top of page

What is Music Production? – Part 4 – Microphone Basics

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Meet your new friend, Mike

Shure 55 Unidyne SuperCardioid Dynamic Microphone from the 1950s

So far, on our study of "What Is Music Production?" We have discussed the various professionals roles that work together to create a song. We've encountered some popular DAWs. And, we've considered the studio as an instrument. In an earlier post, we also talked about MIDI. Today, we are going to discuss one part of that studio instrument—the microphone.


When you think of the microphone, what image pops into your mind's eye? Is it a vintage mic like the one pictured above? Is it the ubiquitous Shure Beta 58A with its iconic blue ring that rock singers have been singing, screaming, and waling into on stage since the 1960s? Do you just imagine a vague image where you know that the singer is singing into a microphone, but you are not sure what it looks like? Let's talk about three types of microphones, condenser, dynamic, and ribbon—as well as three microphone polar patterns–unidirectional, omnidirectional, and bidirectional.


Definition

By definition, a microphone is a device or instrument for concerting sound waves into electrical signal. It is an example of a transducer, a device that changes information from one form to another. Microphones are used in many common device from landline telephones to 21st century smartphones to personal computers to hearing aids to intercom systems, and more. Microphones are commonly referred to as "mics" or "mikes." (Both spellings are used, though mic is becoming standard.)


There are various designs of microphones on the market today. What they all have in common is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a thin piece of material (paper, plastic, or aluminum, etc.) which vibrates when it comes in contact with air-pressure changes caused by sound waves. When the diaphragm vibrates, other components in the microphone vibrate as well. The resulting vibrations are converted into an electrical current which becomes the audio signal. Typically, the diaphragm is located in the head of the microphone. Three of the common types of microphones are condenser, dynamic, and ribbon microphones.


History

Did you ever attach a string between two wax paper cups as a child? This is actually the first technological step to the microphone. When Alexander Graham Bell received the US patent for an early telephone in 1876, he replaced the string with a wire that conducted electric direct current. He later went on to devise a version which used a liquid transmitter which he exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. The liquid microphone did not provide intelligible audio. The first microphone that allowed for usable telephony was the carbon microphone. This was developed by American inventors Emile Berliner and Thomas Alva Edison and British inventor David Edward Hughes simultaneously and independently.After an ensuing legal battle, Edison was awarded the first patent for the carbon microphone in mid-1877. This carbon microphone is a direct ancestor to today's microphones.


Three Type of Microphones