How to find the right microphone
Have you ever wondered which microphone is best for you? It’s possibly the most commonly asked question by musicians and in many ways – one of the most difficult to answer. The truth is, there isn’t a clear cut answer, and the easiest answer is – it depends, are you singing pop ballads? or leading the next big rock group?
Although it isn’t easy to provide a simple answer to this question, there are a few basic points to consider, and the following information should get you started when choosing your microphone:
What are you trying to pick up?
There is no such thing as a one size fits all microphone, they all sound different, and they all have their uses depending on application. However, microphones for vocal applications can be split into 3 categories:
- Handheld – Handheld microphones offer great sounding, durable and practical solutions for the majority of live performance situations, but can be an issue in other scenarios such as presentations and theatre, where a more discreet and usually wireless solution would be more practical for performance reasons. In this situation you could consider one of the following:
- Headset – As the microphone is stationary, the performer or presenter can move freely, without restriction, and the microphone will still pick up an even and clear sound.
- Lavalier – A similar option to headsets, with the added advantage of being discreet. A lavalier microphone can easily be positioned in a costume or attached to a suit – a great solution for theater or presentation applications where a discreet PA is necessary.
Where are you?
The environment you’re in plays a big part in the selection of your microphone and the polar pattern you use. For example a highly sensitive mic with an omni directional pickup pattern can work great in the studio, but in a live environment, where stage monitors and other sound sources are present, it is important to choose a directional polar pattern – such as cardioid or super cardioid. These polar patterns will pick up sound from the front, and reduce sound from other directions – reducing the chance of feedback.
Cardioid – A directional pickup pattern, which picks up sound from the front and reduces sound from other directions.
Omni Directional – Picks up sound evenly from around the microphone.
Super Cardioid – Similar to Cardioid, but more directional.
Bi-directional – Receives sound evenly from both the front and back, and rejects from the sides.
Note: Cardioid pickup patterns are effected by a physical occurrence known as the “Proximity Effect”, which causes bass frequencies to be boosted as the microphone is positioned closer to the sound source – this can be used to the singer or engineers advantage to fatten up a vocal if desired.
How do you want it to sound?
Another key element to consider that will have the greatest impact on general tone quality, is the type of microphone capsule you select, and these can be broken into 3 main categories:
Dynamic – A warm and full sound. Dynamic microphones are highly durable and able to handle very high sound pressure levels, making them ideal for live applications and noisy environments. If you play in a loud rock band, a dynamic microphone is most likely the most suitable for your live gigs.
Condenser – A brighter and more detailed sound. Condenser microphones are much more sensitive than their dynamic counter parts and have a much wider frequency response. For this reason, they are able to pick up a very honest and true sound, which is favoured by studios around the world. However, for some live applications, these sensitive characteristics may require some fine tuning – particularly with noisy performances.
Ribbon – Prized for their ability to pick up high-frequency detail, without being harsh or brittle. Ribbon microphones are great as a vocal or drum overhead solution in the studio, but are rarely used live due to their more delicate construction.
The rules were made to be broken
As we have concluded, there are many factors to consider when choosing a microphone, and the reality is, the best microphone for you is the one that sounds best on your voice or instrument. There are no rules, only guide lines, and we encourage you to experiment with as many types as possible. There are plenty of examples in pop history of unconventional uses for microphones. For example: John Lennon recorded all his vocals with a Shure SM57 (A microphone usually regarded as an instrument mic).
Have fun and experiment next time you’re choosing your mic, and if you have a story to share with us on unconventional microphone use – please leave a comment below. In the meantime, we will leave you with some resources below to assist you in finding the right mic.