Buyers Guide How to Buy a Mic

How to Buy a Mic


Your microphone decision begins with this question:
What am I doing with the microphone and under what conditions am I doing it?

This leads you to the following considerations:

    1. Vocal or instrument mic?
    2. Dynamic or condenser?
    3. What kind of pickup pattern?
    4. Wired or wireless?
    5. Money to burn or on a budget?

Consideration 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.

Consideration 2: What kind of sound do I want?
Transducer stuff: Here’s where you 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 transducer pictureDynamic A simple, rugged diaphragm/coil. It handles extreme volume levels without distortion.

Condenser transducer pictureCondenser A lightweight, sensitive diaphragm that precisely and smoothly captures sound nuances. It is powered by         battery or phantom power supply.

The following 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.

Transducer chart picture

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. When you look through catalogs or web pages, you're probably going to see icons that look something like these.

flat response curve picture

tailored response curve picture

adjustable response curve picture

Consideration 3: Where is the sound coming from?
There are two basic types of mics - omnidirectional and unidirectional

omnidirectional type mic picture

unidirectional type mic picture

There are no hard and fast rules in selecting a mic – there are only guidelines. Since every microphone has its own sonic signature, it might take a little experimentation to find that one that’s exactly right for you.

Consideration 4: What about wireless?
For musicians who want 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.

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 transmitters
are built right into the handle of the microphone
and are generally used by vocalists.
Handheld transmitter picture

Bodypack or beltpack transmitters
Clip to the users belt, body, guitar strap or instrument.
Bodypack or beltpack transmitter picture

Two Types of Receivers

Single Antenna
Just as it sounds, the receiver has one antenna just like an FM receiver.

Less expensive, but momentary drop-outs can occur when 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.

Single Antenna receiver picture

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.

Diversity type receiver picture


Consideration 5: What is 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

And finally...

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.
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.