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Everything about Microphones

PA and show without microphones? Unthinkable! Singers use them just as much as musicians, but also presenters and speakers, actors and musical performers. But which of the countless different models is best suited for which application? We will guide you through the microphone jungle!

1. Microphones: General

Before we take a closer look at the many different types of microphones used in everyday PA and live situations, let's look at a few general aspects that affect more or less all models.

Popular manufacturers include:

1.1 Diaphragm size

The size is decisive for microphones, especially when talking about the diaphragm. There are two options here:

  • Large diaphragm microphones
  • Small diaphragm microphones

Technically, the two variants differ, for example, in their noise behaviour, as models with a large diaphragm usually produce less noise than small-diaphragm microphones. Another difference lies in the sound: large-diaphragm produces sound as you would expect; with high volumes. Variants with a small diaphragm, on the other hand, produce a more neutral sound that sounds particularly detailed.

Großmembranmikrofon Shure SM27-LC
Large diaphragm microphone: Shure SM27-LC

1.2 Dynamic or Condenser?

The fact that there are both dynamic and condenser microphones, and that they also differ in some way, is something you have probably heard before. But what actually distinguishes these two types? And when is which variant better suited?

  • Dynamic microphones are considered real workhorses: they are very stable and have proven themselves countless times in the hard daily routine of touring and on stages all over the world.
  • Condenser microphones on the other hand, are more sensitive - in several respects. First of all, they pick up sound in much greater detail than dynamic models: the frequency range is usually much wider and the self-noise is lower. However, they are usually also somewhat less robust. Last but not least, they need their own power supply (keyword: phantom power), either by batteries or mains power.

In general, you can use both types in live operation. Whether dynamic or condenser is preferable in individual cases depends on the overall sound impression: The frontman of a rock band will certainly gladly exchange the robustness and "currentless" operation of a dynamic microphone for a sound that is not quite as delicate. If, on the other hand, sound quality is the top priority, a condenser model is more suitable.

Small diaphragm microphone Fame Audio CM 5
Small diaphragm microphone (Condenser): Fame Audio CM 5

1.3 Polar pattern

The directional characteristic determines from which direction the sound must come in order to be ideally picked up by the microphone.

The most relevant directional characteristics are:

  • Omnidirectional: Sound is picked up equally well from all directions.
  • Cardioid: Noise hitting the microphone from the front is picked up clearly, while side noise is better suppressed.
  • Figure 8: Sensitive to frontal and rear sound sources; noise from the sides is strongly suppressed.

In addition, there are various variations and intermediate forms that, for example, combine or reinforce the properties of certain characteristics. These include, for example:

  • Subcardioid
  • Supercardioid
  • Hypercardioid

If you are now wondering which characteristic is suitable for which situation, we have a few examples for you::

  • It does not always make sense for a microphone to pick up sounds from all sides equally loudly - after all, a vocal microphone should primarily pick up the singer and not the rest of the band as well. In this case, a cardioid (or supercardioid) model would make sense.
  • In quiet environments, it can be advantageous if the microphone is not dependent on sound coming from a particular direction. For example, omnidirectional clip-on microphones for presenters and speakers can be attached relatively flexibly to the body or clothing and do not have to be aimed directly at the mouth.
  • If you want to pick up several sound sources at the same time or work with certain stereo techniques, a microphone with a figure-of-eight characteristic can be just the right thing, as it can pick up sound from two sides.

1.4 Impedance

On the one hand, impedance is important to consider with microphones - on the other hand, it is hardly an issue in current professional set-ups. This is because both modern microphones and preamplifiers get along well with each other in this respect.

In general, impedance refers to electrical resistance. A distinction is made between:

  • Output impedance (at microphone)
  • Input impedance (at amplifier/mixer/…)

The rule is that the input impedance should be about five times the output impedance. Otherwise, overloads, distortions and other unsightly phenomena can occur.But as I said, nowadays most high-quality mixing consoles are prepared for all kinds of microphones and problems rarely occur.

1.5 Cable or Wireless?

The eternal question: should the microphone operate cable bound or wirelessly? Wireless operation may automatically sound much more attractive to you, but cable mics actually have just as many advantages. Let's take a closer look:

Wired models

  • Less expensive
  • Easy to use
  • Neither batteries nor receiver required

Wireless microphones

  • Great freedom of movement
  • No cables (potential trip hazards) on the stage

As you can see, even if wireless microphones seem to offer greater convenience in use, you can put wired models into operation much more easily. Thus, the intended use determines the right choice above all: a band that tends to perform on smaller and medium-sized stages usually does little wrong with wired microphones. If the events are larger and a certain freedom of movement is required, there are hardly any alternatives to professional wireless microphones.

XLR-Anschluss eines kabelgebundenen Mikrofons
XLR connector of a Sennheiser wired microphone

1.6 Popscreens and Windscreens

There are things that microphones do not like at all - and these include wind and pop sounds, S sounds and so-called plosives (letters that produce a sudden, strong stream of air when pronounced, for example P or T).

Fortunately, there is a solution: the pop shield or windscreen. It is designed to prevent such air currents from hitting the diaphragm directly. Some modern microphones have an integrated pop screen in the grille - very practical. Alternatively, you can buy a separate windscreen for practically any model and put it over the grille.

Popschutz von MUSIC STORE
Simple but efficient: pop screens from MUSIC STORE

2. Vocal microphones

The voice is considered the most important instrument in many musical genres. Accordingly, you certainly don't want to make any compromises when it comes to the vocal microphone. We tell you what is important when choosing!

2.1 Sound and Construction

In general, you should pay attention to two factors in particular when choosing microphones for singing:

  • Sound Quality
  • Construction

A model that sounds divine but is so fragile that it would not survive a proper rock'n'roll gig may be suitable for the studio, but not necessarily for live use. At the same time, indestructible workmanship is of no use if the sound drives people out of the concert hall.

But how do you find a vocal microphone with high sound quality that perfectly suits the singer? That's not so easy to say in a general way. Of course, the basic sound should be clear and detailed and not stuffy or cheap. Beyond that, however, both the human voice and different microphone models are an individual matter: some designs emphasise precisely those frequencies that are a little too dominant in the voice - in this case, a different model would be the better choice.

As far as the workmanship is concerned, there are two simple rules of thumb:

  • Models made of metal (body and grille) will usually withstand even the most demanding concerts without any problems.
  • Microphones made of plastic are naturally more susceptible to damage and should be used more sparingly.

In fact, most professional vocal microphones are made of metal anyway and are accordingly robust.

2.2 Design

Many people immediately recognize dynamic models such as the Shure SM58, which has been in use for decades, with its classic ice cream cone shape, conical handle and round or elongated grille.

Two designs have become established:

  • Dynamic microphones
    • Robust
    • Function without power
  • Condensor microphones
    • Very detailed sound
    • Wide frequency range
    • Requires power (phantom power)

In general, a condenser microphone does not always have to be superior to a dynamic one, because both models offer their advantages depending on the intended use. You can find out more about this above under point 1.2 Dynamic or Condenser?

Shure SM58
The classic among vocal mics: Shure SM58

3. Instrument microphones

Instrumenten microphones basically have a very simple task: to pick up and transmit the sound of the instrument so that it reaches the audience exactly as the musician intended. But of course this is easier said than done, because in order to be able to fulfil this task, the transducers must sound particularly neutral, detailed and extensive.

But since not every instrument produces the same sound, there is a whole range of microphones that are suitable for different instrument groups. We have selected some of the most important examples for you.

3.1 Electric guitar

Strictly speaking, it is not the guitar itself that is picked up with a microphone, but the corresponding amplifier or cabinet (unless you decide to pick up directly from the stage à la Motörhead - but that does not always make sense for various reasons). Typically, dynamic microphones are used because they are robust, easy to handle and deliver a powerful sound.

Classic dynamic microphones for miking guitar amps are, for example:

  • Shure SM57
  • Sennheiser MD421
  • Sennheiser E609 und E906
  • Electro-Voice RE20

Ribbon microphones (e.g. Royer R-121), which often sound very soft, are also used for amp miking. Last but not least, (large diaphragm) condenser microphones (e.g. Neumann U87) are also used: they reproduce a particularly wide frequency range and thus deliver more bass than many other models.

Shure SM57
One of the most used microphones for amp miking: Shure SM57

Tip: It is not only the microphone that has a decisive influence on the sound when miking an electric guitar amplifier, but also its positioning on the loudspeaker - for example, how far away it is from it and whether it is directed centrally towards the loudspeaker cone or rather towards its edge.

The following aspects play a role in amp miking:

  • Distance between microphone and speaker
  • Position of the microphone in front of the speaker cone
  • Angle at which the microphone is directed towards the loudspeaker

3.2 Acoustic guitar

In contrast to electric guitars, acoustic guitars sound unique and are therefore picked up directly with a microphone. In order to reproduce the nuanced sound of this instrument as faithfully as possible, a condenser microphone is recommended in most cases: its frequency range is wonderfully extensive and it can capture fine details in the playing very well.

The next question is whether you want a large-diaphragm or a small-diaphragm microphone. One thing in advance: you can't go wrong with either type of microphone. Again, it depends on the sound you have in mind.

  • Small diaphragm microphones sound somewhat airier, lighter and can therefore authentically reproduce acoustic guitar sounds.
  • Large-diaphragm microphones produce a fuller, richer sound - this can also be desirable in some cases.

The directional characteristic also plays an important role in microphones for acoustic guitar. It should not be too tight, because the whole guitar including the body produces sound and not just a small section. A cardioid pick-up pattern is usually a good choice, but an omnidirectional pick-up can also be a good choice if you want to capture as much of the sound of the entire instrument as possible.

You usually place the microphone either in front of the guitar with the help of a microphone stand (tripod) or you use a holder that is attached to the body (in this case, a gooseneck microphone is often used). The latter is useful when other instruments are playing at the same time. This prevents other signals from hitting the microphone too strongly.

Popular Microphones for acoustic guitar include among others:

  • AKG C414, C451 and C452
  • Neumann U87
  • Rode M3
  • Shure SM81
Großmembran-Kondensatormikrofon AKG C414 XLS
Popular for its voluminous sound: AKG C414 XLS large-diaphragm condenser microphone

3.3 Drums

If you want to mic the drums, the first thing to consider is how many microphones you want to use. Ideally, each component of the drum set gets its own microphone:

  • Bassdrum (z. B. AKG D112, Shure Beta 52A, Electro-Voice RE 20)
  • Snare-Drum (z. B. Shure SM57, Telefunken M80)
  • Toms (z. B. Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421)
  • Hi-Hat (z. B. Shure SM81)
  • Overheads (z. B. Audio-Technica AT4050, Neumann U87)

But it is not always possible or desired to record each part of the drum kit separately. Therefore, several groups are often combined, such as hi-hat and overheads. It is important to make sure that the microphone used is able to reproduce the frequencies of the individual drums optimally. While there are special dynamic bass drum microphones for the kick drum, for example, that also pick up low frequencies, a microphone for the snare drum should naturally reveal more presence in the midrange.

SE electronics V KICK
For the bass drum, you should use a microphone specially suited for it (in the picture: SE electronics V KICK). (pictured: SE electronics V KICK).

3.4 Wind instruments

With wind instruments, you again have the choice of whether you want to pick them up directly (i.e. on the instrument itself) or indirectly, i.e. with a separately placed microphone.

With direct miking, the microphone is attached to the instrument with a clip and aimed at the sound source - for example, at the bell of a saxophone or a trumpet. So that the microphone does not interfere too much with the feel (and look) of the instrument, the microphones are usually very compact.

With indirect miking, you set up one or two stands with microphones at some distance from the instrument - or from the instruments, because this method is also well suited for small brass groups. Stereo miking with two microphones is often favoured because it produces a fuller sound.

DPA d:vote CORE 4099 T Brass
Gooseneck microphone with mounting clip on a trumpet (pictured: DPA d:vote CORE 4099 T Brass)

What else there is to consider with microphones for wind instruments:

  • Frequency spectrum: Frequency spectrum: When choosing the right transducer, the frequencies covered by the instrument are very important, because they must ultimately be able to be picked up convincingly by the microphone. Picking up a flute with a high-frequency sound with the same microphone as a bass-heavy tuba may achieve creative results, but is not always recommended in terms of authenticity.
  • Sound pressure: Wind instruments differ not only in sound but also in sound pressure. For particularly loud instruments (e.g. trumpet), you should make sure that the microphone is capable of handling this sound pressure.

4. Headsets

You want (or need) to have your hands free during your performance or lecture and don't want to bother with a handheld microphone? Then a Headset is an excellent solution. These microphones are positioned directly in front of the mouth, while there are various options for attachment:

  • Single ear hook: Easy and quick on/off.
  • Two earpieces/neckpieces/headpieces: More stable fit, advantageous during movement

Common polar patterns for headsets are omnidirectional (for quieter environments or when more ambient noise needs to be picked up) and cardioid (when the focus should be on the voice alone).

Headset with two ear hooks: AKG C520L

The great advantage of this design is that the position of the microphone always remains the same, even if you turn your head to the side, for example. Normally, headset microphones work wirelessly and are only connected to a transmitter/battery pack that can be attached to the belt, for example.

5. Clip-on microphones

An alternative to headsets are clip-on microphones, also called lavalier nad lapel microphones. They are very small and are usually attached to the upper part of the body or to clothing (collar, jacket, etc.). These microphones are particularly popular with speakers and presenters because they are more inconspicuous than headset microphones.

You can find more information about lapel microphones in our detailed category text.

Rode Lavalier GO
Lapel microphones are particularly inconspicuous (pictured: Rode Lavalier GO).

6. Headset or Clip-on microphone?

If you are looking for a microphone that is as compact as possible, you may notice both headset microphones and lavaliers - but which type is best suited for which situation? And what are the advantages of each?

Headsets are initially more conspicuous than lapel microphones: they are more easily noticed by the audience. The advantage of them is that their position and especially the distance to the mouth always remain identical. So you can turn and move your head as you like, the signal always remains optimal (this is especially pleasing for sound mixers, because they don't have to constantly readjust the volume). Lapel microphones, on the other hand, score points with their inconspicuousness.

As a general rule, the more movement there is in a performance, the more likely it is that a headset will pay off. Presenters or speakers, for example, who mainly stay in one place and/or act "slowly" are well advised to use a lapel microphone.

7. Installation microphones

They are not exactly the rock stars among microphones, but in various situations, they are worth their weight in gold: Installation microphones. Permanently installed on a lectern or similar location, they ensure that the speaker's voice is always ideally picked up and distributed over the PA system.

Gooseneck microphones are often used as installation microphones. They offer two advantages in particular:

  • They are relatively inconspicuous because they are thin.
  • They can be bent and aligned with the speaker's mouth - this improves intelligibility.

Once again, the good old directional characteristic is important for a swan microphone: in order to exclude background noise as much as possible, many models have a hypercardioid. Conversely, this logically means that the speaker should speak as directly as possible into the microphone.

It is also useful in many cases if the microphone cuts bass frequencies - because this can improve the clarity and thus the intelligibility of the human voice.

By the way: installation or gooseneck microphones are also available with a table stand. This can save you the trouble of drilling and at the same time makes the microphone more mobile.

Schwanenhalsmikrofon mit Tischstativ
Gooseneck microphone with table stand (AKG CGN 99 CS)