How to Buy A Microphone
The time has come. You’re about to embark on your first microphone shopping adventure. Or maybe this time, you just want to narrow the field from the dizzying assortment that’s out there before visiting your dealer, surfing the web or thumbing through the most recent catalog in the stack that’s been accumulating under your desk.
In this article, we’ll guide you through this maze by asking you to ask yourself some basic questions. Once answered (and by the way, you will be able to answer them even if you don’t know a capacitor from a transistor), you’ll be able to shop with confidence. We’ll explore applications and microphone types. What brand to buy is already, we hope, a done deal!
A Simple Question
Your microphone decision begins with this question: What am I doing with the microphone and under what conditions am I doing it? This leads us to the following considerations:
- Vocal or instrument mic?
- Dynamic or condenser?
- What kind of pickup pattern?
- Wired or wireless?
- Money to burn or on a budget?
Question 1: What am I trying to mic? Vocal or Instrument?
Most manufacturers produce microphones for specific types of sound sources. Microphones that are specifically designed for drum kits have different characteristics, for instance, than those that are used for vocals. Are you miking your acoustic guitar? Or your guitar amp? Are you recording a rap in your home studio? Or are you looking to rock the house with screaming vocals? In most, but not all cases, your first choice will be between a vocal mic and an instrument mic.
Question 2: What kind of sound do I want?
Here’s where we need to spend a little time on what microphones do and how they work.
What They Do: A microphone is a device that changes sound into an electrical signal.
How They Do It: Inside the microphone are transducers.
The two most common types are:
Dynamic A simple, rugged diaphragm/coil. It handles extreme volume levels without distortion.
Condenser A lightweight, sensitive diaphragm that precisely and smoothly captures sound nuances. It is powered by battery or phantom power supply.
This chart gives you a broad overview of some of the characteristics of dynamic and condenser mics. These are very general guidelines – there are exceptions in most categories.
Fundamentals of Frequency Response
Every microphone has a signature and part of that signature is its Frequency Response. Frequency response determines the basic “sound” of the microphone. It is determined by the range of the sound (from lowest to highest frequency) that a microphone can reproduce and how that sound varies at different frequencies. The most common response curves you are likely to see are flat and tailored.
Question 3: Where is the sound coming from?
Call it what you want to: Pickup Pattern, Polar Pattern or Directionality, there are two basic types – OmniDirectional and UniDirectional. This is the symbol associated with an omnidirectional mic. It can't be aimed to isolate one area. Best used for high fidelity recording or broadcast. Not generally used for sound reinforcement due to feedback limitations. This is the symbol most often associated with unidirectional microphones. These are sensitive to sound coming from only one direction. The most common type of unidirectional microphone is called a “cardioid” because its pickup pattern is heart-shaped. It picks up the most sound from the front of the microphone, less from the sides, and very little from the rear. Supercardioid or hypercardioid microphones offer even greater sound isolation through narrower pickup patterns. Best used for live sound, since these mics isolate sound from one voice or instrument and can be aimed away from loudspeakers to avoid feedback. That’s why unidirectional microphones far outnumber omnidirectional microphones.
Question 4: What About Wireless?
For musicians who want the freedom of movement without worrying about tripping over cords or becoming involuntarily unplugged onstage, wireless mic systems offer some real advantages. They’re most often used by vocalists, guitar players, and horn players with specific models and configurations available for each application. But first, we’ll share some basic information about how wireless systems work. Once you’ve grasped the fundamentals, you’ll have a better idea of what kind of system will best meet your needs.
Two Types of Transmitters
The two transmitter types may look different but their function is the same — to convert audio signals into radio signals and send them directly to the receiver. What you’re miking will dictate what kind of transmitter you need.
Handheld - built right into the handle of a microphone and are generally used by vocalists.
Bodypack - clip to the user's belt, body, guitar strap, or instrument. They're about the size of a deck of cards and are more commonly used for instruments or headset microphones. For instance, a drummer or keyboard player who sings will often use a headset vocal mic attached to a bodypack transmitter.
Two Types of Receivers
Single Antenna - Just like it sounds like. The receiver has one antenna - just like a standard FM radio. They can be less expensive, but momentary drop-outs can occur as the user moves around. This happens when part of the radio signal is reflected by metal objects. This can cause loss of signal at the receiver's antenna.
Diversity - These have two antennas along with a smart circuit that selects or combines them for the best signal quality. Since one antenna will almost certainly be receiving a clean signal, the risk of dropout is greatly reduced.
Radio Frequencies – UHF or VHF
Once you've decided what type of transmitter you need - handheld or body-pack - and whether to go single-antenna or diversity, there's one more specification you need to consider. Are you going to convert audio signals into VHF (Very High Frequency) signals or UHF (Ultra High Frequency) operating frequencies? Wireless microphones come in both varieties. While there are some differences in the radio behavior of VHF and UHF systems, there is no inherent difference in audio quality. The choice of VHF or UHF depends on the potential for interference and the number of wireless systems that may be needed.
Question 5: What's it going to cost?
For most of you out there, a dynamic microphone of one type or another will suit your needs. And that’s good news since the simple construction of a dynamic mic makes it less expensive than its more complicated condenser cousin. (That also helps to explain why studio microphones are generally more expensive than those used for live performance.)
Generally speaking, here's what spending more gets you:
- Less handling noise
- Improved sound quality
- Better gain before feedback (for higher sound pressure levels)
- Sturdier construction (with less plastic and more metal parts in the cartridge), that translates to Greater durability
- Smoother/wider frequency response
All microphone manufacturers have microphones designed for beginners, gigging musicians and professionals (for live sound reinforcement and studio recording). They are priced accordingly. To buy the right mics based on your need and budget, use these guidelines:
- Low cost: appropriate for everyday use and practice
- Medium cost: appropriate for daily club use and touring
- Higher cost: appropriate for premier applications, demanding environments
It's Not That Complicated
As long as you know what you need to mic and where you’re likely to be using it, you’re well on your way to making an informed choice. Check out musician web sites for gear chat rooms and don’t be afraid to ask your Shure dealer for advice. Depending on the music store, you may even have an opportunity to demo some mics right in the store. Friends and fellow players are also a good source of information. What are they using? Why do they like it? Finally, just remember — there are very few absolutely wrong solutions in the world of microphones. There’s plenty of technology here, but this really is a personal decision — about you and what you’re trying to achieve.