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Microphones - will we always hook them up to a preamplifier?

In the future, microphones won't be like the microphones we use today. We won't have to hook them up to a preamplifier. Whoa this is heavy...

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I was in the studio minding my own business the other day, when suddenly a time portal opened, right in front of my eyes! Well it wasn't so much of a portal, more of a window into the future.

And what an amazing future it was.

I could only see microphones, but what microphones. And how different they were to the mics we use today.

Current microphone technology has a lot of history behind it. In the early days of microphones the thinking was that the microphone should pick up sound, convert it to electricity, then send that signal down a wire to a purpose-designed microphone preamplifier.

That was good enough in 1915 (when the vacuum tube amplifier was invented) and it still seems to be good enough nearly a century later.

But through my window to the future, I could see something very different.

In the future all microphones have line level outputs, and they don't need a special preamplifier. You just plug them straight into the console or audio interface at line level.

So all that hassle with preamps has disappeared entirely.

Well, it hasn't disappeared, the microphone preamplifier has just moved to a more sensible place - inside the microphone, where it should be.

Now although my window to the future only showed me this one instant in time, I could imagine the developments that would need to take place in between.

Firstly, a microphone preamplifier needs to have a gain control. Even in the future this is necessary as no-one has found a way around the Johnson noise that has existed throughout all time. I could see in a far corner of the studio a copy of Sound on Sound and on the cover was some new kind of liquid nitrogen microphone cooling system, but the print was too small to make out the details.

So putting the preamplifier inside the microphone means adjusting the gain actually on the mic?

Well no... the gain is remotely controllable through a system called Phantom Power Plus, or PPP as the futureites know it.

PPP is a little like today's microphone phantom power. But firstly it supplies a lot more current than today's recommended maximum of 10 milliamps. It can supply as much as any microphone preamplifier could possibly require - even using vacuum tube technology (which still exists in the future, by the way).

Secondly it also carries a signal by which the gain of the microphone preamplifier can be controlled remotely.

Amazingly enough, it all happens over a standard 3-conductor XLR cable (still in use) so you can just plug in your mics and not even think about this amazing leap in technology.

Of course, I can imagine that in the future there will be die-hards (who are still intrepid youngsters today) who insist that they need to select a particular preamp to go with a certain microphone.

Well thanks to the Plug-in-Pre or PiP technology of the future, certain models of microphones have plug-in preamp cartridges (standardized across manufacturers), so you really can mix and match just the way you want.

A new development in the PPP (Phantom Power Plus) system promises to remote this too, so that you can dial in a particular preamp's sound directly from the console or computer.

...

And then, as suddenly as the time window opened, it vanished again leaving me with nothing but the present day to gaze upon.

Still, there's a lot to look forward to. Or so I thought at first.

Maybe that time window wasn't actually a window into future time, but a window into an alternate reality.

After all, surely in our own future, microphones will just be digital, like everything else. But after 100 years of pretty much the same thing, who could possibly say when?

P.S. Maybe the future begins right now. It's just getting off to a slow start...

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By David Mellor Monday January 3, 2011
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