Electret microphones Pt 1- General

After starting my recent piezo project, I decided to look into electret microphones – there are many situations in which a piezo-type contact mic is less suitable than a mic which detects sounds in the air.

Electret capsules are very cheap, and need just a few additional components to get them to work.  I bought a number of these for about 10p – 11p each:

It’s possible to get them without any wires – long or short – attached, but I preferred these.  The smaller ones, illustrated at the top, were very small – 4mm in diameter; the larger ones were 10mm.  I also bought a few that were in between, at 6.5mm.

Most people working in electronic music will be aware of the importance of microphones, and  I have some quite expensive ones for different amplifying and recording purposes; but there are various situations in which a very low-cost method of picking up and amplifying sometimes quite small sounds can be all that’s needed.

One renowned electronic music composer for whom the microphone became extremely important for a time was Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In summer 1964, Stockhausen said, ‘I searched for ways to compose – flexibly – also the process of microphone recording. The microphone, used until now as a rigid, passive recording device to reproduce sounds as faithfully as possible, would have to become a musical instrument and, on the other hand, through its manipulation, influence ALL the characteristics of the sounds . . .’

At the same time, he had been experimenting with a large tam-tam (a percussion instrument very similar to a gong), ‘using a great variety of implements – of glass, cardboard, metal, wood, rubber, plastic – which I had collected from around the house.’

‘One day’, he continues, ‘I took some equipment from the WDR Studio for Electronic Music home with me. My collaborator Jaap Spek helped me. I played on the tam-tam with every possible utensil and during this, moved the microphone above the surface of the tam-tam. The microphone was connected to an electrical filter whose output was connected to a volume control (potentiometer), and this in turn, was connected to amplifier and loudspeaker. During this, Jaap Spek changed the filter settings and dynamic levels, improvising. At the same time, we recorded the result on tape.

‘The tape recording of this first microphony experiment constitutes for me a discovery of utmost importance . . . Actually, this moment was the genesis of a live electronic music with unconventional music instruments. On the basis of this experiment I then wrote the score of Mikrophonie I. Two players excite the tam-tam using a great variety of implements, two further players scan the tam-tam with microphones . . . Two further players – seated in the auditorium at the left and right of the middle – each operate an electrical filter and two potentiometers. They, in turn, reshape the timbre and pitch . . . dynamic level and spatial effect . . . and the rhythm of the structures . . .’

The score includes instructions for the placing and movement of the microphones, just as it includes instructions for the tam-tam players and the filter operators, so the microphones can be regarded as essential instruments in the performance of the piece.

One of the interesting features of the use of microphones in the piece is, as Stockhausen wrote: ‘normally inaudible vibrations (of a tam-tam) are made audible by an active process of listening into [them with a microphone].’ The reviewer Albrecht Moritz (http://home.earthlink.net/~almoritz/mikrophonie1.htm) states: ‘There are several passages in Mikrophonie I where this process is exclusively employed, foregoing stronger excitement of the tam-tam which would produce the commonly heard sounds. A result is that, if you would play back these passages to persons whom you would leave in the dark about the source of the sounds, probably most or even all of those listeners – including musicians – would not be able to guess it.’

Elsewhere Moritz says that ‘the audibility of most sounds that are created on the tam-tam in Mikrophonie I appears to strictly depend on the microphonic amplification. Among these are scratching noises, produced by treating the surface with not only metallic, but also other kinds of objects. Strangely “rolling” sounds can be generated on the surface, sounds evocative of rustling of silver paper, and many other astounding sounds . . . Quite frequently there are dark, roaring, sometimes growling, yet in volume often rather soft, undercurrents of sound that appear to stem from only local resonances of the tam-tam plate, generated by gentle use of a beater or as a result of other treatment, a sound phenomenon most likely audible only because of microphonic amplification as well.’


These electret capsules won’t work, however, just by connecting them to a mixer or amplifier – they have a small built-in preamp inside them which needs power to operate it.  This means the positive lead to the capsule must have a few volts of power running to it – 3v to 9v, typically – for the capsule to work.   An interesting article on this topic can be found at http://www.epanorama.net/circuits/microphone_powering.html.

The minimum circuitry required to get a sound from the capsule is this:

Using a prototype of this circuit with the Taurus amplifier, the level of the signal was perfectly good enough without any additional circuitry.

Sometimes, however, more output is needed, and I found a suitable circuit which was simple but effective at http://www.instructables.com/id/Pre-amp-to-electret-mic/.  It was based on a single transistor, a 2N3904, obtainable at less than 5p each by buying a bag of 50, plus 3 resistors and 2 capacitors.   The circuit for one channel looked like this:

I made up a batch of them all at the same time on a spare piece of veroboard.  These 12 circuits cost no more than about £2 – £2.50 altogether.

I took some of these and made up some stereo circuits, adding an output socket, 9v battery clip and volume control pot to each one:

With this I was able to experiment with different microphone combinations. No other components were needed, except the electret capsules themselves.  In some cases I connected the two wires from the capsule directly to input and ground on the board, at other times I attached input sockets.

In all cases I was surprised at the quality of the sound I was able to get for such a low cost.  The circuit also worked with the piezo mics/pickups I had made earlier, although the output didn’t seem to have as much lower frequency content.

In the next article in the series I’ll describe some of the practical applications for which I used these electrets.




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