– Or: Effective care and feeding of the thing you record with so it doesn’t betray you
Welcome to my microphone maintenance cautionary tale of woe. Weeping and gnashing to teeth. Angst. Insert your favorite frustrating effigy of detriment here.
If you’ve been following me anywhere on the internet of tubes, you’re familiar with the challenge I ran into recently where my primary microphone wonked out. And shortly after shipping it to the manufacturer for repair, my secondary and backup microphone also wonked out for the exact same reason.
YIKES and WOAH.
I’ve been pontificating about backup plans and backup plans to backup plans for the last couple weeks as a result. However, there’s an old saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Which means “do a little bit of stuff now so that you’re not having to do a LOT of stuff later.”
Because the “a lot of stuff” option sounds like work. We’ve already discussed my allergy.
In any event! Onward we discuss the microphone maintenance things that you can do to keep your microphone in working order for longer periods of time. In the case of large diaphragm condenser microphones – one of the more common options for recording singing and voice – the electrostatic potential of the extremely thin plates that capture sound can be completely ruined by the environment it is in. Shotgun microphones – the other voiceover weapon of choice – are less likely to have the same propensity of environmental junk collection but the potential is still there.
(note … to …. self …… never. … use …. the words … shotgun microphone … and …. weapon of choice …. together …. again ……. ever …..)
So! Let’s solve problems!
Proper Care During Usage
We’re going to talk about proper storage of the microphone in just a bit. Why start with proper care during use? It just seems like the right place to start!
I thought about flipping a coin to decide and that felt too much like random fate. In a world of chaos, I get to control this one thing. Just roll with it.
There are some steps that we can take when recording the voice to help prevent junk buildup during use. A few preventive measures that mitigate debris and moisture will save you weeks of downtime heartache down the road. Or rather, weeks of unscheduled downtime. The worst kind. Worse than chicken pox. Or an epic hangover. Some people might think it’s worse than DOMS after an incredible workout but those people are silly heads and need to rethink their life.
Where was I? Oh yeah, proper care! Microphone maintenance! Those two words both start with M! COOL!
Protection from the Misty Dawn
This one is going to come in two forms: environmental humidity and the orifice from which breath and matter is expelled from the confines of your human body. Both of these things can be significant effectors of making our recording devices not want to behave themselves. Continued misbehaving can lead to a long term time out where they go stand in the corner of a repair shop and think about what they’ve done, even though it wasn’t actually their fault! They were FRAMED.
Ahem. Moving onward.
Ach, it’s so humid
(the like …. six of you who remember the 90s probably remember that quote.)
Environmental humidity can be a complicated problem depending on where you live and your regional predilection toward moisture in the air. If you live in the state of Arizona, for example, the likelihood of large-scale humidity is relatively low. With an average humidity level below 50%, unless you try really hard you will not have much of a mold problem. Or moisture accumulation on the diaphragm of a high quality microphone. Compared to Connecticut, as an example, with an average humidity level well above 50%. There are going to be natural problems there.
Except have you ever been in a recording booth for a good solid hour and the window is fogged up by the time you’re finished? The window looks like the mirror in the bathroom after a good long hot shower, except if you’ve been in that environment for an hour you are likely not clean. But also not dry so kinda like a shower. Sauna-esque things are happening in there. All that humidity in the air that has built up on your booth window also has the potential for building up on your microphone!
If you have ever experienced this, please refer to the upcoming section about proper care during storage. It is crucial that any moisture be dealt with during storage to extend the length of time between cleaning needs.
Say it, don’t spray it
Believe it or not, when we speak or sing in the direction of a microphone, we are expelling more than just breath and tone. If the recent global pandemic has taught us anything, we have learned more about particle dispersion where exhaling is concerned than at any other point in our microcosmic history. With that being said, the very same particle dispersion that has the potential for spreading viruses amongst the populace can also spread particulates into the loving embrace of your microphone.
Microphones are agnostic; not only do they believe the universe is innocent until proven guilty, they also capture EVERYTHING without any form of bias. If your face hole is aimed directly at the grill of your microphone without anything acting as a diplomatic neutral-zone between you and it, all of those itty bitty particles are likely going to end up on the recording surface of your mic. Moisture build up can prevent the microphone from properly detecting sound vibrations or worse: create them out of nothing. Microphone maintenance is hampered by spittle, clearly.
The solution? No matter how good your mic technique is, consider putting a pop filter between you and it anyway. The ones that feel like nylon stockings with a couple layers are reportedly the best for this; metal and plastic pop filters prevent plosives from getting through but they are far less effective at preventing the effluent efflux of your mouth setting up shop on the mic.
Protection from the Destructive Deluge of Debris
As with the discussion of moisture just a bit ago, dust and debris have the potential to absolutely ruin the function of a large diaphragm condenser microphone. If the microphone is being used in an environment where there is plenty of dust in the air, the more dust around the stronger the chance of buildup on the plate inside the grill. That alone is cause for concern and should be dealt with ahead of time. Keep your recording environment as free of dust as possible. There are silent electric ion air cleaning devices that you can acquire that will assist with this matter quite easily. Yes, the Sharper Image has a reputation for selling a bunch of wonky stuff. But that thing? Lifesaver.
If you combine the dust potential with an ultra humid recording environment, what ends up happening is moisture on the recording plate builds up and then any dust in the air is going to stick to it like white on rice. Once the humidity has fallen away, the dust is already quite comfortable where it is and isn’t going anywhere without a fight. The best way to solve this potential problem is to make sure that you’re recording in a space that is as dust free as possible. It’s never going to be 100% but it can certainly stand to maybe do better than 20%…
The “Too Long Didn’t Read” version is: keep your studio clean. Get a Swiffer wand or something. Prevent buildup of dust so that it won’t get into the mic.
Proper Care During Storage
If you have a microphone that you use on a fairly regular basis, one of the things you’re not going to want to do is put it away and get it back out Every. Single. Time. You. Need. To. Use. It. We live in a very convenient age and having things right there ready to go is sometimes the difference between finishing a project and having to delay.
Why do I say this? Because -I- am the kind of person who relies on that convenience. I walk out into the studio, activate the screen on the main desktop, load up a DAW session, tweak some filenames, and then jump into the booth and get after it. The sequence missing from that scenario? Opening the box the microphone is contained in. Gently removing it from the confines of said box. Lovingly attaching it to the shock mount. And then recording some goodness.
Why is that missing?
L A Z I N E S S.
Or rather, a misconception of convenience. Because lets take a look at it from a macro level. Imagine the number of minute(s) it takes to remove the microphone from a bag inside of its case and then getting it to the mic stand, attaching the cable, firing up the electronics, and THEN finally recording. When finished, powering things down, removing the cable, detaching the mic, putting it back in its bag and then in the case.
Over the course of time, this adds up! And again; lazy.
So now that I’ve outed myself, it’s time to share the storage tips I have learned straight from the mouth of a significant manufacturer: Lauten Audio. (pronunciation check. please forgive any errors)
Storage methods to avoid dust
The two things that were recommended to me from Lauten Audio are as follows:
- (less effective solution) When not using the microphone actively, envelope it within a cloth covering of some form. This will protect it from environmental dust that may be lingering in the area.
- (more effective solution) Remove the microphone from the stand, place the microphone back in its original cloth bag, then place the microphone in the wooden case it came with.
For the above in step two, you can use whatever the container was provided by the manufacturer. Rode and Sennheiser provide leather-ish bags for their shotgun mics. Those will do. The Stellar X2 and even the Behringer B-2 microphones come with small suitcases for storage. Use them. Protecting the microphone from the ambient environment while you’re not using it is critical to long term preservation of the recording elements.
Storage method to avoid moisture
This method is mentioned second in this list because it is an additional step to the recommended dust-prevention opportunity. You’re already going to be placing your microphone within the confines of its container – hopefully – so on to the next extra step.
You know those silica gel packets that come in everything from packs of beef jerkey, medications, every new electronic toy you receive, etc? Ever wondered what those are for? They absorb moisture like nobody’s business. Where could this come in handy? If you have microphones in their containers and the environment is still relatively humid? Adding some of these silica gel packets inside the containers is going to be super helpful.
Rather than repurposing the ones that come with your food – remind me to tell you the story of how I made a Shure Beta 57a smell like bacon for a few years – you can order them from most places that sell things. Like Amazon. I’m a fan of the ones that can be recharged in the oven rather than single-use versions.
Another suggestion is if you have a room that they are being stored in and the room is consistently humid, invest in a dehumidifier. Turn it off when recording, back on for the other many hours of the day and night when not.. Reducing the humidity level overall in the room will work miracles for microphone longevity.
But probably still use the silica gel packets. Just to be safe.
Proper Care During Cleaning
In a word, don’t.
Addendum: If you’re doing all of the things above during usage and storage, you probably don’t need to consider cleaning steps. Dust and debris will be kept to a minimum. The environment whether humid or dry will not have as much of an impact.
If you’d like to be super crazy intimidated by the large diaphragm condenser microphone cleaning process, hop on over here and get a look at how it’s done. Then after you watch that video, and you’ve had a chance to do some heavy breathing – possibly dry heaving – please contact a professional to get it cleaned. You won’t thank me later because you won’t ever need to be in that position in the first place.
The TLDR to close this out
The reason I’m so hot on this topic is because I was not diligent about this very subject, as implied above. I was lazy, I relied on convenience for perceived faster workflows, and I paid a hefty price for doing so. Which was a heftier price than it needed to be because no matter how carefully I packed the mic on the way down to California, the shipping service still found a way to destroy the original wooden box and put a dent in the top of the mic.
None of the innards were damaged, but that was a close call. Added more labor to the repairs and the box had to be replaced. It all adds up.
Please, for the love of everything that is sacrosanct, take to heart the protective measures outlined above. If you’re a singer, voice actor, recording engineer, podcaster, or hobbyist nature sounds recordist, the microphone is your tool of trade. Downtime could be crippling for a small business, especially if you’re getting started and haven’t had a chance to secure a backup solution!
Heed my words of dire warning: protect your microphone from an environment that is bent on destroying it. You are the last line of defense against the world at large. Rise to the challenge and fend off the effrontery of this planet Earth!
So say we all.
Until next week!
-= george =-