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Microphone Basics: Type, Frequency

Response, and Polar Pattern.


Introduction

Welcome Music Production lovers! I am Alan Ali from Trinidad (in the Caribbean). This
lesson is for week 1 of Introduction To Music Production at Coursera.org. I will be
teaching Microphone Basics, which covers types, frequency responses, and polar
patterns.

What types of microphones are there?

Microphones are transducers because they change one form of energy to another. They
convert acoustic energy into electrical energy. They are classified into two main,
popular types by the way in which they accomplish this transformation. The categories
are: dynamic, and condenser.

Dynamic microphones are very simple and they have few moving parts. They consist of
a coil of wire that is attached to a moving diaphragm and suspended within a magnetic
field. When the diaphragm moves in response to acoustic vibrations, the coil moves
within the magnetic field. This creates an electrical signal analogous to the original
sound wave. This type of transduction is similar in concept to a moving-coil speaker
design, only in reverse. Because of their basic design, dynamic mics do not require a
power source to operate and tend to be quite rugged.

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Condenser microphones change acoustical energy into electrical by varying capacitance
(the ability to store electrical energy). In this case, a charged diaphragm vibrates and
changes its proximity to an equally charged backplate. The changing distance between
the two varies the capacitance and, therefore, the voltage. Because the diaphragm and
backplate must be charged, condenser microphones require a power source to work.
For traditional condenser designs, this was supplied via a 48-volt signal from the
microphone preamp, called phantom power. Some condensers have a battery
compartment built into the handle, typically for 1.5V AA batteries.

Frequency response

A microphone is not equally sensitive at all frequencies. For this reason, a graph of a
microphones response over the audible 20 to 20,000 Hertz range is usually also included
in its documentation. It may also give separate plots for multiple distances. If no angle
is specified, measurements are assumed to be on axis (0-degrees). The particular
frequency response characteristics of any microphone are one of the factors that make it
distinct from others in its sonic performance.

Experience, trial and error, and lots of careful listening will help you determine which
microphone to choose for a given task.

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Polar Patterns

A polar pattern is a circular graph that shows how sensitive a microphone is in different
directions. Microphones differ in their sensitivity to sound arriving at the capsule from
various angles. One mic may pick up sound equally as well from the front and the rear,
while another may be much less sensitive to sound coming from behind.

These patterns are often expressed using a 2-dimensional graph which details how
sensitive a microphone is from all angles in a 360-degree circle around the capsule. The
0-degree reference runs perpendicular to the front of the diaphragm. Sound waves
hitting the microphone from that angle are said to be on-axis. Sound coming from
behind is said to be 180-degrees off axis, while sound from the right or left is 90 or 270-
degrees off axis, respectively (from the microphones point of view).

Polar patterns, are generally summed up into five categories representing the most
common basic types. Pictograms are often used to represent these five patterns

Omnidirectional - Equal sensitivity in all directions. Used to get the best sense of
the acoustic environment. Also, since it tends to have the most accurate
frequency response of the patterns, it is often used for scientific measurements
and full-frequency classical recordings.

Cardioid (unidirectional) - Most sensitive to sound coming at the front, less


sensitive to sound coming from the sides, least sensitive to sounds from the
rear. Cardioid patterns are useful for helping to isolate the sound of one
particular instrument (or other sound source) from others nearby. For example, a
cardioid microphone on the snare of a full drum kit can be angled in such a
fashion as to be least sensitive to the toms and/or hi-hats, but still have greatest
sensitivity to the snare sound itself.

Supercardioid - Similar to cardioid, except has some sensitivity to the rear and
rejects sound most from 120 and 240 off axis.

Hypercardioid - Similar to bidirectional (see below), except has slightly less


sensitivity to the rear and rejects sound most from 105 and 255 off axis. Both
hypercardioid and supercardioid are good for use when rejection from specific

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rearward angles is desired. This could be used to mike a tom between two
cymbals. These are also often used in live situations where there are two stage
monitors for the singer, one to either side. (Note that in casual use the terms
hypercardioid and supercardioid are often used interchangeably-not entirely
correct, maybe, but the two types do exhibit a strong similarity.

Bidirectional (or Figure Eight) - Equally sensitive to sound coming from the
front and back, less sensitive from the sides 90 and 270). Great for picking up a
blend of two singers facing each other, but rejecting sound from the sides. Also
often used to pick up both direct and reflected sound, and in stereo miking
applications: a figure-eight is used with a cardioid for mid/side miking, and two
figure eights are used to create a Blumlein pattern. (More on these in TCRM 11)

Reflection

The microphone is where the acoustic energy of a musical performance is first


translated into an electrical signal, its selection and use are of utmost importance. The
quality, properties and placement of the microphone will affect the rest of the
production process. Choosing the right mic makes everything else in the
recording/mixing process that much easier to do well.