Microphones are a staple tool within the music industry. They amplify voices, record instruments, and make it possible to combine different sounds into one song. But even though microphones are essential in producing music, are they considered actual instruments?
Is a microphone considered a musical instrument? Technically, microphones are not musical instruments; they are transducers. Transducers refer to any appliance that converts the input into electrical currents; in the case of a microphone, the sound is the input being converted. However, some believe the microphone is an instrument based on its looser definitions.
In today’s musical world, the definition of what constitutes a musical instrument is more flexible. Microphones could become musical instruments depending on what kind they are and how they are being used. Let’s look into all the different ways microphones can be used to blur the line between musical tools and musical instruments.
For in-depth discussions on microphones, check out my articles:
• What Is A Microphone? (Mic Types, Examples, And Pictures)
• How Do Microphones Work? (The Ultimate Illustrated Guide)
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Is A Microphone A Type Of Musical Instrument?
Anything could “technically” become a musical instrument as long as it emits a sound. Knuckles tapping on a door, a creaking chair, or a barking dog can all be considered instruments by this definition.
Consequently, a microphone makes and magnifies sound. Therefore, it can easily be labelled as a type of musical instrument.
However, if you want to be truly technical about it, a microphone started as a transducer, not as a tool for music itself. In other words, although the microphone may be considered a musical instrument today, that was not what it was primarily invented for.
So, how did the microphone come to be? When did it transform from a technical tool into a fundamental part of the recording and performance of music?
The Original Purpose Of A Microphone
If we are going to delve into the varying ways in which a microphone can be used, then it is necessary to learn what it was originally used for.
Microphones were invented as a way to magnify the volume of sounds while transmitting them simultaneously. They were developed to convert sound waves (mechanical wave energy) into audio signals (electrical energy).
Related article: What Is The Difference Between Sound And Audio?
The inventor of the telegraph, “Sir Charles Wheatstone, was one of the early scientists to figure out that sound is transmitted through waves within a medium,” which, in turn, led to the invention of the very first microphone.
The basis of its invention proves that the microphone’s original purpose was rooted in the science of sound transference instead of music.
When the microphone was first invented, it was mostly utilized to advance telephone technology. The microphone has gone through many iterations and modifications and has expanded its possibilities over the years.
To learn more about the history of the microphone, check out my article Mic History: Who Invented Each Type Of Microphone And When?
How Microphones Are Used Today
Today, the microphone is used in many everyday settings. They are attached to podiums in lecture halls to make it easier for students seated in the back to hear the professor.
They can be minimized and fastened to musician’s faces to perform more dynamic choreography on the stage. They are even installed in our phones to record our voices and listen to others speak in real-time despite being miles away.
Also, technology is constantly advancing and improving, with the microphone being no exception. Musical artists and producers have also become increasingly creative with the methods and techniques they utilize with microphones.
Because of this concurrent development, both sound as a concept and music as a genre are expanding exponentially.
When Can Microphones Be Considered Instruments?
Microphones can be considered instruments when connected to other instruments and add a filter or effect to the original recorded sound.
For example, if the microphone is routed to a Vocaloid, it would technically be an instrument. A Vocaloid is software that can put words to an automated melody and voice with just a few clicks on a keyboard.
In fact, there are sold-out concerts for these Vocaloid artists. Despite there not being an actual person behind Vocaloid voices, companies and labels will usually formulate whatever image they want to pair with the AI.
In Japan, these Vocaloids can even be projected as holograms onto the stage so the audience can get the full experience.
That being said, it can be argued that, in the case of the Vocaloid, for example, the software is the “instrument,” and the microphone still acts solely as the transducer that feeds into the instrument.
Although the ability to meld a computer into any type of artist you could possibly want is convenient, this also brings into the debate whether or not computerized musical programming counts as an instrument.
There are sound libraries within the music editing software programs available today. Users can choose from thousands of premade loops and instruments to add to their songs in countless combinations. This accessibility and range of tools at people’s fingertips make it simple for more people to make music.
I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying there's no strict answer.
Microphones That Are Used In Music
Within the world of audio and sound recording, music is most likely the first industry that comes to people’s minds when thinking of the functions of a microphone. There are several different types of microphones with specific factors they specialize in.
What makes them different from each other? Which one is the best pairing for certain instruments?
Dynamic microphones are often preferred when capturing louder, more powerful sounds that ordinary microphones are usually overwhelmed by. Instruments like drums and bass go well with dynamic microphones.
What is a dynamic microphone? A dynamic microphone converts sound to audio via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a cartridge/element with a conductive coil attached to a movable diaphragm that vibrates within a magnetic structure. The diaphragm movement causes a coinciding audio signal to be produced.
To learn more about dynamic microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• The Complete Guide To Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones
• What Is A Dynamic Microphone? (Detailed Definition + Examples)
• Top 11 Best Dynamic Microphones On The Market
The Shure SM57 is a well-known dynamic microphone.
The SM57 is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocals
Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
What is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone? A large-diaphragm condenser microphone generally has a diaphragm diameter greater than 1″. LDCs are often quieter and have more character than their small-diaphragm counterparts.
These types of microphones are typically found in recording booths in the studio. They are great for capturing vocals and creating higher-quality sounds due to their increased sensitivity. Moreover, this microphone is very diverse and can be used for pretty much anything when placed at the center of a recording session.
This type of microphone is also a good fit for certain drums. Their delicate nature makes it easier to decrease the popping mentioned in the previous section.
To learn more about large-diaphragm condenser microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Large-Diaphragm Vs. Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
• 11 Best Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $1000
• 12 Best Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $500
The Neumann TLM 102 is a well-known large-diaphragm condenser microphone.
The TLM 102 is one of My New Microphone's Top 12 Best Microphones Under $1,000 for Recording Vocals.
Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
What is a small-diaphragm condenser microphone? A small-diaphragm condenser microphone generally has a diaphragm diameter under 1/2″. SDCs typically benefit from more accurate/consistent frequency, transient, and polar responses over their large-diaphragm counterparts.
Small diaphragm condenser microphones are just like the microphone mentioned above but in a smaller form. Rather than vocals, these microphones are best when used to record acoustic instruments. They are great for curating that raw, real sound of emotional ballads with very few instruments and a singular voice. If you enjoy the echoey sound your bathroom provides, then this is the microphone for you.
An even smaller version of this microphone can be attached directly to instruments for optimal sound quality. Some examples of suitable instruments for this kind of microphone are violins, cellos, trumpets, saxophones, and cymbals.
To learn more about small-diaphragm condenser microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Large-Diaphragm Vs. Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
• 11 Best Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $500
The AKG C 451 B is a well-known small-diaphragm condenser.
The C 451 B is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top 11 Best Solid-State/FET Condenser Microphones
• Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones)
What is a ribbon microphone? A ribbon microphone has a thin, often corrugated, electrically conductive ribbon-like diaphragm and acts as a transducer, converting sound waves into audio signals. Ribbon mics work on the principle of electromagnetic induction, making them “dynamic” just like their moving-coil counterparts.
Out of all the microphones previously listed, ribbon microphones are the most sensitive. This is because of the way they are structured. Ribbon microphones got their name because there is an extremely fine strand of electrically conductive material suspended between the poles of a magnet to generate their signal”.
The fragility and bidirectional polar pattern of ribbon microphones make them most suitable for recording two sounds simultaneously. Some ideal examples would be recording two vocalists on one track or making a song with a singer who plays an instrument at the same time.
To learn more about ribbon microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• The Complete Guide To Ribbon Microphones (With Mic Examples)
• Top 12 Best Passive Ribbon Microphones On The Market
• Top 11 Best Active Ribbon Microphones On The Market
The Royer R-121 is a well-known ribbon microphone.
The R-121 is one of My New Microphone's 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones) and is featured in the Top 12 Best Passive Ribbon Microphones On The Market article.
Because the definition of what makes something an instrument is getting blurred, the lines of what makes a musician a musician are also becoming smudged.
Is a microphone really an instrument if it isn’t producing the sound itself? Can a musician be considered a musician if they aren’t playing those instruments themselves?
Ultimately, the answer to this loaded question lies within the opinions of the people who regularly consume music.
What genre of music do most people listen to? How are the most popular songs of today produced?
The fact of the matter is that the majority of today’s popular music is produced using sound editing programs and computer software.
It is rare to find songs played all the way through by real-life people and instruments nowadays. However, there is a certain instrumental piece of equipment that all music needs to be made: the microphone.
Why are microphones called microphones? The term ‘microphone’ can be broken into ‘micro’ and ‘phone.’ Micro (from Greek mikros) means “small,” and phone (from Greek phone) means “sound” or “voice.” Microphone translates to “small sound,” which is accurate, as the microphone deals with small audio signals.
Related article: Why Are Microphones Called Microphones?
Does a microphone change your voice? Microphones, like all audio equipment, will alter the sound of your voice. Some microphones capture voice more accurately than others, but all do alter sound in one way or another. On top of that, how you hear your own voice is different from how your voice actually sounds.
Related article: Does A Microphone Change Your Voice? (Natural Hearing Vs. Playback)
Choosing the right microphone(s) for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Microphone Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next microphone purchase.