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Microphone Mysteries Revealed, by Ted Hunter: Mic technology over the past 25 years.

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Q: “I noticed that there weren’t any microphones included in your top 25 list of products introduced in the last 25 years. Does this mean that microphone technology is complete?”

A: No, it certainly doesn’t mean that at all. It also doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some great advancements made in microphone design and technology over the past 25 years. It just means that when compiling the list of 25 of the most influential products to emerge in the 25 years since Sweetwater’s beginning, no single microphone came to mind as having had as significant an impact as, say, the Alesis ADAT, Digidesign’s Pro Tools, or Nemesys’s Gigasampler. Of course, all such lists are subjective (ever read any magazine’s list of the greatest song, video, musician, or album of all time?), and depending on your niche in the market there may be several microphones that would make your top 25 list (there certainly would be for me).

Perhaps the most significant advancement in microphone technology over the past twenty-five years has been the drop in price of studio-quality microphones; in other words, manufacturing of microphones. While the more expensive microphones on the market are still manufactured the old-fashioned way (by hand) and priced accordingly, the price of a good studio-quality large-diaphragm condenser microphone had dropped to the range of a good dynamic microphone. Companies such as RODE, Audio-Technica, and Studio Projects (and others) have introduced microphones that have set new price/performance standards, and even industry veterans such as AKG and Neumann have introduced microphones that, while certainly not the cheapest on the market, have come in at price points that nobody would have believed perhaps even ten years ago. These advancements have been driven in large part by the affordability of recording systems that take advantage of the full dynamic range and frequency response these microphones are capable of. Chances are, if the typical home studio was still recording to multitrack cassette tapes, there wouldn’t have been the demand for these microphones at the volume necessary to drive the prices down where they are.

There have also been other technological advancements in microphone design over the past twenty-five years, in all areas. Neodymium elements have provided hotter output levels with higher quality than older designs. You can run more wireless systems at once, with better quality and for much less money than ever before. Electret condenser technology has improved to the point where we see both large- and small-diaphragm electret condenser microphones in use in studios on all levels, and where they were previously considered to be cheap, almost disposable microphones, today some of the most prized studio condenser microphones utilize electret elements. Ribbon microphones, which were for a time considered to be an outdated design because of their fragility, sensitivity to the impedence of the preamp they’re connected to, and relatively low output levels, have become much more robust due to advances both in the magnets used and the ribbon elements themselves. More recently, Royer has created active ribbon microphones, which not only have output levels on par with their condenser counterparts, but also are much less sensitive to impedence of the preamp they’re connected to (BLUE has also created an active dynamic microphone which offers the same advantages over traditional dynamic microphones, which have similar issues but to a lesser extent). And Beyerdynamic and Neumann have both come out with condenser microphones with direct digital outputs, which are from a technical perspective miles beyond any of the other microphones on the market. It’s still a little early to judge the impact they, or any of the other recent advancements, will have on the market, but who knows? Maybe our thirty-year list will have a few of these microphones on it, or another microphone that hasn’t even been created yet…

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