A Plethora of Microphones

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Types of Microphones:

When attempting to purchase my first microphone for my home recording purposes, I was overwhelmed and flooded with information of the various types of microphones and their purposes. Depending on the instrument, range and type of recording there could an absolutely perfect or terrible mic for the job. After hours of research I decided to compile the information and a little extra into this article to explain how microphones work and what they can do.

Put simply, microphones convert the sound vibrations in the air to electrical signals. There are a range of specifications and varieties, which can cause buying a microphone suddenly turn into this big overwhelming decision.

Condenser vs. Dynamic:

Microphones fall into two categories: condenser and dynamic. As always, both have their pros and cons, but with a little research it is pretty clear which mic is best suited for your needs.

Dynamic microphones are the stereotypical mic that you see primarily in live shows. The mesh, metal globe encompassing the handle. These mic’s are generally used in live performances because of their durability and louder, more consistent output. Unlike, with condenser mic’s, there is not power supply needed which can also be advantageous if playing or performing without a mixing desk. Without getting to deep into the science of it, dynamic mic’s uses an inductive coil, and magnet that produces power when in use, or you could just say magic. It is actually quite fascinating if you look into it, but for time purposes, will leave it at that. Due to the mechanism itself producing both the sound and the power, the responsiveness of the mic, especially with higher frequencies is stunted. Dynamic mic’s tend to be less expensive in comparison to condenser mic’s as well.

Although condenser mic’s may be a bit more expensive, the price makes a difference. Condenser mic’s have much better sensitivity at all frequencies and because of that are much more commonly used for recording than dynamic microphones. Their sensitivity to sound also leads them to be much more vulnerable to damage and also any external vibration. All condenser mic’s need an external power supply. By using external power, an electric charge interacts with the sound waves in a much different way than dynamic mic’s but ultimately the mic is able to pick up on a lot of small variations in the sound that a dynamic mic couldn’t. The external power, called phantom power can come from either the mixing board, a pre-amp or sometimes batteries within the condenser mic itself. Condenser microphones usually require an external structure to shelter it from any external  vibration, but ultimately are a great option if used for recording purposes.

Reference: Which type of microphone should I choose?

Condenser microphones seem like a much better choice because of their “good sensitivity,” but sometimes that can cause a nuisance rather than an advantage. That is why a vocalist with condenser mic would use a “pop-shield filter” to prevent the mic from picking up on ever fragment of the singer’s voice.

On the other hand, condenser microphones are not suited for high-volume recording or performance, so dynamic microphones are mainly used in situations where loud audio is to be picked up. There are also many other specifications within the umbrella category of condenser and dynamic microphones.

Microphone Directionality:

Polar Patterns / Microphone Directionality:

Microphones generally have one of three polar patterns, which is the mic’s shape of sensitivity. Depending on the type, mic’s can either pick up or ignore sounds in multiple, all, or singular directions. Below, the chart illustrates the types of mic patterns: Undirectional, Bidirectional and Omnidirectional. It is important to think about the purpose of the mic, if you using the mic for vocals then usually you want an unidirectional mic. Otherwise, with an omnidirectional mic for example, the mic would pic up sounds from everywhere around you, not just your voice directly in front of the mic.  Other names for these polar patterns are cardioid, super-cardioid and hyper-cardioid.

Frequency Responses:

Different mic’s can also pick up different frequencies. This is important due to the range of sound each instrument will produce. Drums and bass guitars would sound better with a low frequency mic, because, for example the kick drum has a frequency around 30 – 40 hertz.

Other specs with different microphones include the sensitivity and proximity effect. Sensitivity, sometimes called the SPL or the sound pressure level. Mic’s with higher SPL levels would be able to withstand louder instruments, like drums.  The proximity effect is whether or not the sound changes depending on how close you are to the mic, no just the volume. Some musicians prefer mic’s with a proximity effect, because with each distance the mic will pick up different hertz and ranges of sound.

Are you buying a mic? It might be worth thinking over these questions before making a decision.

What are you your microphone for? Multi-instrumental? Vocals? Live performance? Recording?

What quality are you aiming for? What standards do you hold for your production?

Where will you be using it?

The case for Analog Vs. Digital

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The case for Analog Vs. Digital

It’s not only sound that is making the transition from

analog to digital. One can argue, and there definitely already exist many arguments that digital does triumph over analog, what that means for sound and music? Is there a difference between analog and digital sound, and if so, is the difference worthy enough to change your listening or playing styles?

This article will attempt to explain the difference between digital and analog sound.

The Basics:

Audio recordings come in two different types: audio and digital. Even with the newest and best technologies, digital equipment cannot reproduce and exact sound wave like an analog can. This is because analog records the exact wave of the sound, whereas digital records multiple samples of that same recording. There are pros and cons to both, and ultimately comes down to preference, but here is a brief breakdown of the science behind analog and digital.

The Recording Process:

The back to basics explanation of recording is that any recorded material is created by a microphone turning air pressures (which in this case is the sound) into an electrical analog signal. From this point on is where the analog and digital process of recording differs. Analog recordings’s signal flow are immediately imprinted onto a master tape via magnetisation or a master record.

Analog recordings record every sound, whereas with digital recordings, because there are thousands of samples, editing and mixing the recording can occur. Digital recordings take the same analog signal and convert it into a digital representation of the sound, which like all things digital is the classic series of numbers that digital software interprets. Once digitalised, the recording can be copied onto other medias, or edited using music programming software.

Once recorded, digital and audio recordings have varying degrees of bandwidth. Bandwidth is a unit used to describe the resolution, or quality of the audio recording. More technically, it is the resolution that the signal can carry out without degrading any of the information. Think of it like watching a video online, with shotty internet connection, it makes sense to have a lower resolution  on the video, rather than high quality. Music can be like that too, bandwidth can limit the music and the sound it reproduces. If you have a cheap pair of 10 pound headphones, one will not notice the difference, but with a 500 pound pair of headphones, you want a high bandwidth so you can hear the dynamic range of the music.

Then we come back to analog vs. digital. Analog recordings can be stretched to almost a unlimited quantity, whereas digital recordings do have their limits, even with the best equipment around.

The Sound Wave:

The figure above, accurately portrays what difference between digital and analog signals and also evidently explains “chopped signals.” Digital signals, record the sound in steps, whereas an analog recording creates a smoother signal. That being said with analog signals there are often times tiny imperfections, as cracks, or pops in the midst of the recording. Digital recordings capture quick “snapshots” of the sound, correctly termed the “bit depth.” The higher the bit rate, the more snapshots are captured, creating a more accurate recording.

What is produced:

Everyone has their preference, but there is definitely a noticeable difference between analog and digital sound. Listening to a record creates a much difference effect than listening to an mp3. Beyond sound though, there is so much more to take into consideration. If you listen to music, there are the obvious advantages of having virtually any song at your fingertips while carrying around records would just be seen as a mental thing to do. Also, analog does degrade over time. Since the needle of a record player does make contact with the record each play, record will experience wear and tear. Sometimes though, and this is only my argument and potentially my attention-deficit disorder speaking, while listening to digital music I’m more prone to letting my mind wander and try to multi-task on other things. With analog though, if I have gone through the undeniably extra effort to set up and play a record, I will dedicate my headspace to the music and press pause on everything else going on in my life.

For those recording their own music. Recording digitally seems to make a lot more sense especially with all of the possibilities and opportunities within mixing and mastering, but you can see the idealised concept of having a raw, true to the bone, recording.

Ultimately, digital and analog music serves different purposes.  The convenience of being able to carry around thousands, if not millions of songs around with you comes at the price of high fidelity, but one can argue that if people were never introduced to audio recordings, they may never be able to tell the difference.

The Art of the Sound Check; Part 1

Stage Specs

Ever wondered what actually goes on during a sound check?
Stage SpecsMost gloss over the technique and science involved when it comes to sound, but the work behind a sound engineer is not only fascinating, but an integral part of any concert.

For larger gigs, there are two sound engineers. There is a FOH (front of house) engineer, who controls and creates the sound that the audience will hear and a monitor engineer, who is in charge of mixing the monitors, which are the speakers that the band will hear of their own music.

Monitor engineering is sometimes seen as less important of a role than the FOH engineer, but in reality it is crucial in setting the stage, no pun intended, and for orchestrating a great sound from the band. If band members cannot hear themselves or their mates play, the sound could be distorted which could lead to a noticeable lack of confidence while playing. Monitor engineering provides a sense of security. If the band can hear their performance, than their performance improves because there are no doubts as to whether or not they are in tune together, following each other, etc.

Stage monitoring should provide the band with a clear sound of what they are playing, so all musicians can hear themselves and their bandmates. Each musician has different taste, for example, singers usually like to hear their own voice and one or two other lead instruments.

To most clearly explain what is involved in a monitor engineer’s role during gigs is to step-by-step go through a gig set up.

Part 1: Setting the stage  

This is going to be an attempt to portray and explain the basic wiring of the stage that is involved with almost all gigs where a sound engineer is present.

To begin, the sound engineer, if lucky will have a specs sheet with a layout of the stage, the instruments to be played and the necessary equipment. This will show the placement of the instruments, musicians, and if necessary what other equipment is needed.

Wedges are the monitor speakers used during shows for the band. Following the stage plot, the engineer would begin by placing the wedges in their necessary locations. Usually, each musician will have their own wedge, with the lead vocal sometimes having two, and the drummer having his own “drum fill” which are speakers that have a range from subs to high frequencies. The wedges then needs to connect either to the patch bay, which essentially allows a connection from standardised cables and connectors to other pieces of equipment, or directly to the amps. The location of the amps really depends on the venue, but amps are what gives power to the speakers, without the amps, there is no sound.

Now is to check whether or not the monitors are working. By turning on the mixing desk and plugging a microphone directly into any of the channels, the sound should be connected to the monitors. By sending the channel signal to each monitor, the sound engineer would go to each monitor and make sure there is a level sound being produced. Once the signals are clear, it is a good idea to also find the MPG, or Maximum Potential Gain for each monitor. The MPG is pretty self explanatory, but it is the maximum amount of gain you can put on each monitor before feedback begins. You’ll need to do this again during the sound check, but it’s good to have a general idea for each monitor.

HPF, or High Pass Filter should be put on all of the monitors except the drum field. This is because we don’t want the monitors on stage to pick up any subs or bass which would add nothing more than noise onto the stage. One of the biggest challenges for monitor engineers is the amount of feedback that monitors can pick up, so juggling this whilst the band is playing and the FOH engineer is doing their own thing can prove rather difficult. Another way to combat this is by Equalising each monitor. EQing, in this case, involves balancing the frequencies in the monitor so the frequencies that DO NOT resonate well (cause feedback) are weakened by reducing their decibels (power.)
Mind, you, this has all taken place BEFORE the sound check, most likely before even setting up the instruments. At this point, the monitor engineer is almost ready to start mixing. If it hasn’t been done already, the drum kit will be all set with each pieces respective mic and channel as well as the amps, and vocal microphones needed for the show.

Live music really is a dynamic balance of sound, power, compatibility and vigilance. It isn’t only the band who creates the show, the sound engineers are just as important as the musicians themselves. In the next article you will be able to read about the infamous sound check, from both the monitor and FOH engineer’s point of view.