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So a microphone is a transducer, in that it converts variations in sound pressure into an electrical signal. A transducer is anything that takes one thing and changes it into another thing and usually it actually changes it back the other way as well. In the case of a microphone, it changes air pressure changes into electrical voltages. So while a microphone is a transducer there are three element types where, more or less, this is kind of like the brain of the transducer that exists, more or less, in microphones. There are a few other ones, but these are the ones you're going to come in contact with, the dynamic microphone, the condenser microphone, and the ribbon microphone.
These were just referred to generically as microphone types, or element types, something to keep in mind. Let's look at the dynamic microphone and think about kind of quickly how it works, but also what also what you can use it for. So the dynamic microphone works on the electromagnetic principle. The nutshell there is that sound comes in, hits the little diaphragm here, moves this thing back and forth in a magnetic field, and that generates electrical signals. So that's the transduction, that's the change from sound to electrical. Dynamic microphones are great for things that are really loud that have high pressure levels, like guitar amps and drums.
You'll see them a lot of times for vocals in live settings because they are good at just picking up what's in front of them, the mouth is right there and loud as opposed to picking up the whole band behind them and generating feedback and things like that. It's great on instruments, it's great on vocals, but not great on, let's say, on vocals you are recording in the studio. For that you'd want to look toward something like a condenser, which ultimately is a slightly more sensitive microphone, even though it's not really legitimate for me say that, that's the truth.
It's more sensitive it can pick up things with sharper transients like the voice, like acoustic guitars, like violins, because it works on an electrostatic principle. And in a nutshell that means the sound wave's come, and this little super thin diaphragm that's coated with like gold or nickel on the back. It just moves against the static background, and that generates electric signals, and this is charged, it's kind of positive and negative, and you get a result from the movement between those two.
So basically this technology is a lot more sensitive to sound pressure, because it's lighter and smaller, it can move back and forth quicker, so softer sounds, more subtle sounds, in sounds can be picked up. So condenser microphones are great for things like vocals, violins, acoustic guitars, things like that that have a lot of transients and a lot of kind of higher dynamics. And you can use them on almost anything, it's hard to use them close to things that are very loud. You can put one in a room with a drum set, if it's 10 feet away and get great results, but you have a hard time putting a condenser microphone on a snare drum because it's just as it's too loud it's too much for that element type.
The other thing about condenser microphones that you want to know about, which we'll talk about a little bit later when we discuss preamps is phantom power. Which ultimately is 48 volts that comes either through the microphone cable or sometimes can come from a battery that you put in line in the microphone in certain handheld designs. And that is what provides the charge on the element. Mixing consoles, anything with a mic preamp, will usually have a little 48 volt switch, which basically is phantom power, and that sends a little bit of juice back out in the microphone cable, to the microphone, which in a nutshell let's the element run. It gives it the power to be sensitive.
The third kind of mic you look at and maybe come into contact, these are coming back in popularity are ribbon microphones. This works like the dynamic microphone does on the electromagnetic principle, in that there is a little ribbon of aluminum here, and when sound comes it actually moves back and forth in a magnetic zone, and you get electrical signals from it. They used ribbon microphones, big old announcer microphones with the big grill on there, those are usually ribbon microphones from the `40s and `50s and stuff and they put that huge grill on there, because this ribbon, this little piece of aluminum is really, really sensitive to big Sound Blast and easy to damage.
You can actually just bend the aluminum if you send sounds to it that are too loud. So ribbon microphones are coming back and they're being used on things, sometimes in the way you would use a condenser, and sometimes in the way you'd use a dynamic microphone. And have different applications but the thing is that pretty good, pretty juicy ones cost quite a bit. So chances are if you're going to just get into digital audio, you won't be starting out with a ribbon microphone, but they are worth knowing about and definitely worth reading about, because it's pretty exciting than the newer ones have some technology that makes them less susceptible to damage.
It's an amazingly sensitive element, which is the good part and the bad part about it at the same time. So that's it for the different element types. In the next section we'll talk about pickup patterns and axis.
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