Measuring Sound with Microphones


This document provides information to help you understand the fundamentals of sound pressure, how microphones work, and how different sensor specifications impact microphone performance in your application.

In addition to the sensor characteristics, you must consider the required hardware and software to properly condition, acquire, and visualize microphone measurements. For example, you need to perform signal processing, such as octave analysis on raw sound pressure signals to represent the data in a format comparable to the response of the human ear. To better familiarize yourself with the measurement hardware and software processing necessary for microphone measurements, download the Engineer's Guide to Accurate Sensor Measurements.


What Is sound pressure?     

Pressure variations, whether in the air, the water, or another medium the human ear can detect, are considered sounds. The human eardrum transfers pressure oscillations, or sound, into electrical signals that our brains interpret as music, speech, noise, and so on. Microphones are designed to do the same thing. You can then record and analyze these signals to gather information about the nature of the path the sound took from the source to the microphone. For example, in noise, vibration, and harshness test, engineers are usually interested in reducing undesirable sounds, such as the noise passengers in a car experience while driving. This could include sounds that are above or below the frequencies the human ear can detect or amplitudes at specific resonant frequencies. These measurements are important to designers who need to reduce noise to meet emissions standards or to characterize a device for performance and longevity.

Sound pressure is the most common measurement performed because humans are exposed to sound and can detect sound pressure. Measured in pascals (Pa), the sound pressure level represents how a receiver perceives sound. You can also determine the sound power of a source. Measured in watts (W), the sound power level represents the total acoustic energy that is radiated in all directions. It is independent of the environment including the room, receivers, or distance from the source. Power is a property of the source, whereas sound pressure depends on the environment, reflecting surfaces, the distance of the receiver, ambient sounds, and so on.


How do microphones work?

You can choose from a few different designs for microphones, but the most common instrumentation microphones are externally polarized condenser microphones, prepolarized electret condenser microphones, and piezoelectric microphones.

A microphone is a transducer that converts acoustical waves into electrical signals

Figure 1. A microphone is a transducer that converts acoustical waves into electrical signals.


Condenser Microphones

A condenser microphone operates on a capacitive design. It incorporates a stretched metal diaphragm that forms one plate of a capacitor. A metal disk placed close to the diaphragm acts as a backplate. When a sound field excites the diaphragm, the capacitance between the two plates varies according to the variation in the sound pressure. A stable DC voltage is applied to the plates through a high resistance to keep electrical charges on the plate. The change in the capacitance generates an AC output proportional to the sound pressure. The charge of this capacitor is generated either by an external polarizing voltage or by the properties of the material itself, as in the case of prepolarized microphones. Externally polarized microphones need 200 V from an external power supply. Prepolarized microphones are powered by IEPE preamplifiers that require a constant current source.

The most common instrumentation microphone, a condenser microphone, operates on a capacitive design 

Figure 2. The most common instrumentation microphone, a condenser microphone, operates on a capacitive design.


Piezoelectric Microphones

Piezoelectric microphones use a crystal structure to generate the backplate voltage. Many piezoelectric microphones use the same signal conditioning as accelerometers and may use IEPE signal conditioning to provide the polarization voltage. Although these sensor-type microphones have low sensitivity levels, they are durable and able to measure high amplitude pressure ranges. Conversely, the floor noise level on this type of microphone is generally high. This design is suitable for shock and blast pressure measurement applications.


How do I choose the right microphone?

Response Field

You must choose the microphone that is best for the type of field in which you will operate it. The three types of measurement microphone are free field, pressure field, and random incidence. These microphones operate similarly at lower frequencies but differently at higher frequencies.

A free-field microphone measures the sound pressure from a single source directly at the microphone diaphragm. It measures sound pressure as it existed before the microphone was introduced into the sound field.  These microphones work best in open areas free of hard or reflective surfaces. Anechoic chambers or larger open areas are ideal for free-field microphones.

free-field response

Figure 3. Free-Field Microphone


A pressure-field microphone is designed to measure the sound pressure in front of the diaphragm. It has the same magnitude and phase at any position in the field. It is usually found in an enclosure, or cavity, which is small when compared with wavelength. Pressure-field microphone application examples include testing the pressure exerted on walls, on airplane wings, or inside structures such as tubes, housings, or cavities.

Pressure-Field Microphone

Figure 4. Pressure-Field Microphone


In many situations, the sound is not traveling from a single source. Random-incidence or diffuse-field microphones respond uniformly to sounds arriving simultaneously from all angles. You use this type of microphone when taking sound measurements in a church or an area with hard, reflective walls. However, for most microphones, the pressure and random-incidence responses are similar, so pressure-field microphones are often used for random-incidence measurements.

random response

Figure 5. Random-Incidence Microphone


Dynamic Range

The main criterion for describing sound is based on the amplitude of the sound pressure fluctuations. The lowest amplitude that a healthy human ear can detect is 20 millionths of a pascal (20 μPa). Since the pressure numbers represented by pascals are generally low and not easily managed, another, more commonly used scale, the decibel (dB) scale, was developed. This logarithmic scale more closely matches the response reactions of the human ear to the pressure fluctuations.

Manufacturers specify the maximum decibel level based on the design and physical characteristics of the microphone. The specified maximum dB level refers to the point where the diaphragm approaches the backplate, or where total harmonic distortion (THD) reaches a specified amount, typically 3 percent THD. The maximum decibel level that a microphone outputs in a certain application depends on the voltage supplied and that particular microphone’s sensitivity. Before you can calculate the maximum output for a microphone using a specific preamplifier and its corresponding peak voltage, you first need to calculate the pressure in pascals that the microphone can accept. You can calculate the amount of pressure using the following formula:

calculate the pressure in pascals

Where P = pascals (Pa) and voltage is the preamplifier output peak voltage.

After determining the maximum pressure level that the microphone can sense at its peak voltage, you can convert this amount to decibels (dB) using the following logarithmic scale:

logarithmic scale

Where P = pressure in pascals
Po = reference pascals (constant = 0.00002 Pa)

This formula provides the maximum rating that a microphone, when combined with a specific preamplifier, is capable of measuring. For the low-end noise level, or minimum amount of pressure required, you need to review the cartridge thermal noise (CTN) rating of the microphone. The CTN specification provides the lowest measurable sound pressure level that can be detected above the electrical noise inherent within the microphone. Figure 6 shows the typical representation of the noise level at different frequencies for a microphone when used in conjunction with a preamplifier.

The inherent noise level is greatest at upper and lower capabilities of the microphone

Figure 6. The inherent noise level is greatest at upper and lower capabilities of the microphone.


When selecting a microphone, you must confirm that the pressure levels you are testing fall between the microphone’s CTN and the maximum-rated decibel level of the microphone. In general, the smaller the microphone diameter, the greater the high-end decibel level is. The larger diameter microphones typically have lower CTN, so they are recommended for low-range decibel measurements.


Frequency Response

After you consider the type of microphone field response and dynamic range you need, review the microphone’s specification sheet to find the usable frequency range (Hz). Smaller diameter microphones usually have a higher upper frequency level capability. Conversely, larger diameter microphones are more sensitive and better suited to detect lower frequencies.

Manufacturers place a typical tolerance of ±2 dB on the frequency specifications. When comparing microphones, make sure you check the frequency range and the tolerance associated with that specific frequency range. If an application is not critical, you can improve the usable frequency range for that microphone if you are willing to increase your allowable decibel tolerance. You can check with the manufacturer or look at the calibration sheet for a particular microphone to determine the actual usable frequency range for specific decibel tolerances.


Polarization Type

Traditional externally polarized and modern prepolarized microphones work well for most applications, but they do have some differences. Externally polarized microphones are recommended for high temperatures (120 °C to 150 °C) because the sensitivity level is more consistent in this range. Prepolarized microphones tend to be more consistent in humid conditions. Sudden changes in temperature that result in condensation on internal components may short out externally polarized microphones.

Because externally polarized microphones require a separate 200 V power source, you are limited to 7- conductor cabling with LEMO connectors in this setup. The newer, prepolarized microphones have become more popular because they are powered by an easy-to-use, 2–20 mA constant current supply. With this design, you can use standard coaxial cables with BNC or 10-32 connectors for both current supply and signal to the readout device.


Temperature Range

Microphone sensitivity decreases as the temperature approaches the maximum specifications of the microphone. You must be aware of not only the operating temperature but also the storage temperature of the microphone. Operating and/or storing a microphone in extreme conditions can adversely affect it and increase its calibration needs. In many cases, the required preamplifier can be the limiting factor for operating temperature range. Although most microphones can operate to 120 °C without any loss of sensitivity, the preamplifiers required for these microphones typically operate in the 60 °C to 80 °C range.


Signal conditioning for microphones

When preparing a microphone to be measured properly by a DAQ device, you need to consider the following to ensure you meet all of your signal conditioning requirements:

  • Amplification to increase measurement resolution and improve signal-to-noise ratio
  • Current excitation to power the preamplifiers in IEPE sensors
  • AC coupling to remove DC offset to increase resolution and take advantage of the full range of the input device
  • Filtering to remove external, high-frequency noise
  • Proper grounding to eliminate noise from the current flow between different ground potentials
  • Dynamic range to measure the full amplitude range of the microphone


To learn more about how to condition, acquire, analyze, and display microphone measurements, download the Engineer's Guide for Accurate Sensor Measurements.