Are You Finding The Best Mic For Your Home Recording Studio? Tips For Selecting A Microphone 2021: Tip 5


Remember There’s Good Microphone At Any Price

What is your budget for finding the right mic? This is always the biggest issue when selecting a microphone. Or is it? Up until recently the motto “you get what you pay for” held true when purchasing mikes. In the last decade or so quite a lot has changed.

There are many new microphone manufacturers in the market today making very good mikes at affordable prices. Usually, the affordability comes with some limitations in the design. Maybe the shell is not as bulletproof, no pad or low-frequency filter, or only one polar pattern available.

It’s not always best to buy a mic with many features. Depending on your needs, it may be better to find a mic with fewer features but more quality in the design. In order to determine what you need, let’s take a closer look at the most common features found in microphones. It’s important to have a basic understanding of each feature, what to look for, and whether it is necessary for your situation.

Polar Patterns:

There are 3 basic polar patterns available in the microphone market. A Polar Pattern determines the direction a mic will best receive signals from. The idea is that the microphone can be more or less sensitive to signals coming from different directions toward the mic. This allows sounds to be rejected when coming from off-axis positions relative to the mic.

  • Cardioid: This is the most common polar pattern for mikes on the market today. The cardioid pattern rejects, to a greater or lesser degree all signals that are not coming directly into the front of the mic. Almost all dynamic mikes are cardioid or a variation thereof. This makes them suitable for most recording situations where isolating instruments is required. Condenser mikes are also commonly cardioid, but due to their added sensitivity, do not reject side and rear signals as well.
  • Omni: Omnidirectional mikes pick up signals equally from all directions. Omnidirectional mikes are a great option when recording group vocals, room mikes, talkback mikes, recording rehearsals, etc… They are also a great option when a cardioid mic lacks presence with a particular instrument. Omni mikes are great for adding “air” around a sound that seems a bit lifeless. The added pickup of reflections in the immediate area can make the instrument sound more natural.
  • Figure 8: The figure 8 pattern, emulates the shape of the number 8. Signals coming from the front and rear are picked up equally with signals from the sides of the mic being rejected. Figure 8 patterns are found in almost all ribbon mikes because they are inherent to the physical design. Many Large-diaphragm condenser mikes also have this polar pattern available. There are many valuable uses for figure 8 like recording vocal duets or capturing 2 instruments with one mic when running low on inputs. It can be used with a cardioid mic to create an incredible stereo miking technique called MS stereo.

Because sound bounces off all surfaces in a room, there is no way to reject everything from entering a mic in instruments share the same room. What you are trying to do is to reject the direct sound wave which is the loudest and most problematic when recording. This basic principle is a great help for isolating one instrument from another. Conversely, with the right polar pattern selection, a microphone can be sensitive to signals from all directions allowing it to pick up everything in a room.

As a way of cutting back costs, most inexpensive microphones come with a single polar pattern. It is important to know what you need and what each pattern is:

Other Mic features of note:

  • Pads: A mic pad switch is designed to help prevent an overload of the microphone and mic preamp electronics when recording loud or very transient instruments like drums and percussion. This allows the mic to be used closer to the sound source when a dryer sound is desired.
  • Filters: The Filter on a microphone allows low frequencies to be attenuated. The type of filter used on mikes is commonly called a Low Cut or High Pass filter. The filter is a type of EQ that progressively attenuates all frequencies below the selected setting. Filter frequency selections on a mic typically range from 60hz up to 160hz. This is a great way to get rid of low-frequency energy that is not part of the original sound source. Filters can also be used to help limit muddiness in a recorded sound.
  • The Body: The body of a microphone is the most difficult to judge when purchasing online. Microphones that are designed for live performance factor in the wear and tear of being dropped, kicked around, and otherwise abused. Studio mikes do not typically factor in this type of abuse and assume you will take better care to make sure it is properly mounted to a stable stand. Ribbon, Tube, and Condenser mikes are most susceptible to internal damage if dropped, even if the body does not show signs of wear and tear.
  • The Diaphragm: The diaphragm is the part of the mic that captures the fluctuations in air pressure and converts them into an electrical signal that can be recorded. It is typically disc-shaped, except for ribbon mikes. Air pressure fluctuations strike the diaphragm and are then turned into an electrical current. The signal is then amplified, padded, filtered or EQ’d before heading the mic preamp of your interface. The design of the diaphragm determines the type of mic. The diaphragm on a dynamic mic has a coil attached and is essentially a small speaker in reverse. Any speaker can act as a microphone if wired in reverse. Condenser mikes come in 2 basic flavors, large and small diaphragm. The larger diaphragm mic has an extended low-frequency response and is more sensitive overall. Ribbon mikes do not use a diaphragm but instead use a very thin strip of corrugated metal mounted between a magnet.

The Devil’s in the Details

There are many details that show up in the technical specifications that will affect your decisions when purchasing a mic. Here are a few quick tips on what to look for.

  • Dynamic Range: The Dynamic Range of a mic determines how wide of a range of sound pressure levels (SPL), loudest to softest, the mic can handle without distortion. The range of human hearing is 120 dB SPL. Most mikes will show a range of 120 dB SPL, but these numbers can be misleading. The average home recording environment has about 60-65 dB SPL of noise inherently built into it. That’s half the dynamic range right there! Transient signals at a close distance to the sound source can easily exceed 120 dB SPL, even if only for a few milliseconds. Moving the mic farther away from the sound source can dramatically lower the SPL entering the mic.
  • Frequency Response: The frequency range of a human is 20 Hz – 20 KHz, roughly 10 octaves for musicians out there. I don’t get too caught up in frequency response numbers but like to see numbers that extend above 20KHz on the high end. Even though most people can’t hear anything above 15 kHz I believe the extended frequency response is felt and adds realism to what you record. It’s important to note that the Frequency Response specification is not necessarily indicative of the quality and accuracy of those frequencies, only that they exist in the tests.
  • THD: Total Harmonic Distortion is a way of determining the quality of the frequencies as opposed to the amount of them. If a manufacturer does not report these numbers to you, then there is likely something they are trying to hide. Numbers around 1% are typical. High THD numbers will smear the sound quality, give you artificial high end and a lack body and depth in the sound.
  • Signal to Noise: All electronics generate a certain amount of random noise. Ribbon and Tube mikes can generate noise that is not only audible but sometimes annoying and problematic. The tradeoff is a great depth, warmth, and body to the sound that can justify the annoyance. Even though Signal to Noise is technically a ratio the number is usually represented in dB. Look for higher numbers when provided. If a “Self Noise” number is provided, the lower the better.
  • Weight: This is an easy one to overlook and should not affect your decision about the mic purchase as much as it does the selection of a good mic stand. Spend the money and get a quality stand that can handle the weight of what you are putting on it. You will spend far more money repairing or replacing your mic than a good stand will cost you.

Conclusion:

When making your final decision, consider the above features and whether you need them. If flexibility is not a necessity then you may be able to get better quality at a lower price with fewer features. If your mic needs to serve multiple roles in your recording situation, look for a feature-rich microphone that will allow you to adapt to your recording needs.

I hope this series of articles has helped guide you in the right direction to finding a good mic. If you have missed any of the previous Tips for Selecting a Microphone, search for the series in our search bar at the blog header.

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