The venerable experts of Bax Music could offer up a thousand-and-one fascinating facts about the microphone, but since no one has time for that, we’ve hand-picked just five!
#1. The First Ever Microphone
A microphone converts soundwaves into an electrical signal and, while electricity wasn’t a thing just yet, you could say that the little widget invented by Robert Hooke in 1665 was a sort of primitive version of the very first microphone. It was essentially the forerunner of the tin-can telephone: two empty cans joined by a length of string so that, when you pull the string taut and speak into one can, the vibrations caused by your voice travel along the string so that someone standing thirty metres away can hear you through the other can as clearly as if you were standing right next to them. A century and a half later, in 1927, the inventor Charles Wheatstone first coined the term ‘microphone’ while working on a way to strengthen, or amplify, quiet sounds (still without electricity). He came up with ‘microphone’ by compounding the two Greek words ‘micro’ and ‘phone’ which, when combined, mean ‘small sound’.
#2. The Microphone Comes from the Telephone
The first real microphones actually formed part of the very first telephones. The soundwaves produced when speaking into the phone would make a small diaphragm vibrate, and these vibrations were then passed, via a needle, through water mixed with a little sulphuric acid. The electrical resistance of the water and acid mixture then varied, creating an alternating current in the circuit, and the resulting signal was then sent through to the other end of the line. It might go without saying but the sound was terrible. It would take a few inspired inventors to improve the design, resulting in the carbon microphone – or button microphone, where the soundwaves passed through and compressed carbon powder. While it sounds nuts, this kind of microphone remained part of the telephone for another hundred years or so!
#3. From the Horn to the Condenser
Up until the 1920s, the general method for recording any sound was via a big horn, much like the big horns of old gramophone record players. The sound vibrated the walls of the horn and these vibrations then passed through a needle, which scored corresponding grooves into the surface of a wax cylinder. When the first ever electrical recording system was developed by Western Electric in 1925, it used a condenser microphone, which was invented in 1916 and gave the sound quality of audio recording in general a sudden and gigantic upgrade. As a result, a lot of the big record companies of the day immediately stopped recording with the old horn-based ‘acoustic’ method.
#4. The Microphone: A Crooner’s Essential
Before the microphone was invented, vocalists had to sing really loudly so that the people sitting in the back rows could actually hear something. But, by the end of the 1920s, more and more singers discovered that, with a microphone, this was no longer necessary. What quickly followed was what’s now known as the ‘crooner’ singing style, which was made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and, more recently by Michael Bublé. Crooners sing at a relatively low volume and in a fairly low register and are masters in the art of playing with the sonic potential of a microphone by varying things like the distance of the mic from their mouth.
#5. The History of the Polar Pattern
Back in the day there were just two possible polar patterns (which describes the way in which a microphone captures sound). These early polar patterns were omnidirectional and figure-of-8. An omnidirectional polar pattern means that the microphone picks up sound evenly from all directions. A figure-of-8 or bi-directional polar pattern means that the microphone picks up sound coming from the front and rear of the microphone capsule, thanks to a positive and negative side. If you were to add that positive side to an omnidirectional capsule, then the sound would become twice as loud. By adding the negative side, the other half of the omnidirectional capsule is pushed up, meaning that virtually no sound is picked up from the rear of the microphone. Combining the two polar patterns in this way results in the commonly used cardioid polar pattern, which is an easy method of getting rid of unwanted room echo and other environmental noise in recording studios or on stages.
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