Dealing with microphone issues can be incredibly frustrating, whether you’re recording, gaming, or simply chatting on your phone. There are various problems that can arise, such as muffling or low volume, which can cause a lot of stress.
If you’re in a studio setting, don’t attempt to fix a weak microphone signal by increasing the volume by 10 dB in the mix. Trust me, this is a terrible idea as it will introduce a significant amount of background noise.
It may not be immediately apparent, but once you start increasing the volume, you’ll notice that the noise also becomes louder. The same applies to attempting to boost the sound using common computer drivers while gaming or using the built-in microphones on your laptop.
Now, let’s explore some of the main causes of low microphone volume and I’ll provide you with a few tips on how to address these issues.
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One of the first challenges that many newbie engineers and producers face is figuring out which microphone to use for vocals or instruments. Dynamic microphones are often a great choice for live music performances because they don’t require phantom power.
This also applies to dynamic mics commonly used for podcasting and video recording.
On the other hand, condenser microphones usually require +48 V phantom power, which is clearly marked on most preamps and interfaces. In simple terms, phantom power is like a boost of electrical voltage that activates the microphone and provides it with the necessary energy to function.
A common mistake that producers make, especially in the studio when recording instruments, is using ribbon microphones without a powerful enough preamp to provide them with the additional gain they need to capture a strong signal. This is because ribbon mics are passive and require extra gain.
Inadequate gain is one of the main reasons why your mic may sound too quiet.
The best way to prevent common issues with microphone usage is to select microphones that are suitable for your specific needs. Avoid using ribbon microphones with subpar preamps for vocals.
Use phantom power for condenser and ribbon microphones, not for dynamic ones. It is crucial to understand the strengths of each microphone type.
If you are recording a rapper who will be singing loudly into the microphone, choose a dynamic handheld microphone that can handle high sound levels. On the other hand, if you want to capture the subtle nuances of a soft acoustic guitar, consider using a ribbon microphone with a powerful preamp.
When it comes to omnidirectional microphones, they are quite forgiving in terms of placement for achieving a good audio level. This is because they have a wide-ranging 360° capsule, which means they don’t reject sounds coming from the sides as much.
However, with lavalier microphones, super cardioid microphones, dynamic microphones, and shotgun microphones, it is crucial to position them optimally in front of the sound source. Otherwise, you will notice a significant drop in volume.
Dynamic microphones typically operate in a consistent cardioid mode. On the other hand, certain condenser microphones, especially shotgun microphones and those used for camera work, are highly directional.
Therefore, it is important to handle them with care and experiment with different angles before use.
Gaining experience with microphones is the most effective way to solve positioning problems. When I was first learning engineering and using microphones to mic instruments and guitar amps, I made many mistakes that caused phasing problems and resulted in a muffled sound due to improper off-axis positioning.
My advice would be to experiment with the microphone you choose to buy or already own, including understanding its dead zones and how its capsule works.
Otherwise, it’s best to use a solid omnidirectional microphone for most sources.
Preamp and Gain Issues
While most preamps, including interfaces with built-in preamps like the Focusrite Scarlett or Universal Audio Volt, do a solid job of providing the necessary phantom power and a good amount of boost, there can still be some issues.
I have noticed that when using vintage microphones, especially with modern preamps that are completely digital-based, the sound can become muffled and weak.
This also applies to active tube microphones, which have their own power supply but still require a decent amount of preamp boost, even without phantom power.
If you do not have much experience with a wide variety of microphones, you might end up using dynamic mics for recording delicate studio vocals and wondering why they do not sound as good as your favorite artist’s vocals.
Not only do dynamic mics have weaker output, but they also lack character. At times, they can sound too sterile.
To address the issue of incompatible preamps with certain microphones, I recommend opting for a preamp that utilizes class-A circuitry. Although they may be slightly more expensive, class-A preamps are compatible with a wide range of microphones.
One excellent choice in this category is the Heritage Audio HA73EQ.
If you’re on a tight budget but still desire exceptional sound quality and improved performance for quiet microphones, the Warm Audio WA12 is an excellent option.
Additionally, if you want to enhance your sterile dynamic microphone’s sound with a touch of sweet tube harmonic distortion, consider the Presonus Studio Channel.
Bad Build Quality
There are dynamic microphones that are commonly used for video work, podcasting, and interviewing. However, some of these microphones, particularly Lavalier mics, have less-than-ideal circuitry design.
While they are sensitive, they also tend to produce a significant amount of noise.
These microphones employ a self-compression (ducking) mechanism to prevent distortion when the user raises their voice. However, this can sometimes give the false impression of speaking too softly, when in reality, the microphone is overloaded.
The solution is pretty simple. If you find yourself in a situation where it’s too late to switch to a better-quality microphone, my suggestion is to create as much distance as possible between the lousy microphone and the sound source.
This applies to vocals, instruments, or ambient sounds while recording outdoors..
The reason for this is that some preamps can handle clean gain, but when it comes to overloaded and over-compressed microphones, there’s no way for the preamp to compensate for that gain.
Another solution is to fix and compensate for over-clipped audio during post-production using cool tools like Izotope RX 10, which has built-in AI to make the original samples better while reducing the clicks. It can work wonders.
One of the main problems using computer drivers, while using gaming headset mics, is that many headsets have their own volume control.
Sometimes, when you’re not paying attention, the volume control is turned down too low, and you end up having to boost the signal through the control panel settings of your computer.
This artificial compensation done through poor drivers can result in a lot of annoying hissing static and a weak signal.
Another common issue for PCs when using computer drivers to boost certain microphones for apps like Discord and Zoom, is that many of these programs have noise-canceling and noise-reduction features activated without your knowledge.
Depending on the quality of the signal, these so-called enhancements can actually decrease the volume and quality of your microphone output.
If you want to improve the sound quality of your microphone using computer drivers, I suggest choosing a clean, dynamic microphone like the Shure SM7B and disabling any sound enhancement features in your computer settings.
Sometimes, algorithms designed to enhance sound quality can actually have the opposite effect. Ideally, you should be in a relatively quiet environment and use a high-quality microphone.
If you’re using a headset microphone for gaming simply because it’s more convenient, I suggest conducting a quick test before you start playing. Try adjusting the distance between the microphone and your mouth by pronouncing words with consonants like “p,” “s,” and “t.”
Then, fine-tune the metering in your computer driver and game settings. Ensure that your headset volume is turned up to the maximum and decrease the input boost on your console or computer to around 80 to 85% to prevent audio distortion.
Wireless Mic Interference
Wireless microphones have improved, but they still face issues with interference and frequency jamming, especially in crowded areas. I have encountered this problem at church during performances and sermons.
While wired microphones are still commonly used in churches, pastors prefer the mobility of wireless handheld mics or headsets. However, attaching a wireless receiver to their robes can be awkward. To maintain a traditional appearance, they often hide the receivers, which can lead to problems.
Concerts also experience similar challenges when multiple band members use wireless receivers on different frequencies. If the lead artist or singer encounters issues, it can affect the other frequencies as well. Consequently, some microphones may lose volume because of weak signals reaching the interface.
The most effective approach to address wireless interference problems is to use a high-quality receiver that can handle different frequencies effectively. In such cases, I always recommend opting for a complete microphone system where both the microphone transmitter and receiver are manufactured by the same company.
This ensures strong compatibility and often provides a better range. One exceptional system that I have personally used without any wireless interference problems is the Sennheiser XSW1–835.
Cell Phone Mics
Have you ever experienced issues with your cellphone microphone? Sometimes it can become staticky, muffled, or have a weak signal.
This is often due to junk and dust getting stuck in the microphone hole. Over time, lint and fabric can accumulate and block the mic.
Cellphone microphones are designed to pick up sound from all directions. If you frequently use your phone in places with echoes, the sound waves bouncing around can overwhelm the mic and weaken the signal.
The easiest fix is to regularly clean the microphone using a pin and some dust-off spray. Another reliable solution is to switch to Bluetooth headsets or AirPods Pro, which have a much better and directional microphone configuration.
Since most people are using Bluetooth to replace built-in mics, companies like Apple are focusing their research and development on improving camera and display quality rather than microphone quality.