You finally decided to take the plunge and get your home recording studio started. Needless to say, you are probably at a complete loss on how to start and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of available options. And this is going to be the focus of this article.
We start from scratch and we build a system that will meet your budget and personal needs. If you already did some research of your own, you will realize this is not a simple task, and in fact can be quite daunting.
There are so many things to take into consideration and so many different setups and options available that I am going to break up this post in as my different sections as possible for you you keep track and make sense of all the information. Yes, this article will be a bit lengthy, but the aim is to be as thorough as possible and cover all the issues and questions you may have, so bear with me.
I start by mentioning a few things I feel are important for you to keep in mind before moving on to building the actual system.
Keep the following in mind when deciding on what type of home audio system you are going to start off with.
When choosing the components to be used in a computer based setup, make sure your computer can always be upgraded for use in a more advanced and expanded professional audio setup.
Your budget may not always allow it, but if possible, always go for the higher end component. It is always less expensive in the long run to purchase the high end piece of equipment than an entry level component, which you will anyway have to replace in a very short space of time with the better component as you expand your setup. Microphones and studio monitors are perfect examples.
Please note, high end does not mean going for the most expensive piece of equipment. (Sometimes a budget microphone may set you back 60 dollars, when you could have saved up and bought a good quality entry level professional microphone for 95 dollars, which could last you for years.)
When deciding to start with a basic computer based setup, always choose a desktop over a laptop. It simply is much easier to upgrade and expand the capabilities of a desktop, unlike a laptop where your upgrade options are very limited. (Memory, hard drives and sound cards are just a few computer components that can easily be upgraded on a desktop.) Since your computer will not only form part of a basic setup, but also be integrated in a more advanced professional setup, it is a worthwhile investment.
When setting up a computer, always remember most of your Digital Audio Workstation software requires a minimum of 4Mb (megabyte) of memory. This means it will actually perform optimally with 8Mb installed. If your budget allows it, always ask your supplier to have your system upgraded to 8Mb if it doesn't already come with that amount of memory already installed.
At the very least, make sure you desktop or laptop's memory can be upgraded to 8Mb or more in the future. (Fortunately almost all modern computers are capable of having their memory upgraded via additional memory slots or replacing the currently installed memory modules with bigger capacity ones.)
This can be a bit tricky to know when starting out for the first time, but always try and obtain a compatible component that can used later on in a more advanced and expanded professional system.
(Microphones are a perfect example. You may invest in a quality USB condenser microphone for you computer setup. A year down the line you are ready to upgrade to a serious professional audio setup. You invested in a good quality audio interface, but it only accepts professional microphone XLR inputs. Now you are stuck with an existing high quality USB microphone that does not fit into your new high-end system's XLR ports. If you invested in a condenser microphone with both USB and XLR outputs, you would have been able to make the transition without any additional costs.
(You do get condenser microphones with both USB and XLR outputs which are good examples of investing in a high quality components that can be used in an entry level computer based setup, as well as an more advanced professional home recording studios later on.)
The important thing to remember is to always try and think long term when assembling you system, and how what you purchase now can be used much later on as your home audio system expands. (It may even encourage you to invest in a higher quality piece of equipment right from the start.)
Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software can basically be seen as the heart of your recording setup where all recorded sounds are edited, mixed, enhanced and outputted to different media.
Before adding any new equipment to your home setup, make sure it is supported and compatible with your DAW software. You will save yourself money and a lot of headaches in the process.
(Some DAW software are very specific with the type of hardware they are able to work worth. As a result your newly purchased system component may not be able to work with your current DAW software.)
There are basically 2 routes you can follow when you start building up your home first recording setup. You can start with:
This setup is the least expensive for anyone on a tight budget. Here too, your system can be divided into 2 categories:
By far the most affordable home audio system you can set up. Built-in sound on motherboards of modern day computers have come a far way from a decade ago and can be considered adequate for recording and outputting sound. Don't expect something of exceptional high quality though.
Make sure your computer have at least:
Laptop computers are notorious for the bad quality of their built-in microphones and speakers, and most of your average desktop computer does not even come with built-in speakers or microphones.
As a result, at the very least you should invest a in good quality USB condenser microphone and a decent pair of desktop speakers.
Although it's a very basic system, you can actually produce and record quite a decent quality audio that will produce a fairly good representation of your voice or instrument. (I will make some recommendations for you to choose from on the Resources Page for microphones and speakers.) Just remember, this is a starter system, so don't expect professional studio quality sound.
We are now building a system that is fully equipped to handle all the demands of the DAW software. It should also be able to accept and process all the signal inputs from a professional home audio system. (This way you make sure that when upgrading your system and adding professional audio components, your desktop computer is already set up and you don'n need additional upgrades.)
For this reason your computer setup will be a little bit more expensive, but well worth the money. You must ensure your computer have at least:
Additionally, I would strongly suggest investing into 2 additional components:
a) External hard drive. Not only important for backing up your valuable recordings, but for providing additional storage space as well. (I will discuss the different options available to you in a futures article.) Additionally, an external hard drive allows you to store data away from your studio for extra security.
b) Large Screen Display. Taking into consideration that so much information needs to fit onto one screen, investing into a monitor with a display size of at least 21 inches (to see the majority of timelines and toolboxes) is a very good investment. Just take into consideration that most DAW software mimic the layout of a mixing console with its overwhelming array of sliders and switches.
As with the you standard PC setup, at the very least you should invest a in good quality USB condenser microphone and a decent pair of desktop speakers.
You should seriously consider investing a little bit extra in a professional condenser microphone, if possible a large diaphragm microphone. (I don't suggest spending hundreds of dollars on a microphone. You can get a good entry level professional microphone for under $100.) The quality of your audio is largely dependent on the quality of your microphone. If you do, make sure its a microphone with both an USB and XLR port for future use in a high end system.
And that takes care of your 2 different computer based setups. There is still a lot more detail to look into, but I've already talked holes in your head. I hope you're keeping up!
Next we are going to look at a more conventional audio setup that will look very familiar to anyone working in a professional commercial audio studio. But this is specifically aimed at the home user.
There are quite a few scenarios where you might choose to build up a proper audio setup right from the start (apart from having a bigger budget to work worth.)
(You may already be a professional recording artist or podcaster, and need the convenience of a professional recording environment in the comfort of your own home. You may have a very good computer setup, but now needs to make that step up to take your audio quality to the next level.)
Whichever the case, you are now faced with an abundance of choices which can be a bit intimidating at first. The good news is, despite being more expensive, you can now build up a good quality system that is a fraction of the cost of a professional commercial studio. So good in fact, that most people will not be able to tell the difference between a home and commercially created recording.
To explain things in a way that will make proper sense, we will start from the first component that comes into play during recording. From there we follow the signal and address each component that gets involved along the way. First in line is obviously:
Not only is the microphone the first component the sound reaches, but most probably by far the most important component in your system. If you ever heard the expression, "Garbage In Garbage Out", it applies no more so than to the microphone. The reason for this is simple:
If the quality of sound your microphone picks up is poor, no amount of processing or post-production editing will rectify the problem. (Sure, you my be able to clear up the sound, reduce the background noise and make some other changes in your mixer or DAW software, but the detail lost and clarity of the original sound can never be recovered.)
Exactly for this reason your microphone is that important. If you are ever planning on saving up and wait a bit longer to spend that little extra on a component, your microphone must always take first priority. Whether you choose a condenser or dynamic microphone, please ensure it's the highest quality microphone you can afford.
There are 2 types of microphones you can choose from. Dynamic and condenser microphones. Each one has its advantages and drawbacks.
In short, dynamic microphones are very robust and passive (do not require an external power source). They provide a weaker signal though and need a device like a DI Box to boost its gain and provide balanced power to the audio interface. They are very popular for public, especially outdoor events, where their durability and resistance to the elements come into play.
Condenser microphones are active which means they require power to operate (usually in the form of 48V phantom power provided by the audio interface). As a result of their complex design, they are more fragile and not as robust as dynamic microphones. They do, however, produce a much stronger signal and do not need an additional device like a DI Box to boost its gain.
As I already said, whichever microphone you choose, just make sure it is the best quality one you can afford. (You can read more about these microphones and their differences here.)
A mic activator is widely used to balance and boost the gain of weak signals from devices like dynamic microphones and electric guitars.
These robust little metal boxes are either passive or active. Passive mic activators do not have build-in power and relies on phantom power from the audio interface to operate and boost signals. They are more robust due to their simpler design. Active mic activators come with their own power supplies and do not rely on external power. They are more complex and not as robust as a passive mic activator though.
(If you are using a condenser microphone you do not need a mic activator. They come with their own build-in amps that draws their power from the phantom power of the audio interface. This is something to keep in mind when deciding on a microphone.)
The audio interface is probably the second most important component in you audio setup. This interface receives all the inputs from the audio devices and converts them to a digital signals that get outputted to a computer (or mixer and recording device).
Many people see audio interfaces as a replacement for sound cards which is partially true. They provide so much more functionality than just acting as an interface (or replacement for a sound card) though.
First let's look at its input capabilities. It has at least one or more audio input port, usually a XLR audio port for a microphone input. The majority of interfaces have what is called "combo" ports. These interfaces are able to accept both XLR and 1/4" TRS inputs for instruments.
Depending on your needs, audio interfaces can have up to eight or more audio inputs. Some even include RCA line in inputs and even midi ports for keyboards. (Midi ports are very rarely used as an interface nowadays, so its importance is greatly diminished. As a result, support for midi devices on audio interfaces should not be seen as a necessity in any way.)
As far as output goes, apart from the digital outputs to the computer, most audio interfaces have line out ports for studio monitors. It's important to note that these line out ports are not amplified and must be connected to active (powered) studio monitors in order to work.
(Alternatively, if you already have an amplifier as part of hi-fi setup in the same room, the line out cables from the audio interface can be connected to the auxiliary line inputs of the amplifier, and played through your hi-fi speakers.)
You also need to pay attention to the type of digital output port your audio interface has for connecting to a computer. Most affordable audio interfaces make use of USB to connect to the PC. (USB2 is normally used, as USB1 has too low a transfer rate, and you are almost sure to experience latency problems between your audio interface and computer when using this early USB version. Make sure your computer system has at least one USB2 port to prevent any latency issues.)
Faster connections like FireWire and Thunderbolt are available on some audio interfaces, but they tend to be substantially more expensive. Also, not many computers come standard with FireWire or Thunderbolt interfaces, and you may need to install a dedicated card with the appropriate interface, which can become an expensive exercise. Make sure you check for compatibility between audio interface and computer before making a purchase.
Another very important function of an audio interface, is its ability amplify signals. Almost all audio interfaces have preamps build in for each one of its input ports, accompanied by an adjustable dial to control the amount of gain (volume) of each input. A master dial on the interface controls the amount of gain that gets outputted to the computer through the digital interface.
One future that is essential on any audio interface, is the ability to supply phantom power to connected components. This is used to power components like condenser microphones and passive DI boxes. These devices cannot function without power. Fortunately most modern audio interfaces come standard with phantom power. (It is normally indicated on the console by either the wording "Phantom Power" or "48V"). Just make absolutely sure your audio interface has this function before making a purchase.
Last but not least is the microphone output jack that comes build-in on the audio interface. It comes with its own adjustable dial to control the gain. It has the advantage of providing you with immediate feedback of what you are recording, enabling you to make adjustments in real time without worrying about latency issues between audio interface and computer.
A final word on the statement or common believe that audio interfaces act as external sound cards, just with more functions. As I already mentioned, this partially true. I still firmly believe that any advanced computer setup that use DAW software and output its sound directly from the computer, must have a good sound card installed to accompany any audio interface on the PC side.
Not only does it produce a much cleaner signal for output than a standard motherboard chip set, some dedicated sound cards come standard with the proper output ports to be connected to high quality active desktop speakers or amplifier. (I honestly don't believe the standard standard stereo headphone jack on a PC provides the high quality signal that needs to be send to the speakers/studio monitors or amplifiers.)
Sometimes taken for granted, a good pair of microphones are invaluable for any recording studio. Not only can you listen to what you're recording in privacy, but with an amount of detail and clarity that some speakers or studio monitors sometimes fail to pick up.
The ability to plug them into your audio interface provides you with the additional benefit of listening and making adjustments in real with zero latency. The benefit of making the necessary adjustments before all your audio gets recorded, can save you hours of post-production editing time in your DAW software.
As great and clear as the audio through your microphones sound, they are no substitute for a good pair studio monitors or high quality speakers. You need to hear what your recording sounds like in an open space to get a clear indication of what your audience will hear.
I am not going to to go into too much detail here. (I am discussing the difference between studio monitors and high quality computer based speakers in this article.)
Just remember that you do need them and you need ones providing a high quality sound. Too many home recording studios rely primarily on the sound produced by microphones.
Although discussing recording hardware is the primary focus of this post, room space is too important not to address when discussing recording equipment and home audio studios. I left this topic to be addressed rather late in this article. Ironically, this should be the first factor that you should consider and seriously look into even before you start thinking about purchasing equipment.
Yes, it is that important. First and foremost, you must have access to a confined isolated space, preferably a separate room. You need an environment that is small enough for you to control, yet big enough to accommodate all your recording equipment. Although its hard to guess precise measurements, the size of an average sized bedroom always springs to mind when thinking of a proper home professional recording studio.
Without going into too much detail, the isolation is important because background noise is always an issue, which can be control in a separate isolated room. Preparing a room for acoustics and reverberation is also much easier in a separate relatively small room.
(There are just too many variables out of your control when you work in a large open space.
If you have no access to smaller or separate space, consider partitioning the section where your recording setup will be. It is not as difficult as you may think. More on that in another article.)
The space I described should be sufficient to accommodate all your recording equipment. Obviously you need enough desk space for all your recording equipment, as well as floor space in case you want separate stands for studio monitors/speakers, standing space to perform in, as well as space next to the walls for acoustic treatment.
(The situation starts changing drastically when you start adding multiple instruments and individuals. This not only influence the amount of space you require, but also effects the type and cost of equipment you may need. This is not the aim of a smaller home recording studio though, and is a topic for another discussion.)
Yes, I am including it just in case you forgot, but obviously the customized desktop computer setup I described earlier in this article will form part of this professional home setup.
I would not recommend using a basic computer with this type of setup, as the demands from the inputs of the audio interface as well as the DAW software, will be demanding on both your processor and system memory and you will need the the maximum amount of power to process the input signals. (Especially if you are receiving multiple signals from your audio interface.)
On the plus side, by the time you are building this more advanced professional home studio, you most probably already have your computer set up, and integrating it with the rest of your system will have minimum cost implications for you.
Well, if your head are spinning right now, I don't blame you. That was a lot to take in and you may have to go through the article a few times to makes sense of everything.
The goal of an article this size, is to provide you with as much information as possible to help you make an informed decision when deciding on how to start or upgrade you home recording studio.
You might have noticed that I focused primarily on audio hardware in this article. Needless to say there many other factors to take into consideration. I already touched on the issue of space, as I feel its too important not to bring it up in this article.
Other important issues include room preparation (acoustics, reverberation and sound deadening in general), DAW software and cabling. Each of these issues can be the topic of another full article, which I will definitely address in future posts. You will probably agree that there is already so much information to digest in this post alone, that adding to it by discussing these topics in detail, will just be too confusing and messy.
Obviously there is no absolute right or wrong way of going about setting up you own home audio recording studio, and some of the information in this post is based on personal opinion. I hope at the very least it cleared up some confusion you may have and provided you with more direction when it comes to making your decisions.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or questions you may have. Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Until next time, happy recording and enjoy the journey.
Starting a recording studio on a budget can be tough. Actually, it's a serious problem for cash-strapped home users starting their home setup from scratch. With recent advances in microphone technology accompanied by a drop in prices, being able to obtain a high quality microphone may be easier and more affordable than you think.
Depending on your budget and personal requirements, you may just require a good quality microphone, but not just any microphone. If you are a serious audiophile, I can already feel the glaring stares and disgusted shaking of heads, but more and more home recording studios are making the switch and some are already using USB Condenser Microphones.
To make sense of this, you need to understand what a condenser microphone is and what makes it different from other microphones.
When you think of the traditional microphones you see on television and live events used by rock stars, vocalists and public speakers, chances are almost all of them are dynamic microphones. And it is with very good reason they are so popular. Dynamic microphones are robust, reliable, resistant to very high volumes and even able handle more extreme weather conditions.
There are however, a few important components you never see, but are always used to help make a dynamic microphone produce the quality and sound you hear. To understand this, we need to look at its fundamental design:
A dynamic microphone consists of sturdy diaphragm with coils wrapped around a magnet behind it. The air moving the diaphragm,makes the coils around the magnet vibrate, creating an electric signal that is too weak to be processed on its own. For this reason it needs a mic activator to boost the signal, before being passed on to the preamps of the audio interface or mixer for further processing and amplification.
Don't get me wrong, a good dynamic microphone is still superior in many ways and is still the microphone of choice for a majority of recording professionals. The complete setup just tends to be quite expensive and intimidating for the home audio user, and this is where the condenser microphone come into play.
The condenser microphone can be seen as a microphone with a pre-amplifier built into the microphone itself. In other words, its basically a "powered" microphone. Let me explain.
A condenser microphone uses a much thinner and sensitive diaphragm that is electrically charged and move against back plate (grid) as it reacts to the sound waves. The electrical power to the diaphragm is called "phantom power" and is carried within the microphone cable. The result is that a much stronger electrical signal is created that may not require the assistance of a mic activator.
Many years ago, the USB condenser microphone was still in its infancy and not even a blip on the radar of the general music and recording industry. They were big and bulky, not very reliable and extremely expensive. The sound quality produced by these early microphones wasn't too great either and described as "muddy at best" by early users.
Fast forward to the present, and these early microphones are unrecognizable in their current form. Today's USB condenser microphones are compact, in many ways deliver superior quality to their dynamic counterparts and are also much affordable than a few years ago. As a bonus, you really are also spoiled for choice as there are literally hundreds of makes and models available. From less then 50 dollars to well over 200 dollars, you really have a wide variety to choose from, depending on your budget and preference in quality.
Although we are focusing on the USB condenser microphone here, just remember that the condenser microphone that is used in a professional recording setup, is normally connected to an audio interface via traditional XLR cables. It also draws its power from the "phantom power" supplied by the audio interface. (If you are interested, you can find a better explanation of the more traditional condenser and dynamic microphone setup in this article.)
Just one important note. The USB condenser microphone I am describing and recommending here is not meant to replace the more professional XLR-based condenser or dynamic microphone for a home recording studio.
This is for the benefit of anyone who never wanted more than a high quality microphone to connect to their computer to deliver high quality audio for their podcasts, voice-overs of vlogging.
But why a USB condenser microphone? There are quite a few compelling reasons to seriously consider this microphone:
With the quality of higher end USB microphones like the Rode-NT-USB and Samson G-Track Pro, studio quality sound is now available for less than 200 dollars. Acceptable realistic vocal and instrumental sound can even also be obtained by a few microphones below a 100 dollars.
Off course you get very high-quality condenser microphones with the traditional XLR audio interface as well. The problem is that you don't just need a simple audio interface (with XLR ports) to connect it to a computer for recording and editing. You need one that are able to supply the microphone with phantom power. Remember, a condenser microphone needs electrical power, and although all USB cables supply power to all connected devices, not all traditional audio interfaces have functions build in to supply phantom power. You can see how quickly the use of a conventional audio setup can become a very expensive exercise.
Most of us already own a laptop or desktop computer. Using your current system or just doing a few upgrades to make it compatible with Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software requirements, and you have functioning recording setup.
As basically all USB devices are now Plug&Play, you can just plug your new microphone into the USB port and drivers will automatically be installed and integrated with your computer system. This makes installing and start using your microphone a fairly painless process. (Yes, you may have to adjust a few settings in your DAW software or manually install drivers, but these are minor and easy to fix issues.)
As I already mentioned, modern condenser microphones are as good or even better in some aspects than their dynamic cousins. If you are not a recording professional or have a highly trained ear, you will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a high-quality condenser microphone and top-end dynamic setup. Also, sensitive and soft/distant sounds are more accurately picked up by condenser microphones.
If you are under the impression that you have limited yourself to direct computer use only, you can rest assured. A variety of USB to XLR converter cables are available to let you connect your microphone to a standard conventional audio recording setup.
Taking all of the above into consideration, I would highly recommend looking into a USB condenser microphones, especially if you are on a tight budget.
As you would have gathered by now, I am hugely in favor of of these microphones, and can wholeheartedly recommend them. Having said that, just be aware of a few limitations.
Otherwise, for normal vocal and instrumental recording, I think you will love the company of a high quality USB condenser microphone.
Until next time, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have. Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
With condenser microphones being the new darling of the recording studio, dynamic microphones are increasingly bring treated as second-class citizens in commercial studios. Many home studios don't even consider using dynamic microphones. Have dynamic microphones become redundant in the modern day recording studio?
Not so long ago, dynamic microphones were the mainstay of the stage and studio. Some models like the Shure SM58 reached iconic status, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. With such a rich history and still used by world famous bands and vocalists on stages the world over, how can the dynamic microphone possibly be shunned in anyway?
The main argument and criticism against the dynamic microphone is not its role as the microphone of choice for the stage and live events, but its place in the recording studio.
There are a variety of reasons artists and sound engineers in recording studios are increasingly moving away from the dynamic microphone. When looking more closely though, two main reasons are emerging. They are the emergence of new technology and current limitations. Let me explain.
The emergence and growing popularity of the condenser microphone is the "new technology" that is playing a big part in the decreased use of the dynamic microphone in the recording studio environment.
To be honest, the condenser microphone is hardly new technology. Microphone manufacturer Neumann, has been producing condenser microphones since 1928! It is only during recent years that advances in technology allowed condenser microphones to produce the level of audio quality and sensitivity we are seeing today.
What is really making a condenser microphone so popular and suitable for studio use is way it is constructed. Unlike a dynamic microphone which is passive (unpowered),condenser microphones require an electrical current to operate.
What makes a condenser microphone operate is a powered capacitor consisting of two plates placed closely together. The front plate is made of a very thin material and act as as the diaphragm. As sound waves hits the diaphragm, it vibrates and cause the distances to the back plate to contract and expand, creating an electrical charge and the corresponding signal is then interpreted and carried through down the cable.
The electrical current needed to power the capacitor in condenser microphones can be provided by either an internal battery, or externally through phantom power. Phantom power is provided via the microphone cable.
(When connected through a XLR cable to an audio interface, the audio interface provides 48 volts of phantom power to the condenser microphone through the XLR cable. When connected via USB, power is supplied via the USB cable to the microphone.)
It is the thin and extremely responsive diaphragm of the condenser microphone that sets it apart. It is extremely sensitive and therefore able to pick up very low sound levels and the smallest variations in sound. This enable the microphone to pick a lot more sound detail over a much wider dynamic range.
This ability of condenser microphones to capture more detail makes them ideal for studio use where their full potential can be exploited. (Their sensitive nature also makes them prone to pick up a lot more background noise, which is why recording studios, where acoustic treatment has been used to cancel out as much noise and reverberation as possible, provide the perfect environment for their use.)
This advantage of the condenser microphone highlights the limitation of the dynamic microphone. Due to its construction, a much bigger sound volume is required to move the diaphragm enough to produce a signal, causing lower sound volumes not to be picked up at all by a dynamic microphone.
To better understand this, we need to look more closely at how a dynamic microphone operates and captures sound.
The dynamic microphone has much more mechanical make-up than the condenser microphone. It basically consists of the diaphagm, magnet and a metal coil surrounding the magnet. (As previously stated this does not require any electrical current/power source).
As the sound waves hit the diaphragm, it vibrates and moves the coil that is attached to the back of it. It is this movement of the coil (in the magnetic field created by the magnet) that creates the electrical signal that travels through the cable to be interpreted and converted to an analogue signal by the audio interface.
This mechanical make-up of the dynamic, makes it very robust and durable. This produces distinctly different advantages as well as drawbacks, which is the next important topic our the next session.
At this point you might be wondering what all of this has to do with the ability to record high-quality vocals in the studio. Well, by explaining all these characteristics of dynamic (and condenser) microphones, the case for or against dynamic microphones are being made clear. This will make drawing conclusions at the end of the article that much easier to understand.
As already mentioned, its mechanical design and build make dynamic microphones very robust and durable. As the diaphragm is not nearly as sensitive as the one used in condenser microphones, it requires a much larger sound volume to move the diaphragm and picks up a sound. (Which limits its sensitivity and ability to pick up the smallest sound wave.) With this apparent drawback come a variety of benefits though.
This feature of the dynamic microphone to not be very sensitive to lower sound levels, gives it a very big advantage, especially in noisy environments. It is much less prone to picking up background noise.
Even in the controlled studio environment, noise can be still be generated by a variety of sources. From the sound of clothes rubbing together or against instruments, to the movement of fellow band members - all of them generates noise that can surprisingly loud in a very quiet studio.
Where a condenser microphone will pick up almost every possibly sound generated, the dynamic microphone will be able to isolate itself from these smaller background noises.
This lack of over-sensitivity can be huge advantage for dynamic microphones as it allows them to handle very loud sound volumes. Their robust construction allows them not be overloaded no matter how loud the sound source, unlike the much more sensitive condenser microphone.
(Condenser microphones on the other hand are very prone to loud volumes and can easily be overloaded which will result in clipping and a distorted recorded sound. The diaphragm of the capacitor can actually be physically damaged by a very loud sound which may lead to permanent failure and a destroyed condenser microphone.)
This is just one of a multiple of benefits where a dynamic microphone's ability to handle loud sounds sets it apart. When it comes to physical handling and the environment, there are even more benefits...
Taking knocks and bumps are just part of the territory when it comes to microphones. It doesn't matter whether it is being placed on a stand, held in the hand, mounted on a microphone boom or even in a shockmount.
Knocks and vibrations in the studio will affect all microphones, directly or indirectly. Here too, the solid and less sensitive nature of the dynamic microphone will make it less susceptible to pick up these disturbances.
Durability and robustness is what makes dynamic microphones so popular for live performances or outdoor events. This helps in the studio as well, as accidents happen all the time and microphones can get dropped or accidentally knocked over. Where this will have almost not effect on a dynamic microphone, it can seriously damage a condenser mic.
Another standout feature of the dynamic microphone, is its ability to operate in extreme weather conditions. It can handle a wide range of temperatures and are even able to withstand a fair amount of moisture. Naturally, this is not really applicable in a studio where every aspect is controlled.
(Although in some studios which have more variable atmospheric conditions, this can have an effect on more sensitive condenser microphones in the long run, where dynamic microphones will remain immune to these conditions)
We will concentrate on the more specific advantages of dynamic microphones for studio and vocal use later on in this post. We first need to address another criticism that is often leveled against the dynamic microphone.
One disadvantage of dynamic microphones, are the fairly weak signal they produce. This mainly due to its construction and lack of internal amplification.
The diaphragm of the dynamic microphone not being as sensitive as that of the condenser microphone. The result is that sound waves hitting the diaphragm does not provide as much movement, which in turn produces a much weaker signal.
A dynamic microphone is also not assisted by any electrical current, which provides no form of internal amplification to the microphone. (The electrified capacitor inside a condenser microphone allows much more movement of the diaphragm against the backplate. Combined with the amplification of the capacitor, it is able to provide a much stronger signal.)
The problem is that the signal produced by the dynamic microphone is much lower than the required line level signal strength for a preamp. (Line level is the strongest signal strength/volume that must be obtained before amplification).
Luckily, this disadvantage has been recognized and addressed by the recording industry during recent years. Although its still relatively new and not adopted by many big players in the industry, the mic activator is proving to be a very important solution for the weak signal produced by dynamic microphones.
The mic activator is a compact device that is slotted in between the dynamic microphone and the audio interface. It uses phantom power to boost the weak signal by up to 25dB of gain, bringing it up to line level which allow the dynamic microphone to be directly connected to a preamp or audio interface.
(Before Mic Activators started making their appearance, dynamic microphones and other instruments producing a very weak signal needed high-gain preamps to provide a sufficient signal strength boost. This was and still is quite an expensive exercise.)
One of the most well-known mic activators, is the popular Cloudlifter CL-1. Other companies like Radial Engineering and TritonAudio are also providing competing products. I am sure these are just a few of many companies that will adopt this new technology in the future.
(Just note that mic activators need phantom power to operate, so make sure your audio interface have this function. Fortunately most interfaces come standard with phantom power build-in. Just look for the "Phantom Power" or "48V" labeled switch.)
To summarize this section, one can safely say that dynamic microphones definitely have some drawbacks compared to condenser microphones when it comes to studio use. But with the same amount of certainty, this section has proved that many of these disadvantages has mostly been addressed and eliminated.
By now it should become pretty evident that dynamic microphones has some distinct advantages over condenser microphones, and not just on stage or during live events. Sometimes there are specific circumstances and scenarios in the studio that require the unique features of dynamic microphones.
It is time to look at 6 specific advantages of dynamic microphones when used in the studio.
This point was already made earlier in this article, but is so important it needs to be examined in more detail. In many ways seen as a disadvantage, the dynamic microphone's limited capacity to pick up very low sound levels has some distinct advantages.
To best understand this, we need to look at background noise and reverberation, and the length studios go to to reduce or eliminate these sound interferences. To start with, commercial studios get designed from the ground up not to reverberate sound, That is why you will very seldom find a square commercial studio, as the parallel opposing walls are prone to producing a lot of reverberation.
Further efforts to eliminate reverberation are taken by applying acoustic treatment all around the studio and even against the ceiling. Care is also taken when placing equipment like studio monitors and the microphones to further enhance the studio's acoustics.
I haven't touched on sound insulation yet to isolate the studio from external sounds, but you get the idea. Unwanted noise needs to avoided at all costs. Yet, despite all these efforts you still are not able to eliminate all unwanted noise. I already mentioned how the slightest noise from clothes rubbing against each other or against instruments, as well as movement from other band members can easily be picked up the microphone, especially a sensitive condenser microphone.
This is where the perceived weakness of the dynamic microphone comes into play. It's ability to not pick up these soft but intrusive and troublesome sounds can prove invaluable. As all the important sounds in the dynamic range still gets recorded, the few notes at the lower frequencies that falls away with the unwanted noises, fades in comparison with the amount of noise that will have to cleaned up post-production in the DAW software if a sensitive condenser microphone was used.
On the opposite side of the scale, you get the the unpleasant harsh sound and distortion caused by the prominence of sibilant consonants which takes place in the upper-high frequencies. Unnecessary emphasis on S's and T's (Ch's and Sh's can also be very problematic) by vocalists causes this distortion in the upper frequencies to take place.
This can be taken care of by the sound engineer who can manually turn down the level of the vocal signal whenever sibilance occurs on the track, using the tools in the DAW. This can be quite an arduous task though.
Luckily many most high-end DAW software have automated functions for this task. A host of plugins are also available with specific de-essing functionality.
Most often though, the biggest culprit is the condenser. Especially "bright sounding" microphones have the tendency to overemphasize the sibilant consonants. Sometimes the resulting unpleasant and distorted sound is just too severe to be rectified.
More practical and known solutions like the use of a pop filter and a microphone windscreen can be used and do have some effect, but not nearly enough to make much of a difference in most cases.
The more limited dynamic range of the dynamic microphone also allows it to help out in this regard. It is not so sensitive to the effects of sibilant consonants, and are able to "soften" the effect. The result is that the recorded track do not have that harsh edge to it, an not so much work have to be done post-production.
Another topic we already briefly touched on, but also needs more attention and elaboration.
We already discussed the lengths studio owners go to to ensure the studio is made as quiet as possible. And when done correctly, most commercial and home studios are well insulated and protected from unwanted reverberation. This does not make the studio and recording immune from whatever happens within the studio though.
Vibrations and knocks can have an effect in two ways. Firstly, unplanned knocks and bumps against the microphone, desk or any solid object, will create some kind of audible vibration that will definitely be picked up by a sensitive microphone.
Even the normal and expected "vibrations" produced by a set of drums or the tapping of feet to a beat on the floor, can still be strong enough to influence a recording, especially in a room where noise and reverberation may still be a problem.
As you know by now, condenser microphones pick up every little detail. Although it will not be completely immune to the bigger vibrations and knocks, dynamic microphones will be able to minimize the effects of shocks and vibrations.
The second effect of knocks and vibrations is a physical one. Some studios are just very busy by nature. Equipment and people get moved around a lot. Some rough treatment and the occasional microphone drop can occur. Along with constant vibrations and knocks that are part of every day studio life, this can have an effect on the health and lifespan of a microphone.
As condenser microphones are very sensitive and susceptible to loud sounds, knocks and bumps, the chances of damage and ultimate failure are very good. The nearly indestructible nature of a dynamic microphone will make them a very good choice to use in an environment where you know rough treatment and the occasional knock will occur.
To be honest, I was a bit hesitant to bring the issue of price up, as this can be more confusing than anything else. I will explain in a moment.
First, there is no denying the fact that a good quality dynamic microphone is much cheaper than the equivalent condenser microphone. This is mainly due to to the construction of each the two different microphones.
The dynamic microphone has a fairly simple mechanical design, where a condenser microphone is much more complex and also house some electronic components within the microphone itself. This makes the condenser more expensive to manufacture.
Where things become a bit more complex though, is the extra component you need to make a dynamic microphone function properly. Where a condenser microphone comes wit its build-in amplifier and can be plugged directly into a preamp, a dynamic microphone needs an active DI Box in most cases to strengthen the signal enough to be connected to a preamp.
The combined price of the dynamic microphone with its DI Box will actually be pretty much on par with that of an equivalent condenser microphone.
Where its value for money advantage comes into play, is if you budget only allow for the purchase of one microphone. If you intend to use your microphone not just in the studio, but on stage and during live events as well, going for a dynamic microphone will solve the problem as it is just as home in the studio as it is on stage.
(This way you can get your recording studio up and running, and you can start thinking about a studio only condenser microphone once your budget allows it.)
Sometimes the microphone you use to performing on stage with, is the one you may be most comfortable with in the studio as well. You are already familiar with all the characteristics of the microphone and know how to get the best from it.
Some very iconic artists have done just that. Michael Jackson for example, recorded his famous Thriller Album in the studio, using the Shure SM7B dynamic microphone.
Similarly, Freddy Mercury, loved the his Shure SM58 dynamic mic so much, he used it in the studio for his recordings as well.
(And did I mention Prince used The SM57 dynamic microphone to record purple rain? I rest my case.)
I never heard anyone ever complain about the quality of any of Michael Jackson's or Queen's songs. And if it is good enough for these iconic stars, well....
The huge sound volumes produced by snare drums and guitar amps can be very problematic during a recording session in the studio.
As condenser microphones dominate the majority of recording studios, their inability to handle very loud sounds will definitely result in quite few permanently broken microphones when trying to record these instruments with condenser microphones during a rock performance in the studio.
The dynamic microphone's ability to handle very loud sounds makes them ideal to cope with these very loud instruments. The same applies to artists with very loud vocal performances. Even they have their upper limits where clipping can occur if these limits are exceeded, but at least the microphone will not be physically damaged.
Any good sound engineer will be the first to quickly correct you should you even attempt to try and record these sounds with a condenser microphone at a commercial recording studio. As a home studio user, always keep this mind, especially when you expand and start recording bands and a wider range of instruments.
(It may not be an affordable option at first, but as soon as you are able to get a second microphone for your setup, you should seriously consider a dynamic microphone, especially if one of the scenarios mentioned here will apply to you.)
If you have reading just this article, and no other article on this website or anywhere else, I won't blame you for thinking the dynamic microphone is the best thing since sliced bread.
I know I've been singing the praises of this microphone and all its benefits throughout this post. I you don't know any better you will be wondering why you should even consider any other type of microphone.
Let me just be very clear and point out that the ideal microphone for studio use, especially vocal performances, is the condenser microphone. Most studios are acoustically prepared to provide optimal conditions for these microphones to deliver the best possible audio quality. They have a dynamic range much wider than any dynamic microphone and are able to pick up the smallest possible detail in a vocal performance.
The reason for this "pro dynamic microphone" argument, is to address the topic and main issue of this article as to whether the dynamic microphone still has any place in the recording studio, specifically when recording vocals.
What this article aimed to do is debunk the misconception that dynamic microphones are only meant for live or outdoor event, and has no real place or function in the studio anymore. And I think its fair to say that more than enough evidence was provided to succeed in this endeavor.
I would still recommend choosing a good condenser microphone for you first home recording setup. When it comes to upgrading and choosing a second microphone, don't be too quick to dismiss the idea of a dynamic microphone. Depending on your own unique circumstances, it may be just the thing you need to compliment the rest of your setup.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
Experts do it without even thinking about. Make sure the line levels of all their input devices are correct. All the RCA cables are connected correctly. The XLR cable from the dynamic microphone runs through the DI box to boost and clear the signal to be plugged into the back of the audio interface. You choose to connect your audio interface through the FireWire cable to the computer instead of the USB, as it carries the signal that much faster.
But let's be honest. There was a time when, for all of us, the above paragraph might as well have been written in Greek. At some point, we all looked at our newly bought audio equipment and small mountain of cables with nothing but a sense of sheer bewilderment.
So if you find yourself overwhelmed, its perfectly normal. You will find yourself at ease with all these cables and ports a lot quicker than you might think. In this article the majority of cables and ports will be covered to help you better understand each one's function and use in your home recording studio.
First we need to look at the 2 types of signals carried in cables, and their associated uses.
The signals travelling through your cables can either be digital or analogue. They differ not only in the way the signal travels, but also in speed and quality.
Analogue signals use a continuous wave form, varying from positive to negative, in an electrical charge. They do not suffer from latency (speed or lack of it) issues, unlike many digital interfaces, which still make them the connection of choice for my recording studios.
These analogue waves are susceptible to picking up noise and other external interference. Longer cables tend to weaken the signal strength as well. (This is why the use of balanced cables and connections are so important, as well as DI boxes to boost and balance the signal. More on that later.)
In the past, most signals between audio devices used to be analogue. Today we find an increasing number of digital cables connecting your high end audio devices, but these devices and connections are quite expensive. As a result, many traditional and home studios still stick with analogue connections.
The most important cables and connections associated with analogue signals are:
XLR Connections: These connections are normally associated and used for connecting a microphone with the audio interface. Either a dynamic or condenser microphone can be used with this cable. (A dynamic microphone is "passive" and does not require external power. A condenser microphone is "active" and requires an external power source. XLR cables are able to provide this power directly through the cable with what is called "phantom power".)
XLR signals are balanced with 3 contact points. (Balanced cables use 3 signals to reduce noise. They have a positive and negative charge that balance the noise out, as well as a ground signal.) The contact points can be either male or female.
RCA Connections: These connections are normally associated with connections between hi-fi equipment, but are also used to connect devices like electronic keyboards and traditional turntables to the line-in connections of audio interfaces and mixers.
These cables normally carry 2 signals for stereo input or output, with color-coded connectors for the left and right channel. (Normally red for right, and black or white for left). Sometimes a third connection (yellow) is added for the now familiar composite video with stereo audio connection. Like XLR connections, they also have both male and female connectors. These cables are still very popular with camcorders and older DVD players.
(Please note that RCA cables can sometimes be used for carrying a digital signals as well.)
TRS Connections: These cables are used to carry a single balanced signal, normally from an audio instrument to the audio interface or mixer. The connectors look very similar to your stereo headphone jack and normally come in 2 sizes (3.5mm and 6.35mm).
Just don't make the mistake of confusing TRS connections with the connections at the end of a stereo headphone cable. Headphone connections are not the same and the 3 signals they carry are for the left, right and ground signals. (TRS connections use the 3 signals for the positive current, negative current and ground signal in a order to create a balanced signal.)
Apart from the above mentioned connections, you get quite a few other analogue connections, but many of them are not that relevant anymore, and many others are used in high-end studios, which should not come into play when setting up your home studio.
Digital signals also travel via an electrical current, but unlike analogue signals, they make use of binary code (a series of ones and zeros). The result is that there is no loss in signal quality, and it's not influenced by the length of the cable or external sources.
However, they did suffer from latency problems in the past. Sometime the delay between the audio interface and computer can be as long as 0.5 to 1 second. USB 2, and especially FireWire and Thunderbolt connections come close to eliminating the problem completely. With the integration of USB 3, latency should not be an issue at all anymore.
Apart from the digital connection between audio interface and computer, many high-end audio components use digital cables to connect to each other, but are mostly used in top end studios and are quite expensive. Since we are focusing on the more basic and home recording studio, I'm not going to make things more confusing by addressing these connections in this article.
The main digital connections that's really of importance, take place between the audio device and computer. There are mainly three type of digital connections: USB, FireWire and Thunderbolt.
USB Connections: The Universal Serial Bus (USB) was developed by a consortium of computer manufacturers to standardize the input an output ports of all connected devices (printers, scanners, mice, keyboards etc.) It was introduced in 1996, but only really started being widely used in 1998 with USB 1.1 providing a speed of 12 Mb/s. It also provides power of up to 20V to external devices like mice, hard drives, and in the case of audio devices, condenser microphones and low powered PC speakers.
This speed was still too slow to properly handle multiple audio signals, so latency was a problem from the start. Things started changing with the introduction of USB 2 in 2000 when the transfer speed was increased to 480 Mb/s which dramatically increased its performance. The real game changer though, is USB 3 which was introduced in 2008, with the current version 3.2 producing an astonishing speed of 20Gb/s (1 Gigabyte = 1024 Mb). This technology is still finding its way into audio devices, but once they do, any latency problems should be a thing of the past.
FireWire Connections: Apple Computers started developing this connection as a high speed interface to peripherals as far back as 1986. Like USB, it's also able to provide power of up to 30V to components.
It only really started being used commercially in 1995, with FireWire 400 providing speeds up to 400 Mb/s. It also went through many iterations throughout the years. The latest versions though, the S1600 and S3200 were released with respective speeds of 1.5 Gb/s and 3.1 Gb/s to compete directly with USB 3.
It has been struggling to gain popularity though, and is not nearly as popular as USB. (Steve Jobs went as far a declaring FireWire dead in 2008.) Some high-end audio systems make use of them though.
Just a word of caution: If you think of investing in an audio device just because it supports FireWire and you still need to upgrade you computer to support it, just think twice and maybe hold back a little. With the future of FireWire a bit uncertain, you may run into support and upgrade problems should the technology suddenly fall completely out of favor with manufacturers.
Thunderbolt Connection: The newest of the 3 technologies, Thunderbolt was co-developed by Intel and Apple and the first commercial use of the technology was in 2011. It can be used in optical and copper cables. In its current iteration, Thunderbolt 3, it is capable of deliver speeds up to 40 Gb/s, making it arguably the fastest of the three digital connections.
Although its unable to provide power to peripherals on its own, Thunderbolt 3 is able to bypass this problem by using the USB-C adapter on its copper cables. With this adaption, it's able supply up to 100 watts of power.
Thunderbolt 3 is fully supported by Apple and has already been incorporated into many other devices since 2015, so it is definitely a safe technology to invest in with currently unparalleled speed delivery.
As you can see, there are many options available, on both the analogue and digital side of things. It may still be a bit confusing, even after reading this article, but with a little more exposure, things should get a lot less complicated.
Feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have. Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
While dynamic and condenser microphones are well-known and popular in the recording studio and on stage, very little is known about the ribbon microphone. You can even be forgiven if you never heard of it before. What may surprise you though, is that they have been designed almost a century ago, and were the microphone of choice for nearly two decades in the broadcasting industry.
But what exactly are ribbon microphones an how do they function?
A ribbon microphone consists of a very thin piece of correlated aluminium suspended in between the positive and negative poles of a magnet. As sound waves hit this thin piece of metal within the magnetic field, it vibrates and creates a small electrical signal which is picked up by the connections at the end end of the "ribbon".
The ribbon microphone was invented in the early 1920's by a collaboration between Dr Walter Schottky and Dr Erwin Gerlach.
The warm and rich sound they were ably to produce, as well as the ability to pick up the smallest detail in high frequencies, got the attention of recording and broadcasting studios and was quickly adopted and became widely used throughout these industries.
The first commercially available ribbon microphone, the Photophone Type PB-31 was developed by RCA. It was a huge commercial success, with many finding a home in recording studios and broadcasting stations.
In 1933, RCA released the model 44 which became one of the most successful and widely used ribbon microphones in history. So popular and successful in fact, that many are still used today in some studios. (AEA, a company manufacturing ribbon microphones, is still servicing RCA 44 microphones today, and manufacturing 100% of parts for this classic.)
Other popular ribbon microphone of the era included the BBC-Marconi Type A and the ST&C Coles 4038. Unbelievably, some of these microphones are still used today in some recording studios. (Talk about staying power!)
During the 1960's and 70's the much improved quality and affordability of condenser microphones caused ribbon microphones to start disappearing from recording studios and broadcasting stations. Combined with dynamic microphones ruling the stage, these microphones started fading into obscurity.
With new technology enabling ribbon microphones to be produced without many of its disadvantages and at much more affordable prices, these microphones have started to make a comeback during the early 2000's. And there are more than a few sound engineers that cannot be more happy and satisfied with this development.
The exceptionally rich and natural sound quality these microphones are able to produce have already been mentioned. This is one of the main reasons they are so much adored by many recording and sound engineers.
Their ability to capture this much detail in the high frequencies of an audio track also makes them stand out. These high frequencies are often recorded very softly, but all the detail is there. This makes it easy for your DAW software to boost and bring out these details during the mixing process.
Depending on your needs, the fact that ribbon microphones are bidirectional can be seen as a big advantage. (Bidirectional simply means the microphone can capture sound equally well from the front and back of the microphone, with no sound from the sides of the microphone having any influence.)
Especially when doing a broadcast interview with an individual sitting across from you, with a ribbon microphone placed in the middle between you, you can get a away with using a single microphone. This same function can just as effectively used for performing a duet.
A final benefit of ribbon microphones is their ability to pick up a large amount of sound detail without being oversensitive. This characteristic allows it to pick up all the detail and variations in the sound of nearby sources while isolating it from other noises in the room.
The biggest disadvantages of the ribbon microphone can narrowed down to one single characteristic of this mic. And that is the thickness of the piece of corrugated aluminium, or rather lack thereof.
The aluminium used in ribbon microphones are extremely thin. For example, the ribbon thickness of the Coles 4038 microphone is 0.6 microns. A few other ribbon microphones' ribbon thickness vary from 1.8 to 4 microns. If you compare that to the thickness of a human hair which measures a 100 microns, you get a pretty good idea of exactly how thin this small piece of metal is.
And it's exactly this characteristic of the ribbon microphone that makes it so delicate and fragile. This in turn can lead to 2 potentially fatal drawbacks.
Apart from the disadvantages associated with the ribbon's fragile nature, another drawback is closely related to dynamic microphones. (Maybe because they fall under the "Dynamic Microphone" category and function under the same principles.) It simply means that, like the dynamic microphone, the ribbon microphone produces a very weak electrical signal.
As a result, just like traditional dynamic microphones, the resulting signal is too weak to be plugged into any interface without some kind of preamplification strengthening the signal. In the past this issue was resolved with dedicated preamplifiers.
(Luckily, a few modern day solutions were developed to address this problem. More on that in the next section.)
One last "disadvantage" that has to be pointed out is the high price tag of ribbon microphone. Your high quality ribbon microphone are quite expensive, especially active ribbons from well-known manufacturers. This put them out of reach for the majority of home recording enthusiasts. (In its defense though,it has to be said that the quality of sound more than justify the price tag of these microphones.)
As I mentioned earlier the article, the ribbon microphone started making a comeback in the early 2000's. Its return is also accompanied by technological improvements of many of the features that used to disadvantage the traditional ribbon microphone.
One of the microphone's biggest weaknesses, its fragility and tendency to break easy, was one the first issues addressed. Shure, probably the biggest name in microphone manufacturers, developed a patented ribbon that is much stronger and durable than traditional aluminium. This enable the microphone to be used in more environments than previously possible.
They also addressed a second big problem traditional ribbon mics suffered from, which is is the tendency of the ribbon to sag and bend, especially when stored on its side for sustained periods of time. The Roswellite™ ribbons that Shure employ in their ribbon mics, have what is called shape memory. This allows the ribbon to regain its original shape after it has been subjected to some bending. (I cannot personally confirm or debunk this claim, but as a very reputable company, I am pretty confident Shure would not risk their name and reputation on any unproven claims.)
A third drawback of the ribbon microphone, the very weak electrical signal it produces, have also been addressed in more than one way. In the past dedicated dedicated preamplifiers were used to boost the weak signal to a more acceptable and usable strength.
Today, there are two ways in which you can boost the power of a ribbon microphone and both require the phantom power supplied by and audio interface or mixer. You can either use an external mic activator to give your signal a powerful and noise-free boost, or use a modern ribbon microphone with build-in amplification.
A mic activator is a compact device that plugs into your microphone's XLR cable at the one end while connecting to your input device (audio interface, mixer etc.) through another XLR cable connected at the opposite end. It uses the phantom power (48V) supplied by the audio interface/mixer to boost the signal strength with a gain of up to 25 decibels. Impressively, it does this without adding noise to the sound signal. (You can read more about mic activators in this article.)
Fortunately some microphones manufacturers stepped up to the plate and do something to directly address the weak signal produced by the ribbon. As a result quite a few ribbon microphones come standard with preamplifiers build into the microphone itself. Like mic activators they require the phantom power supplied by an audio interface or mixer to operate.
(The Audio-Technica AT4081 Phantom Powered Microphone and AEA N22 Active Ribbon Microphone are 2 good examples of these type of microphones. They carry a substantial price tag, but deliver the sound to match it.)
The biggest advantage of these active (powered) ribbon microphones, is that you don't need any additional devices or cables to enjoy the advantage of an "preamplified" ribbon microphone. Examples of these active microphones include the Audio Technica AT4081 and the AEA Microphones N22.
As already mentioned, ribbon microphones receive high praise from sound engineers and recording professional for their rich, natural and well-rounded sound. This makes them especially suited for certain instruments.
The first instrument that comes to mind is the electric guitar. Ribbon microphones are almost the "industry standard" for recording electric guitars. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find any accomplished recording professional that will disagree with this statement. They are able to get the "best of both worlds" out of the guitar by capturing the natural kick it produce in the mid-to-low range, while smoothing out any harshness produced by over-amplified mid-to-high tones.
The warm and rich sounds produced by saxophones and clarinets make ribbon microphones the ideal companion for recording these and similar instruments. The same applies to string instruments like violins and cellos. (During the 1950's and 1960's, ribbon microphones were very popular for recording symphony orchestras.)
Naturally it goes without saying that since ribbon microphones is said to closest match the way the human ear perceives sound, vocals can always be considered to be one of the sounds that can be best captured by a ribbon microphone.
As you can clearly see from this article, ribbon microphones came a long way from its development during the early 1920's, ruling the broadcasting and industry for nearly two decades before disappearing into obscurity during the latter part of the 20th century. And finally making a comeback in the early 2000's
Many improvement were made to mitigate the drawbacks that plagued older ribbon microphones while retaining the rich and natural sound they were famous for.
Just remember, they still are ribbon microphones. and as a result should be handled with care. They are also substantially more expensive than their condenser & dynamic counterparts. If you are looking for the most natural sounding microphone though, you will have to look long and hard for anything that comes close to the ribbon microphone!
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
When venturing into the world of sound & recording, you will inevitably run into the term, phantom power. If you are completely confused by this term and don't have an idea what it means, you are not alone. I was completely mystified myself when I got confronted by it for the first time. But what exactly is this mysterious term?
Don’t worry, you are not about to attempt to summon some supernatural or mythical power from another dimension. I know the term, "phantom power" have this almost otherworldly ring to it. Trust me, it's not that exotic or difficult to understand.
It is very useful though to know exactly what phantom power is, and why it is used in the first place. Let's take a closer look.
Phantom power is the small electrical current that travels through an audio cable to supply power to a condenser microphone or a device (such as a mic activator) that requires an electrical power source to boost the strength of the audio signal.
To better understand this short explanation and really get our head around this "phantom power" term, we need to examine in more detail.
In order for phantom power to work, it needs a balanced cable. Which means a cable containing three wires, normally in the form of an XLR cable (You can read more about balanced cables in this article). A direct current (DC) is equally applied through pins two and three of the XLR cable.
As already mentioned, a fairly low voltage is generated, and the standard for most modern microphones and mic activators are 48 volts. This is more than enough though to meet the requirements of any condenser microphone and other components requiring phantom power to operate.
(A condenser microphone's diaphragm is electrically charged and very sensitive, and requires very little power to operate. The same applies to a mic activator that boosts the weak signal generated by a dynamic microphone. Hence the need for such a small electrical signal.)
A second requirement for phantom power to operate, is a power source. Fortunately, almost all modern audio interfaces, mixers and preamplifiers come with this function build-in. It is normally activated by just pushing a button of flip a switch on the device to send power to the appropriate XLR port. (Normally indicate by "Phantom Power" or "48V" next to the switch.)
Now that you know what phantom power is and why it is used, you may still wonder why it is called phantom power. A very simple explanation actually.
Since the electrical current travels through the audio cable and does not have its own separate power cable, the electrical current is basically "invisible". Hence the term, "phantom power".
Phantom power is not a new technology at all. Actually it dates back as far back as 1919, when it was used for the first time to power the "rotary dial" telephone. This same technology is still used today to power "traditional" telephone system.
Remember, traditional telephone system use a single cable that plugs into the wall socket. Yet there is still an electrical signal that powers the ear and mouthpiece. This electrical signal is provided by the same cable that carries your audio signal. This is one of the earliest examples of the use of phantom power.
The first commercially available microphone using phantom power goes back as far as 1964 with the introduction of the Schoeps (CMT 20) microphone. It was only in 1966 however, that the condenser microphone powered by the 48V we use today, were introduced with the Neumann model KM 84.
And the first example of the modern condenser microphone using phantom power as we know it today, was born.
Not at all. Especially if you think in term of dangerous or harmful for human beings. One can easy touch the exposed areas of a cable that carries a phantom power signal without any risk of harm. (You probably will not even be aware that you are touching a "live wire".)
Most instruments that do not require phantom power, such as dynamic microphones, will also not be affected at all by the small electrical current. The small voltage will simply be "ignored".
(In very rare cases, ribbon microphones can be damaged by phantom power, but this is normally due to incorrect wiring or "patching", but happens so seldom that its barely worth noting.)
Before ending up, there is some confusion and a few heated debates raging about what can and cannot be called phantom power.
I am talking about similar technologies that looks like it its using the same principles as phantom as you came to know it in this article.
I already mentioned the traditional telephone cable. Yes, as I mentioned during the "Short History" section, it does indeed uses phantom power and is one of the earliest examples of the used of phantom power. However, when we talk about phantom power in audio terms today, it exclusively refers to the phantom power in microphone cables. (Specifically XLR cables).
The next technology is probably the most debated and the subject of much controversy when it comes to power. Off course I am talking about the USB Interface. Especially since the introduction of higher quality USB condenser microphone that uses the power supplied by the USB cable, the the topic heated up significantly.
Lets address the term, "phantom power" first. Because the power in the audio cables are "invisible" to the user, and no extra power cable is required, the term "phantom power" was coined to refer this technology.
When you look at it in these simple terms, you can see the point of those arguing that USB powered microphones use "phantom power". After all, one cable is used to carry the data signal as well as supplying the microphone with electrical power. Isn't this the very definition of "phantom power". In a way, yes.
Things become more difficult when you look at the different technologies employed by "traditional phantom" and the USB Interface respectively.
Without getting into boring detail, I can just tell you what many of you already know. First of all the interfaces are very different. Obviously all the different connections will not fit each other. You cannot plug an XLR audio cable into an USB port and vice versa. (And no, simply using an adapter will not solve the problem.)
Secondly, the traditional phantom power supplied by audio interfaces is 48V, while the vast majority USB Interfaces only produce 5V of power through its cable. (Needless to say, the 5V power supplied by the USB Interface will not be nearly enough to activate and power a traditional condenser microphone.)
The way in which the power is delivered also differs quite significantly. The DC power in a XLR cable uses the same amount of voltage through pins two and three to power the condenser microphone. This is very different from the way an USB Interface provides power to its microphone. I am not going to bore you with the details, but it simply means that even if the voltage of the two technologies were the same, the way in which power is delivered makes them incompatible.
So where does this leave us? Well if you look at the principle of why "phantom power" is called "phantom power", you can understand why so many users see USB condenser microphones as no different than traditional condenser microphones using 48V phantom power.
But as I pointed out, both the strength of power, as well as the way in which this power is supplied, differs significantly between USB and traditional 48V phantom power. From this point of view, "phantom power" provided by the USB interface is not at all the same as traditional 48V phantom power produced by audio devices.
(You can now see why I spend so much time on this issue, as it can be confusing, and you will no doubt be confronted by it as some point. I feel its important that you rather have a better understanding of this contentious issue now, so that you are not confused or caught off-guard whenever the topic comes up.)
I will just end by saying that so far, the general consensus among audio users, is that the term "phantom power", is reserved for conventional 48V audio cables used in recording studios.
(I am not commenting on the quality of USB condenser microphones or disputing the argument that some of them produce quality on par with many studio microphones. That is not the issue at stake here though.)
As you can see, phantom power is not as mysterious as the name suggests. At the end of the day it is simply the low voltage power that "hides" in your microphone's audio cable.
(The technical ins-and-outs may be a bit more complicated, but not necessary for us to understand what it is and how it works.)
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
While working with your recording equipment in your home studio and doing some research, or looking to solve a problem online, you will often read about balanced and unbalanced cables. You will be forgiven for wondering what on earth "balance" has to do to do with sound quality and a recording studio. We take a look at what exactly the difference between the two types of cables are and why it is so important.
Simply explained, a balanced audio cable uses three wires (conductors) within the cable to provide a clear signal with a much reduced noise level. The unbalanced cable on the other hand, use just two wires (conductors) in the cable, which simply carries the signal without actively reducing noise that might be picked up by the cable.
Obviously this is a very simplistic explanation. To understand exactly how it works and why you would choose to use one over the other, we need to take a much more detailed look at each and its function.
From the quick explanation given in the previous section, it will be easy to make the conclusion that the balanced cable is clearly the better choice. Although mostly true, it is not always that simple or absolutely necessary.
It is best to have a closer look at how each cable function to better understand why one may be preferably over the other, depending on the situation.
As I already mentioned, the unbalanced cable consists of two wires. The first is the ground wire while the other wire carries the actual audio signal.
As the signal travels through the cable it starts to pick up some noise (from various external sources like electromagnetic fields generated by nearby electronics). As the length of the cable increases, so does the amount of noise it will pick up.
This last point is important and we will come back to it a bit later on.
A balanced cables consists of three wires. The first is the ground wire, the same as the unbalanced cable.
The second and third cable though, carries the exact same audio signal. There is a catch though. The polarities of these cables are reversed, with one cable being positive (hot) and the other negative (cold). This means these two signals are basically cancelling each other out as the signal travels down the cable.
This may sound very confusing and not make sense at first. There is a reason for this though, so just bear with me as it will soon clear why this is done.
As the with the unbalanced cable, noise is also picked up as the signal travels down the cable. This noise however, is picked up in the same direction on both the positive and negative signal. (Remember, the two signals are already reversed at this point.)
Now this is the important part. At the end of the cable the the negative signal gets flipped back again, so that the two signals are in phase and audible. (If they were still reversed/polarized, they would have cancelled each other out producing no sound where the signal exists the cable.)
The resulting sound is slightly amplified as the two signals are combined (about six to ten decibels). This not the the important result though.
The noise that was picked up along the way in the same direction by both signals, also got flipped/reversed at the end of the cable. This means the noise signals are now polarized and are cancelling each other out, removing almost all noise in the process.
This may still be confusing. Take a look at the diagram below that will help you to better understand exactly how the whole process works.
So does this mean that the balanced cable should always be used and are superior in all instances? Not at all.
Like I mentioned on earlier, the impact of noise in a cable becomes more pronounced as the length of the cable increases. And this is why unbalanced cables are preferable and used in many applications.
Audio components standing right next to (or on top of) each other, are normally connected to each other via unbalanced cables. As the length of the cables is too short for any noise to have any impact, there is no need for a balanced cable.
(A simple example of these commonly used unbalanced connections, is the RCA cables you find at the back of audio equipment in the recording studio and home audio equipment.)
When the signal travels through a long cable though (several feet), noise becomes a factor. This is especially applicable to microphones which produces a weak signal to start with and the least amount of noise can have an impact. As a result almost all quality microphones make use of balanced cables.
Needless to say, the connectors at the end of a cable, balanced or unbalanced, should have the appropriate amount of connections in order for the cable to function correctly.
The typical microphone cable uses and XLR connection with three connection points to accommodate the three signals required by the balanced cable. So does the 1/4" TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) connection at the end of a long speaker cable.
Without these 3 connection points, a balanced cable will not be able to function. The same rule applies to unbalanced cable connections. In this case we however we are looking at a connector with two connection points.
Examples of unbalanced connections include the RCA connectors, as I already mentioned. Another unbalanced connector is the 1/4" TS connection.
The TS connection looks deceptively similar to the TRS connection, with the only difference being the extra "ring" not present, turning this connection into one with two connection points, not three.
The reason for mentioning the different types of connections, is to emphasize the importance of paying attention to your connectors and making sure you are using the correct ones. Many, like the TRS and TS cable, also look very similar but function very differently and will not work when connected to the wrong interface.
(Don't worry, you will not blow up any equipment if you get it wrong. It simply will not function correctly or worse case scenario, not work at all.)
So that is the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables in a nutshell. The fact that balanced cables are carrying three wires instead of two (unbalanced cable), enable them to produce a stronger and noise-free signal especially in longer cables.
This is crucial for instruments like microphones who generally produce a weak signal and use longer cables, making it especially prone to any noise interference. You will have to look long and hard to find a microphone in any studio not using balanced cables.
An added benefit for balanced cables, is the fact that it is able to carry a small electrical current. Again, this is essential for microphones where it enable condenser microphones to operate, or supply power to mic activators which are used to boost the weak signal of a dynamic microphone. This is done via phantom power supplied by an audio interface.
(I will explain what exactly phantom power is and how it works in a future article. I will them provide a direct link from this article to make things easier for you. Stay tuned!)
But, as mentioned in the article, this does not mean you have to try and use balanced cables for all audio equipment in your home recording studio. Most audio components in close proximity to each other happily communicate to each other and other components using unbalanced cables.
The signals created by the vast majority of audio equipment are strong enough (normally at line level strength) and the distance of the cables too short for noise have any impact. (In fact, you will battle to find any balanced cable at the back of any piece of equipment connected to another nearby component.)
I hope this seemingly confusing, but relatively easy to understand differences between these two type of cables are a lot less confusing to you after reading this article.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
Many of us don't realize how lucky and spoiled we are with modern computer technology. Since USB became the industry standard for connecting devices to computers, we got used to simply connecting a new printer, keyboard and, yes, microphone with the computer's USB port. Drivers get installed immediately and the device can be used within seconds. Things are not that simple for all microphones and other audio devices though.
Microphones don't just come in all shapes and sizes, but also have different ways of connecting to your computer. Apart from using different types of interfaces than USB, some microphones and other audio devices can not even be directly connected to a computer.
There are a number of reasons why connecting these devices are more complex than we think they ought to be. We need to look back at the history of musical components, as well as the evolution of computer technology over the years to better understand how we arrived at this point.
Hopefully after the following section, you will have a lot more appreciation for the "easy" solutions available today. Trust, me things could have been a lot worse...
Actually, I am going to delve a little bit more into the not-so-distant past to help you understand why there are so many options when it comes to connecting your microphone and audio devices to your computer - and how difficulties and complex things really were.
You are probably going to give your age away if you nod your head while smiling knowingly and think back with nostalgia to the period I am about to describe.
Back in the mid 1980's and 1990's computers were flooding the market worldwide and finding a home in almost every household. Although not that much of a novelty anymore, the technology were still very far from streamlined or without any technical glitches.
Keeping a computer from "crashing or freezing" were a daily battle. So was staring blankly at a frozen computer screen with that helpless sinking feeling, realizing the work you just did for the past 2 hours, are lost FOREVER...
Then you still had to make all your components work together. I can write a book, but will try to quickly summarize for those of you who luckily escaped those "pioneering" years.
The "dark art" of making PC peripherals communicate successfully with a computer in those early years were only trumped by the "magic" making these devices actually work together.
You see, printers were connected to computers using a parallel port. The mouse used a different serial interface. First generation keyboards also had their unique ports (vaguely similar looking to a MIDI port, followed by PS/2 connections). This is not to mention the "specialist" ports installed such as SCSI connections, VGA/S-VGA connections for monitors, and the telephonic ports on modems to connect to the Internet.
(No, don't try to understand any of what you have just been reading. It really is as confusing as it looks. Trust me on this!)
These are just a few common ports that constantly competed for the computer's attention. And they all had to work together in harmony to avoid the dreaded computer crash or a completely unusable piece of dead metal and circuit boards.
Heaven forbids you had 2 or more of these similar ports on the same computer trying to work together and they had the same "address". It was not uncommon to see computers standing with their covers removed in any office or home, with a "computer technician" frantically working on the inside to sort out some kind of "conflict".
(Even in the near-perfect world of the then still new Apple Macintosh where everything just worked "straight out of the box", there were also quite a few glitches, and things didn't run nearly as smoothly as they do today.)
Needless to say, a big love-hate relationships existed between humans and their computing devices. Those were challenging, yet wonderful times (when things worked).
The whole reason for mentioning this brief portion of computer history, is to make you understand how early on problems with connecting different computer parts together already started - and as you will soon learn, how this already complicated situation got made even more complicated by trying to merge it with the audio recording industry with its own emerging technologically.
Meanwhile across the isle, things were evolving rather quickly in the music and recording industry as well. As early as the 1960's and 70's, new developments in the recording industry allowed us to start recording and mixing in ways not previously possible.
With the emergence of multitrack recorders, especially 8-track recorders, recording individual tracks were made possible, which meant tracks could also be be edited separately which triggered the mass adoption of multitrack mixers that started becoming commonplace in any professional recording studio.
As was the case with the emergence of computers, the evolving recording industry with its various instruments and components meant that various connections had to be made between the different devices in order for them to communicate with each other.
Examples of these connections include XLR-cables, used to connect professional microphones to a mixer or preamp. The familiar MIDI-Interface was introduced to allow electronic instruments like synthesizers and drum machines to communicate with mixers and sequencers. 1/4" TRS & TS cables are used to respectively connect audio devices with each other, and electric guitars/instruments to mixers/amplifiers. These are just a few examples.
If you haven't been working in the recording industry, you will probably be completely confused by now, and that is the whole point. It is to help you understand how many different connections exist in recording industry (which is also partially responsible for the variety of different options we are presented with today).
Now, combine this with the amount of different connections that were available in the computer industry - and you will begin to understand why you have so many options today, as well as how bad it could have been if all those old connections still existed and had to be accommodated in a modern recording setup.
In those early days computers didn't come with any noteworthy sound already integrated on the system's motherboard like they do today. In the 1980's and 90's users had to rely on dedicated sound cards to produce realistic sound for music and computer games. (Many of you will remember Creative Lab's original Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster 16 that brought the wonder of "high fidelity" sound to the humble Personal Computer.)
During the late 1990's, computers became powerful enough to be taken seriously in the recording industry, as DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software started appearing and were being seen as a viable alternative to traditional recording and mixing hardware.
During this period and in the early 2000's universal connections like the USB Protocol made connecting different devices much easier. Not just between computer components, but also between computers and audio devices. (Not to mention doing away with a lot of redundant connections and unnecessary interfaces.)
Since then, continuing improvements were made on the software and hardware side. This included more comprehensive DAW software, the already mentioned USB Protocol, Audio Interfaces and the inclusion of fairly advanced audio chipsets already included on most computer motherboards.
Professional Sound Cards For Studio Use
During this period high-end sound cards started appearing for professional studio use. With onboard preamps, connections to accommodate professional equipment (like XLR connectors for microphones and RCA ports) and high-end DAC chipsets, the cards can turn a desktop into fully capable recording studio studio.
These cards are still available today. Unfortunately they tend to be very expensive and are also limited since only the back panel of the cards are available to house a limited number of connections.
During recent years, audio interfaces have largely taken their place , since they are much more affordable, provide high-quality sounds through their preamps and also support a wealth of input and output connections.
Especially for home studio use, these high-end sound cards cannot compete with audio interfaces when it comes to price and features. They are also not nearly as accessible as an audio interface.
Therefore I am not discussing them in the following section as a way to connect to your audio devices to your computer, as they are also becoming increasingly irrelevant. (Especially for the budget conscious home studio owner.)
Things are certainly yet far from perfect, but we came a long way from those early days of rapid computing and electronic audio revolution. So where does this leave us?
So this is where we are today: We have access to a combination of old and new technology that allow us to combine modern computer technology and professional audio equipment in a variety of ways. It can still look complicated, but is much simpler than it could have been.
I you read through the "Brief History" part, you will realize how complicated things could have been if modern innovations like the USB interface and audio interfaces didn't come to the rescue to make things a lot easier and simpler.
With that said, let's have a look at what you actually came to read, the different ways of connecting your microphone and other audio devices to your computer.
Surprisingly, the traditional 1/8" microphone jack still features on some desktop and a few laptop computers. This can be an extension of the build-in audio chipset of the motherboard, or located on the back of one of the numerous inexpensive sound cards available today (which is used to enhance the sound quality of games and other applications that require a higher quality sound. And yes, this includes various versions of Creative Lab's latest Sound Blaster cards).
If you have a good quality older microphone that still use one of these jacks, you are in luck and will be able to use it as most modern versions of Windows will have drivers to support it.
A word of caution though. These connections are disappearing fast. (Don't even try and find one on an Apple Mac). There are still a few cheap microphones using this connection available to buy if you look for it. Please rather stay away as these microphones are most often inferior in quality and with support for it disappearing at a rapid rate, you will be left with nothing to plug it into.
The introduction and mass adoption of the USB Protocol didn't just mean doing away with a number of complex and competing interfaces.
It also allows power to be supplied to the connected device through the USB cable, a substantial increase in speed as its technology advanced, and the ability to connect devices not previously possible.
All of this made the connection of high quality microphones and other audio devices directly to the computer possible. Let's take a look at some of the best and most widely used ways of connecting directly through the USB interface:
Often bundled with computer hardware, or available at most electronic and gadget stores, is the humble USB microphone. This normally inexpensive device plugs into basically any computer and works immediately after a brief install.
It is an easy and affordable way to record sound into your computer and will work "out of the box" as every desktop and laptop comes equipped with an USB interface.
Just remember that these microphones are passive (unpowered). This means it has to completely rely on the amplification and audio quality of the computer's build-in audio chipset or sound card.
As a result, the volume and quality of the sound is normally not of a very high quality, but acceptable for everyday basic audio work. (like dictation and voice recognition software.)
The USB Interface's ability to supply power through its cable to a connected devices, has made it possible to directly connect a much higher quality microphone in the form of the USB Condenser Microphone.
It uses an electrically charged diaphragm, making it much more sensitive to sound and able to produce a much stronger signal through the the USB cable.
In a nutshell, the USB condenser microphone combines this sensitive diaphragm with electronic circuitry (housed in the microphone) to produce a much clearer audio signal at a much higher volume.
(This is a very simplistic explanation. You can read more about a condenser microphone and how exactly it works in this article.)
As a result, you can get hold of a USB condenser microphone that can almost rival the capabilities of a professional studio microphone. Prices vary from below $50 to $200 and above. (Naturally your high-quality condenser microphones for professional use will fall into the higher price bracket.)
The point is that you can use a USB condenser microphone for high quality audio work, which will sound almost indistinguishable from professional microphones to the untrained ear.
Another huge advantage of this microphone, is that you can plug it directly into your computer or laptop without the need for any additional hardware. Simply make sure the right drivers are downloaded and your microphone is ready to use.
It is also very portable, making it ideal for the traveling musician or podcaster on the move who needs a high quality, but compact microphone which can be thrown into a suitcase and used on the road for recording or live performances.
The USB Interface also made the connection of other audio devices possible. In the past electronic percussion instruments, keyboards, synthesizers and digital pianos could only communicate with other electronic components through dedicated interfaces like MIDI ports and RCA connectors.
MIDI ports have the limitations that it can only transfer the data of the note being played, nothing more. If you created a whole musical piece on your synth or digital piano, you needed stereo output ports like RCA connectors to capture the entire sound on the preamp or mixer.
As these were all audio specific ports, and now standard computer has support for these devices. This was a very limiting factor.
Luckily the USB Interface changed all of that. You can now record all the sound your instrument produces directly into the computer through their USB connection.
Most modern keyboards, synthesizers and digital pianos all have USB ports. The majority also come with drivers that can immediately be installed. You can literally download and install them, and your instrument is ready to be used by your DAW or its own software.
Just please play attention and make sure your instruments actually do have a USB port. Some devices still come without this important component, and can cause a world of problems when you want to connect directly to your computer.
If you are planning on starting any kind of home recording studio, no matter how basic, I would strongly recommend investing in an audio interface.
Basically an audio interface is a device that connects all your audio equipment and instruments to your PC. With build-in preamplifiers and DAC (digital to analogue converter) they have also taken over the functions of a professional sound card.
This means you can connect almost any traditional audio instrument and other audio devices to the audio interface. All these signals get amplified/processed and send to the computer through a digital connection, normally a USB cable, to the computer. Here your DAW software can record and edit the sound.
Even affordable audio interfaces offer a host of ports to connect to. From XLR-ports for your professional microphone, MIDI connections, 1/4" audio jacks to RCA ports are supported. This means you can connect almost anything you can think of, and the USB Interface (who can handle multiple tracks at once) will make sure all signals are delivered to the computer.
The majority of audio interfaces also come equipped with output ports for directly connecting to headphones, speakers and external amplifiers. This makes the audio interface extremely versatile and it can be seen as a very comprehensive solution for integrating all your audio and computer hardware. (You can even instruct the computer to output all sound back through the USB port to be played through the audio interface.)
The takeaway here is that if you already own a XLR microphone and other audio equipment, the audio interface will be the ideal solution for your connections problems. Additionally, it will also give you an advantage when starting your home studio with all its extended audio features and interfaces.
So there you have it. Basically 4 ways to connect your microphone and other audio devices to you computer. Yes, I went the long way around and covered a lot of detail. I honestly think it is important for you to understand why you are left with the options you have today.
If you skipped the brief history, no problem. I will really encourage you to go back and read it at some point when you have time. It will put things into perspective and help you to better understand how everything got started and ended up where they did.
Who knows, you may just find yourself in a situation some day where you are faced with some of these older technologies. Recognizing and understanding them will go a far way to help you work with them, and potentially integrate them into a modern setup.
Before finishing up, let's quickly recap the 4 ways in which to connect your microphone (and other devices) to your computer:
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
We all do it. We research or read a review on a product and immediately look at its star rating or percentage score given by the reviewer. Sometimes though, it can be quite misleading and here's why I chose to never use it.
Like I said, we all do it. I myself quickly also use the "Five Star Rating System" or "Percentage Score" (normally put in bold and in a prominent place) to quickly judge how good or bad a piece of audio equipment or instrument is.
And we do it most of the time before knowing anything at all about the product or even started to read the actual review or article. There is a lot wrong with this approach, and I will go into detail as to why we do it in the first place and why I believe it can be so misleading.
So why do we do it in the first place? To be honest, we have to go back to our upbringing and education to start solving this problem.
From childhood as early as kindergarten, we got used to being reward with stars being placed on our drawings or foreheads, rewarding us for being good or well behaved. Depending on your preschool institution, 3 starts were always considered the ultimate reward. (Except for those juvenile delinquents among us who always despised the "goody two shoes" or "teachers pets" as they sometimes got labelled).
As a result we got conditioned to associating the stars and the amount given as being important and valuable. As a result we started seeing it as a measurement to judge how good something is, so it has been engraved in our minds from a very early age.
Schools, colleges and universities did not do much to help the situation. Even while using the symbol system like A+, B and C etc, we all know that it is based on the percentage you get. (60%-69%=C, 70%-79%=B , 80%-100%=A etc.)
This meant judging the value of something based on a percentage assigned to it, is already well part of our DNA by the time we leave school.
It should come as no surprise then that we pay so much attention to ratings and percentages and hold it in such high regard as adults. Big corporations and marketers are very well aware of this fact and make great use of it in their marketing campaigns to form our opinions.
And we also do it. Most authority site owners today, use one of these two systems to rate their products. (Sometimes based on expertise and thorough research, but also sometimes on nothing more than a highly subjective opinion. More on this later on.)
The point is, these are now well established and widely accepted ways of judging and determining the value of anything reviewed or tested. For good or bad.
Now that we know why ratings & percentages are so widely used, and trusted and relied upon by most people, it's time to have a look at how potentially dangerous and misleading it can be.
There are quite few reasons you should be wary of relying on just ratings and percentages to help you form an opinion and make decisions. Here are two of the main ones.
I know I may be stepping on a few toes here, so just remember this a just a general observation.
Many sites specializing in sound recording and professional home studios have staff and writers with years of experience in the recording industry and with a wealth of knowledge.
Normally these sites provide thoroughly researched and carefully tested information on products published in unbiased articles and reviews. These are the sites you should seek out and trust when you do your research.
On the opposite side of the scale you find review articles where the writer just chose a Best Seller on Amazon or some other e-commerce site, and simply list all the highlight features they could find on advertisements and use this as a basis for their review. Normally these are websites who just are just interested in selling a product for a commission. (Some have never even had any personal experience with the product, or even know what functions they have or how they operate.)
Some articles are nothing but just blatant copies of an existing reviews or tests. The wording are changed slightly and maybe another image get used. (Sometimes even this is too much effort and everything is word-for-word the same).
As a result there can be an overwhelming amount of positive reviews on a certain piece of equipment. This can mean one of two things: Either one very well respected and popular review got "copied" by other blogs, or the product is actually really that good.
(I have found in the past after writing a review on a product, that it looked suspiciously similar to another post or two, even though I never saw them before. So yes, it can be difficult to sometimes not look like copycat when reviewing a very good product.)
I realize this doesn't help you much as a reader. It can be difficult to know who to trust and what to believe when you need to get accurate and helpful information when having to make an important decision.
I won't be too concerned about this. In time you develop a sense of which websites or blogs are aiming to provide you with accurate unbiased information and really inform you, and which ones are just constantly trying to promote and push you into a purchase.
In general, most websites that provides you with just as much useful articles that aims to inform and help you out, as they do reviews, tend to be the ones you can trust and advise you can take seriously.
At this stage I won't blame you if you start to think I regard star ratings and percentages as the worst possible way to judge and evaluate any piece of equipment or software. This can't be further from the truth.
Used sparingly in a good comparison or review, they can be invaluable quick indicators of a product's value, quality and standing. That's to say if it is viewed within the context of the whole article or review. And that is the key, CONTEXT.
You can read a brilliant article, filled with a wealth of informative and detailed descriptions leading to accurate conclusions, accompanied by a start rating or percentage score to quickly point you in the right direction.
If you read through the whole article though (providing you with context), you would have realized very early on whether the product discussed were of any relevance to you or not applicable to your needs at all.
For example, the article may be discussing and focusing on the best quality audio interface delivering superior sound, while comparing audio interfaces below $250. In the meantime you were looking for the most budget friendly audio interface that doesn't have all the bells and whistles, while delivering a good enough sound quality that is more than acceptable for your requirements.
If you just focused on the final ratings without reading the whole article, you might have ended up spending $240 on an audio interface, when a $120 interface would have been all you required. You ended up wasting money that could have been better spend on something else you required for your recording setup.
(If you spend 2 minutes reading the actual review however, you would have seen the context in which the device was reviewed and very quickly realized that you were reading the wrong review for what you were actually looking for.)
The point is, without reading the content of any post and as a result be able to see the context within which products are reviewed, just relying on a few stars or percentages is rather naive and can be very misleading.
The problem however, is that people do not want to read anymore. (Why do you think Youtube is so popular?)
In this age of fast food, instant online purchases and next-day deliveries, the consumption of information has gone down the same road. We don't have the time or attention span to read a whole article to get the information we want anymore.
It is much easier to quickly Google a question, find the appropriate headline and look at a rating or score to quickly make a decision.
I can go on and on, but you get the point.
Like I just said, I can go on and show you countless examples of why relying on just ratings and percentages can be very misleading, but if you don't get the point I am trying to make, I am afraid I will not be able to convince you.
Anyway, as a result of all everything, you will not find any ratings or scores on any product or device I discuss or review. I will give you the important information I feel you should know, give you my honest opinion on the product in question, and leave you to decide for yourself what will be best for you. (I won't bother even mentioning a piece of equipment or component if I am not willing to recommend it in the first place. This will just be just a waste of my and you, the reader's time.)
So what is the point of this whole article then besides rambling on about a seemingly unimportant subject?
The whole goal of this article is to encourage you to actually take the time to READ an article or review when you want information a piece of equipment or component.
You worked hard for your money, and you deserve to get the best an most appropriate for your home recording studio. Taking literally just a few minutes to read enough information about something you will be investing in, can make a big difference in building the best recording setup for your budget and needs.
If you made it this far through this article, I am pretty sure you are the type of reader who will indeed make the effort to do just that. Good on you and keep at it!
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!
When we hear the words "MIDI Keyboard" and "Synthesizer" we often think they are one and the same thing. Only when we need one for our home studio, do we find out it's very far from that simple.
To make things more complicated, what if I tell you sometimes it can mean the same thing and sometimes not. Surely enough, when you have quick look at the two, a midi keyboard and synthesizer look almost identical. They both have a basic piano key layout with additional controls on top of the instrument. But that is where most of the similarities end though.
A MIDI keyboard is essentially keyboard with black & white keys which act as a controller to send the signals of which note is played to an external device through the MIDI cable. It is unable to produce sound on its own. A synthesizer is also a keyboard with black & white keys, but it's a complete standalone musical instrument. It is able to mimic and produce piano and a variety of other instrumental sounds, as well as applying a wide range of effects to the sounds you produce.
This is a very basic and simplistic explanation of the difference between these two instruments. If you start looking at them in more detail, the differences, similarities and even overlaps can be quite confusing. To best understand all of this, we need to take a closer look at how similar, but yet fundamentally different they really are.
A MIDI Keyboard (also commonly referred to as a controller) is only capable of sending the data the key being hit to the synthesizer or sequencer. In most cases modern day synthesizers (or sequencers) come in the form the DAW software on your computer, so this should not be a drawback. This is normally achieved by connecting your keyboard to the MIDI port of your computer's sound card or the more popular audio interface.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a protocol designed to allow electronic musical instruments and devices to communicate with each other. It was established in 1983 with the added advantage of allowing instruments and devices from different manufacturers to effortlessly communicate with one another.
(New MIDI Controllers / Keyboards are increasingly moving away from the MIDI protocol and making more use of the USB interface, mostly because the USB protocol is now supported across the board by almost every single device, making connecting different components easy and relatively painless.
An added advantage of USB is that it is able to transfer multiple streams of data simultaneously, compared to the single bit of data a MIDI connection is capable of. This becomes fairly important as more expensive Midi Keyboards have more data to transfer than a MIDI interface are able to cope with. I will explain this in detail in the next section.
Fortunately for any of you still owning an older device with only a MIDI interface, almost all modern keyboards still support MIDI, as well as the vast majority of audio interfaces. This means you will be safe on the output and input side for the foreseeable future with your MIDI connection. Just be aware of this shift towards USB that is gradually taking place.)
As with synthesizers, MIDI Keyboards come with a variety of key sizes and have models with a different number of keys present on each instrument. (Normally they come in combinations of 25, 32, 49, 61 and 88 keys.)
A Synthesizer (also sometimes referred to as electronic keyboards) as we know it, has all the functions and features of the Midi Keyboard I just mentioned. The biggest difference is that a synthesizer has all the electronics and functions needed to produce and output sound build into the instrument itself. This turns it into a fully functioning standalone instrument, capable of producing sound by itself.
Not only can they produce their own sound, the build-in synthesizer functions allow them to mimic almost any possible instrument available, They can also add special effects and a multiple of other features to the sound they produce and output.
In this sense the Keyboard Synthesizer has already many of the functions, normally only available in DAW Software in many cases, available on the keyboard itself. The importance and relevance of these build-in functions will become clear when specifically looking at the use of synthesizers later on in this article.
Before you start wondering what all this MIDI Controller and Synthesizer talk has to do with your home recording studio, this is what I am getting at. At some point on your home studio journey, chances are very good that you will not only have to deal with some kind of piano style keyboard, you may just end up finding the need to start using one for your own personal needs. The information in this article will suddenly become very helpful.
(Guess, what I am in that process of purchasing right now? And a year ago I would have laughed at anyone telling me I will be looking for a keyboard for my own home studio.)
And this is exactly where the MIDI keyboard comes in. The main reason most of you may purchase a MIDI keyboard is for recording & mixing purposes. Whether you are using your home studio for vocal work or adding some instruments like an acoustic guitar - at some point you will want to start to start adding a melody. A simple tune at first that may develop into a complex composition over time.
The beauty about your keyboard is that you can make it sound like any instrument you want using your DAW software. And even if you don't know how to play a keyboard, you can slowly learn the right notes and sequence you want for your melody.
You can start out by hitting one key at a time until you have your basic melody. Then just use your DAW to organize and space your notes together until you are happy with the basic tune. (You will be surprised how quickly you learn the keys on a MIDI Keyboard and before long you will be hitting the right ones to create the melody you have in your head without even thinking about it.)
This just the very basic basic capabilities of the MIDI keyboard, but you will be amazed how quickly you start depending on it as you realize the speed and convenience with which you can input a tune to insert into your composition. You will actually start wondering how you ever managed without one!
There is another big advantage I haven't mentioned yet and that is price. For fraction of the price of a fully featured standalone synthesizer, you can purchase a keyboard that will do all you require of it with the help of your DAW software that can turn these simple notes into almost anything imaginable, very often producing results a standalone synthesizer can only dream of.
But what if you are and actual keyboard player or an accomplished pianist and you want a keyboard to play during live performances, but also need to use it to record the music played on your keyboard. Enters the Keyboard Synthesizer...
As a standalone musical instrument, you can use your synthesizer during live performances and simply run it through the amplifier all other instruments are connected to. You also have the freedom to practice anywhere you want without being restricted to the confines of a recording studio.
The amount of features you have available on your synthesizer will depend from model to model, as well as how much as you are willing to spend. I will go into more detail on some of these more advanced features shortly, but just realize that some of today's high-end synthesizers are capable of producing almost any sound imaginable and you are only limited by your imagination.
When it come to recording, almost every Keyboard Synthesizers support multiple output ports. Output support range from the traditional MIDI, to RCA stereo outputs, or a USB interface. Many support all 3 in one instrument. As a result, recording can be done in exactly the same way as with a standard MIDI Keyboard / Controller.
There is an important difference that should be considered when recording from a synthesizer though. Remember when MIDI is used, only data of the note being played can be transferred, not the actual sound produced by the synthesizer.
Fortunately, almost every synthesizer has RCA stereo output ports or an USB interface. This will allow you to connect through any of these connection to your audio interface or DAW computer. This way the exact sound produced by the synthesizer is fully captured by your recording software.
Before moving onto deciding which is best for you, I feel a special section should be set aside for a surprisingly large portion of you who don't want to, but are "forced to use a keyboard". What one earth am I talking about...
Many of you reading this, are already accomplished or aspiring piano players, and the chances are pretty good that part of your current or future plans involve recording your piano performances on your home recording setup.
Some of you may be lucky enough to own a piano at home. If you are very lucky, the room your piano is standing in has good acoustics. This means you can position your condenser microphone at the right position next to the piano to record every detail of every key being hit and record it through your audio interface.
Unfortunately, I know for most us, the reality is actually far removed from the scenario I just described. In fact, most of us don't even have access to a piano at home, nevermind in an acoustically optimized space.
Luckily this is where your more dedicated and higher-end synthesizers come to the rescue. Positioned in a higher price range than the standard synthesizer, these "electronic pianos" are still a fraction of the cost of a real full-size piano, while still being able to mimic most characteristics of a piano.
The synthesizers that fall within this category are well within the means of a serious pianist unable to afford or have the space to accommodate an actual piano, and are willing to spend that little extra. But what do these synthesizers look like and how do they bridge the gap between a normal synthesizer and real piano?
Piano style synthesizers address these differences on four levels:
Lets first look at the feel of the actual keys. If you haven't experienced hitting a key on a piano and budget synthesizer respectively yet, do yourself a favor and pop into the nearest music shop when you're in town again and try it. This will make the following explanation much easier to understand.
When you hit a key on a "normal" keyboard, it gives way without any resistance until it reaches the bottom and pops back with the same amount of ease. The experience when hitting a piano key is quite different. You feel like you are hitting something with some weight to it, which necessitates some effort to be pushed down. This is called a "hammer action".
These differences in feel between the two instruments can be very disruptive for a pianist who develop a rhythm and use the keys' natural weight to develop their style and play. Trying to play on a synthesizer with no feel or feedback can make it almost impossible for a pianist to perform optimally.
"Digital pianos" compensate for this lack of feel by creating "semi-weighted" keys that provide almost the same weighted feel of a real piano. Higher up in the price range some manufacturers make use of fully-weighted keys to simulate the "hammer action" of a real piano. This makes it much easier for pianists to perform more naturally on a these keyboards.
Secondly, the issue of velocity sensitive keys has been addressed. (Theses features are already available on much more affordable "synthesizer keyboards.)
"Velocity sensitive" keys simply mean that the harder you hit a key, the louder the sound it produces. This is just a natural function of any piano key. Luckily this is not a very complex function to duplicate on a synthesizer, which means most higher-end keyboards have this function already build in.
In general, most synthesizers have much smaller keys that are also more closely spaced than the standard full-size keys of a piano. This place absolute havoc on a pianist's ability to hit the correct key on a normal synthesizer. They are used to the spacing between the keys on a piano, where they instinctively can place their hands on the right keys without even looking down. This ability was developed through years of training and experience.
To address this problem, most high-end keyboards with the other piano style functions already build-in, has scaled up their keys to full size as well. Pianist can now feel at home on these keyboards, knowing the rights note will be hit using the same hand and finger positioning that they use while playing the piano.
No need to explain this very important function to a pianist. For the rest of us, the sustain pedal, when suppressed, keeps the note being played to be sustained and fade away slowly without being cut off abruptly once the keys are released.
This is a an essential part of a piano that helps to create the notes and music that are so unique to pianos. A normal MIDI Keyboard will simply cut off this sound being played as soon as the keys are released, loosing the whole effect of a sustained note.
Luckily, producers of synthesizers or "digital pianos" are very aware of this important function and include a foot (sustain) pedal with the keyboard which perform exactly the same function as on a piano. (This pedal comes standard or at the very least as an option on all higher-end "digital pianos.)
So what is the whole experience like? Most piano players will quickly tell you that nothing can replace the feeling of sitting in front of an actual piano and experiencing the sound and feel of the real thing.
In the same breath, the majority of users will admit that on a good enough high-quality "digital piano", they will be able to perform just as well as they would on a piano.
Sound will always be a debatable issue, but with modern advanced synthesizers, amplifiers and high-quality speakers/studio monitors, the quality has achieved such a high standard that it will be almost impossible to tell the difference between a synthesizer and real piano on a recording (or even during a live performance to all but the most highly trained ear).
A final word on "piano emulating" synthesizers: Just remember that all the sound these digital pianos provide, needs to be recorded in its totality to capture the tone, volume and every other nuance produced by the synthesizer.
As a result, you need outputs like RCA ports or a USB interface to transfer the entire sound signal to the recording device. (A MIDI connection will only be able to transfer the basic data of the note being played.) Luckily all synthesizers at this level supports at least one or both of these connections.
From everything you just read, and while probably still busy processing all the information, you should have been able to form some kind of idea of which type of keyboard you will need for your own unique personal requirements.
Lets just sum everything up again to get a comprehensive overview of what you will be using for each different circumstance.
The MIDI Keyboard (or controller) in its simplest form, is a keyboard with a piano style layout, which main function is to simply transfer data to the sequencer/synthesizer. If you are using a keyboard to just input data of what note is being played to your DAW software to be interpreted and modified anyway you see fit, a very simple entry level MIDI Keyboard is all you need.
Just make sure the output ports on your MIDI Keyboard and the input port on your recording device (computer or audio interface) have the same adapter type. This might be MIDI, RCA ports or a USB interface.
If you are a keyboard player and use your device to produce sound as a standalone instrument during live performances (for example on stage) or away from the studio, you need a completely independent keyboard synthesizer.
As already mentioned, a synthesizer is a standalone keyboard with all the electronics and additional components to produce sound, build into one unit. The price and features (including the amount of instruments it can emulate, as well as special effects) will be determined by your own personal requirements.
At the most advanced tip of the scale, you get the pianist who need all the capabilities that a piano can provide, but which also can recorded on a home recording setup. What you are looking for is a full digital piano.
In the previous section we already went into extensive detail about a synthesizer that can fulfill the requirements of a piano, so there is no need to repeat everything again.
Obviously a synthesizer with these capabilities come at a premium price, but is also aimed at a select group of users who need all this functionality. Yet, this price is still a fraction of the cost of a real full-size piano.
This is a lot of information to process, I know. (You may have to read through this article a couple of times to make sense of all the similarities and differences.) Just remember the basic difference:
The MIDI Keyboard is unable to produce sound by itself and only supply data of which note is being played to a synthesizer or recording software.
The synthesizer is a standalone musical instrument with build-in electronics and components able to produce a variety of sounds on its own.
Both these devices look almost identical and come in a variety of sizes. Both also have models available with a different amount of keys, keys with a different type of feel and touch (non-weighted, semi-weighted and fully-weighted) Both also have models available with key sizes varying from compact to full-size, Finally, both also provide some models with velocity sensitive keys.
No, the goal here is not to make your head spin and confuse you. It is simply to let you know that there are so many options available in every category, not matter which type of keyboard you choose.
So, do your homework when choosing your keyboard and make sure you are aware of each one's capabilities and limitations before making a purchase!
I hope this post helped to provide you with some more insight and guidance when you start looking at keyboards in more detail and feel confused by the similar looking, yet vastly different models available to you.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!