27.4.22 – Buying a microphone: 3 useful things to know

 

Julia Krajewska

If you’re a voice artist performing to more than a small handful of people, at some point you’re going to need your voice to be amplified. Not only to ensure you can be heard, but also to avoid vocal strain and even give you further artistic control.

The microphone is the conduit between your voice and its ‘electrification’ i.e. turning the sound waves you are moving through the air into an audio signal that can be amplified, processed and delivered to your audience.

There are hundreds of microphones to choose from to suit a variety of uses and budgets, and the myriad of technical specs can seem baffling! But you don’t need to be a technical expert to choose a great mic that works for you.

Here are a few key things to know that will help you to ask the right questions and give you the best return on your investment.

Tip 1 – Know the basic anatomy of a microphone

Inside, just beneath the outer grille, is the ‘capsule’ of the mic. This is the heart of the mic and contains the electromagnetic components that detect the sound waves coming at it and convert these into the ‘audio signal’ which is going to be amplified.

This audio signal then travels down a lead, usually a 3-pin cable known as a balanced audio cable, or ‘XLR’. This then plugs in to whatever will be amplifying the signal – either a mixing desk, amplifier and speakers or directly into a small portable vocal amp/speaker (for example for practising, busking or a small intimate gig).

 

When choosing a microphone, the type of capsule inside the mic defines what that particular mic can do, so it’s good to know the different types available.

 

These fall into two main categories: dynamic or condenser. Both have a diaphragm that reacts to the sound waves hitting it, converting the movement into an electrical audio signal.

However, as dynamic mics use electromagnetic principles to capture and convert the sound (rather than two plates with an electric charge running between them as used in condensers), dynamic mics tend to be more robust and don’t require power, whereas condensers tend to be more fragile and sensitive and do require power. This is called ‘phantom power’ and comes either from a power supply that comes with the mic, or the ‘+48v’ button on a mixing desk or recording interface (termed ‘phantom’ because the power travels down the audio cable, with no separate visible power cable).

Dynamic mics can therefore be termed ‘passive’, whereas condensers are considered ‘active’.

There is also a type of dynamic microphone called a ribbon microphone that works slightly differently. Ribbon mics have a baffle with a tiny hair like metal ribbon inside it rather than a capsule.

These days they are not often used for vocals (unless you are going for a really ‘vintage’ sound), so I won’t be covering them in this article.

However – voices and microphones can have endless combinations – so there is really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ microphone choice. Only best suitability to the application, and to the sound source. If you use these two principles, the rest is down to personal taste and budget.

 

Tip 2 – Choosing the right type of microphone for the job

Let’s start off by looking at the application…

If you’re buying a mic for use on stage it will need to: 

  • Accurately capture the complex frequencies in your voice in a way that allows your tone to shine
  • Be resistant to feedback from ‘front of house’, stage monitors and/or instruments/voices around you
  • Be nice and sturdy so it will withstand travelling and being used time and again

Dynamic mics are therefore often the best choice for this job, although if you are on a quiet stage (e.g. an acoustic guitar and a vocal, and/or using in-ear monitoring) or requiring a head mic, then there are also some small diaphragm condensers that can do the job

If you’re buying a mic for recording, the same principles above may also apply – however:

  • You may wish to trade what you get in durability and feedback resistance in a stage mic for greater sensitivity or ability to pick up sound in different ways

Condenser mics are therefore often the best choice for this job for maximum detail and dynamic sensitivity – large diaphragm condensers are the most popular choice for recording vocals, whereas small diaphragm condensers are most often used for recording instruments.

If you need both a live mic and a studio mic, and your budget is tight – it is worth considering that a mic designed for live environments will always work safely in a studio environment, whereas the same cannot be said the other way around.

Tip 3 – Pickup or ‘polar’ patterns and frequency responses

Now you know what type of mic you’re likely to need for the job at hand, let’s take a look at the finer points that distinguish one mic from another, which should help you make your choice.

 

There are many trusted industry standard brands and models out there, and some lesser known budget versions too – however, the pickup pattern and frequency response (as well as the mic’s durability and reliability) are key factors that will really define what a mic can do for you.

Pickup or ‘polar’ pattern

There are three main types of pickup pattern: unidirectional, bi-directional, or omnidirectional. Some mics will have the ability for you to switch between pickup patterns.

Unidirectional (‘cardioid’/’supercardioid’/’hypercardioid’/’ultra-directional’/’subcardioid’) – this is the most common pickup pattern used for live applications because it is designed to pick up the sound source in front of it, but not the ambient sound around and behind it, thus making it more resistant to feedback. These come in a few ‘flavours’. A standard ‘cardioid’ pickup pattern is so named because of its heart shape (aww!) and as the name suggests, it opens up towards the sound source with a slight dink in the middle. It means if you are ‘off axis’ (in other words not directly in front of the mic) your sound source will still be picked up. This is useful if you are moving around a bit in front of the mic. There are a few additional variations on the basic cardioid pattern (such as ‘supercardioid’, ‘hypercardioid’, ‘ultra-directional’ and ‘subcardioid’) and each has slightly different pros and cons. You can go deeper into the detail here. But essentially – cardioid pickup patterns are often the best for live vocals, whether hand held, placed on a stand, or as a wearable head mic.

Bi-directional – this is also called a ‘figure of eight’ pickup pattern because it picks up front and back, but not side to side. These are much more directional than the cardioid patterns, which means they are not so good for a vocalist who is moving around – but might be useful for recording a solo vocal in the studio provided there’s no sound coming in from the back. They can also be used for two backing vocalists facing one another who wish to do their take together. Ribbon mics, because of their construction, are generally configured in this pickup pattern, but more modern ones do exist that enable switching to other patterns.

Omnidirectional – these pickup patterns do as the name suggests – they pick up sound in 360 degrees. So for use on theatre stages, for a choir standing in a circle, interviews or on-location pieces where you’d want all the environmental sound being picked up, omnis can be useful. Some head mics are also omnidirectional (as they are often worn on one side of the mouth or on the forehead, they can benefit from a wider pickup pattern).

Frequency response

Every mic not only picks up in a particular pattern, but also picks up different frequency ranges, and at different points in its pickup pattern. The wider the frequency range (or ‘response’) of the mic, the more of those lovely frequencies can be amplified down the chain. This isn’t as simple as ‘I tend to sing high, so I need a mic which has a high-end frequency response’ or ‘I tend to sing low so I need a mic that captures lower frequencies’. A voice is a complex mix of frequencies that’s as unique as our fingerprint, not just one fundamental note.

Harmonics play a huge part in how our voice sounds and we can emphasise or temper these both with the way we use our vocal instrument, and also with the microphone and how we use it. Therefore understanding a little about which frequencies, you want to boost or reduce in your voice can be useful, as well as understanding what happens when you sing ‘off axis’ or in closer or further proximity to the mic (for example, the acoustic phenomenon known as the ‘proximity effect’ will boost the low frequency response the closer you sing to a directional microphone).

 

Just because a mic may be expensive with an extensive frequency range doesn’t mean it is necessarily the right mic for you – for example, it may bring out frequencies that could make your voice sound harsh and not actually do you any favours.

Without getting too technical, do have a look at the frequency response spec of your mic. There are charts available online for most mics where you can see what range of frequencies can be picked up (as well as any boosts or drops in particular frequency areas), and from whereabouts in the pickup pattern.

Here is a great article about understanding pickup pattern charts – it’s more straightforward than you might think. Frequencies can also be further tailored with EQ (equalisation) on a mixing desk or in the recording studio – but it will help you and the sound engineer if you have a good starting point i.e. a good combination between your voice, what you’re singing, and the mic.

 

To close, I’ll leave you with a shortlist of a few popular vocal microphones in different price ranges that you can check out (these are mics used by students and coaches I have known – but by no means an exhaustive list!).

Hopefully now you will be armed with everything you need to know to be able to make sense of it all. But all that said… don’t forget to trust your ears.

Do a little research and then actually try out a range of mics within your budget in a reputable music shop with a demo room – do your thing as you would when performing or recording (sing the pitches, tonal qualities and volume levels you’re going to use) and try them side by side to see how each mic responds, including when singing closer and further from the mic, or on and off axis.

 

Good luck and have fun finding the right mic for you!

Live mics – under £100

  • Shure SM58 – the industry standard basic dynamic ‘workhorse’ with cardioid pickup pattern and medium range frequency response, works well to help middle frequencies in the voice to ‘punch through’ over a band
  • Sennheiser e835 – a trusty dynamic cardioid mic with a slightly wider frequency response than the Shure SM58 for a little more detail at the top end, and a slight presence boost in the 2-5k range
  • SE v7 – an airy open sounding supercardioid mic with a frequency response comparable to the Shure Beta 58A and Sennheiser e935 at a price similar to the SM58, with a shock mounted capsule to minimise rumble and handling noise

Live mics – £100-200

  • Shure Beta 58A – often favoured over the SM58 due to the wider frequency response, louder output, shock mounted capsule and supercardioid pickup pattern
  • Sennheiser e935 – a slightly higher end frequency response than the e835, with a more balanced subtle lift which increases gradually as you go higher in the frequency range
  • Shure SM86 – a cardioid stage condenser with a great frequency range and shock mounted capsule
  • AKG D7 – a ‘condenser sounding’ dynamic mic with a frequency response that reaches higher than most, but rolls off a lot at the bottom (nothing below the 80hz mark) so this is an interesting one to try if you want to avoid boomy frequencies and keep things crisp

Live mics – £200+

  • Telefunken M80 – a supercardioid dynamic mic which minimises unwanted ‘boomy’ low and ‘honky’ middle frequencies whilst giving ‘air’ at the top end (also if looks are important… it comes in a range of 16 custom colours and finishes for the body and the grille, so you can mix and match with your outfit!)
  • There are also a myriad of wireless systems (handheld and head mic) which I haven’t detailed here as there are many details to consider – which could constitute a whole separate article.

Recording mics – under £100

  • MXL 770 – a cardioid condenser with a great frequency response at a great entry level price point

 

Recording mics – £100-200

  • Rode NT1 – a popular all-rounder for capturing vocals and much more, popular with podcasters, singers and instrumentalists alike with a capsule quality comparable to much more expensive mics
  • AKG P220 – another great all rounder with a great frequency response rivalling the Rode NT1 at a slightly lower price point
  • Audio-Technica AT2035 – another great alternative, a smooth natural sounding mic for the price

Recording mics £200+

  • Shure SM7B – a dynamic mic with a low boost and high frequency roll off, popular for making low vocals sound rich and thick, and giving speech that ‘voiceover’ quality
  • Aston Spirit – A great sounding large diaphragm condenser with all three pickup patterns (switchable)
  • sE 5600a MkII – Very similar in spec to the Aston Spirit, with the addition of its tube (which provides a certain tonal ‘warmth’) and the ability to gradually ‘dial in’ each pickup pattern
  • Neumann TLM103 – this highly sensitive mic is great for picking up lots of lovely ASMR-type detail, containing the legendary U87 capsule
  • There are many mics in this category that run into the thousands by Neumann, Telefunken. AKG, Lewitt, Sony and others… but I haven’t included any here as I suspect if you are in the market for one of these, you probably won’t be reading this article! 🙂

Julia is a Sing Space recommended coach and her profile can be viewed HERE

Julia is endorsed by sE Electronics, however this article is based on first hand experience and research across multiple brands and models of microphone, with no leaning towards any particular manufacturer or model.

 

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