The Beginners Guide to Buying a Microphone

2010 August 10

The Beginners Guide to Buying a Microphone

Of all the emails I get with questions about Native American flutes one of the most common is about what kind of microphone to use for the Native flute. Even if you’re not recording a microphone can be used for amplifying your sound when you’re playing live. Therefore knowing a little about mics and how you are going to use them will help you decide what kind of mic to purchase

There are two basic type of microphones. But before we get into them and look at how they are different, let’s talk about how they are the same: The patterns in which they pick up sound. When I say pattern I’m talking about the shape that we use to represent the direction in which they will pick up a sound. There are a number of patterns but we’ll look briefly at three: Cardioid, Bi-Directional or Figure Eight, and Omnidirectional. Some microphones will only use one of these patterns, but many have a switch that lets you choose which one you want to use.

The easiest to understand is Omnidirectional. Omni is Latin for all. So an Omnidirectional mic picks up sounds from all directions. No matter where the sound source is in relationship to the mic, it will be picked up equally.

Bi-Directional, or figure eight means that the mic will pick up sounds coming from both the front of the mic and the rear, but not the sides. This pattern when plotted on a graph looks like a figure 8, with the mic being in the middle of the two circles that make up the number 8.

A mic with a Cardioid pattern picks up sounds only from in front of it and just a little to the sides if the sound is near the mic. The pattern on a graph for this type of mic looks like a heart, or in truth more like a the outline of a plum. The mic is by the two upper lobes of heart.

If you’re interested in seeing what these patterns look like on a graph you can find them here. You’ll notice other patterns that we haven’t covered here. But these are variations on these three basic types.

Native Flutes = Cardioid
For the most part, when talking about Native flutes, you’ll want to use a mic with a cardioid pattern. You’ll be playing in front of the mic and really don’t want any other sounds to be picked up from the sides or back.

Different Types of Microphones
So now that we’ve looked at how mics are similar, let’s look at how they are different. There are several different types of microphones but for the Native flute there are really only two that you’ll need to worry about: Dynamic and Condenser. I’m not going to go into how these two types of microphones work, but rather talk about how they are used. If you want to know more about the circuitry involved there is a lot of information out there. You don’t need to know this to use a mic. Let’s look at dynamic mics first.

Dynamic Microphones
Dynamic mics are the types of microphones you see on a live stage. Singers use them on stage, as do instruments that need to be mic’d. They are, for the most part, inexpensive, can take a beating, and don’t feedback as easily as Condenser mics. A decent, all purpose, dynamic mic can be purchased for $100 – $150. Dynamic microphones generally only come with a cardioid patter.

musical-echoesWhen playing a Native flute into a dynamic mic you want to get the flute’s true sound hole, the one in front of the block, right up to the microphone. This is due to the fact that these mics don’t pick up sounds that are not right next to them. (This is why they are harder to feed back)
Notice in the photo to the right how I’m trying to get the true sound hole as close to the mic as I can.

One of the reasons why these mics will not pick up sounds that are not close to them is because they are not as sensitive as condenser mics. This also applies to the range of frequencies they will, and will not pick up. As a general rule dynamic microphones will not pick up sounds that are very low in pitch e.g. low frequencies, or ones that are very high in pitch, e.g. high frequencies. Where they start to not pick up high and low frequencies will give each manufacture’s model it’s characteristic sound. (BTW a graph showing how a mic picks up certain frequencies is called a frequency response curve)

For the most part this lack of sensitivity really isn’t a problem where Native flutes are concerned, due to these flutes limited range. Even if you take into consideration low bass flutes and super high flutes, which are well within the average dynamic microphone’s frequency response curve.

I use a dynamic microphone when I perform live. How did I pick the mic I use? I didn’t really. I just use the mic that came with my Fender Passport PA system. Why go out and buy another mic when the one that came with the PA works just fine? In fact I know that the mic’s inability to reproduce really high frequencies works in my favor in that it acts like a filter on any high, breathy, windy or buzzy sounds coming from the flute. Noise that I would filter out anyway!

Condenser Microphones
Condenser microphones are more common for studio recording. Their electronics work in a different way than dynamic mics and are therefore more sensitive. This means that they will pick up sounds from farther away, that are quieter and very low or high in frequencies. Condenser microphones need to be powered, either by a battery in the mic capsule, or generally from the mic pre-amp. This external power is known as phantom power. Most mixing boards and digital I/Os have phantom power built into their pre-amps.

AT-4050-in-shock-mountUnlike a dynamic mic, when playing into a condenser mic the sound source, in our case a Native flute, does not need to be right next to the microphone. In fact anything closer then 12″ – 18″ will over power the mic and cause distortion. It will also pick up noise from your lips and fingers moving. For Native flutes the best way to go is to have the mic in a shock-mount placed in front and above the flute at a 45˚ angle. It’s very common to have the mic hanging upside down when recording this way.
The photo to the right shows my condenser microphone in it’s shock-mount hanging upside down. This is a side view. The front of the mic is to the right.

I use an Audio Technica 4050 for 99% of my studio recording work. I asked several audio engineers what they would recommend for a good, reasonably priced, all purpose instrument mic and this was one of their recommendations. So far I’ve used it on all of my studio recordings except for a few tracks and have found it to be an excellent mic. When I bought it they cost about $750. They seem to have come down since then. But there are any number of good, reasonably priced mics out there if this is beyond what your budget will allow.

You might be asking yourself, “What mic did he use for the other 1% of his studio recording?” Well on a couple tunes that used a double flute I used a stereo mic, (which I’m not sure gave me the results I was looking for) and on a couple others I used a dynamic mic that was designed for drums! No one has ever mentioned that they can tell the difference and this doesn’t surprise me. By the time you do some filtering, a touch of compression and add all the echo and reverb most people can’t tell. But this leads to another question…

How do you pick a mic for yourself?
So now that I’ve thrown all this information at you how do you wade through it all an pick a microphone for yourself? The truth is there are a few really easy ways to pick one. They aren’t rules necessarily, they’re more like guidelines…

1. Where will you use a mic the most?

In the studio or on the stage? If you’re going to use it mostly in the studio then you might strongly consider a condenser mic. For anything else, stage, flute circles, family outings, public appearances, Madison Square Gardens…, then get a dynamic mic. It would be wise to not take a condenser mic onto a live stage. It can be done, but It’s not worth all the extra hassles and it will pick up every little noise anyone even close to you makes. And that includes your noises as well…

2. What’s your budget like?
If you don’t have a lot of money you’re better off with a good dynamic mic. That way you’ll have money for a mic stand, cables and all the other gear the mic plugs into.

3. How quiet is your space?
If you plan to use a mic for only studio recording and your studio is your bedroom, how much unwanted noise is there? If you can’t record yourself in a very quiet place then a condenser mic will pick up all sorts of unwanted noise. Computer fans, cars, planes, garbage trucks, neighbors yelling, dogs barking, phones ringing, your spouse / roommate flushing the toilet, the washing machine, birds, loud bees… Better to use a dynamic microphone that won’t pick up all these noises. Unless of course you’re doing some “Avant-garde, urban noise & flute recording”.

I record my live instruments in a walk-in closet with acoustic foam covering the walls. I generally turn off all the phones (which, as my friends know, I rarely answer anyway), and even have my computer in an isolation box to damp down the fan noise. Trust me, when recording, not much is as anonying as unwanted noise that you can’t get rid of.

Finally, the last thing to consider is that better equipment doesn’t always make for a better recording. Why would I say that? Well what if you purchased some $5,000 microphone (yes, some cost that much) and when you record your flute you hear all this ugly stuff, like wind, buzz and air, in the recording that you don’t like? Now you’re just going to have to figure out a way to get rid of it. Maybe a less sensitive microphone wouldn’t have picked up all that junk in the first place.

Keep in mind that the sound of the flute we hear in our head is not the same as the sound the mic hears. Our brains unconsciously and automatically filter out a lot of wind, air, buzz, fuzz, and other noises from the flute. A mic does not. It’s kind of like hearing a recording of your voice. And you love how much your voice sounds… Right?

So if you aren’t familiar with how sound works, and how to manipulate it through devices such as EQ, maybe you don’t need that state-of-the-art microphone. Maybe an inexpensive dynamic mic is best for your needs and experience. You can always upgrade later.

…Plus, with a “cheaper” microphone, if your playing isn’t all that great you can always blame the mic…

Happy Recording!

© Cedar Mesa Music. All rights reserved.

16 Comments leave one →
2010 August 11
Bill Webb permalink

Great article Scott – Thanks!

2010 August 11

Scott, thanks for the article … just wondering what mic cables you use and whether you think they make much difference.

2010 August 14

Scott… I have 2 Shure PG81 Condenser mikes, and so far I’ve had great luck with them. They’re recommended for accustic Guitar, Drums and Woodwind instruments. I wasn’t sure what to get at the time, so I went with the advice of they guy at the store, who was actually quite facinated by my flutes…lol.
They do pick up every little noise, yeah…. you can hear a butterfly sneeze outside my window with these…
So I have managed to isolate pretty much every noise I have around me, except one… my computer.
I am very curious about the isolation box you mentioned… did you buy it or make it? And how is it as far as temperature? My biggest factor here in Florida is the heat, so I can’t have anything that my computer will sit and roast in, if you know what I mean.
If you get a chance, I would be real curious how you did this, and maybe some more on soundproofing a bedroom studio in general.

2010 August 19

Hi Scott,
Thanks for the article on mic’s. It was very helpful.

I was watching some of your YouTube vids and they show you using a mac with some kind of sound/recording software. With the mic post out of the way, is there any chance you might make one now describing the recording software you use? Even just a quick list of applications would be interesting.

Thanks in advance!


2010 September 19

Scott, You give some good advice, but I have some concerns about your advice to use a dynamic mic for home recording in rooms that might not as quiet as a studio. As you know Native American Flutes are very quiet instruments and getting a decent level, (without the white noise created by turning everything way up) in a home studio can be maddening if you don’t have an expensive mixer with strong phantom power. My first CD (and so far only one) was recorded on a shoe string budget using a Radio Shack Condenser(don’t laugh) plugged into my old Tascam tape recorder and fed into a newer Tascam digital recorder. The tape recorder served as both a mixer(it had better EQ controls than the digital recorder) and to boost the signal-although the condenser mic is battery powered. Getting unwanted noises was a problem, but it took a couple of years of experimenting just to be able to get a strong clean signal recorded.
Unfortunately, battery powered condenser mics are hard to find, music stores want to sell you expensive phantom power devices that are all to often designed for guitars and sometimes distort the signal. I tried recording with affordable dynamic mics and more expensive ones(recording with a band I play with) and even bought a more expensive condenser mike that is nearly useless unless you’re plugged onto a thousand dollars worth of recording equipment. The cheapo battery powered condenser mike beats them every time.
Just a note of caution to the home recorders. Also beware the advice you get a the big music equipment stores like the Guitar Center. Most of the kids who work in those stores have little experience in dealing with acustic music.

2010 September 20

Regarding your comment Chris, I think there might be some other factor contributing to your lack of results with the dynamic mic. The NAF as an instrument is actually very penetrating (in my experience), and I’ve had great success with dynamic mics as have many performers/recording artists, etc..

If you are getting a weak signal from a dynamic mic (i.e. if your flute seems too quiet for the mic) the problem is likely not with the mic (unless it is broken) but with the preamp in your mixer or with another part of the signal chain. A cheap mixer with poor quality preamps cannot drive a dynamic mic effectively, but that is no fault of the mic. The venerable Shure mics (SM57 and SM58) are great mics for recording, and there are many other reasonably priced dynamics that will get the job done.

The white noise that comes from turning everything up is generally “room tone”, and indicates that your mic is picking up everything–probably too well. If you are getting white noise because everything is turned way up, but the flute is not being picked up well, then you have a faulty piece of gear somewhere in the signal chain. Then the white noise (or hiss) might be from a bad connection (poorly soldered circuit, bad cable, malfunctioning mic, malfunctioning preamp, etc.). Under the right conditions with properly functioning gear, the dynamic mics should pick up the flute no problem at all.

2011 November 15
Rego permalink

Thank you, finally a decent article on flute recording for beginners!

2015 February 8

Thanks for such a detailed article on the topic Scott. I was just wondering what kind of mics do you prefer yourself?


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