Whether in the studio or in front of a live audience, singers and musicians use microphones to amplify the sound of their voices and their instruments. Most people are familiar with the basic function of a microphone, but many are surprised to learn that to sound good on a microphone, singers and sound engineers must master some rather elaborate techniques.

The History of the Microphone

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Telephones contained a device called a telephone transmitter, a technology which was perfected 10 years later by Thomas Alva Edison, who used it to create the first carbon microphone. Carbon microphones were considered the standard in voice amplification until 1916 when Bell Laboratories developed the condenser microphone, which was used in radio broadcasting and motion picture recording.

Bell Laboratories continued working on sound amplification technologies and in 1931 created the dynamic microphone, which had a lower distortion level than the carbon or condenser microphones. The dynamic microphone is still used today in radio broadcasting, recording and performance. Other types of microphones have been created since, including the ribbon microphone and crystal microphone. However, the dynamic microphone is the most commonly used in music and other forms of entertainment.

old time radio and studio microphone

How Microphones Work

Microphones are transducers, which means they convert energy from one form (acoustic) into another (electrical). Inside every microphone is a diaphragm, which is a very thin piece of plastic that vibrates when sound waves hit it. The vibrations in the diaphragm cause the rest of the microphone to vibrate, which is what converts acoustic energy into electrical energy and amplifies the sound.

Using Vocal Processors to Modify Sound

Vocal processors work in a similar way to guitar pedals. Singers can plug their microphone into a small machine that alters and transmits the sound to a speaker. While some vocal processors, such as autotune, simply exist to improve a singer’s pitch or tone, others offer far more advanced effects, such as voice looping, vocal widening, diffusion or megaphone amplification.

Microphone Techniques and the Singers Who’ve Mastered Them

When singing or speaking into a microphone, it’s crucial to follow several techniques to ensure a high-quality, crisp sound. By holding the microphone too close to the mouth or too far away, sound can be easily distorted and muffled.

When recording in the studio, screens, which are called pop filters, are usually placed over the microphone to filter out the popping sound of fast-moving air, which can really stick out in a recording. Sound engineers also use placement techniques and occasionally pop filters when recording instruments, such as drums, bass and guitar, in the studio.

Some of the best and most well-known singers in the world have earned their place in the music industry by mastering professional vocal and microphone techniques that help them sound their best. Singers, such as Jeff Buckley, Luciano Pavarotti and Freddie Mercury (Queen), used microphone techniques in the studio and on stage, allowing fans to hear the true sound of their voices without distortion. Artists such as T-Pain and Ke$ha are known for their use of autotune to create a unique, almost robotic sound with their voices.

In music, the microphone is a pivotal piece of equipment for recording and performance. It helps singers to project their voices beyond their natural range, and it helps musicians perform for larger audiences by amplifying their sound exponentially.