Condenser microphones have been the microphone of choice for many home and professional studios for recording. That’s because of how sensitive they are to picking subtle details in a performance.
Although most condensers, even the budget options, have excellent build quality with good components that make them last for a long time, they can still get broken or damaged. So how can you tell if a condenser microphone is broken?
One way to tell if a condenser microphone is broken is to visually inspect the electronic components and capsule inside the mic for any signs of damage. Another excellent way is to check the mic’s frequency response and compare it to the microphone’s expected frequency response.
I will walk you through all these tests and show you how to properly do these tests to determine if your microphone is still in good condition or it’s broken. Later in the article, we will discuss what causes damage to condenser microphones and ways to prevent that. Let’s get into it.
How to Tell if a Condenser Microphone is Broken
1. Inspect it visually
This is the most straightforward way to tell if your condenser microphone. Microphones, just like any other electrical gear, can wear out over time. So if you suspect your condenser mic is broken and not working as it should, performing a visual inspection on the mic is definitely an excellent idea.
Inspect the microphone on the outside for any sign of damage. For instance, check the XLR input pins at the bottom of the mic to see if they are in good condition. Also, check the other parts of the microphone’s body and other parts for any damage.
Any damage made to the body may not directly impact the mic’s sound quality, but since you are doing a visual inspection, you might as well check it out.
Now, this is the most important part of visually inspecting your condenser microphone. If you are a bit technical and handy with tools, open the microphone, and visually inspect the components inside the microphone.
The first thing you want to take a look at is the condenser microphone’s backplate. The backplate holds the condenser mic’s diaphragm that vibrates when a sound wave hits it. This is the most important component of a condenser mic.
Condenser mic’s backplate and the diaphragm is usually metal-coated, meaning they are susceptible to corrosion. Only a handful of high-end condenser mics with their backplate and diaphragm coated with gold, so those options are corrosion and rust-free. However, most condenser mic backplates are coated with aluminum, which can corrode.
So, when you open the microphone, first inspect the backplate and diaphragm for any signs of corrosion. That’s because corrosion can hinder how the diaphragm works, and that will affect overall sound quality.
The next thing to check is the electronic components inside the microphone. Inspect if any of the electronic components are damaged. Also, check if all the wires are in good condition s and are still soldered in the right place. If any of the wires are not connected, that will affect the condenser mic’s performance.
2. Frequency Response Test
A frequency response test is one of the best ways to determine if your condenser microphone is broken. But first, for the sake of those who are not familiar with this term, what is frequency response?
The frequency response of a microphone refers to the range of frequency a microphone’s diaphragm can pick up.
When your microphone is damaged, it won’t be able to pick up all the frequencies in a sound that is being captured. The recorded sound from a damaged microphone can be thin because it is not able to capture the low or mid frequencies, or it will sound dull because it couldn’t capture the high-end frequencies.
In other instances, there will be a high dB gain in some frequencies, which may lead to distortion or noise.
Performing frequency response tests to find the accurate graph is a complex process left for expert audio engineers and microphone manufacturers. However, for the average recording musician and engineer, there is a simple way to test your microphone’s frequency response.
Here is a simple way to perform a frequency response test.
- Find the same microphone as the one you own, preferably a new one.
- Record a vocal performance with the new microphone into your DAW
- Re-record the vocal performance as close as possible to the first one, this time, with your own microphone.
- Route the two audio signals to separate mixer channels
- Load the same parametric EQ audio effect on both channels
- Playback both audios, and analyze the parametric EQs on both channels very carefully, head to head
When performing frequency response tests, something to note is to make sure the audio interface and DAW settings for recording both vocal takes are the same. This will help ensure this is an unbiased and fair comparison between two similar microphones.
When your microphone is working properly, there should be less to no significant difference when you analyze both EQs. That’s because they were able to capture the same frequencies on a very similar vocal take.
However, when your microphone is broken, you will notice some frequency loss in some areas of the EQ curve. The dB level of some frequencies may be much lower than on the EQ curve of the newer mic.
The opposite can also happen. That is, when your microphone is broken, you may notice some frequency gain in some areas of the frequency, compared to the new microphone.
In some situations, the difference will be very drastic; you will notice it clearly by listening to the two audio signals with a good pair of headphones or studio monitors. In other instances, the difference is subtle. However, they all indicate that your microphone is broken.
3. Impulse Response Test
The impulse response of a microphone refers to how fast and accurate it is at capturing sound waves transient.
For instance, let’s say you are a fast attack instrument like a snare drum. An excellent condenser microphone in good condition will be able to capture the snare drum in a matter of microseconds with accuracy.
If the mic is broken, it can have a slower impulse response rate. This means it will capture sound waves at a much slower rate, and that will affect the sound quality and precision.
Testing a microphone’s impulse response is not a task that can be done by the average person. It involves a lot of gear and technical knowledge to get this right. So, sticking with visual inspection and frequency response is the way to go for most of you out there.
What Causes Condenser Microphones to Break
As we have already discussed, condenser mics, just like any other electrical equipment, can break. But what are some of the factors that cause them to get damaged?
1. Mechanical Stress
Mechanical stress is a broad term for many things, and I will try to make it as simple as possible.
Condenser microphones these days are built to last a lifetime. Many manufacturers are not afraid to give you over five years of warranty on their microphones because they believe it’s robust enough to handle any impact.
However, once these mics are exposed to a lot of impacts such as mic drops, the built-in will begin to get loose, and eventually, the mic might stop working.
One important part of a condenser mic that is susceptible to mechanical stress is the diaphragm. This is a very thin membrane that vibrates as sound waves hit it. You can imagine how lightweight they are if they are moved by sound waves.
If your mic is frequently exposed to mechanical stress, in no time, the diaphragm might be the first to damage, and that will render your mic completely useless until you replace it.
If you keep or use a mic in a humid area, then it’s about time you put a stop to it. That’s because humidity is the reason why most microphones are damaged. Let me explain why.
When humid air falls on condenser mics, the vapor converts back into a liquid, and this liquid can easily seep into the microphone through the microphone’s headbasket. Humidity can also be in the form of saliva from your mouth into the mic while recording.
When the liquid gets into the mic, electronic components are the highest at risk of getting damaged. Components like the inbuilt circuit boards, converters, and the Field Effect Transistor (FET) inside condenser microphones will easily damage with exposure to liquid.
Humidity can also cause microphone components to corrode. With so many metallic components inside the microphone, exposing the mic to humidity will eventually lead to corrosion, and this will break the mic over an extended period.
For instance, wires inside the microphone can corrode and cause them to break. The IC board can also easily corrode, leaving the mic broken.
3. Dust and Smoke
Allowing dust and smoke to accumulate on your condenser mic is a sure way to get it damaged. Dust, in particular, is more lethal because when they seep into the mic through the headbasket, they settle on the diaphragm.
Dust can hinder the movement of the diaphragm by choking it. This will reduce the sensitivity of the diaphragm, and that will definitely affect the mic’s performance.
Can a Broken Condenser Mic Be Repaired?
A malfunctioning microphone doesn’t necessarily mean it’s broken. In fact, I talked about some of the common reasons why condenser mics are quiet or too low. If that is the issue you are facing, then feel free to read this article here. Sometimes bad microphone performance is a sign that something needs to be fixed; else, it will damage the mic.
Issues with mic malfunction can be due to dust or liquid inside the mic. This can be fixed by cleaning up the mic and letting it out to dry. Cleaning microphones is actually a great way to keep it hygienic.
Some microphones have replacement capsules that you can purchase to replace a faulty mic capsule. However, there are not a lot of them around and replacing your microphone capsule can be a tedious process only left for technicians.
Besides these problems, any other problem that resulted in the mic damaging cannot be repaired, and you need to buy a new one.
How to Keep a Condenser Mic from Damaging
Here are some safety tips to help keep your condenser mics in good condition for years to come.
1. Use a Pop Filter
Pop filters are handy for a couple of reasons.
They filter our vocal performances and make it better by removing popping sounds that may otherwise make the recorded audio signal unpleasant. This is the primary reason why pop filters are used.
If you use a condenser microphone, pop filters are definitely a must. That’s because not only does it filter plosive sounds hitting the diaphragm, it also prevents saliva from entering the microphone. It picks up spit or saliva, which could enter the mic through the headbasket and damage the mic.
So I highly recommend picking up one. Neewer’s Professional Mic Pop Filter (on Amazon) is a cheap and straightforward pop filter that simply gets the job done. It has gained popularity over the years for one thing — it gets the job done. Feel free to check it out.
2. Pack and store when, not in use
It’s always a good idea to pack and store your condenser mic in a microphone case when not in use. Here are the benefits of packing and storing your mic.
Firstly, you reduce the chances of your mic dropping off. Why? That’s because when the mic is not mounted on a stand, this is a low chance of someone tripping on the mic cable and causing your expensive mic to drop.
Secondly, packing up your mic reduces the risk of dust, smoke, and humidity seeping into the mic and causing it to break.
To take mic storage to another level, I recommend you put it in a plastic bag before putting it in a microphone case. This will further protect the mic from dust while it’s stored. Take it another step further by putting moisture-absorbing silica inside the plastic bag or case. That will help absorb any moisture inside the microphone that may cause damage.
A simple way to check if a condenser microphone is damaged is to visually inspect the internal components for any damage signs. You can also perform frequency and impulse response tests to find out if there have been any changes compared to microphone specifications.
Humidity, mechanical stress, dust, and smoke can cause damage to a condenser mic and render it broken, which is why you need to take good care of your mic.
You can prevent your microphone from damaging by always using a pop filter and pack and store it when not in use.