Audio / Features

The Sennheiser MKH-416: From Brand Name to Industry Standard

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In TV, film, and news production, the Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun microphone is a good example of a product that has become so popular, that the name of the manufacturer was organically supplanted for the type of the microphone by its users. In production circles, it's not uncommon to be asked "Do you have a Sennheiser?" It's truly the "Kleenex®," or "Xerox®" of shotgun microphones. Here's the story of how and why this particular microphone became known as "...the sound of the movies."

"In production circles, it's not uncommon to be asked "Do you have a Sennheiser?" It's truly the "Kleenex®," or "Xerox®" of shotgun microphones."

As a result of its design and construction, every microphone has specific sonic characteristics. Everything from the electro-acoustic components of the capsule and circuit to the materials and machining of the protective housing contribute to a microphone's unique sound signature.

Throughout recording history, the sound signatures of certain microphones became so popular that they earned the status of being "industry standards," and are sometimes considered essential for sound recordists seeking to land assignments and build their reputations. If a potential client for a project asks an audio person what microphones they carry in their kit—or states that in order to get the job, they must have a Sennheiser (or sometimes colloquially referred to as a “Senny”)—they are more than likely referring to the MKH-416. 

Originally developed in the 1970s, the MKH-416 was part of Sennheiser’s ongoing innovation in the field of radio frequency circuit design. Instead of directly converting the acoustic energy in the microphone capsule from an electrical capacitance into an audio signal through a field effect transistor (FET), the way it was otherwise done at the time with AF condenser microphones, Sennheiser took a different approach.

The company developed a method for first modulating and then immediately demodulating the signal into a radio frequency within the microphone, through phase modulation, with a crystal quartz oscillator. This is why the microphone is called an RF Condenser, an abbreviation for “Radio Frequency.”

The technique was originally developed because Sennheiser needed to lower the output impedance of the microphone capsule to a level that could match the impedance of the microphone cable, before it reached the preamplifier.

Measuring setup for the MKH 110 low-frequency microphone

The benefits of using phase modulation to a radio frequency to create the needed low output audio impedance include reduced self- and amplified noise, resistance to environmental humidity, improved low-frequency response, greater transducer sensitivity in the human vocal range, the ability to linearize the frequency response of the microphone electronically, and the ability to design the equalization of the frequency response, independent of the microphone’s pickup pattern.

The first reason the 416 became popular is its sound. The adjustments to the transducer’s sensitivity in the 2,000 to 8,000Hz frequency spectrum optimized its performance when capturing dialog on set. The RF electronically balanced frequency response also improved the bass performance with minimal noise, which is why the microphone has become a favorite among voice-over artists.

"The reach of the shotgun design enables the talent to be positioned further away from the microphone while they recite their lines from the script."

Have you ever noticed that when you watch a movie, the narrator of the trailer will often have a distinctively deep and resonant voice that adds energy and gravitas to the narration? This is often achieved using a large diaphragm condenser microphone, because the larger capsule provides better bass response.

Alternatively, voice-over artists often select the MKH-416 shotgun microphone because of the clarity and warmth of its bass response, while still having less boominess than large diaphragm microphones, due to the proximity effect (wherein bass response increases as the distance from the microphone capsule to the speaker's voice decreases). The reach of the shotgun design enables the talent to be positioned further away from the microphone while they recite their lines from the script.

The directivity of the MKH-416 reduces the amount of background noise through off-axis rejection, and its small diaphragm capsule helps improve the directivity of its high-frequency pickup while reducing the detrimental effect of "plosives" (explosive pop sounds) from compromising the recording.

The second reason for the MKH-416’s reputation is the durability of its construction, its resistance to humidity, and subsequent usability outdoors. The microphone’s RF circuit and low-impedance output design is less susceptible to signal loss from the capsule’s capacitance leaking into water molecules that could condense internally in high humidity. This is often a problem with using more traditional AF condenser microphones outdoors, or in other high-humidity environments, such as in a greenhouse. The quality of its metal construction and the precision of its machining have proven reliable for decades, even in the most challenging climates around the world.

Sennheiser’s original investment in RF circuit design paid off, because it made their MKH series of microphones stand out during a period in time when the motion picture and television industries were rapidly expanding.

As more and more recording engineers selected the sound of the MKH-416 for use in the field, and their colleagues in related professional fields, such as mixing and mastering, became adept at editing its sound, the workflows improved, the results improved, and this led to greater industry demand for that particular sound signature. The success begets even greater success until the point at which it became the standard that we all have heard and can appreciate.

The MKH series of radio frequency condenser microphones was continually developed, and is still being developed by Sennheiser, over the last half century. Refinements include a symmetrical capsule design to reduce acoustic distortion in the upper frequency response, but these incremental improvements have always been in the interest of preserving the original's iconic sound signature.

The most recent iterations are named the 8000 series, and include new features such as a modular design for expanded flexibility. This includes support for modules that convert the unit to a digital microphone with direct AES3 output without the need for a separate AES42 converter box.

Learn more about the Sennheiser 8000 series in this B&H Explora article.

Learn more about voice-over equipment in this B&H Explora article.

Items discussed in article

4 Comments

  MY NAME IS PATRICIA BARRETT, I AM REALLY THINKING ABOUT PUTTING THIS ON MY WISHLIST BECAUSE I REALLY THINK IT WOULD BE A GREAT THING FOR ME TO HAVE WITH THE DRAGON PROGRAM BECAUSE I AM A REALLY BAD SPELLER AND HAVE A SLOW LEARNING DISABILITY. THIS WOULD MAKE IT A WHOLE LOT EASER FOR ME TO JUST TALK INTO IT AND IT DOSE ALL OF MY WRITING AND SPELLING FOR ME SO THERE ARE NEVER ANY MISTAKES OR MISUNDERSTANDINGS AGAIN.. THIS WOULD MAKE MY LIFE SOOOO MUCH EASER FOR ME LOVED ONES ALL AROUND AND FRIENDS OND WRITING IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS. So yes I do think I will put this on my wishlist. Thank You, PATRICIA MADY BARRETT

Hi Patricia, 

You really don't need this kind of microphone for using with Dragon. You would also need other devices such as a mixer with an XLR input and phantom power to connect this kind of microphone to a computer. I would suggest a microphone with a USB connection, so that you can connect it directly to your computer. Something like the Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000 Headset or the Blue Snowball USB Condenser Microphone if you don't want to wear it might work best for you. 

Couldn't agree more Daniel! Our small production company bought one several months ago and never looked back. It is probably the best purchase we ever made. We even ordered the whole kit from B&H. Also, if you want to check out our unboxing and little demo test we made a video http://youtu.be/72li3hEGOuw :)

Broken link on the image just above . . .

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