Sound Track: Big Mikes

Ever seen a studio microphone? Studio mikes frequently appear as supporting actors in music videos, whether being caressed by Mariah Carey or assaulted by Marilyn Manson. They look impressive, expensive and somewhat mysterious.

Ever wondered if you could use one of these beauties for video? If so, you’re not the first. Countless videographers have found the studio microphone to be an invaluable tool for capturing audio. In the next few pages, we’ll de-mystify the studio mike and discover how you can put one to work in your next video.

A Different Breed

Though any microphone can be (and is) used in recording studios, we’ll limit our discussion to the most common and versatile mike of all. Called a large-diaphragm condenser mike, this grill-clad beauty is useful for recording everything from string orchestras to commercial voice-overs.

This type of studio microphone differs from common handheld and camcorder-mounted microphones in several key areas:

  • It’s big: In a microphone, the thin membrane that picks up sound is called the diaphragm. Whereas a tiny lavalier mike may have a diaphragm just 3/16ths of an inch across, many studio condenser mikes have diaphragms an inch or more in diameter. This requires a much larger case to enclose the diaphragm and all the hardware that supports it. Studio mikes also have better on-board electronics, which require a larger circuit board and case.
  • It’s expensive: This characteristic of studio mikes has been changing in recent years. Though you can still spend thousands of dollars on a studio microphone, many large-diaphragm condenser mikes now have prices in the $300 to $500 range.
  • It uses a big connector: Every professional large-diaphragm condenser mike uses a three-conductor XLR connector. This connector carries a noise-canceling balanced signal out of the mike and 48-volt DC power (phantom power) back to the mike to power its internal electronics. Unfortunately, no consumer camcorders offer XLR connectors or phantom power. The solution? A mixer or external microphone preamp.
  • It has switches: Many studio microphones offer multiple pickup patterns, especially those with a higher price point. By flipping a switch, you can change the mike from non-directional to directional and even choose from various pickup patterns. Many studio mikes also offer a bass-rolloff switch to control runaway bass and a pad switch to handle extremely loud sounds.

Listen Up

Physical characteristics are not what make the large-diaphragm condenser mike such a great tool for recording audio. It’s how these mikes sound that makes them so special. Here’s what a studio mike offers the ears:

  • Great frequency response: Most studio mikes will capture the whole human hearing range, from deep, powerful low frequencies to crystalline high frequencies. The studio mike picks these up in equal proportion to boot, giving you a very realistic and natural-sounding recording. Some studio mikes have doctored frequency responses that actually make things sound better than real life.
  • Clear, "open" sound: In contrast to cheap mikes that can sound muddy and dark, the studio mike usually delivers a sound with spaciousness and detail. If your mike gives you a small, dark sound, there’s not much you can do to open up that sound later in the production process. If your mike gives you a clear, open sound to begin with, it’s easy to preserve that clarity right down to your final dub.
  • More sound, less noise: Like a boat with a big sail, the studio mike’s large diaphragm has a great deal of surface area. This makes it more sensitive to sound. Hence a studio mike will pick up quiet sounds and voices with more accuracy and will generate less noise in the process.

Plug It In

With the theory stuff out of the way, it’s time to talk about the specifics of how you can use a large-diaphragm mike in your videos.

Studio mikes do wonderful things for the human voice, especially when you get up-close and personal. The vast majority of narration, commercial voice-over and dubbed-in dialog you’ve heard in your life was recorded with the talent talking mere inches from a studio mike. The result is a full, crisp sound that practically jumps off the speakers.

Pop and Placement

To record your own powerful voice tracks, set a large-diaphragm condenser mike on a stand at mouth level. Aim the mike directly toward the speaker’s mouth from a distance of about four inches. To avoid a low-frequency thump from plosive consonants like "p" and "b," suspend a pop filter between mike and mouth. (You can buy a ready made pop filter or build your own from women’s hosiery and an embroidery hoop.)

If you don’t have a pop filter, mike positioning becomes more crucial. Try moving the mike two or three inches to the side, keeping it pointed directly at the speaker’s mouth. Have your talent soften plosives (by making a "b" sound instead of "p," for example) or turn their head slightly when saying them.

Sometimes, an up-close mike placement results in a sound that’s too full and dark. If your studio mike has a bass rolloff switch, try flipping it on to tame low frequencies. Engaging a bass rolloff switch will also reduce thumps and pops from plosives.


Effective Sound

A studio mike is also an excellent choice for recording sound effects. Whether you’re capturing footfalls in crunchy autumn leaves or the squeal of car tires on pavement, a large-diaphragm condenser mike will deliver sounds that are both realistic and exciting. You don’t have to be afraid of poking the mike right down into the action, either–modern condenser mikes can handle extremely loud sounds without distortion or damage.

A large-diaphragm condenser mike excels at recording more distant sound sources as well. If your recording space has pleasing acoustics and is free from unwanted noises, moving a studio mike back from the sound source will pick up a more spacious, ambient sound. Positioned carefully, one microphone can capture a great-sounding recording of a small vocal ensemble, acoustic band or drama troupe.

Speak Up

For many types of recording chores, a multi-pattern mike comes in very handy. To record two voices in sync with a clay or computer animation, for example, the bi-directional pattern works great. This pattern picks up sounds coming from opposite sides of the mike, allowing you to place it between two people for a balanced sound.

A multi-pattern mike’s omnidirectional pattern picks up sound equally from all directions. This makes the acoustic space you’re recording in a very large part of the final sound. If you want to accentuate the ambience of a sewer tunnel or cave, the omnidirectional pattern may be just the ticket. If you circle numerous people around a single omnidirectional mike, you’ll get great sound all around.

Care and Feeding

Are studio mikes finicky, fragile beasts? Not at all. Modern condenser mikes are nearly as rugged as the die-hard dynamic mikes that populate outdoor stages and smoky bars by the thousands. They can withstand temperature extremes, changes in humidity and moderate impacts.

That said, moisture can temporarily or permanently damage studio condenser mikes. Close-miking a voice can subject the mike to quite a bit of moisture, which may shut the mike down for a few minutes until things dry out.

It’s also worth noting that condenser mikes don’t like to be plugged and un-plugged with phantom power on. Doing so can destroy the mike’s electronics. Be sure to shut down the DC voltage on the mixer or preamp before attaching or removing the mike cable.


A Mike of Your Own

If you think it’s time to spring for a studio microphone, then you’ll be glad to know that there are numerous places to find them. Your local music store probably has several different models you can audition. Major mail-order companies (such as B&H, Sweetwater Sound, Full Compass, Musician’s Friend, Manny’s and others) stock an impressive array of mikes. A quick Internet search will help you locate any of these retailers on line.

Sound is a big part of any video and the microphone you use plays a big part in the quality of the sound you capture. To record great sound for almost any application, a large-diaphragm studio condenser mike is the most versatile tool money can buy. So if you’re ready to make the investment, a good mike will serve you well.

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