Evolution of the microphone – how did sound recording come about?

In 1665, the English physicist Robert Hooke created the most primitive “microphone” from a string and two cups. If tomorrow all the microphones suddenly go out of order, there will be no more phone, skype, YouTube, TV, radio and music, and the whole movie will again become mute. How did the world come to this dependence on microphones, how did they develop, and what will happen next?

First prototypes

1861 German physicist Johann Philip Ries invents the sound transmitter.
In it, a metal needle fixed to the membrane touched the second contact, closing the circuit when vibrating from sound waves. A little later, the American inventor Elisha Gray created a liquid transmitter. In it, a diaphragm was attached to a movable needle immersed in an acidic solution. The needle made contact with a conductive contact, vibrations from the soundchanged the resistance in the circuit, and the sound waves were converted into electricity.

In 1876, Alexander Bell creates a similar device and speaks into it the first words on the telephone he had just invented. A year later, the inventor of the gramophone, Emil Berliner, refined the design, making the sound stronger and clearer. Berliner is considered the father of the first microphone. By the way, Bell bought out his patent and got a job at his Bell Telephone Company as a chief telephone engineer.

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1878 David Edward Hughes created the carbon microphone.
In it, graphite dust, sandwiched between two membranes, changed the resistance of the circuit under the influence of vibrations from sound waves. Hughes also defined the word “microphone” in his own way: he put a can of beetles on his device, their rustling amplified by a primitive amplifier. Newspapers wrote that a microphone works with sound in the same way as a microscope works with light.

The newest device did not have perfect sound; by modern standards, it caught a lot of noise and a lot of distortion. Thomas Edison modified the carbon microphone by using graphite pellets instead of dust. Due to its simplicity, the device turned out to be extremely reliable and found the widest application from telephones to radios and electrophonographs, which appeared later. Carbon microphones were installed in stationary telephones until the 70s and 80s of the last century.

The era of radio
1916 – an employee of Bell Laboratories, inventor E.S. Wente invented a prototype of a condenser microphone.
The new device, like the old ones, used two membranes, but instead of graphite granules, there was a void between them. Thus, a capacitor was obtained. The moving membrane, due to vibrations from sound waves, changed the capacitance of the capacitor, and, therefore, the voltage of the electricity passing through it. So far, this has only been a prototype. The first truly commercially successful condenser microphone, the Neumann CMV3 (nicknamed the bottle for its shape), was created in 1928 by Georg Neumann, the founder of the company of the same name. Condenser microphones sound very clean and are widely used for recording vocals and acoustic instruments.

1924 German scientists Walter Stootky and Erwin Gerlach invented the prototype of the ribbon microphone.
In it, a conductive tape, vibrating in a magnetic field, acts like a diaphragm and generates a small electrical signal, which is then amplified many times over. A few years later, sufficiently powerful magnets appeared that allowed the invention to become commercially successful. RCA produces tape PB-31 and PB-17 for radio broadcasting. Ribbon microphones are still used today in recording studios.

1931 Western Electric introduces the first dynamic microphone.
It is named 618 Electrodynamic Transmitter. The inventors Edward Wente and Albert Turas attach a coil of the finest wire to a polystyrene diaphragm. Together with the diaphragm, it vibrates in the magnetic field of an ornate magnet. Electricity is generated in the coil by electromagnetic induction. Dynamic microphones have become an important part of sound recording. Models like the Shure SM57 and SM58 have become iconic among guitarists and vocalists around the world for their excellent sound and reliability bordering on indestructibility.
1941 – RCA engineer Harry Olson received a patent for a shotgun microphone.
Such devices are elongated and look like a long tube. Half of this tube is the microphone itself, the other half is a special mesh that prevents sound from penetrating from the sides of the device. This creates an extremely narrow-beam microphone that picks up sound in the small area it is aimed at. The design has found great application in film and television.

The era of the transistor

1957 engineer Raimond Litke receives a patent for the first wireless microphone.
It is designed for TV, radio and live performances. The first prototypes appeared a little earlier: Shure introduced its Vagabond 88 wireless microphone model 5 years earlier, and Sennheiser released its Microport at the same time as Litke.

In stores: in 22 stores
1964 Bell Laboratories researchers James West and Gerhard Sessler receive a patent for an electret microphone.

In principle, the device is similar to a condenser microphone, but the fixed diaphragm is made of an electret material and holds the required fixed charge between the plates. This means that, unlike condenser microphones, the new product does not need additional power. The first prototypes were created at the beginning of the century by the Japanese scientist Yoguchi. True, at the beginning of the century there were no electret materials capable of holding a charge for a long time, but by 1964 this invention was completely changing the world of acoustics. An electret microphone picks up sound quite accurately and accurately, while being small and costing a penny. Almost every low-cost microphone on the market today is electret. More than a billion such devices are produced annually.

1966 The first commercial microphone with + 48V phantom power is released.
The standard was developed by Neumann and NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation). Prior to this, condenser microphones were connected using special cords to a preamplifier that supplied their radio circuits with electricity and amplified the signal. Now it is possible to connect microphones with a standard XLR cable, making it easier to connect in studios and on stage. Neumann immediately launched the world’s first phantom-powered microphone, the KM 84 .

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1973 Neumann introduces the KU80 binaural microphone head dummy.
It’s hard to imagine, but until the 60s, most recordings were made in mono, and even with the advent of stereo recording, things did not change until the 70s. When the public realized the virtues of stereo, there was an interest in binaural audio as well . To record it, you need an artificial head with microphones in your ears, so that the recorded sound reflects from it and behaves in the auricles in the same way as it happens with the average person. The result can be appreciated only with headphones, so interest in this type of sound recording has arisen only recently, along with the fact that headphones have become the number one way of listening to audio. Today, you can find many binaural recordings on YouTube, from city walks to ASMR .

1983 Sennheiser invents the first MKE 40 clip-on lavalier microphone.
It is attached to clothes and, due to its narrow focus, catches few extraneous sounds, therefore it immediately wins recognition among journalists, actors and musicians.

As in the case of the electret model, MEMS was invented long before it appeared on the market – in 1983, engineers D. Hom and G. Sessler. These are miniature microphones the size of a radio element on a printed circuit board. Moreover, the device contains not only a membrane, but also a preamplifier with an analog-to-digital converter, so it can immediately output sound in zeros and ones. This module is widely used in modern gadgets.

2003 – the first studio digital microphone Neumann Solution-D D-01 on the market.
It independently converts sound to digital, resulting in less spurious noise and a wider dynamic range. Digital microphones rushed to take over the world and moved from studio to consumer over the next decade. Modern USB microphones record high quality voice or acoustic instrument with a minimum of effort and cost.2016 – Sennheiser launches a microphone for recording 360-degree audio in Ambisonic format – Ambeo VR Mic.
Similar microphones from other manufacturers also appear – Rode NT-SF, Zoom H3-VR and so on. They record audio in four directions, that is, two more vertical channels are added to normal stereo. What’s even more interesting, these microphones come with a plug-in that allows you to set the direction of the sound during processing – just like when shooting 360-degree videos. Plus, with one click, you can set any audio format in post-production from stereo to 9.1, which is incredibly useful for movies and games, especially in VR.

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The market for studio microphones for the music industry is very conservative, each iconic model has its own character, scope and remains relevant forever. Therefore, modern artists can record in authentic Telefunken U47 from the fifties. New iconic models rarely appear, because it is difficult to do something radically new in a rather simple design of such devices.

At the same time, the film and game industry, and even video blogging, are actively adopting new technologies and experimenting with 3D audio. Therefore, in recent years, there are many new products for binaural recording and 360-degree audio.