Your First Microphone - Let's talk about characteristics (Part 1)

Unless you are solely recording through line inputs, you probably will need some form of a microphone to pick up the acoustical source you are recording. Getting a microphone can be rather daunting for some individuals as there is a magnitude of choices in the market that can easily overwhelm someone who is just starting out. Some might relate price to quality, which in the world of recording can be a little bit tricky to justify. To illustrate, the famous U47 has been consistently priced at thousand of dollars secondhand, however, the U47 has also been "notoriously" known to be inconsistent in the way they sound due to their limited lifespan, they can sound very different from one another and some might suit one singer but not the other.

Warran Huart (Produce Like A Pro) with guest Aspen Pitman briefly talks about the Neumann U47

Purchasing a microphone is an investment and if you are looking for your first microphone, you should look for a microphone that is versatile in almost any applications. A microphone that will work well with acoustical guitar, vocal, piano (mono, yes it is possible) and even drum set (room miking and you could get a decent sound with adequate technique and room). Your first microphone will be the "Swiss army knife" for almost any recording and you will probably do multi-track recording, or if you are feeling adventurous, a one take recording with all the artists crowding around the microphone (one mic technique).

With such requirements, your first microphone I would recommend would be a large diaphragm condenser microphone. A large diaphragm condenser microphone has a few key characteristics that will justify the initial purchase, namely, flat frequency response, high dynamic sensitivity and good transient response. A dynamic microphone (e.g. Shure Beta 58A) works very differently as compared to a condenser microphone (e.g. AKG C451B). A dynamic microphone utilises a magnetic moving coil transducer whereas a condenser microphone operates with a conductive electroplate to pick up acoustical energy. The differences in the design result in these two types of microphones to have different attributes and applications.

Dynamic Microphone Transducer Design; Credits Mediacollege

Condenser microphones are known to have a better flatter frequency response as compared to the dynamic counterpart. This allows the microphone to have a better representation of the acoustical pickup the microphone is capturing, thus, allow the microphone to be more flexible in many applications (e.g. a piano has a wide range of frequency characteristics, low to high note).

Due to the type of transducer used, a capsule of a condenser microphone can be exponentially lighter as compared to a dynamic microphone. This is a straightforward comparison, as the magnet will easily outweigh the conductive plates used in a condenser transducer. With its lightweight transducer characteristics, a condenser microphone does require as many acoustical energies to push the conductive plates in order to convert acoustical energies into electrical signals. This allows the condenser microphone to be better suited in soft dynamic pick up (e.g. clarinet playing in pianissimo) while retaining the ability to record louder dynamic source (e.g. guitar cabinets, lower gain structure).

Condenser Microphone Transducer; Credits Mediacollege

Recording transient sounds also require the microphone to a pickup that is fast enough to capture the "attacks" of the instruments (e.g. hi-hats or xylophone). As mentioned above, the lightweight characteristic of the condenser microphone is better suited in this application as the transducer is able to move fast enough in order to reproduce the fast transient sound. Although there are cases where recordings are made with a combination of dynamic and condenser together to mike up a transient instrument, for example, a Shure SM57 and AKG C451B on a hi-hat. Most of the time, the dynamic microphone is mainly used to blend the sound together and create something more appealing. In this case, it can provide a more "edgy" hi-hat characteristics with the emphasis in the high-mid frequency on the SM57.

But why choose a large diaphragm condenser (LDC) over a small diaphragm condenser (SDC) microphone? Remember, we are picking up your first microphone; therefore, your microphone needs to be as versatile as possible for almost any application. First reason, an LDC has a larger surface area (more than 1 inch) of the conductive plate than an SDC microphone, hence, LDC microphone tends to output a higher voltage signal than an SDC which results in a higher signal to noise (SNR) ratio ("cleaner" signal in psychoacoustic terms). The second reason, an LDC has a lower frequency response than SDC microphone (diaphragm's larger surface area). This can play well with your vocals (which is one of the most important components in a song) due to its lower frequency response as compared to an SDC. SDC microphone tends to be more articulated and can be a little harsh sounding for this purpose.

It will be nice to have varieties of microphones in your toolkit; however, such inventory has to be slowly built upon for most individuals. Every type of microphone has its merits in specific applications (e.g. a pencil style condenser microphone is very well suited for capturing the articulation of the ride cymbals) but when the budget is a concern, we have to balance between the price and functionality a microphone can provide. An LDC microphone will probably be a lot more adaptable in many recording scenarios and the usage of the microphone is only limited by your own creativity.