Microphone Care

It’s true. Almost more than true: Many of today’s microphones can really take a licking and keep on ticking. But, surprise, surprise, they’re still vulnerable to damage and failure. Investing a little more time and effort in the care of your microphones can help them live a longer, better sounding life. So if you’re involved in setting up microphones for recording sessions? Yeah, you should keep these tips in mind.

Start by mounting your microphone securely. Select a mic stand that can handle the microphone’s weight. A good rule of thumb is to behave as if the mic is 10 times heavier than it actually is. Double-check movable parts like booms and telescoping extensions to make sure they’re tight and immobile. I like to weigh down the base of mic stands to help prevent tip-over. Objects like sandbags (or even those old barbells you never use anymore) are great for this application. Make sure the microphone’s own mounting clip or shock mount is in good shape and securely mounted to its stand. While “quick release” clips are popular, I’d rather spend the extra 30 seconds to thread my mic clip to the stand. Perhaps the cause of this was witnessing a poorly mounted AKG C414 fall 10 feet from a boom stand onto concrete, thanks to a worn quick-release clip. (Kudos to AKG: the mic survived with only a dented grille.)

Microphone cables can also be a safety measure — though you shouldn’t rely on them too much. A couple of loops of mic cable around a boom stand (not too tight) may be the only thing between your mic and the floor if something comes loose.

The XLR-type connection most microphones use employs a small clip, which secures the connection. Because these can wear out over time, be sure that your XLR cables still have this clip mechanism in place and that it works. Without these clips, mics can easily fall away from their lifeline. When connecting and disconnecting microphones with XLR connectors, use extra care to completely depress this clip before pulling the cable and mic apart. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but rushing and tugging through a simple process like this can slowly loosen the microphone’s XLR connection. I’ve seen the “guts” of more than one mic yanked right out by their XLR connections.

Phantom power (48-volt DC) is another factor to consider when connecting and disconnecting microphones. While many dynamic mics can tolerate DC current, phantom power should only be applied to condenser microphones that don’t have their own power supply. When possible apply phantom power only after a condenser mic has been properly connected. Ribbon mics can be particularly vulnerable to damage from phantom power so this combination should be avoided.

Moisture can threaten the life and quality of a microphone. The most common cause of moisture accumulating on microphones is — you guessed it — people. Every time we breathe out, water vapor is released from our lungs. Add the act of singing or speaking, and tiny droplets of fluid can be included. Over a prolonged period of time, these tiny amounts can add up. Even with built-in screens, some of this moisture can make it onto the microphone’s main transducer. The mere presence of moisture can cause a gradual decline in sound quality. There’s also the possibility of microbes like mold and mildew growing on the element. Various forms of protection can be applied. Consider using windscreens around microphones (some users report that these can compromise tonal quality — judge for yourself). Although they’re designed for a different reason, nylon pop-filters can also help deflect moisture. To further reduce accumulation of moisture, store your microphones in a dry environment.

On the subject of storage, consider how and where you’re storing your microphones. Designate a place where all your mics can be placed at the end of the day. While Fort Knox would be nice, a sturdy road case or cabinet will do just as well. The best packaging for your mic is usually the box it came in.

Another cause of mic damage? Musicians. In studio, musicians often focus squarely on making great music. As a result, the ever-present microphone gets forgotten. Show musicians where microphones are (even if they’re, and this is important, in clear sight) to help their spatial memory and blast through possibly years of aggressive mic abuse habits. If they’re not already seasoned musicians, offer them a little tutorial on how to handle and treat microphones. Encourage vocalists to avoid grabbing microphones or stands while performing. While positioning is critical, be conscious of how musicians interact with their instruments. For example, watch a drummer play to see where he or she most commonly strikes, then try to position mics where they’re least like to get whacked by a stick.

While these tips are useful, also be sure to check the documentation for your microphone for the manufacturer’s recommendation on care. Take just a little extra time when handling your microphones. After all, they’re both a monetary and a sonic investment.