Nothing lasts forever, so how do microphones stand against the test of time and the tests of performing over and over again?
Do microphones wear out? Microphones, like all electronic devices, will wear out, though in most cases, this happens very slowly. There are many vintage microphones on the market that prove that mics wear out over decades of use. Note that “wearing out” does not necessarily mean that microphone stops working, though it may.
Let’s dive deeper into the question of why microphones wear out. In doing so, we’ll discuss what components wear out first, why microphones wear out, and how to preserve our microphones so they wear more slowly.
Why Do Microphones Wear Out?
Microphones, like all electrical devices, naturally wear out. The components within a microphone slowly wear out over time.
Time is a major factor in microphone “health,” as is the normal wear and tear of actually using the microphone. Of course, when handled with care (both when in use and in storage), a microphone can last a long time.
Many vintage microphones prove that high-quality mics will continue to perform for decades (and that they’ll increase in price!).
For more information on high-quality vintage microphones, consider checking out my article Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones).
That being said, good care will increase longevity, but will not stop the eventual wearing of the microphone.
What factors contribute to microphone wearing?
- Repeated normal mechanical stress.
- Gas leakage (vacuum tubes).
- Losing charge (electret material).
- Dust and smoke.
- Repetitive electrical flow.
- Physical trauma.
Let’s talk about each of these factor briefly:
Repeated Normal Mechanical Stress
Microphone diaphragms move back and forth according the sound pressure they are exposed to. The diaphragms are very thin, but relatively strong, and the distances they move is small.
Microphone diaphragms are connected to their capsules (condenser mics), cartridges (moving-coil dynamics), or baffles (ribbon mics).
In condenser and moving-coil mics, the diaphragm is typically circular and is connected around its circumference. The edge of connection is typically where the diaphragm will begin to wear, though not necessarily.
Ribbon diaphragms are connected to their baffles at each of their ends (length wise). The repeated movement of the ribbon diaphragm may wear it faster at its connections, though that may very well not be the case.
To read more about microphone diaphragms, check out my article What Is A Microphone Diaphragm?
Mechanical switches (pads, high-pass filters, polar pattern switches, etc.) will wear due to repeated mechanical use as well.
The output connection could potential become worn from plugging and unplugging the microphone.
Typically, though, microphone will not become worn due to their normal mechanical functions.
Humidity can be a potentially lethal issue with microphones. This is particularly true of active microphones.
Humidity won’t have a huge negative impact on passive components such as dynamic mic diaphragms; cartridges and ribbon baffles; magnets; and transformers.
However, humidity can wreak havoc on printed circuit boards and their individual components, including the popular field-effect transistors (FETs) used solid-state active mics.
Humidity may even stop an active microphone from working if it get bad enough.
In term of wearing out, humidity can cause condensation on metallic parts, which may cause corrosion (our next point).
Furthermore, combining condensation with airborne dust, which could cause clogging within the open parts of the mic.
With humidity often comes corrosion.
Copper is the most commonly used conductive material in moving-coil dynamic diaphragms. Copper will slowly corrode over time, which affects the dynamic mic performance, even if only slightly.
Aluminum, which is the material used in most ribbon diaphragms, is prone to corrosion. A corroded ribbon diaphragm will output a weaker and less accurate signal than a fresh ribbon.
Gold does not corrode due to humidity and is therefore a common conductive material to sputter on condenser diaphragms.
The printed circuit boards in microphones are largely made of metal and are exposed (even inside the mic) to oxygen and humidity. Though the process is slow, PCBs will eventually corrode.
Corrosion will also affect the microphone grille, body, and output connection.
This corrosion may seem negligible in many cases, but will indeed wear out a microphone.
This wearing factor applies mostly to tube microphones.
In order for a vacuum tube to function properly, it need to be heated. Tubes, therefore, are designed with heaters in the tube interior.
As the tube of the microphone heats up, so does the inside of the microphone. Excessive prolonged heat from the tube has the potential to wear out or cause damage to the diaphragm and capsule.
For this reason, many tube mics are positioned up-side-down during long recording sessions. Positioning the mic up-side-down puts the tube above the capsule. Since heat rises, it has less of an affect on the capsule if the tube is physically above the capsule.
Note that a huge benefit of tube heat is that it keeps the inside of the microphone dry.
Note also that heating and cooling the tube will cause it wear faster. The filament within the tube has a set lifespan.
Gas Leakage (Vacuum Tubes)
Vacuum tubes require a vacuum so that the filament (heater) doesn’t burn up with the air. The absence of oxygen within the tube allows for the flow of electrons within it. Without this vacuum, the tube would not function.
Small leaks may slowly introduce air into the tube over long periods of time. The oxygen that enters the tube will undoubtedly lead to an accelerated wearing of the tube.
Gravity affects ribbon microphones more than dynamic and condenser mics.
Ribbon diaphragms are long, thin, and nearly always corrugated. This makes prone to sagging, especially if stored horizontally.
A sagged ribbon decreases the performance of the ribbon microphone. For this reason, it’s important to consider the effects of gravity on microphone wear and store ribbon mics standing straight up.
Losing Charge (Electret Material)
In the early days of electret microphones, the primitive electret material would lose its charge after a few years.
This is actually what prompted the term “true condenser,” which referred to externally polarized condenser mics that would not lose their charge due to failing electret material.
Today’s electrets hold their charge much longer. In fact, they hold their charge so well that many electrets are considered “permanently charged.”
That being said, electret material will slowly lose charge, though in most new cases, this happen at an incredibly slow rate.
Dust And Smoke
Dust and smoke, with the help of humidity in the air, will slowly accumulate on and inside a microphone. This accumulation, however slight it may be, will wear on the microphone and decrease its performance.
Furthermore, if the dust has particularly sharp particles, these particles could damage the diaphragm of the mic.
Ribbon microphones are especially sensitive to dust. Their diaphragms are easily breakable if subjected to sharp dust particles.
For this reason, it’s best to cover a ribbon microphone even when moving it around in a room. The slightest bit of dust could prove lethal on the ribbon diaphragm.
Repetitive Electrical Flow
Electronic devices (microphones included) are designed to pass electrical signals through their circuitry. However, these circuits naturally have a lifespan of their own.
Although I would necessarily call physical trauma “wear,” it does happen from time to time.
It may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning here: physical microphone trauma such as dropping, hitting, submerging in liquid, hot patching, blowing into, and etcetera, will inevitable wear your microphone out faster (if it doesn’t break the microphone right then and there).
Wearing Out Microphone Components
Microphones are made of many smaller components. Some components of microphones will wear before others. Let’s take a look at some components that wear relatively quickly, some that wear more slowly, and some that do not really wear down over any length of time
Microphone Components That Typically Wear First
- Early electret material.
- Ribbon diaphragms.
- Vacuum tubes.
Early Electret Capsules
Electret material is designed to hold a quasi-permanent electric charge (“electret” is a portmanteau of “electric” and “magnet”).
Electret condenser microphones are deigned with thin electret films applied within their capsules (either to the diaphragm or backplate of their parallel-plate capacitor capsule). The electret material provides a “permanent” charge on the capsule and so the microphone does not require external DC voltage to polarize the capsule.
However, over time, electret material will lose its charge. This happens very slowly with modern electret mics, though it happened over the span of a few years with the earliest electret microphones.
Ribbon microphones are cherished for the their accurate pick up and natural sound, especially in the digital age, where audio is so bright and precise.
However, ribbon diaphragms are notoriously fragile. Not only do they break more easily that other diaphragms, but that also wear out faster.
Why is this?
Ribbon diaphragms are incredibly thin. The Coles 4038 (pictured), for example, has a diaphragm only 0.6 microns thick. The thinness combined with the long shape and corrugation make the ribbon diaphragm very fragile.
Ribbon diaphragms can snap due to gusts of wind, strong plosives, physical impact, hot patching phantom power, and even from sharp dust particles in the air.
Ribbon diaphragms, as mentioned, will often sag if stored improperly. They are also prone to corrosion, since they are typically made of aluminum.
It’s also worth noting that the regular use of a ribbon mic will slowly stretch and wear out the diaphragm.
For an in-depth discussion of ribbon microphones, please check out my article Dynamic Ribbon Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.
Vacuum tubes will slowly “burn up” due to tiny amounts of air that leak into the vacuum. Any oxygen that is introduced into a tube will cause it to wear out faster.
On top of this, the friction of the electrons eventually wear out the cathode, anode, and grid of a mic tube.
Fortunately, though, ribbon diaphragms and vacuum tubes are relatively easy (though perhaps expensive) to replace in a microphone. Often times replacing these parts will result in your microphone sounding “good as new.”
Microphone Components That Wear Slowly
- Printed circuit boards.
- Condenser capsules.
- Switches (if applicable).
Printed Circuit Boards
Modern day printed circuit boards (PCBs) are fairly resilient.
PCBs house complex microphone circuitries on a robust surface that is well protected within the microphone. This reduces the risk of any one connection in the microphone’s inner circuitry to disconnecting and improves the longevity of all the electrical components housed within the PCB.
However, humidity and corrosion, as well as general microphone usage, will wear the printed circuit boards of active microphones.
The conductive material in PCBs is sensitive to corrosion, while the electrical components within the PCB are affected by humidity.
Smoke and dust may also affect the performance of a PCB, though the vast majority of microphone PCBs are closed off and protected from airborne dust and smoke.
Condenser capsules will wear out after some time.
Naturally, the movable diaphragm will wear due to repeated mechanical stress. This is a part of the regular use of a mic.
On top of that, though, condenser capsule function by holding a charge between two plates. The capsule is basically a parallel-plate capacitor.
The wearing of a condenser microphone happens very slowly if the microphone is cared for properly. However, the capsule will eventually become less effective as a capacitor. Similarly, the diaphragm will become less efficient at moving in response to changing sound pressure levels.
Depending on the material used in capsule, the wear could be prolonged. For example, early PVC plastic diaphragms (like the Neumann M7 found in U 47s and many other mics) wears faster than most Mylar diaphragms (the standard material for condenser diaphragms today).
For a detailed read on microphone capsules, head over to my article What Is A Microphone Capsule? (Plus Top 3 Most Popular Capsules).
Many microphones come with switchable options and toggle switches to control these options.
Common switchable options in microphones are as follows:
- Polar patterns.
- High-pass filters.
- Passive attenuation devices.
- Other EQ boosts/cuts.
To read more about the above options, I have more in-depth articles. I’ll link them here:
The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.
What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?
What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do?
The switches themselves, whether they be on the microphone itself or on the power supply (common in tube microphones), may wear out during regular use.
The physical toggles prone to wearing, and so are the electronic changes in circuitry and physical movements caused by these toggles.
Microphone Components That Typically Will Not Wear
- Moving-coil diaphragms (and their conductive coils).
The high-quality magnets (often rare-earth neodymium) used in dynamic microphones today hold their magnetic fields for a very, very long time.
Of course, banging these magnets around could cause them to lose some of the magnetization. Although physically abusing a mic like this would likely lead to bigger issues than a slight reduction in the magnetic field of its magnets.
Moving-coil diaphragm, though thin, are very robust.
The weight of the attached coil means these diaphragm move very little when subjected to varying sound pressure.
Under normal conditions, moving-coil mic diaphragms will wear very little over time.
For an in-depth article on moving-coil dynamic microphones, check out my post Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.
Although these passive electronic devices may be sensitive to corrosion, they are generally well protected from the outside environment (within the mic body).
Transformers, when in dry environments, tend not to wear much at all.
For more information on microphone transformers (and the transistors that central to the PCBs mentioned earlier), check out my article Do All Microphones Have Transformers And Transistors? (+ Mic Examples).
The Wear And Tear Of The Microphone’s Outer Shell
The microphone body and the grille of the microphone may be prone to corrosion and are definitely sensitive to the normal wear-and-tear of audio equipment.
That being said, if anything is wear on a mic, the body and grille would be the preferred components. After all, they are there to protect and to hold the more sensitive components together.
For an article that discusses microphone grilles in greater detail, click through to What Are Microphone Grilles And Why Are They Important?
The Wear And Tear Of Microphone Accessories
Mic accessories such as pop filters, mic stands, and mic clips will inevitably experience wear and tear as well.
Try your best to thread any threaded connection properly without forcing anything. This will increase the longevity of your stands, clamps, clips, etc.
For more information on threading properly, check out my article How To Attach A Microphone To A Microphone Stand.
Keeping your pop filters clean and storing them properly when not in use will go a long way in keeping them in good shape.
To read more about mic pop filters, here’s a link to my article What Is A Microphone Pop Filter And When Should You Use One?
Increasing Microphone Longevity
As with any tools or toys, the way you handle and care for your microphones will greatly determine the rate of their wearing out.
Here is a list of ways to slow the wearing of your microphones (some of these points may be obvious, but I figured I’d try to compile a comprehensive list to help increase the longevity of your microphones).
- Do not drop or hit microphones.
- Cover ribbon microphones when transporting them (even if only across the studio room).
- Store microphones safely and stationary if possible.
- Store ribbon microphones standing up to avoid ribbon sag.
- Never hot patch with phantom power on.
- Allow tube microphones to warm up before engaging them.
- Position tube mics up-side-down during longer usage to avoid overheating the diaphragm/capsule.
- Keep microphones at room temperature if possible.
- Keep microphones in dry environments if possible.
- Keep microphones out of smokey or dusty environments if possible.
Can you break a microphone by yelling into it? Mics are very resistant to high sound pressure levels and would not break due to yelling. However, some mic diaphragms (like ribbons) are sensitive to blasts of air like vocal plosives. Although yelling is very unlikely to break a mic, plosives (which are common with yelling) may damage the mic.
Does tapping a microphone damage it? Light tapping on a microphone will not damage it. Mic diaphragms, though incredibly thin, and other components are typically robust enough to handle tapping. Ribbon diaphragms, vacuum tubes, and some PCBs may very well be broken, however, if the microphone is “tapped” too hard or dropped.