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Studio Microphone Basics

Studio Microphone Basics

Even though microphones can be, and often are, multi-purpose by design, the distinction of ‘studio microphone’ has come about due to the very specific design requirements that come from microphones to be used for studio recording.

What is a Studio Microphone?

I am often asked “what differentiates a studio microphone from a microphone that you might use in a live setting?”

Firstly, there is a greater requirement for sound quality and the ability to pick even the tiniest detail when recording in the studio. This gives rise to common association with the studio and the large diaphragm condenser microphone which, whilst being unsuitable for live use due to their size and lack of durability, are perfectly suited to these requirements. I a large, echoey room a lack of clarity, noise levels and distortion are easily masked.Listeners enjoying a studio recording on a pair of headphones or high quality hi-fi will be less forgiving.

Secondly there is less of an emphasis on feedback rejection since monitoring in the studio is done almost entirely via headphones rather than on-stage speakers, essentially decoupling the sound being monitored and the sound being picked up by the microphone and eliminating the need for feedback control. This results in microphones which can have a more open pickup pattern, picking up sound from the sides or back. In a live setting this would be a recipe for feedback but in the studio it broadens the number of recording possibilities available to the engineer.

Finally, as mentioned briefly above, ruggedness is considered less important. Whilst it is common for microphones to be dropped and knocked over during a frantic live performance, in the studio it is expected microphones are going to be treated with more care. As well as affecting the way studio microphones are designed overall it also allows for the use of even more fragile ribbon microphones.

What type of Microphones do you often find in a Studio?

For vocal applications in a live setting the use of a dynamic microphone with an integrated pop-filter is standard practice. However in the studio the use of a large diaphragm condenser microphone is far more common.

Condenser Microphones

Large diaphragm condenser microphones are often mounted in ‘spider mounts’, a web-like frame of plastic and stretchy material that give the distinctive look that is often associated with recording studios. In practice large diaphragm condenser microphones have advantages over dynamic microphones when it comes to accuracy, sensitivity and detail, making them perfect for recording vocals close up. The spider mount decouples the microphone from the stand preventing any knocks or vibrations being picked up by the diaphragm. A separate pop-shield is usually used in conjunction with the microphone to prevent rushes of air being picked up, often in the form of a circle of thin material stretched over a hoop and suspended a few inches from microphone.

Small diaphragm condenser microphones on the other hand are used for instrument applications which require a fast transient response and good response to high frequencies. Guitars, pianos, cymbals and percussion are common examples. They can also be used in the X-Y configuration where two microphones are placed at 90 degrees to each other with their diaphragms as close together as possible, allowing for stereo recordings without causing undesirable comb-filtering.

Dynamic Microphones

There is still a place for dynamic microphones in the studio, albeit for more specific applications. In particular they are useful when high-frequency response is of less importance and the microphone needs to be able to withstand greater SPL levels. Common applications include guitar amps, toms and snares. Dynamic kick drum and bass amp microphones will be designed to have a larger diaphragm, meaning that a better pick-up of low-frequencies is obtainable. Dynamic and condenser microphones may be used simultaneously on a single source allowing the best characteristics of both to be combined.

Ribbon Microphones

Whilst in recent years developments have allowed ribbon microphones to be used live their application is still almost always consigned to the studio. Whilst being generally more expensive and fragile they have audio characteristics that can be superior to condenser microphones, giving a smoother and less harsh pick up of high frequencies.

Valve circuitry

Valve circuitry is sometimes used as part of a condenser or ribbon microphone, often with a separate box that the microphone is connected too. This gives a desirable warmth to the sound being recorded that is harder to obtain through transistor circuitry. However, valve microphones are again expensive and often only used in high-end professional studios.

In Conclusion

It is true to say that sound quality and the ability to pick up detail is paramount in studio microphones.  There are other categories and sub-categories of studio microphones for more specific purposes, however the types listed above cover the most common studio applications and techniques.

Soundsavers stock a wide variety of studio microphones from manufacturers such as Audio-Technica, Shure, AKG and LD Systems. If you’re unsure what will be suitable for your needs or require and help or advice with your Pro Audio Centre purchase then don’t hesitate to get in touch by phone, email or our contact form.

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