Microphone Myths—Debunked

by John Bonnell
Copyright © 2013 John Bonnell

There's a great deal of misinformation about microphones and microphone mods on the internet. Of course, there's a great deal of misinformation in general on the internet. So, here are a few things on my mind on this rainy Oklahoma day that I feel should be set straight:

Myth #1: Some newer microphones can't be modded, due to the use of surface mount devices, or black magic Chinese fairy dust, or some combination of the two.

Reality: This is absolute nonsense. With the proper skills and tools, surface mount devices are not an obstacle to modification and improvement of an inexpensive microphone.

Myth #2: If I buy a more expensive budget mic, it will be better.

Reality: Alas, no. Even mics costing over $1,200 are often using the same low quality components as a $60 microphone. And in the case of most brands of budget mics, all you're paying for is a different paint job.

Another thing to be aware of is that, as far as Chinese mics go, there are only a few unique designs. They are sold with different paint jobs, bodies, and branding, but they are still identical inside.

Myth #3: Surface mount components sound worse than through-hole.

Reality: Nope. It's all about quality. In fact, some cheaper SMD's are better than cheaper through-hole components (likely due to the use of modern equipment and automation). The people who deride SMD's often simply don't have the skills to service such boards, and so extol the virtues of the technology they have some experience with.

There are some types of high-end components that really aren't available in SMD packages, like polypropylene capacitors. For many components, however, the only real difference is the package.

More Mic Myths

There are a number of other myths about microphones, most are concerned with capsules and the Neumann U87. The misconception that the original Rode N1 and NT1-A are similar and can be made into U87's, is one such myth. Neither mic is based on Neumann designs, however, and, aside from the superficial resemblance of the bodies, they share nothing in common.

Another U87 related myth is the notion that the capsule can be swapped for a different capsule, with the result being an instant U87 sound. This simply isn't true. If we were talking about dynamic microphones, this idea would have some validity, but capacitor capsules simply don't work that way.

The most persistent, and most destructive myth, however, is the removal of head basket grille layers.

Without a doubt, this single bit of snake oil is perhaps the worst thing someone could do to your microphone. Never mind that sound simply doesn't care that there's a wire screen in front of it (go out and try to build an echo chamber out of chicken wire, I'll wait), that your pop filter wouldn't work if sound was reflected by the mesh (or metal), that you'd have to violate several laws of physics for removing grille layers to have any effect on sound, or that Neumann U87's use three layers of screen—just put all of that aside—the grilles serve several very important functions.

One of the most immediately noticeable functions, is to prevent large blasts of air hitting the capsule. These blasts can make your mic more sibilant, puffy, and generally just sound bad.

Another useful function is to help keep dirt, moisture, and other contaminants away from the capsule. Capacitor capsules are electrostatic devices, basically little vacuum cleaners. There are supposedly some exceptions to this rule, but it's a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. In general, if it's in the air, the capsule is going to attract it. Moisture is the capsule's enemy, always use a pop filter if someone is going to be talking or singing into it. And I'd suggest not storing a condenser mic in any sort of fuzzy bag, unless you want that fuzz all over the capsule.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the grille, is its role in the overall EMI/RFI shielding. If you want your mic to hum, destroy the grille, it's the quickest way to accomplish this.

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