The most common design today uses a thin membrane which vibrates in response to sound pressure. This movement is subsequently translated into an electrical signal. Most microphones in use today for audio use electromagnetic generation (dynamic microphones), capacitance change (condenser microphones) or piezoelectric generation to produce the signal from mechanical vibration.
In a condenser microphone, also known as a capacitor microphone, the diaphragm acts as one plate of a capacitor, and the vibrations produce changes in the distance between the plates. There are two methods of extracting an audio output from the transducer thus formed: DC-biased and RF (or HF) condenser microphones. With a DC-biased microphone, the plates are biased with a fixed charge (Q). The voltage maintained across the capacitor plates changes with the vibrations in the air, according to the capacitance equation (Q = C V), where Q = charge in coulombs, C = capacitance in farads and V = potential difference in volts. The capacitance of the plates is inversely proportional to the distance between them for a parallel-plate capacitor. (See capacitance for details.)
A nearly constant charge is maintained on the capacitor. As the capacitance changes, the charge across the capacitor does change very slightly, but at audible frequencies it is sensibly constant. The capacitance of the capsule and the value of the bias resistor form a filter which is highpass for the audio signal, and lowpass for the bias voltage. Note that the time constant of a RC circuit equals the product of the resistance and capacitance. Within the time-frame of the capacitance change (on the order of 100 μs), the charge thus appears practically constant and the voltage across the capacitor changes instantaneously to reflect the change in capacitance. The voltage across the capacitor varies above and below the bias voltage. The voltage difference between the bias and the capacitor is seen across the series resistor. The voltage across the resistor is amplified for performance or recording.
RF condenser microphones use a comparatively low RF voltage, generated by a low-noise oscillator. The oscillator may either be frequency modulated by the capacitance changes produced by the sound waves moving the capsule diaphragm, or the capsule may be part of a resonant circuit that modulates the amplitude of the fixed-frequency oscillator signal. Demodulation yields a low-noise audio frequency signal with a very low source impedance. This technique permits the use of a diaphragm with looser tension, which may be used to achieve better low-frequency response. The RF biasing process results in a lower electrical impedance capsule, a useful byproduct of which is that RF condenser microphones can be operated in damp weather conditions which would effectively short out a DC-biased microphone. The Sennheiser "MKH" series of microphones use the RF biasing technique.
Condenser microphones span the range from inexpensive karaoke mics to high-fidelity recording mics. They generally produce a high-quality audio signal and are now the popular choice in laboratory and studio recording applications. They require a power source, provided either from microphone inputs as phantom power or from a small battery. Power is necessary for establishing the capacitor plate voltage, and is also needed for internal amplification of the signal to a useful output level. Condenser microphones are also available with two diaphragms, the signals from which can be electrically connected such as to provide a range of polar patterns (see below), such as cardioid, omnidirectional and figure-eight. It is also possible to vary the pattern smoothly with some microphones, for example the Røde NT2000 or CAD M179.
An electret microphone is a relatively new type of capacitor microphone invented at Bell laboratories in 1962 by Gerhard Sessler and Jim West. The externally-applied charge described above under condenser microphones is replaced by a permanent charge in an electret material. An electret is a ferroelectric material that has been permanently electrically charged or polarized. The name comes from electrostatic and magnet; a static charge is embedded in an electret by alignment of the static charges in the material, much the way a magnet is made by aligning the magnetic domains in a piece of iron.
They are used in many applications, from high-quality recording and lavalier use to built-in microphones in small sound recording devices and telephones. Though electret microphones were once low-cost and considered low quality, the best ones can now rival capacitor microphones in every respect and can even offer the long-term stability and ultra-flat response needed for a measuring microphone. Unlike other capacitor microphones, they require no polarizing voltage, but normally contain an integrated preamplifier which does require power (often incorrectly called polarizing power or bias). This preamp is frequently phantom powered in sound reinforcement and studio applications. While few electret microphones rival the best DC-polarized units in terms of noise level, this is not due to any inherent limitation of the electret. Rather, mass production techniques needed to produce electrets cheaply don't lend themselves to the precision needed to produce the highest quality microphones.
Ribbon microphones use a thin, usually corrugated metal ribbon suspended in a magnetic field. The ribbon is electrically connected to the microphone's output, and its vibration within the magnetic field generates the electrical signal. Ribbon microphones are similar to moving coil microphones in the sense that both produce sound by means of magnetic induction. Basic ribbon microphones detect sound in a bidirectional (also called figure-eight) pattern because the ribbon, which is open to sound both front and back, responds to the pressure gradient rather than the sound pressure. Though the symmetrical front and rear pickup can be a nuisance in normal stereo recording, the high side rejection can be used to advantage by positioning a ribbon microphone horizontally, for example above cymbals, so that the rear lobe picks up only sound from the cymbals. Crossed figure 8, or Blumlein stereo recording is gaining in popularity, and the figure 8 response of a ribbon microphone is ideal for that application.
Other directional patterns are produced by enclosing one side of the ribbon in an acoustic trap or baffle, allowing sound to reach only one side. Older ribbon microphones, some of which still give very high quality sound reproduction, were once valued for this reason, but a good low-frequency response could only be obtained if the ribbon is suspended very loosely, and this made them fragile. Modern ribbon materials, including new nanomaterials have now been introduced that eliminate those concerns, and even improve the effective dynamic range of ribbon microphones at low frequencies. Protective wind screens can reduce the danger of damaging a vintage ribbon, and also reduce plosive artifacts in the recording. Properly designed wind screens produce negligible treble attenuation. In common with other classes of dynamic microphone, ribbon microphones don't require phantom power; in fact, this voltage can damage some older ribbon microphones. (There are some new modern ribbon microphone designs which incorporate a preamplifier and therefore do require phantom power, also there are new ribbon materials available that are immune to wind blasts and phantom power.)
Unlike other microphone types, the carbon microphone can also be used as a type of amplifier, using a small amount of sound energy to produce a larger amount of electrical energy. Carbon microphones found use as early telephone repeaters, making long distance phone calls possible in the era before vacuum tubes. These repeaters worked by mechanically coupling a magnetic telephone receiver to a carbon microphone: the faint signal from the receiver was transferred to the microphone, with a resulting stronger electrical signal to send down the line.(One illustration of this amplifier effect was the oscillation caused by feedback, resulting in an audible squeal from the old "candlestick" telephone if its earphone was placed near the carbon microphone.)
A crystal microphone uses the phenomenon of piezoelectricity—the ability of some materials to produce a voltage when subjected to pressure—to convert vibrations into an electrical signal. An example of this is Rochelle salt (potassium sodium tartrate), which is a piezoelectric crystal that works as a transducer, both as a microphone and as a slimline loudspeaker component. Crystal microphones used to be commonly supplied with vacuum tube (valve) equipment, such as domestic tape recorders. Their high output impedance matched the high input impedance (typically about 10 megohms) of the vacuum tube input stage well. They were difficult to match to early transistor equipment, and were quickly supplanted by dynamic microphones for a time, and later small electret condenser devices. The high impedance of the crystal microphone made it very susceptible to handling noise, both from the microphone itself and from the connecting cable.
Piezo transducers are often used as contact microphones to amplify sound from acoustic musical instruments, to sense drum hits for triggering electronic samples and to record sound in challenging environments, such as underwater under high pressure. Saddle-mounted pickups on acoustic guitars are generally piezos that contact the strings passing over the saddle. This type of microphone is different from magnetic coil pickups commonly visible on typical electric guitars, which use magnetic induction rather than mechanical coupling to pick up vibration.
It consists of a laser beam that must be reflected off a glass window or another rigid surface that vibrates in sympathy with nearby sounds.
This device essentially turns any vibrating surface near the source of sound into a microphone. It does this by measuring the distance between itself and the surface extremely accurately; the tiny fluctuations in this distance become the electrical signal of the sounds picked up.
The MEMS (MicroElectrical-Mechanical System) microphone is also called a microphone chip or silicon microphone. The pressure-sensitive diaphragm is etched directly into a silicon chip by MEMS techniques, and is usually accompanied with integrated preamplifier. Most MEMS microphones are variants of the condenser microphone design. Often MEMS mics have built in analog-to-digital converter (ADC) circuits on the same CMOS chip making the chip a digital microphone and so more readily integrated with modern digital products. Major manufacturers producing MEMS silicon microphones are Analog Devices, Akustica (AKU200x), Infineon (SMM310 product), Knowles Electronics, Memstech (MSMx)and Sonion MEMS.
However, there is at least one other practical application of this principle: using a medium-size woofer placed closely in front of a "kick" (bass drum) in a drum set to act as a microphone. The use of relatively large speakers to transduce low frequency sound sources, especially in music production, is becoming fairly common. Since a relatively massive membrane is unable to transduce high frequencies, placing a speaker in front of a kick drum is often ideal for reducing cymbal and snare bleed into the kick drum sound. Less commonly, microphones themselves can be used as speakers, almost always as tweeters. This is less common since microphones are not designed to handle the power that speaker components are routinely required to cope with. One instance of such an application was the STC microphone-derived 4001 super-tweeter, which was successfully used in a number of high quality loudspeaker systems from the late 1960s to the mid-70s.
A pressure gradient microphone is a microphone in which both sides of the diaphragm are exposed to the incident sound and the microphone is therefore responsive to the pressure differential (gradient) between the two sides of the membrane. Sound sources arriving edge-on at the diaphragm produce no pressure differential, giving pressure-gradient microphones their characteristic figure-eight, or bi-directional patterns.
The capsule of a pressure transducer microphone is closed on one side, which results in an omnidirectional pattern, responding to a change in pressure regardless of the direction to the source.
Other polar patterns are derived by creating a capsule shape that combines these two effects in different ways. The cardioid, for instance, features a partially closed backside.
(Microphone facing top of page in diagram, parallel to page):
A microphone's directionality or polar pattern indicates how sensitive it is to sounds arriving at different angles about its central axis. The above polar patterns represent the locus of points that produce the same signal level output in the microphone if a given sound pressure level is generated from that point. How the physical body of the microphone is oriented relative to the diagrams depends on the microphone design. For large-membrane microphones such as in the Oktava (pictured above), the upward direction in the polar diagram is usually perpendicular to the microphone body, commonly known as "side fire". For small diaphragm microphones such as the Shure (also pictured above), it usually extends from the axis of the microphone commonly known as "end fire".
Some microphone designs combine several principles in creating the desired polar pattern. This ranges from shielding (meaning diffraction/dissipation/absorption) by the housing itself to electronically combining dual membranes.
The wavelength of sound at 10 kHz is little over an inch (3.4 cm) so the smallest measuring microphones are often 1/4" (6 mm) in diameter, which practically eliminates directionality even up to the highest frequencies. Omnidirectional microphones, unlike cardioids, do not employ resonant cavities as delays, and so can be considered the "purest" microphones in terms of low coloration; they add very little to the original sound. Being pressure-sensitive they can also have a very flat low-frequency response down to 20 Hz or below. Pressure-sensitive microphones also respond much less to wind noise than directional (velocity sensitive) microphones.
An example of a nondirectional microphone is the round black eight ball.
The most common unidirectional microphone is a cardioid microphone, so named because the sensitivity pattern is heart-shaped (see cardioid). A hyper-cardioid is similar but with a tighter area of front sensitivity and a tiny lobe of rear sensitivity. A super-cardioid microphone is similar to a hyper-cardioid, except there is more front pickup and less rear pickup. These three patterns are commonly used as vocal or speech microphones, since they are good at rejecting sounds from other directions.
Shotgun microphones are the most highly directional. They have small lobes of sensitivity to the left, right, and rear but are significantly more sensitive to the front. This results from placing the element inside a tube with slots cut along the side; wave-cancellation eliminates most of the off-axis noise. Shotgun microphones are commonly used on TV and film sets, and for field recording of wildlife. An omnidirectional microphone is a pressure transducer; the output voltage is proportional to the air pressure at a given time. On the other hand, a figure-8 pattern is a pressure gradient transducer; A sound wave arriving from the back will lead to a signal with a polarity opposite to that of an identical sound wave from the front. Moreover, shorter wavelengths (higher frequencies) are picked up more effectively than lower frequencies.
A cardioid microphone is effectively a superposition of an omnidirectional and a figure-8 microphone; for sound waves coming from the back, the negative signal from the figure-8 cancels the positive signal from the omnidirectional element, whereas for sound waves coming from the front, the two add to each other. A hypercardioid microphone is similar, but with a slightly larger figure-8 contribution. Since pressure gradient transducer microphones are directional, putting them very close to the sound source (at distances of a few centimeters) results in a bass boost. This is known as the proximity effect
A wireless microphone is one in which the artist is not limited by a cable. It usually sends its signal using a small FM radio transmitter to a nearby receiver connected to the sound system, but it can also use infrared light if the transmitter and receiver are within sight of each other.
A contact microphone is designed to pick up vibrations directly from a solid surface or object, as opposed to sound vibrations carried through air. One use for this is to detect sounds of a very low level, such as those from small objects or insects. The microphone commonly consists of a magnetic (moving coil) transducer, contact plate and contact pin. The contact plate is placed against the object from which vibrations are to be picked up; the contact pin transfers these vibrations to the coil of the transducer. Contact microphones have been used to pick up the sound of a snail's heartbeat and the footsteps of ants. A portable version of this microphone has recently been developed. A throat microphone is a variant of the contact microphone, used to pick up speech directly from the throat, around which it is strapped. This allows the device to be used in areas with ambient sounds that would otherwise make the speaker inaudible.
A parabolic microphone uses a parabolic reflector to collect and focus sound waves onto a microphone receiver, in much the same way that a parabolic antenna (e.g. satellite dish) does with radio waves. Typical uses of this microphone, which has unusually focused front sensitivity and can pick up sounds from many meters away, include nature recording, outdoor sporting events, eavesdropping, law enforcement, and even espionage. Parabolic microphones are not typically used for standard recording applications, because they tend to have poor low-frequency response as a side effect of their design.
A stereo microphone integrates two microphones in one unit to produce a stereophonic signal. A stereo microphone is often used for broadcast applications or field recording where it would be impractical to configure two separate condenser microphones in a classic X-Y configuration (see microphone practice) for stereophonic recording. Some such microphones have an adjustable angle of coverage between the two channels.
A noise-canceling microphone is intended for noisy environments such as aircraft cockpits. They are normally installed as boom mics on headsets. They pick up environmental noise, ideally without also picking up the intended signal, with one diaphragm and electrically combine the output with the intended signal picked up with another diaphragm. In older designs, there is no active electronics involved in the cancellation technique, unlike active noise cancellation microphones. So, in the common configuration, the intended signal is voice and one diaphragm is mounted close to the mouth. The other is, often, placed behind the first, farther away from the intended signal source and electrically out of phase with the first. After combination, signals other than the voice are greatly reduced, substantially increasing intelligibility. Some noise-canceling microphones are also throat microphones.
The most common connectors used by microphones are:
Some microphones use other connectors, such as 1/4 inch TRS (tip ring sleeve), 5-pin XLR, or stereo mini phone plug (1/8 inch TRS) on some stereo microphones. Some lavalier microphones use a proprietary connector for connection to a wireless transmitter. Since 2005, professional-quality microphones with USB connections have begun to appear, designed for direct recording into computer-based software.
To get the best sound, the impedance of the microphone must be distinctly lower (by a factor of at least five) than that of the equipment to which it is connected. Most microphones are designed not to have their impedance "matched" by the load to which they are connected; doing so can alter their frequency response and cause distortion, especially at high sound pressure levels. There are transformers (confusingly called matching transformers) that adapt impedances for special cases such as connecting microphones to DI units or connecting low-impedance microphones to the high-impedance inputs of certain amplifiers, but microphone connections generally follow the principle of bridging (voltage transfer), not matching (power transfer). In general, any XLR microphone can usually be connected to any mixer with XLR microphone inputs, and any plug microphone can usually be connected to any jack that is marked as a microphone input, but not to a line input. This is because the signal level of a microphone is typically 40 to 60 dB lower (a factor of 100 to 1000) than a line input. Microphone inputs include the necessary amplification to handle these very low level signals. Certain ribbon and dynamic microphones, which are most linear when operated into a load of known impedance, are exceptions.
Because of differences in their construction, microphones have their own characteristic responses to sound. This difference in response produces non-uniform phase and frequency responses. In addition, microphones are not uniformly sensitive to sound pressure, and can accept differing levels without distorting. Although for scientific applications microphones with a more uniform response are desirable, this is often not the case for music recording, as the non-uniform response of a microphone can produce a desirable coloration of the sound. There is an international standard for microphone specifications, but few manufacturers adhere to it. As a result, comparison of published data from different manufacturers is difficult because different measurement techniques are used. The Microphone Data Website has collated the technical specifications complete with pictures, response curves and technical data from the microphone manufacturers for every currently listed microphone, and even a few obsolete models, and shows the data for them all in one common format for ease of comparison. Caution should be used in drawing any solid conclusions from this or any other published data, however, unless it is known that the manufacturer has supplied specifications in accordance with IEC 60268-4.
A frequency response diagram plots the microphone sensitivity in decibels over a range of frequencies (typically at least 0–20 kHz), generally for perfectly on-axis sound (sound arriving at 0° to the capsule). Frequency response may be less informatively stated textually like so: "30 Hz–16 kHz ±3 dB". This is interpreted as a (mostly) linear plot between the stated frequencies, with variations in amplitude of no more than plus or minus 3 dB. However, one cannot determine from this information how smooth the variations are, nor in what parts of the spectrum they occur. Note that commonly-made statements such as "20 Hz–20 kHz" are meaningless without a decibel measure of tolerance. Directional microphones' frequency response varies greatly with distance from the sound source, and with the geometry of the sound source. IEC 60268-4 specifies that frequency response should be measured in plane progressive wave conditions (very far away from the source) but this is seldom practical. Close talking microphones may be measured with different sound sources and distances, but there is no standard and therefore no way to compare data from different models unless the measurement technique is described.
The self-noise or equivalent noise level is the sound level that creates the same output voltage as the microphone does in the absence of sound. This represents the lowest point of the microphone's dynamic range, and is particularly important should you wish to record sounds that are quiet. The measure is often stated in dB(A), which is the equivalent loudness of the noise on a decibel scale frequency-weighted for how the ear hears, for example: "15 dBA SPL" (SPL means sound pressure level relative to 20 micropascals). The lower the number the better. Some microphone manufacturers state the noise level using ITU-R 468 noise weighting, which more accurately represents the way we hear noise, but gives a figure some 11 to 14 dB higher. A quiet microphone will measure typically 20 dBA SPL or 32 dB SPL 468-weighted. Very quiet microphones have existed for years for special applications, such the Brüel & Kjaer 4179, with a noise level around 0 dB SPL. Recently some microphones with low noise specifications have been introduced in the studio/entertainment market, such as models from Neumann and Røde that advertise noise levels between 5 and 7 dBA. Typically this is achieved by altering the frequency response of the capsule and electronics to result in lower noise within the A-weighting curve while broadband noise may be increased.
The maximum SPL (sound pressure level) the microphone can accept is measured for particular values of total harmonic distortion (THD), typically 0.5%. This is generally inaudible, so one can safely use the microphone at this level without harming the recording. Example: "142 dB SPL peak (at 0.5% THD)". The higher the value, the better, although microphones with a very high maximum SPL also have a higher self-noise.
The clipping level is perhaps a better indicator of maximum usable level, as the 1% THD figure usually quoted under max SPL is really a very mild level of distortion, quite inaudible especially on brief high peaks. Harmonic distortion from microphones is usually of low-order (mostly third harmonic) type, and hence not very audible even at 3-5%. Clipping, on the other hand, usually caused by the diaphragm reaching its absolute displacement limit (or by the preamplifier), will produce a very harsh sound on peaks, and should be avoided if at all possible. For some microphones the clipping level may be much higher than the max SPL. The dynamic range of a microphone is the difference in SPL between the noise floor and the maximum SPL. If stated on its own, for example "120 dB", it conveys significantly less information than having the self-noise and maximum SPL figures individually.
Sensitivity indicates how well the microphone converts acoustic pressure to output voltage. A high sensitivity microphone creates more voltage and so will need less amplification at the mixer or recording device. This is a practical concern but is not directly an indication of the mic's quality, and in fact the term sensitivity is something of a misnomer, 'transduction gain' being perhaps more meaningful, (or just "output level") because true sensitivity will generally be set by the noise floor, and too much "sensitivity" in terms of output level will compromise the clipping level. There are two common measures. The (preferred) international standard is made in millivolts per pascal at 1 kHz. A higher value indicates greater sensitivity. The older American method is referred to a 1 V/Pa standard and measured in plain decibels, resulting in a negative value. Again, a higher value indicates greater sensitivity, so −60 dB is more sensitive than −70 dB.
Measurement microphones are used in sound analysis meters, noise measurement (in public nuisance abatement contexts), acoustic laboratories, loudspeaker design and quality control work, etc. They are made with greater care than most microphones and generally come with a calibration certificate. However, like most manufactured products there can be variations, which may change over the lifetime of the device. Accordingly, it is regularly necessary to test the test microphones. This service is offered by some microphone manufacturers and by independent certified testing labs. Some test enough microphones to justify an in-house calibration lab. Depending on the application, measurement microphones must be tested periodically (every year or several months, typically) and after any potentially damaging event, such as being dropped (most such mikes come in foam-padded cases to reduce this risk) or exposed to sounds beyond the acceptable level.
A microphone array is any number of microphones operating in tandem. There are many applications: