“Every Time I Record Myself, It Sounds Terrible.” Part Three – Mike?  Who’s Mike?

(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)

So, our discussion of how to get a better-sounding home recording has so far discussed the pieces of gear required to record sound (part 1), and the ways in which we might get the best out of our own gear in our own room (part 2).  Now, we’ll get specific, and talk about Microphones (usually called “mic’s” and pronounced “Mike’s”), and how to help them do what they were designed to do.

A Mic is Not an Ear

We must understand that even the best microphone is incapable of “hearing” the sound exactly as our ears do, so we’d do well to learn to “think like a microphone”.  Each microphone is designed with an ability to “hear” sounds coming from a certain direction, and a lesser ability to hear sounds coming from other directions.  And, yes, there are microphones designed to “hear” equally well in all directions, but these microphones are used much less frequently than directional microphones.  Each microphone also has a limit on how loud the sound around it may be, before the mechanisms in the microphone fail to operate as intended, resulting in a less accurate electrical representation of your sound (i.e. unwanted distortion of your sound).  Try your microphone up close, a little farther away, even pointed in a slightly different direction, to hear how it behaves in those circumstances.  Understand your microphone’s sensitivity to direction, and use this to your advantage.  For example, if your microphone does not “hear” sounds coming from its sides, then you can aim the “sides” of the microphone at sounds that you don’t want to capture (like other instruments or voices in the same room).

Dynamic Condensation on my Ribbon Valve?  What?

Dynamic, Condenser, Ribbon, Valve – All of these words are confusing my microphone choice!  Yes, there are several different ways to build a microphone, but don’t believe anybody’s strict “rules” for when to use a specific type of microphone.  To oversimplify, once again…

  • A DYNAMIC microphone is the most robust microphone design, the best choice for a microphone that is likely to take physical abuse (REALLY loud sounds, possible impact from dropping or being hit by a drumstick, etc.). These microphones generally have a “thicker” sound with less “sparkle”.
  • A CONDENSER (also called “capacitor”) microphone is usually preferred for its ability to capture sound with incredible accuracy, and as such is usually the first-choice in a studio environment. It also captures sounds with (generally) less noise introduced by the microphone itself.  However, this design is not as robust as the dynamic microphone design, so it is used with greater care for its physical protection.  Condenser microphones require electrical current in order to function – this current is provided either from batteries inside the microphone, or from a current provided through the microphone cable itself (called “phantom” power).
  • A RIBBON microphone is a kind of dynamic microphone which uses a very thin (and very fragile) strip of metal, suspended in a magnetic field. This design, while being less “accurate” in the way it translates the sound it detects, offers a very desirable character of sound on many sources, including vocals and orchestral instruments.
  • VALVES (tubes) are used instead of transistors in many condenser microphones, to amplify the signal generated within the mic. The result is a less “accurate” but pleasingly “characterful” capture of the sound source.  Valve microphones typically require more operating power than can be provided with batteries or phantom power, and so they are usually supplied with a dedicated power supply device.
  • Even within the same category of microphone, different models will have a different sound. Some are intended to capture a “neutral” or precise representation of the sound in the room, while others are intended to “flatter” the sound by altering it in a way that is generally agreed to be a pleasing change.
  • An experienced sound recordist will have a favourite microphone for every use, chosen from years of experience (and years of wonderful mistakes). Having said this, there is no “right” microphone for every voice, or for every instrument.  Every microphone has its own unique character, and every voice and instrument also has its own unique character.  Try different microphones before deciding what to use for your recording.  Rent, borrow, and test-drive a few.  You will find some that sound terrible on one sound source, but will be perfect for another sound source.
  • There are microphones designed to work best with certain sounds – like the high-volume and fast-onset nature of drum and percussion sounds, for example – and there are general-purpose microphones designed to work well on a variety of sounds (useful when you can’t afford to buy many microphones).
  • The most important piece of advice I can offer, regarding the different microphone designs, is this: BE ADVENTUROUS WITH YOUR MICROPHONE CHOICES.  Within reason (be very cautious when placing a ribbon microphone near a loud sound source), be prepared to try almost any microphone in any situation, because the resulting sound capture (accurate versus characterful) may be exactly what you’re looking for despite using the least “recommended” microphone for the job.

P-P-P-Pop Music

Microphones used on a vocalist will work their best when used with a “pop filter” – a device which attempts to minimize the explosive puffs of air which come from our mouths when we sing.  These explosive puffs of air will typically cause a microphone to fail to operate as intended.

Closer to the Heart

One important microphone behavior to understand is called the “proximity effect”.  This is the behavior (exhibited by most microphones which are designed to “listen” only in one direction) in which the microphone will “hear” a greater amount of lower frequencies (the “low notes”) when the microphone is very close to a sound source.  With such microphones, you’ll notice a difference in the sound captured when your microphone moves even 12 inches back from the sound source.

Go Forth and Record

So, have fun trying out different types of microphones, listening closely to hear the differences in their character.  Feed your microphone properly – at the right volume, from the right distance, and pointed at a sound which the microphone was designed to “hear”, and you’ll get the most out of your microphone.


In the next post, we’ll look at the Pre-Amplifier and what it does for us.

Next Instalment:  Part Four – Giving Mike a Boost


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