People, especially musicians, tend to not give microphones a second thought when they are using them, but microphones are very complex pieces of equipment and there are many different variations. The two most common microphones used in sound recording and live performances are dynamic and capacitor microphones. The two have different applications so it is important to know what each microphone is good at and when each should be used.
Dynamic microphones are one of the most common microphone types, and if you are a musician, a producer or somebody who has had any experience with live music then it will certainly be a familiar microphone for you. Most microphones that look like a mesh ball on a stick are dynamic microphones.
Dynamic microphones work by having a lightweight diaphragm, usually made of a thin plastic film, attached to a small coil of wire suspended in the field of a permanent magnet. When a sound hits the diaphragm, it causes the diaphragm and the electric coil to vibrate, which causes a small electric charge that will relate to the frequency and volume of the sound that caused it. The electric charge then needs to be amplified before it is large enough to use in either recording or a live performance.
Dynamic microphones have the benefit of being inexpensive, robust and they don’t need a power supply to work. Because they are robust they are the favoured choice for live performances where the microphones need to be transported around a lot. The set up of the diaphragm and the electric coil in the microphone causes a few downsides, including a relatively poor response to very high frequencies and the requirement of a fairly loud sound.
Condenser microphones, also called capacitor microphones, are another very common microphone type. Like dynamic microphones, condensers use a diaphragm to convert sound into an electric signal. The condenser microphone has two diaphragms, one fixed and one moving. When a sound causes the moving diaphragm to vibrate, the spacing between the two diaphragms changes and this causes the capacitance (the ability of a body to store an electric charge) to change. When a fixed electric charge is applied to the capacitor, an electric signal is produced that relates to the vibration of the diaphragm.
The size of the diaphragm has a large impact on the output of the microphone. Large diaphragms have a warm and flattering sound, whereas smaller diaphragms have a very high accuracy. This means that condenser can be specialised to certain applications, for example having different condenser microphones for recording drums and vocals.
The high accuracy and the consistent frequency response even with higher frequencies means that the condenser microphone is favoured in recording studios. However, because they are fragile and expensive, condenser microphones are not used widely in live performances.
There are plenty of other microphone types, like the ribbon microphone, carbon microphone, piezoelectric microphones and even laser microphones! It is important to understand the applications of each microphone so that you are best prepared for all occasions where you need to record or amplify sound.
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