Pop Vocals-Microphone Technology and Performance Practice

The Invention of the Microphone: Before and After

To hear the sonic affect of the microphone, compare these transfers from phonograph records of the 1920s. The two recordings below feature the same vocalists, but the first is an all-acoustic recording, and the second makes use of a microphone.

Carbon Microphone: Whispering Singers

The invention of the microphone made possible a type of vocal performance that wouldn’t be effective in a live, all-acoustic performance, leading to a new type of pop vocalist: the whispering singer.

Ribbon Microphone: Crooners

Ribbons offered an exaggeration of low frequencies with a gentle roll-off of the high frequencies. A singer with good control of their dynamics and breathing and good awareness of their distance from the microphone, could sing in yet a new pop style, with fullness down low and silky smoothness up high. They became known as crooners.

    Bing Crosby made the sound famous, and the good folks at Mosaic Records have a great collection.

    Rosemary Clooney also set a high standard for getting tone and pop polish through the ribbon microphone. Again, from Mosaic Records.

    But maybe Nat King Cole did it best.


Tube Condenser Microphone: Contemporary Pop Vocal Sound

Tube condenser microphones offered greater accuracy in the highest frequencies versus the ribbon, trading the softened crooner tone for heightened realism. The natural resonance of the large diaphragm capsule system can lead to some spectral lift in pockets of upper middle frequencies. This departure from flat frequency response is welcomed, referred to fondly as a ‘presence peak.’ The spectral emphasis etches vivid detail into the vocal track, boosting intelligibility and highlighting emotional expression. The modern vocal sound is born.

While Frank Sinatra can be heard on ribbon microphones in his Columbia Records years (1943-1952), he helped define the contemporary pop vocal sound through his performance technique as captured by a Neumann U47 Tube Cardioid Condenser Microphone in his Capitol Records years (1953-1962).




These audio examples support the article “The vocal microphone: Technology and practice” in the March 2016 issue of Physics Today, discussing the connection between microphones and singers. It’s available online or as a PDF.