Music Production

Understanding how microphones work

If you are a singer that is starting out using microphones, there are several technical aspects you should understand in order to A) pick the right microphone for the right occasion and B) learn to cherish the qualities of your microphone 🙂

Since you will probably mostly sing either in a live setting or when recording music in a studio,we will focus on two main microphone types that are commonly used for these purposes and will only touch on further types briefly.

The main types to gain an understanding of are „dynamic“ microphones and „condenser“ microphones. The first of which being used in live shows (but also in the studio when picking up loud instruments/sounds like drums or guitar/bass amps) and the second of which is commonly used in studio surroundings to pick up all sorts of sounds. There are also tube microphones and ribbon microphones as well as carbon microphones and more, which are all great alternatives for condenser mics.

But now, let´s dive into the difference of dynamic and condenser mics.

Dynamic microphones, how they are built and why they are awesome

A dynamic microphone is essentially a diving coil microphone. The principle makes use of electromagnetic induction.

You can picture it like this:

The microphone diaphragm picks up the vibrations of your soundwaves and starts to move forth and back (creating vibrations). Attached to the diaphragm inside of your microphone handle is a coil which is wrapped around a permanent magnet. By moving up and down along the magnet, the coil is affected by the electromagnetic field which induces alternating current which thus converts the vibration into an electrical signal. Pretty cool, right? It is a very simple principle really.

In order to generate induced power, you need a certain amount of mechanical energy (meaning the vibrations that on the diaphragm must be strong enough), which is why a dynamic mic is a very robust mic, that isn´t suited for every occasion. A condenser microphone in contrast, can pick up even very delicate vibrations and is therefore more „accurate“ and better suited for a studio recording.

A dynamic microphone is rather „insensitive“ so to say and is therefor great for live settings, in which you want to avoid feedbacks and too many noises other than the singer´s vocals.

Condenser microphones, how they work and why they are a great choice for the studio

First off, the condenser microphone makes use of direct current and therefor requires a so called phantom power. More precisely a phantom power of 48 volt. That´s why on audio interfaces, you can usually find this little knob next to your input channels that says 48 V. Without phantom power, the microphone won´t work.

Direct current (DC) simply refers to the flow of electrons along the wire. They flow in a single direction. This is different from an alternating current where electrons switch direction along the wire.

This current is used within a condenser microphone to apply a positive charge to a small metal plate which is located behind the diaphragm (the diaphragm being also a thin metal plate with negative charge).

Now picture this:

The vocalist´s soundwaves hit the diaphragm, thus moving it forth and back, which results in a constant change of the distance between both metal plates (the diaphragm and the other metal plate), which again results in a constant change of capacitance, which ultimately can be converted into an electrical signal and thus also into an audio signal.

The condenser microphone is super accurate and can pick up even tiniest of movements and convert those into electrical signals, which means they can pick up a huge bandwith of frequencies, even in low amplitudes. So, even when singing at very low volumes, the mic will convert the frequencies very precisely.

The downside is, that the mic is super sensitive and the diaphragm can easily be torn under too much pressure. So, singing too loudly or having a loud drum sound hit the mic, might actually break the microphone. Careful with that! Even unplugging the mic without turning off phantom power can cause it to break! When using a condenser mic in live settings, it should be controlled by a professional engineer who is very careful with adjusting the volume levels.

Go check it out for yourself!

Now, that was quite a bit of theory. I urge you to go to your local music store and ask them to demonstrate the different sound qualities you get from dynamic and condenser mics. You´ll fall in love with condenser mic to record youtube demos or professional tracks, but do keep in mind, that dynamic mics are absolutely amazing mics for live shows, as they allow you to jump around, even drop the mic on the floor without breaking or generating feedback loops!

How cool ist that you rock´n rollers?


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