I have been an audio guy for a long time and an avid DIY'er. Which means my favorite kinds of projects relate to Audio. I am also a firm believer that for a DIY project to be cool there has to be one of two outcomes to make the project worth doing. It either has to be something you can't get commercially, or something you can build your self that is way cheaper than buying what is available commercially. This project is of the second kind. Build a cheap but good LDC microphone. LDC stands for “Large Diaphragm Condenser”. This project can be built for about $50 in parts and rivals microphones costing way more. It is quiet, sounds very neutral, and will handle large SPL (Sound Pressure Levels).
First a little history of microphones.
There are three basic types in use for studio and live sound use; dynamic microphones, ribbon microphones, and condenser microphones. A dynamic microphone is like a speaker but in reverse. A small diaphragm is coupled to a coil of wire that moves when sound hits diaphragm. The coil is in a magnetic field. When it moves a small electrical signal is generated that you can then amplify or record that represents the sound. A ribbon microphone is similar except the ribbon, a thin strip of foil, usually aluminum, is placed in a magnetic field. Sound waves cause the ribbon to move in the field and an electrical signal is generated. Read more here: Microphones
A condenser microphone starts with a very thin membrane that has metal sputtered onto it so it conducts electricity. The membrane is stretched and placed very close to a backplate to form a capacitor. Grandpa Ryckebusch used to call capacitors condensers and now you know that we should really call them capacitor microphones... When sound waves hit the diaphragm and it moves, the capacitance changes. If there is a charge on the capacitor, there will be a change in voltage that corresponds to the sound. Like the other two microphone designs above, if you amplify or record the voltage, you get the sound. There are two styles of condenser microphones. Some use a high voltage (50-70 volts) to charge the condenser capsule and others use what is called an Electret Capsule. The Electret (Electrostatic) has a permanent charge associated with it read here: Electret.
What this means for us is that if we use an Electret capsule there is no need to apply 50-60 volts to it, which means simpler circuitry.
one of the benefits of a condenser microphone is that the diaphragm can be very light and it is easier to get a smoother frequency response with one. The downside is that you have be very careful when getting the signal off of the diaphragm without adding noise which brings us to the electronics.
To pull the signal off of the capsule you need a very high impedance device. Tubes have this one covered and were the main way this was accomplished 40 years ago. Not to get into a debate on sonic quality of tubes vs anything else, you have to admit; using a tube inside a microphone body does not lend itself to simplicity. Or normal DIY skills! After the tube the Field Effect Transistor or FET was invented. This is how most condenser microphones work today. Even the really inexpensive mic capsules have one internally mounted. A German company Schoeps. arguably one of the top microphone manufacturers in the world, designed a circuit for condensers microphones that defined how this was done a long time ago. See the Schoeps Circuit for details. (If you google “Schoeps circuit” this is what you find!) The circuit runs off of phantom power from the mic pre-amp. Part of this circuit is used to generate a stable high voltage to charge the capsule. In our case we wont need that. The DIY community simplified this circuit down to its basic form for electret capsules that is almost identical to the original Schoeps Circuit. Scott Helmke designed a version of this circuit for his “Alice” microphone. I am using the same circuit with slightly different values and a different FET transistor. I chose the J305 which is used by several of the high end manufactures. I located it here. You can certainly use the parts list from Scott. His latest list is from 2013 and the parts are available from both Mouser and Digikey. I built the circuit on a small perfboard which is perfect for fitting inside the microphone body.
Here is how the circuit works; let's look at the signal path then the power:
The 1Gig (Yes one gigohm...) resistor develops the signal coming off of the capsule. The FET and the two 2.43K resistors form a phase splitter and impedance converter. The two .47uF capacitors couple the signals to the two bipolar transistors. These are PNP transistors setup as emitter followers. The two 100K resistors bias the transistors. Uber simple. If you are wondering about the 1gig resistor, it is key to a condenser microphone. It is also the most expensive component, coming in at around $2 each from Digikey. On the powering side, we connect the microphone to phantom power form a mixer or preamp. That brings 48 volts into pins 2 and 3 of the XLR connector and the two transistors. UPDATE October 2015: I added two 22nF capacitors at the XLR jacks and two 49Ohm 1% resistors on the inputs to the transistors for RF noise suppression. I didn't realize this until I used a different mic preamp when in a "noisy" environment. Schematic Updated! The 6.8K resistor and the zener diode take that and drop it to 12 volts. The 10uF and 68uf capacitors along with the 330Ohm resistor filter this and provide a stable voltage to the FET circuitry. Once again, very simple and elegant. The critical component and one we haven't talked about yet is the capsule itself. I am using the TSB2555B from JLI electronics. it is a Transound capsule and is what makes this project what it is. It costs $12.95 and uses nickel instead of gold on the diaphragm. It is also used commercially in at least one microphone I know of, the CAD e100s.
Now that we have the capsule and electronics all set, you could actually build one of these into whatever housing you want. I have tried this and learned a couple things. Because of the high impedance of the capsule and the FET electronics, the wire between the two acts like an antenna and unless the whole thing is fully shielded by metal or metal screen, you will have all sorts of noise.Both 60hz hum and white noise from all the RF leaking into it. In essence you need to put the capsule and electronics inside a Faraday cage.
I found an easier way than building my own. It turns out that there are several Chinese manufactured really cheap mics that actually have great metal cases somewhat decent electronics (very similar circuit...) and a small capsule. And the cost about $20 bucks. They make a great donor body, which is what we are using it for. Search for them on eBay by searching for “BM700” and “BM800” microphones. I got mine for about $22. Interestingly as you can see form the pictures it doesn't say BM800 on it. It also came in a paper mailer with the foam casing but no box. OK, now that we have covered the background, lets build one!
Edit: 9 October: Here is some audio with these recording my kids high school orchestra: Guyer HS Intermezzo Orchestra
The electronics section is easily built on some perf board. I cut mine to 1” by about 1.5” then populated it from the PNP transistors working towards the FET end. The critical part here is the junction of the FET Gate and the 1gig resistor. Notice I am “floating” the leads. This is where the FET gate to capsule wire connects. We don't want that touching anything or using the circuit board that my have flux residue or attract moisture in a high humidity environment. Also look at the positioning of the FET. See the data sheet in the article. I had my pin 1 of the FET backwards until I realized the position mentioned in the data sheet was the top view of the transistor, not the bottom. If you use Scotts recommended FET, download the data sheet and read it! I left a spot to one side that lat me drill a hole large enough for the mounting screw to hold it to the chassis. I actually lucked out here... I built this before I thought through how I was going to mount it.