Pickups vs. Microphones: What’s the Difference?

Pickups vs. Microphones: What’s the Difference?

The evolution of musical instruments is not necessarily a slow and gradual one. Rather, major innovations come along and mark drastic and lasting changes in how we play and hear music. The development of the modern piano in the early 1700s was so significant that it’s hard to imagine how a world without it would have sounded. The European Adolph Sax only foresaw an improvement upon the clarinet when he designed his saxophone, not anticipating its featured role in America’s classic genre: jazz. And then, of course, there’s electric amplification, which transformed the blues from the folk music of the countryside to the hard-edged sound of emerging industrial cities, turned legions of purists against Bob Dylan, and opened the world to rock and roll.

Electric amplification begins with a transducer, which converts one form of energy into another—in this case, electrical energy. The two transducers we use in live music today, the pickup and the microphone, are similar but by no means the same. Trusting a microphone to do a pickup’s job, or vice versa, would only lead to endless frustration. So what’s the difference between pickups and microphones? We’ll explain.

Microphones

The property of transduction that occurs in a microphone is the conversion of sound waves into an electrical signal. Sound waves push against a diaphragm in the microphone, which in turn moves a magnetized coil of wire and sends out a current. While dynamic microphones, more sophisticated and sensitive condenser microphones, and old-fashioned ribbon microphones vary in their respective constructions, the same principles of electromagnetism are common throughout.

Pickups

Much like microphones, pickups use electromagnetism for amplification, where a source disturbs a magnetic field to induce a current. The similarities stop there. Whereas a microphone captures sound, a pickup captures vibration—namely, that of the strings on musical instruments. “But wait,” you ask, “isn’t sound a kind of vibration?” Not quite. Sound is something that we perceive as the result of vibration—not the vibration itself. A pickup thus “cuts to the chase” and converts the vibration of strings to an electric signal.

When To Use Each

The difference between pickups and microphones becomes clear in action. Singing into a pickup wouldn’t do much for you. Unless you had a metal straw in your mouth, there would be nothing to disturb the pickup’s magnetic field and generate a current, and now we’re just talking about guitar stunts, anyway. Conversely, trying to apply a microphone to the strings of a guitar would provide insufficient amplification. The same holds true for another stringed instrument—the piano. To truly capture the sound of the grand piano in a live setting that calls for amplification, a grand piano pickup, or piano sensor, is what you really need. The Helpinstill Piano Sensor applies the same principles of transduction we use on electric guitars to amplify the acoustic piano, finally allowing your audience to hear the piano as it was meant to be heard—with none of the uproars of Dylan going electric, either.

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