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Microphones & Miking Techniques: An Introduction

When you enter the world of audio recording, one of the first tools you'll encounter is the Microphone. But with the variety available and the myriad ways to use them, it can be a daunting journey. This explainer aims to simplify that process for you.

1. What is a Microphone?

A microphone is a device that converts sound waves into electrical signals. At its core, it captures vibrations (from voices, instruments, or any other sounds) and translates them so they can be amplified, recorded, or transmitted. Different microphones are designed to capture sound in various ways and have distinct characteristics that make them ideal for specific tasks.

2. Types of Microphones

  • Dynamic Microphones - These mics are rugged, moisture-resistant, and can handle high sound pressure levels (SPL), making them perfect for live sound environments and studio applications. They use a diaphragm attached to a coil of wire, placed within the magnetic field of a magnet, which means they don't need a power source.
  • Condenser Microphones - These are more sensitive and offer a higher frequency response and louder output than dynamic mics. They're commonly used in studio recording settings. They require power (from batteries or phantom power) to charge their internal electronics.
  • Ribbon Microphones - Known for their high quality and smooth character, ribbon mics capture sound with a thin strip of metal suspended in a magnetic field. They're fragile and typically used in studio environments.
  • Lavalier Microphones - These are small clip-on mics often seen in broadcasting for interviews and presentations.
  • Shotgun Microphones - With a very narrow area of sensitivity, or "polar pattern," these mics are used to pick up sound from a specific direction. They're commonly used in film and TV production.

3. Miking Techniques

  • Close Miking - Placing the microphone close to the sound source. This technique captures the direct sound and reduces the amount of ambient noise. It's commonly used in both live sound and studio recording.
  • Ambient Miking - Mics are placed at a distance from the sound source. This captures more of the room's acoustics and ambient noise, providing a more "natural" or "live" sound.
  • Stereo Miking - Uses two microphones to capture a stereo image. Common techniques include X/Y (where two cardioid mics are placed close together at a 90-degree angle) and spaced pair (where two mics are several feet apart).
  • Miking Drums - Each drum or cymbal can be miked individually (close miking) or a few overhead mics can be used to capture the entire kit (ambient miking).
  • Miking Guitars - For acoustic guitars, placing a mic near the 12th fret captures a balanced sound. Electric guitars are often miked by placing a microphone close to the amplifier's speaker.

4. Polar Patterns

This term refers to the sensitivity of a microphone to sounds arriving from different directions:

  • Cardioid Picks up sound best from the front.
  • Omnidirectional Picks up sound equally from all directions.
  • Bidirectional (or figure-of-eight) Picks up sound best from the front and back.
  • Supercardioid and Hypercardioid Have a narrower front pickup area but a small rear pickup area.

Explore Further

Choosing the right microphone and employing the best miking technique can dramatically impact the quality of your recordings. Whether you're capturing vocals, instruments, podcasts, or on-field sounds, understanding the basics outlined above can set you on the path to producing professional-level audio. Remember, experimentation is key: try different mics and techniques to find what works best for your unique situation! And check out all of the Sound On Sound articles listed below for plenty of buying advice and 'how to' techniques.

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    Q. Do I need a mic with a HPF and pad?

    I've just been looking at buying a cheap condenser mic and I was wondering how useful it is to have the low-frequency cut and 10dB pad options that are on some mics?

    Sound Advice Nov 2003
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    Q. Is it wise to buy a second-hand microphone?

    With so many brand-new budget-priced microphones out there these days, I'm wondering if it might be better to get a high-quality mic second-hand instead?

    Sound Advice Sep 2003
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    What Mic Should I Buy First?

    Sound Advice

    We answer one of the most common queries from those just starting out with home recording.

    Sound Advice Jul 2003
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    Q. How can I record acoustic guitar better?

    I've recently bought myself an electroacoustic guitar and it sounds really loud, clean and crisp when I play it. Yet...

    Sound Advice Mar 2001
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    Q. Which budget mic should I choose?

    I'm looking for a decent microphone for my small studio, which is based around a Korg D8 eight‑track digital...

    Sound Advice Dec 2000
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    Mic Types & Characteristics

    Dynamics vs Capacitors vs Back-electrets

    The type of microphone you choose for a given task can have a profound effect on the quality of the resulting recording. Paul White sorts out the dynamics from the capacitors.

    Sound Advice Apr 1998
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    Capacitor Microphones Explained

    Their Advantages For Recording

    Paul White looks at the workings of capacitor mics and discusses their advantages for studio recording.

    Sound Advice Feb 1998

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