Out of sight out of mind

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Out of sight out of mind

As we wrap up our little mini series on microphones it occurs to me how little attention we pay to them. Which, if you think about it, is weird.

With the exception of synthesizers and perhaps a few electric guitars and DI pianos, 99% of everything ever recorded has passed through a microphone and its preamplifying chain. And the sonic characteristics of microphones are as extreme and all over the map as they are with phono cartridges.

To be clear, this isn't like the differences we audiophiles argue over between cables and conditioners. No, microphone gaps are as enormous as the ones we think of in the vinyl chain—a Sure V15 versus a Koetsu moving coil. 

One of the microphones I wrote about in the amplifying chain but did not write much about is the rare( today) ribbon type. These ribbon microphones were once the mainstay of recordings and today, they are generally used only on specific recording types like capturing the blare of a trumpet without gritting your teeth.

Ribbon microphones, characterized by a thin strip of metal typically made of aluminum suspended between two magnets, operate by vibrating when sound waves hit the ribbon, thereby inducing a small electrical current proportional to the sound waves. Renowned for their smooth and natural sound reproduction, ribbon microphones often feature a bidirectional (figure-eight) polar pattern, enabling them to pick up sound from both the front and back while rejecting sound from the sides. Despite being passive devices that do not require external power, ribbon microphones are fragile and susceptible to damage from excessive wind or loud sound sources.

On the last two Gabriel Mervine releases we'll see from Octave Records this month, I beautifully captured the sound of Gabe's horn with a classic ribbon weighing over 10 pounds (because of its enormous magnets). Just recently, I tried that same microphone on the honk of a baritone sax and it sucked. Blurred, too rolled off. I moved over the the Gefells we talked yesterday, and magic.

The point is, all of our recordings pass through sonic transducers that are all over the map. Which reminds me also of the opposite end of the audio spectrum. Loudspeakers.

Loudspeakers stare at us, so we pay attention. Microphones and their associated amplification chains are out of our control, out of our reach, and out of our thoughts.

Yet nothing else in the entire chain plays such a pivotal role.

Out of sigh, out of mind, yet not out of our musical experience.

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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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