Building an iPad recording studio; Part 4 – Microphones for your iPad studio

finger on a tablet computer screenIn Part 2 of this series on building a multi-track recording studio around an iPad I looked at how you go about getting audio or MIDI data into your iPad. There is a key item of equipment needed to achieve this – an audio interface or a MIDI interface or an interface that combines both audio and MIDI connectivity – and this is something that you would need to budget for (I’ll get back to the issue of budgets later in the series) over and above your iPad and a few apps.

If you do want to add audio to your iOS recordings – and assuming you have a suitable audio interface in mind – you are obviously going to need a microphone or two to go with it. In the world of audio recording, not all mics are created equally. While your iOS device comes with a decent mic already built in, to get the best out of your iPad studio, you really need to consider investing in a microphone designed specifically for multi-track recording purposes. So, what are the key things to look out for in picking a suitable mic?

If you want to get some audio into your iPad recording studio then a mic (or two) needs to be added to your equipment list.

If you want to get some audio into your iPad recording studio then a mic (or two) needs to be added to your equipment list.

Dynamic vs condenser

While there are dozens of different mics you could choose from, the first distinction you need to make is between those with phantom power (often termed condenser microphones) and those without phantom power (often referred to as dynamic microphones).

Condenser microphones tend to be more sensitive (good for picking up low level signals such as delicately picked acoustic guitars) than dynamic mics and, as a consequence, are more often found in recording contexts. Dynamic mics, while they can be used quite happily for recording tasks, tend to be more robust and are more common in a live performance context.

In making a microphone choice, if this microphone is mainly to be used in a recording context, my advice would be to go down the condenser route. However, in order to do that, you need to be sure that whatever audio interface you are planning to use with your iPad has support for phantom power. This allows the interface to supply the small amount of additional power that the microphone needs to operate. In most audio interfaces, the phantom power is ‘switchable’; you can turn it on or off. When switched off, you could, of course, connect a dynamic microphone to the same input.

Condenser details

In thinking about condenser mic selections, there are perhaps three technical details to think about. First, condenser mics come in different sizes and, while this is obviously an issue in terms of their portability (and this might be an important factor in your choice if part of your iPad studio’s remit is to be ultra-mobile), the size usually reflects the size of the components that are sensitive to sound. As a result, condensers are often bracketed into two groups; large diaphragm and small diaphragm.

All other things being equal (and, with microphones, they rarely are), large diaphragm mics are generally used for things like vocals or where a warmer, deeper sound is desirable. Small diaphragm mics are often preferred when you need the mic to respond to fast transient sounds (drums or strings, for example, although dynamic mics are also used on drums and sometimes guitar speaker cabinets because they are often better able to cope with the very high sound levels). Of course, depending upon just how much money you are prepared to pay, you can get a large diaphragm mic that out performs a small diaphragm mic in terms of responsiveness and visa versa… so think of these as general principles rather than hard facts.

Shure's SM57 is a classic dynamic mic and great for use in a live performance context. It is also a popular choice in the studio for snare drums.

Shure’s SM57 is a classic dynamic mic and great for use in a live performance context. It is also a popular choice in the studio for snare drums.

The second thing to consider is what’s known as the polar pattern of the mic. If you want to see a visual representation of this concept, then check out the diagrams on Shure’s website (and maybe check out some of their mics also). The polar pattern essentially refers to the directionality of the mic; how sensitive it is to sounds from different directions. Perhaps the most common polar pattern is the cardioid (heart shaped) pattern, where the microphone is most sensitive to sound from directly in front of it and, to a lesser extend to its sides, but much less sensitive to sound from its rear. This is great when you are recording a point sound source (vocals, acoustic guitar, etc.) as you want the recorded signal to be dominated by that sound source in front of the mic and, as far as possible, to ‘ignore’ any other sound within the recording space.

A mic with a more extreme cardioid pattern – it really concentrates on the sound from the front – is often termed a super- or hyper-cardioid microphone. These mics are very directional and, while in some respects that can be a good thing, it also means that they are very sensitive to exact positioning. Put one of these in front of a vocalist who likes to move their head around a little bit while singing and you may find that they move in and out of the mic’s sweet spot and this becomes noticeable in the audio recording made.

Dynamic mic are generally made for live use and can be hand-held without too many problems. Condenser mics, however, are best used with a mic stand in the studio to avoid handling noise appearing in your recordings.

Dynamic mic are generally made for live use and can be hand-held without too many problems. Condenser mics, however, are best used with a mic stand in the studio to avoid handling noise appearing in your recordings.

The two other common polar patterns are omnidirectional (detects sound equally in all directions) and figure-8 (detects sound equally from the front and back but rejects sound from the sides). These all have their specific uses in a recording context but, if this is to be your first ‘proper’ recording mic, and you are looking to recording vocals or acoustic guitars, a cardioid polar pattern is probably the best place to start.

Do note, however, that some mics have switchable polar patterns. This is usually activated via small toggle switches built into the mic itself. Unless you know you have specific needs for different polar patterns though, don’t worry too much about looking for mics with this feature. If you really get the recording bug, there will be plenty to tempt you later to expand your microphone collection.

The third technical detail concerns the connectivity of the mic. Traditional studio mics have an XLR (a connector with three pins) socket and you need a suitable cable to run from that to another XLR socket on your audio interface. Sometimes, the input sockets on the audio interface are ‘combi’ jacks; they can take either an XLR jack or a standard 1/4” jack (the iRig PRO features one of these). Anyway, make sure you buy an appropriate cable for your mic based upon the connections you need to make between the mic and the audio inputs on your interface.

The iRig PRO features a 'combi' XLR jack; it will take a 1/4" instrument cable but also an XLR connector from a phantom powered condenser microphone.

The iRig PRO features a ‘combi’ XLR jack; it will take a 1/4″ instrument cable but also an XLR connector from a phantom powered condenser microphone.

Of course, with lots of recording studios now built around computers, some mic manufacturers are bypassing the need for a dedicated audio interface and producing condenser (phantom powered) microphones that feature USB connectivity. Some of these will work with an iPad if used with either the CCK or the Lightning-to-USB connector. Some of these then draw their power from the iPad itself (or perhaps from a batter. However, before making a purchase, do check compatibility with iOS as not all USB mics support this option as yet.

Another ‘direct-connection’ option is to use a mic specifically built to connect to the iPad’s docking port. These are generally supplied with 30-pin or Lightning cables. This is a fairly new product area, however, so there isn’t a huge choice as yet… but there are a couple of decent contenders and I’ll mention these later.

Starter mics options

So what about some budget condenser microphone options? While you can spend mega-bucks on top-quality microphones, these days even some of the budget mics can offer reasonable audio quality and, if you have spent under UK£100 on your audio interface, you probably wouldn’t get to really hear the benefit from a UK£500 microphone. So, unless your budget is relaxed and your ambitions lofty, let’s assume we need to start more towards the budget end of the price spectrum to match a mic with a typical ‘first audio interface’ as discussed in Part 2 of this series.

Behringer's C-3 microphone; performance is solid at a budget price.

Behringer’s C-3 microphone; performance is solid at a budget price.

You can pick up a basic condenser mic for around the UK£40 mark. For example, Behringer’s C-series condenser mics start at about UK£40 (and, for example, the C-3 at about UK£50) and Samson have some equally respectable budget offerings such as the C03 (at UK£65). Both of these manufacturers make a wide range of audio equipment and, while they also make more expensive mics, these particular models manage to achieve a pretty good performance given their price.

However, if you can stretch a little further, then things get even better and, once you get above UK£100 you are a little spoilt for choice. In this price range, with manufacturers such as Behringer, Samson, SE Electronics, Audio Technica and AKG you won’t go far wrong. Do watch out though as some of the budget-end mics are offered in two versions; one with a traditional mic connection and one that is USB-based for direct connection to a computer. Make sure you pick the right connectivity for your needs.

For example, a solid choice at around the UK£80 mark is the Audio Technica AT2020. I bought one of these myself specifically for use with my iPad-based studio but I’ve happily put it to good use with my desktop system. It is a cardioid pattern condenser mic and, while not tiny in size, it is relatively light and easily portable. I’ve found it works pretty well with routine vocal and acoustic guitar recoding tasks. Audio Technica also make an identical model with USB connectivity although this is a bit more expensive (c.UK£120).

The Audio Technica AT2020; I've used one of these in my own studio and been surprised by just how ell it performs given the very modest price.

The Audio Technica AT2020; I’ve used one of these in my own studio and been surprised by just how ell it performs given the very modest price.

Another large diaphragm cardioid condenser option might be the AKG Perception 220. I’ve a soft spot for AKG mics (I’ve got a quite nice valve-based mic made by AKG that has given me good service for a number of years) and the 220 is a workmanlike and robust product that would do a very decent job. SE Electronics X1 (at UK£115) would be another solid choice although, again, be aware that there is a USB version of the same mic so make sure you identify the required version.

Until the market matures a little, I think I’ll avoid making any recommendations for a USB mic but, for our third type of connectivity – those mics that are ‘built for iPad’, there are a couple of decent choices. Priced at around UK£85, you could go for the IK Multimedia iRig HD. This is an updated model of the original iRig Mic and it is supplied with both Lightning and USB cables (a 30-pin dock cable is sold separately). It is a condenser mic but it is also designed to be hand-held as well as used with a mic stand. If you need a single mic to do double duty – live and studio – this might be a suitable compromise until you want to move upmarket.

However, it you are happy to stretch the budget a little further, then you could do a lot worse than the Apogee MiC 96k. This is priced at around the UK£180 mark but it is a fabulous bit of kit if you need a direct connection to your iPad rather than going via an audio interface. It is beautifully designed, ultra-compact (so it would make an excellent travel companion) and sounds very good indeed. This really is a rather cool piece of kit….  but if you know you need the flexibility of something like a 2-in/2-out audio interface with traditional XLR connectivity, perhaps would be the best starting point. As a top-notch solution for a studio on the move (where it removes the need to carry an audio interface as a well), then it works brilliantly.

The Apogee Mic 96k; not the cheapest 'direct connect' option but this is a classy performer and very portable.

The Apogee MiC 96k; not the cheapest ‘direct connect’ option but this is a classy performer and very portable.

Stand and deliver

You will, of course, also need to ensure you have the necessary cables to connect your microphone to your audio interface. As mentioned earlier, for condenser mics, at the audio interface end, you will usually find an XLR connector with three pins rather than a more ‘guitar jack’ ¼” connector. You will, therefore, need a suitable cable that connects to your microphone at one end and has an XRL connector at the other. Many mics are supplied with a suitable cable but it is worth checking.

Finally on the microphone front, two other accessories are worth purchasing. First, a decent mic stand is a good investment. While you can hand-hold a condenser mic while recording vocals, budget mics tend to suffer from handling noise. In addition, a flexible boom-arm mic stand is much easier to position when recording acoustic instruments such as guitars or even guitar amplifiers. Prices start from UK£20 although more money will generally get you better quality.

A pop-filter can be a very useful accessory when recording vocals.

A pop-filter can be a very useful accessory when recording vocals.

Second, if you intend to record vocals, a pop-shield (or pop-filter) is a good idea. This little device clips you your mic stand and can be positioned between the mic and the singer just a few inches in front of the mic. As the singer performs, while sound travels clearly through the filter, the filter does help to reduce any plosive sounds (words beginning with ‘p’ can be a particular problem) and helps to reduce the likelihood of these resulting in a popping sound on the recording as the mic gets blasted with a sudden pulse of air.

You can rig one of these up with a wire coat hanger and an old pair of tights but if you really want to look the part, something like the AKG PF80 pop screen (about UK£50) would get the job done. There are other ‘non-brand’ versions of the same thing for something like half this price.

One-two, one-two

There is one further point worth making before I move on….  While buying one mic is the obvious starting point, at some stage you might well find you need to add to this. This might, for example, be because you need to record two different musicians at the same time or perhaps you want to record both your vocal and acoustic guitar performed together. In these cases, you will obviously need at least two mics to get the job done properly.

Rode's M5 matched pair microphones in an X-Y configuration to record a stereo signal from an acoustic guitar.

Rode’s M5 matched pair microphones in an X-Y configuration to record a stereo signal from an acoustic guitar.

However, it might also be that you want to make a stereo recording. For example, it is quite common to record acoustic guitars or pianos using two microphones and then to pan the two resulting audio tracks left/right to recreate a sense of stereo for the listener. While you can use two different models of microphone for this kind of task, the process is generally easier if you have a ‘matched pair’ of mics – essentially two mics of the same model – as their tonal characteristics will be identical (or close to identical).

If this is something you do eventually want to explore then the best bet is to actually look for a pair of mics sold specifically for that purpose as a matched pair. There are good examples of these around at all sorts of different prices but, while not the very cheapest pair you could find, the Rode M5 – at UK£145 for the pair – wouldn’t be a bad place to start. These are small diaphragm cardioid condensers and would do a perfectly good job on an acoustic guitar or piano. Make sure you also budget for the necessary mic stands and cables though….

So we have the mic sorted...  but how do we listen to what we are recording? Monitoring systems will be the topic in Part 5 of the series....

So we have the mic sorted… but how do we listen to what we are recording? Monitoring systems will be the topic in Part 5 of the series….

Can you hear me?

So, with some ideas for initial microphone selection in place, we now have some possibilities that will allow us to capture audio into our iPad recording studio. There is, however, another very important part of the audio signal chain we still have to consider; getting the audio out again so we can hear what we are recording.

That means we need to consider our monitoring system – headphones and speakers – and that will be the subject of Part 5 of the series.

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    Comments

    1. Thank you for such a detailed posts – it is very interesting to understand how this ipad recording app is developed and works from inside! Wish there were such stories about other apps I sue

    2. Angel José says:

      After successfully testing my dynamics and tube mic using Apogee’s Jam with an impedance matching transformer to use in the studio, I added Apogee’s MiC to use on the go and it is versatile enough to be my main mic.

      Still, I enjoy the flexibility of having more mics available when needed.

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