An important aspect of recording is something called gain which is usually on microphones themselves but can also be found on other tools such as audio interfaces, digital plugins etc
Recording can be a tough job if you’ve never done it before, which is why it’s wise to know some things that can help your recording experience.
This post will discuss whether too much gain can damage a microphone because it is a question that most newbie music producers have.
Therefore, I intend to demystify this and give you as much information as possible so you understand gain better.
With that said, can too much gain damage a mic?
In some cases, recording while using too much gain can be damaging for certain condenser microphones as this may lead to the signal surpassing its pressure threshold which may ultimately cause the diaphragm to fall… dynamic microphones however, can with stand a huge deal loudness that’s why they’re used to record loud noises like explosions etc.
Most microphones will distort when pushed above their sound pressure level which could be a result of using too much gain.
However, it is wise to check the specifications of your particular brand of microphone because using too much gain could either mean distortion or damage.
Factors to consider
Like we’ve discussed above, condenser microphones are likely to be damaged when a very loud signal is run through them with the gain on either a console or an audio interface is turned all the way up.
Below are things to consider
What has to be considered first of all is the sensitivity of the microphone.
Sensitive condenser microphones can be more prone to diaphragm damage when you use them at max gain.
Which is why you have to carefully consider what you’re doing.
If you’re recording somebody either recording vocals or simply playing a loud instrument….certain condenser microphone can get damaged when you have the gain turned all the way up.
Some instruments are ofcourse different from others …
Soft instruments for example are more likely to sound distorted when you run such a signal through a channel with gain turned all the way up.
Microphones are different and like I earlier, stated.. condenser microphones are meant for smooth recording which is mostly recording done in music recording studios.
They are not the go-to microphones for hard-core loud work like maybe recording an explosion.
Dynamic microphones are more rigid with regard to how much sound pressure they can handle which is why they’re the microphone of choice for most people carrying out hard core work involving the recording of loud sounds.
Another thing that has to be considered and discussed when exploring the topic of whether gain being turned all the way up can damage a microphone or not ….is the proximity of the sound source itself.
Recording too close to a condenser microphone being run through a channel that has gain turned all the way up can be damaging to a certain extent and can lead to recording heavily distorted signals.
Sound pressure level and Distortion
The most common type of distortion that you’ll find in most microphone specifications is called ‘clipping’ distortion which is a result of sound energy overloading the microphone’s internal electronics, causing the reproduced signal to be clipped at the peaks ultimately making it distorted.
The sound energy required to do this will be specified in ‘SPL’ which is the abbreviation for the ‘Sound Pressure Level’;
To put it simply, as you increase a sound’s sound pressure level it becomes louder, so you can think of SPL as a way of simply indicating how loud a sound is at a specific distance from the source.
Sound pressure level values that don’t specify the distance from a given sound source are not really useful.
Passive ribbon microphones and passive dynamic microphones are not built with active circuitry that can distort….most of them contain transformers that can stand being overloaded as this simply drives them into saturation which is a type of magnetic distortion.
but this won’t likely happen in a microphone unless it has a very poor design or the transformer, by design is meant to saturate in order to provide some characteristic tonality.
Furthermore, the sound pressure level that is required to distort a dynamic microphone’s diaphragm or a contemporary ribbon microphone’s ribbon element is considerably higher than those microphones would ever be exposed to in normal use.
So you can pretty much not worry about them getting damaged easily.
As long as you don’t record abnormally, your mic’s maximum sound pressure level is rarely an issue.
You may run into a little trouble with certain drum and percussion instruments…
A tambourine, for example, is a louder than you would assume.
Played at short distances it can easily reach sound pressure levels upwards of 120 dB.
This isn’t really a problem for most modern condensers but older or “vintage” condensers will likely distort….and so will many entry-level condenser mics!
Except for ribbon mics, dynamic microphones rarely come with a max SPL specifications.
Even though their SPL handling capability has limits, either, it rarely poses a problem in real life.
However, it can become an issue with older models due to a factor like aging effects.