, and gear.