Technical Theatre/Printable version

Technical Theatre

The current, editable version of this book is available in Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection, at

Permission is granted to copy, distribute, and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.


When you go to a play, the opera, the ballet, or even a concert you notice the people on the stage performing. You may also notice the lighting effects, audio effects, costuming, makeup, and the set the performers are on. All of these things are part of the world of Technical theatre.

Technical theatre encompasses all that goes into making a staged production. The areas of technical theatre are scenery,lighting, properties,costuming,and sound. All of these areas work together in a production to establish the place, time period, and mood of the production. If successful the audience will not even notice many of the technical elements of the show. Instead they will come away having enjoyed the show. However, if one of the areas is incomplete or of a lesser quality than the rest the entire production can suffer. Each area relies on the others for support so it is important that everyone works together and communicates as a team; if the lighting designer uses blue light in their design and the costume designer creates a yellow dress, the audience will see an ugly green dress. Technical theatre therefore depends on teamwork and cross-communication for success.


To put on a play it takes many people, doing many different jobs. Working together as a team the result can be very impressive. Each production organization is laid out differently, but most have people filling these roles.

The Stage Director is the person responsible for the artistic vision, the meaning and thusly the purpose of presenting the production. While not a technical position, the Stage Director is still important in technical production in that they coordinate the artistic efforts of the different designers and actors into one unified vision. The Production Manager works with the Stage Director and the various designers, coordinating all the various design elements,making sure the different designs are carried out as best as possible. This person coordinates the efforts of the different departments, and making certain the production maintins its production schedule and remains within the budget. The Technical Director (or TD) works with the Scene designer and Properties designer, supervises the master carpenter and oversees the construction of the set. The TD frequently (in smaller organizations) may also take on other functions, such as supervising the set and props crews .

The Designers are the people that make the artistic decisions in their respective areas. The Scene Designer designs the sets for the different scenes. The Lighting Designer designs how the playing area and the actors will be lit. The Properties Designer obtains and sometime even creates the hand props held by the actors and props used on the stage. The Costume Designer designs the clothes that the people will wear, often designing or working closely with the designers of the hair and makeup as well. The Sound Designer chooses or makes the different sound effects that will play during the show, as well as determining who gets microphones, and how much amplification will be necessary.

The crew heads are responsible for coordinating the efforts of the different crews of stagehands working under them in the implementation of the designers' work. The Master Carpenter directs the construction of the set. They may also coordinate the people that move the set during scene changes. The Scenic Charge is the person that oversees the painting of the set. The Master Electrician makes sure that the lighting instruments get placed where the designer needs them. They also oversee the people operating the lighting control board and any follow spots. The Audio Engineer oversees the layout of the sound system; during the show they will oversee the operator of the sound boards and make sure any microphones and other sound equipment is working. The Properties (or props) Master will gather the items that the actors will handle during the performance. Under direction of either the scenic designer they may also in charge of "set dressings" such as tables and chairs that the actors will interact with. The Costumer will coordinate the making of the costumes and the fitting them on the performers.

The stagehands are the people that do the labor. These people are divided into several crews. The carpenters build the set, and move set pieces during the show. The painters paint the set the colors the designer specified. The electricians put the lights in the correct place, run the cables to power them, and operate the control board and any followspots. The audio crew will place speakers and microphones as well as run the cables to power them. In addition, they will operate the sound mixers. The wardrobe mistress supervises the stitchers and drapers who sew and mend and clean the costumes, and the dressers who help the actors get into them. The props crew will make sure the items the actors need are where they are supposed to be, and repair them if they get broken.

Set Design and Construction

The design of a set for a production, often times, is one of the first steps taken by director and designer. This is due to several issues. First, the set is one of the few parts of the technical theatre which is specifically dictated by the script. How many people must be on stage? How many different entrances must be accommodated? Where do those entrances lead? Each of these questions (and others) must be addressed with the set design. Secondly, the directors must have the set design prior to blocking the play so that the performers are blocked intentionally around the set pieces which will exist.

As with all design elements, the first step in creating a set design is to read the script several times. The minimum number of times a designer should read the script is three before beginning work on a set design. The first time through, the designer should read it for the story line and enjoyment.

The second time through, the designer should begin gathering a better feel for the story. Where does the story take place? Are there any major set pieces that must be included? What entrances and exits must exist? How much space must be allowed for the number of characters on stage at any given time?

The third time through the script, the designer should begin writing down specifics about the space. In coordination with the director, choices must be made about where off-stage locations exist, where will the more intense beats or moments take place on stage, and general traffic patterns throughout the space.

Following this third reading, most designers will create a series of least one per location...for the director to review. These sketches should include not only the set but also stage props and furniture and possibly tentative actor locations for major points in the story. After getting the director's approval of the sketches, scale drawings must be made. These should include not just an overhead view of each scene but also front elevations of the scenes and, where necessary for construction, specific cut-away designs of complicated set pieces. From these scale drawings, many designers will then create scale models so that the directors and designers have three-dimensional models to work from both for the sake of blocking and also building the set pieces.

All of these design steps should also include the lighting designer and scenic designer (in charge of providing the coloring scheme for the sets...sometimes the scenic and set designer is the same person) so that the design schemes for all of the elements are complementary.

Prop Design

The prop design of each show depends on the artistic style of both sets and costumes, as well as the requests and needs of the director and/or choreographer. At a first reading of the script, the property designer will make a general list of all mentioned items and those that can be inferred from narration. Basic background research will begin for the look of items from a set period and location. Communication with all departments and designers helps to eliminate various items that overlap into costumes or set Lists. An initial "Prop list" is generated and dispersed to each of the other designers as well as the director, and all relevant parties. After receiving notes from the various departments, the "prop list" is updated and a second reading of the script is done to double check information gathered is consistent with script requirement as written. Research continues and narrows in on items that will require special attention. Budget constraints require that many items be used from stock, borrowed or rented before a purchase of a new item is made. Some items that are not in the company stock and cannot be located are fabricated. Props from a period settings are not always widely available and often require some amount of research to determine what the item is, how it was used and where it can be located.



A property is designated depending on the theatre and the structure of design responsibility set by years of trial and error. It is common for a prop to be defined as anything that is not firmly adhered or 'nailed' down to a piece of setting. This may include all set dressings and furniture as well as hand held "props". Other theatrical organizations may only designate that which the actor actually picks up as a 'prop'. The range in-between varies. Props may be an item usually associated with another department or require close work with them. Costume pieces may sometimes be the responsibility of the costume department to fabricate and then be tracked in rehearsal and performance by the prop department such as hat and purses, coats that come off or never worn but held as part of the costume. At other times in the script, a dress may be picked up and packed in a suit case on stage and never worn. The prop department would acquire one of the correct period, basic size, etc. and may possibly require the approval of the costume designer. Another example of a possible cross over would be a microphone. If live, it would require input from both the sound and electrics department but may be chosen and tracked by the prop department. The choice of microphone may require the input of the sound designer, set designer and the prop designer.

In some theatres a prop may be among many different elements layered on top or around each other with backdrops and architectural elements, elaborate costumes, large ensembles as well as lighting. With theatre in the round the elements are distilled down to the most basic elements. The 360 degree "line of site" adds limitations to sets. While costumes may be as elaborate, theatre in the round has a much more limited area then a proscenium and cast size could be limited as well. These are a few reasons that make theatrical properties in this situation stand out more. It also puts a more direct spotlight on the item and in many cases is central to the development of plot or central character.

Specialized props used as 'sight gags' could be a rubber chicken or a more elaborately conceived notion. Simple looking items, in many cases, require specialized work. Requirements, specific to a production may require an item be 'rigged' in one way or another. A burlap bag may require an inner lining smaller than the outer shell that may be stuffed to emulate content.


Lighting for the stage involves manipulating the four major Controllable Qualities of light; Intensity, Color, Direction and Movement; to influence the four functions of stage lighting which are Mood, Selective Focus, Modeling and Visibility.

Four Controllable Qualities of Light

  • Intensity:The intensity of a light source can vary from near total darkness to painfully bright.
  • Color:Nearly any color you can think of can be created through the use of lighting gels or electronic means. Color can be a major player in creating a mood. However, the lighting designer must be careful in choosing colors so that they coordinate with the colors chosen for costumes and set pieces as well.
  • Direction:This is the area from which the light approaches the stage. This is a major contributor to the function of modeling. Light can come from below, directly above or anywhere in between. They can also originate from in front of the actors, behind them or off to a side. Each combination of directions has its unique effect on the highlights and shadows produced.
  • Movement:refers to the changing in the lights whether it be a change in intensity, color or direction of origin.

Functions of Stage Lighting

  • Visibility is the primary function of stage lighting: making sure the audience can see the part(s) of the stage that the director and/or the lighting designer want them to see.
  • The modeling function includes creating a realistic (or intentionally non-realistic) view of the world of the play. This is done by strategically placing lights above, below, to the side, in front and behind the actors. Through the use of the placement of the lights, you can create different types of highlights and shadows on the actors, props and set pieces.
  • Selective Focus is the function of "forcing" the audience to look where it is desired for them to look through the use of high/low intensity and changes in intensity.
  • The function of Mood is both one of the most difficult and at the same time the easiest function to maintain. It is the easiest because it can be done very simply through the use of colors. However, it can also be overdone to the point of becoming cliche instead of allowing the actors and other aspects to contribute to the overall mood of the play.


A Source Four ERS with a warm gel

An Ellipsoidal reflector spotlight or Profile Spotlight (abbreviated to Ellipsiodal or ERS) is a light with a strong, well defined beam, and is very versatile. Leko and Source Four are two of the most common brand names of these lights.

Commonly the light includes:

  • A gel holder
  • A gobo holder
  • Several shutters to shape the beam.
  • An adjustable barrel, allowing a lighting designer to change the size and focus of the light thrown by the unit by changing the distance between the mirror and the smooth, plano-convex lens or lenses
A Leko ERS

There are several advantages of the ERS that make it one of the most common lights in a theatre. Its Ellipsoidal lens means only a 500w or 750w bulb is needed, instead of a 1000w bulb, while retaining the same brightness. Some ERSes, notably the Source Four, also include a dichroic reflector, so the beam is much cooler than other lights. Dichroic reflectors only reflect light from the visible spectrum, allowing infrared (heat) radiation to pass out the back of the light. This prolongs the life of gels and gobos.

Ellipsoidals can have either a fixed field angle, normally from 5° to 50°, or a variable field angle, commonly called a "Zoom". ETC, who manufacture the Source 4, produce a variety of attachments, commonly called "barrels", to change the field angle of the Source 4.



Ellipsoidals can be used for colour washes, with an attachment to change the field angle, but this job is better suited to PAR cans, Fresnels and Floodlights. Ellipsoidals are good for gobo projection, and highlighting actors or scenery on stage. They can also be used to god-spot actors by placing them at a sharp (5° - 10°) angle. This gives the effect of divine intervention, or, if used with a green gel, alien abduction.


1: Cross section of a Fresnel lens 2: Cross section of a conventional lens of equivalent power

A Fresnel lantern is a light which makes use of the Fresnel Lens, named after Augustin-Jean Fresnel. The lens has a stepped appearance, instead of a round, smooth one. This allows the lens to have a much greater curvature than would otherwise be practical.

Theatrical Fresnels are typically made in 8, 6 or 3 inch varieties, referring to the diameter of the lens, with lamps ranging in wattage from 150 W (typically with a 3-inch fresnel) to 2000W (with an 8-inch fresnel). Fresnel lenses can operate close to the light source and are very cheap to produce, so the lanterns tend to be small and cheap.

Unfortunately, Fresnels are not very efficient. The reflector cannot be larger than the lens aperture, and thus all the radiated light that is neither redirected forward by the spherical reflector behind the bulb or emitted directly through the lens is absorbed by the casing as waste heat.



The stepped lens gives the beam a very even spread of light, compared to an ERS, and this makes them useful for color washes or back- or top- lighting. They are best used at a medium throw. The lack of beam control can be combated by the use of barn doors.


A Parabolic Aluminized Reflector luminaire

PAR lights, or Parabolic aluminized reflector light, are often referred to as Parcans. They are normally a single lamp/reflector unit, that looks similar to a car headlight inside a metal can, which has the appearance of a sausage. Parcans can come in a variety of different sizes, anywhere between a Par16, which is based around an MR16 lamp and the whole unit is approximately 3 inches long, to a Par64, which utilizes a much bigger lamp and is around 2 feet long.

The number following PAR [PAR 64, 38, 16 etc] refers to the diameter of the lenses of the lamp. The formula being n/8 inch = diameter. [ie: a Par64 is 8 inches in diameter]

Parcans have a much greater usage outside of the theater industry, and are used large amounts for music concerts and tours. If large areas need to be lit, a 3 x 3 grid of Parcans is useful, which is known as a "nine-light".

It is now possible to get LED PARs, which are very similar to Parcans, except, instead of using halogen lamps, they use LEDs, to output light, most also have three different color LED's: Red, Green and Blue allowing color mixing to some extent as well as white.



Parcans cannot be focused, but you can change the beam angle by changing the lamp. You can get lots of different bulb sizes for them, and some of the most common are show below:

  • CP60 - 1000 W, 240 v - VNSP (Very Narrow Spot)
  • CP61 - 1000 W, 240 V - NSP (Narrow Spot)
  • CP62 - 1000 w, 240 V - MFL (Medium Flood)

See /Lamps for more information



Parcans don't have any methods of focusing, and limited methods of beam shaping; as such, they are mainly used for color washes, instead of tight focused areas. They can also be used effectively for blending colors. Their fast flash time makes them good for chase sequences.


A Followspot is a powerful theater light used to 'follow' actors around the stage. They are operated by a human followspot operator. Most followspots use arc lamps or the more powerful xenon arc lamps to produce a bright, white light. Typically followspots include:

  • A powerful lamp
  • A manually focused lens
  • A manual dimming device
  • An "iris" to adjust the size of the spot/angle of the beam
  • A color magazine or "boomerang" consisting of several gel frames which can be swung in front of the beam
  • Some sort of physical sight to assist in aiming is sometimes added onto the lamp by the operator.

Some followspots also allow gobos to be fitted.



Generally a followspot is used to highlight actors on the stage, but it could also be used to focus the audiences attention on a hand-motion or props.

Lighting/Automated Lights

Automated lighting is very popular within the industry because of how versatile it is. Instead of having to rig and focus many generic (non-automated) fittings with different coloured gels or gobos, designers can now use one light to get the colours they desire, with the benefit of having many more features. (Such as gobos, the ability to move the lights for visual effect.) Combining the differing properties in different ways gives the user the ability to create different looks, feel and effects using just one fitting. Originally, automated lights were commonly known as "intelligent" lights. Many in the lighting industry felt this was mis-leading as this type of fitting does not do any "thinking", they do what they are "told" to by the control desk. This is done via the DMX512 protocol.



Almost all automated lights have many and various functions and capabilities. For example, an automated light might have several different colours, pan and tilt functions, zoom, gobos, and shutter options. Usually each of these properties is assigned a DMX512 channel by the firmware in the light itself. Eg.


+0 = Intensity (Usually achieved with a shutter.)
+1 = Colour (Usually, dichroic glass colours placed on the outside of a wheel.)
+2 = Pan (Side to side movement.)
+3 = Tilt (Up/down movement.)
+4 = Gobo (A beam shaping device.)
+5 = Zoom
+6 = Focus
+7 = Control (Lamp ON/OFF, Reset.)

Firstly, the fitting must be assigned a DMX number, eg 10. This means when the control desk changes the value of channel 10, the intensity of the light (shown as an example above) will change also. Channel 11 will change the colour, 12 will make the light move left and right, 13 will tilt the light, 14 will change the gobo and 15 will change the zoom.

Exactly how the changes are made and to what degree vary from light to light, manufacturer to manufacturer.



There are many pros to using automated lighting:

  • Time saving:
    • Focus can be done from the desk.
    • Fewer fitting required to rig as gobo washes or specials.
    • Fewer power cables to run.
  • Aesthetics:
    • Far more looks available to the operator or designer, this is the major reason for using them.



There are also a few cons to consider:

  • Expense: automated lighting costs far more than generics to purchase or hire. An experienced technician is required to program automated lights.
  • Weight: usually far heavier than an average generic.
  • Reliance on a DMX chain: one malfunctioning DMX lead can prevent an entire rig from functioning.
  • High maintenance: automated lights have many moving parts and so require a good maintenance schedule.


Floodlights are basic theatrical lighting instruments, consisting of primarily of a reflector box and a lamp, usually attached to a yoke to allow the instrument to be hung. They are often used in the theater for color washes, or left uncolored for use as work lights. They offer practically no control of the beam or focus. Gels placed over a floodlight tend to fade quickly because floodlights generate a great deal of heat. However, floodlights tend to be among the least expensive lighting instruments due to their simple construction and few complicated parts.They are also used in football games,cricket games,netball games and many more.


Strobe Lights are lights which produce a quick flash of light. They can be used to simulate lightning, or to give the effect of slow motion. They are normally powered by an Xenon flash lamp.

Strobe lighting can trigger seizures in photosensitive epilepsy.


The cyc light is a single unit with asymmetric distribution for even coverage of backcloths and cycloramas. There are many occasions when a broad light source resting on the floor is needed, lighting upwards to illuminate a drop, cyc, or groundrow. The light shades off towards the top, providing an attractive decorative effect.

Make Type Wattage'
Strand Coda 500W
Strand Iris 1000W
Altman Focusing Cyc Light 500-1500W
Altman 6' 3-Circuit Zip Strip 750W / Circuit
Strand R40 Strip 500W / Strip


Gels, are the coloured 'filters' placed in front of the lights found in theatres, so to colour the beam. Gels are referenced and referred to by number or a letter and number combination. The numbers correlate to a specific color. Since the numbers are assigned by the manufacturer, and are not interchangeable between brands, if gels from multiple manufacturers are present in one shop they will be marked with a letter before the number; typically an R for Roscolux, and L for Lee Filters or an A for Apollo. Three of the most common manufacturers of gels, Lee Filters, Roscolux, and Apollo manufacture 'swatches'. These are packaged as small books with samples of all the different gel colors, allowing lighting designers to sample different gels. You can also obtain a color equivalancy chart from the manufacturers that compares the different manufacturers number systems relate to the color of the filter.



Gels were originally made out of gelatine. "Gelatine" was shortened to "gels". How and when this occurred is not known. Today, gels are made from a mylar-like polyester. However, the term "gel" remains in common usage. The more correct term color filter, sometimes shortened to color, is also used to refer to these filters.

When gels were made of gelatine, many lighting rookies were given dusty gels that they were to get clean by rinsing in hot water. When they came back, some came back smiling and others came back horrified, convinced that they had done something wrong.



Gels are normally placed in a "color frame", which is a metal or flame-retardant paper frame that holds the gel. This ensures the gels do not wrinkle from the heat as much as they would otherwise and also that they do not bend and fall out of the light. Metal frames are used in most applications because they are more sturdy, and last longer. Paper frames are sometimes used in positions where the lighting instrument will be placed above the audience. The frames are put into the color frame slot at the front of the lighting instrument to color the light.

During use, gels wrinkle and eventually burn through after being used for some time. This is due to the large amount of heat coming out of the luminare and going into the gel. Gel color determines how quickly the gel wrinkles and 'burns-through', with the rate depending on how much heat is concentrated on the gel. Darker colors, which have a lower rate of transmission, mean that more light is stopped from going through, resulting in more heat, and shorter lifespans.



A gobo

A Gobo (derived from Go Between or Goes Before Optics) is a thin piece of metal, wood, or glass used to used to modify the shape of the projected light. It is generally used with Ellipsoidal Reflector Spots, which normally provide a specific slot for gobo use. Old soda cans make a cheap replacement for custom made metal gobos, but don't last as long as professionally made gobos.

Plastic gobos—which are generally custom made—are available when a pattern is needed in color and glass does not suffice. However, these thin plastic films generally need to be used with special cooling elements to prevent melting them. A lapse in the cooling apparatus, even for just a few seconds, can cause an expensive gobo to be ruined.

Glass gobos can become very complex, and can make use of coloring, much like a stained glass window.

Most manufacturers produce a swatch book of their gobos, and like gels they are referred to by a number rather than name. For example, most manufacturers offer a gobo of a window, but they are all slightly different. So instead of calling it window, it would be identified as gobo 77143 [1]

Lighting/The Designer

The lighting designer, or LD, is responsible for the creative aspect of the electrics team. They decide how much light, with what colors, and textures, from what angles, and so forth are needed. The LD must coordinate with the director, and other designers, to create the look, feel, mood, etc. of the show, and then make those ideas a reality through lighting.

Depending on the size of the company what is expected of a designer can vary greatly. In larger shows the LD will have an assistant, who often does most of the technical drafting, a Master Electrician, who is responsible for making that drafting a physical reality, and a lighting console programmer, who controls the actual lights, through control software, to the designers will. Any or all of these jobs can fall to a lighting designer in smaller companies, taking him away from the creative element of the show and into the technical details.


Introduction to Lighting Control


Lighting control refers of any changes made in the light produced by one or more lighting instruments. This includes (but is by no means limited to) changes in intensity, color, direction, diffusion, polarization, and pattern. Though various methods of controlling these variables have evolved over time, it is common to manipulate them all from a central control board. The control board typically communicates with a system of dimmers, which control how much electricity flows to each light, as well as with any individual lights that can mechanically move/change color/rotate/etc. Such lights are usually referred to as intelligent lights.


Dimmers are mechanical or electromechanical devices used to vary the amount of electrical power being sent to each lighting instrument. In most modern theaters, changing the dimmers' output is the primary means of controlling the intensity of the lighting on stage.

The construction of dimmers has evolved considerably over time. Some of the oldest dimmers used in the theater, known as 'salt water dimmers,' consisted of a glass jar filled with salt water with two metal leads placed inside. When this was wired in series with the light to be controlled, an operator could control the light's output by varying the distance between the leads. This was a difficult (and often hazardous) process.

Modern dimmers are much more technically complex, and a great deal safer. They control the amount of voltage in the circuit using thyristors, simple electronic circuits that rapidly turn themselves on and off, allowing precisely the amount of current needed to pass through.


DMX512, is a control protocol, used in most theatres to control dimmers and intelligent fixtures. DMX, is the replacement of AMX192 which is an analogue system that is based around using a voltage difference between 0-10V to control lights. DMX 512, has many advantages over the old AMX system: DMX, can be used to control intelligent moving lights, and is much easier to interface with computer based systems.

The DMX system consists of what are referred to as channels, and the value of each channel varies from 0 to 255. However in the case of a dimmer, this would normally be changed on the controlling device so that the brightness was displayed in a percentage form. Each XLR cable run, can carry up to 512 channels, hence DMX is referred to as DMX512.

DMX 512, works on a system of highs and lows, and packets of data; these packets that tell the fixture or dimmer what to do and are refreshed as soon as the last packet has finished being interpreted. When there are no channels transmitting data in what is known as a 'no-data' situation, the DMX control device will output a continuous high signal. At the start of the next DMX packet, there is a Break, and this is then followed by the Mark After Break, this followed in turn by the Start Code and this again followed by the Mark Time Between Frames which is followed by the Channel Data, which is finally followed by the Mark Time Between Packets.

DMX can be transferred through various cable types, the three most common, are XLR5, XLR3 and RJ45 Ethernet. Originally the standard was XLR5, as whilst DMX only utilised 3 wires, there were two extra cores, to allow for possible expansion, and also separate DMX cable, from microphone cable. However more recently, many manufacturers have started using XLR3 connectors as it allows the utilisation of microphone cable, which is often more easily available. RJ45 ethernet connectors began to be used, as it allowed the networking of all DMX devices, as both lighting desks, dimmers and some newer intelligent fixtures began to have networking capability, a feature which could be found extremely useful in larger theatres.

More information regarding DMX, can be found on the U.S. Institute of Theatre Technology's website, as DMX512 is based on their standards


Inputs for a sound system would include microphones (specific types are discussed in another section), Compact Disc Players, Tape Players, Record Players, DVD Players, Video Tape Players and computers. Basically, anything that pushes sound into the front end of a sound system would be considered an input.


Dynamic Microphones Dynamic microphones are versatile and ideal for general-purpose use. They use a simple design with few moving parts. They are relatively sturdy and resilient to rough handling. They are also better suited to handling high volume levels, such as from certain musical instruments or amplifiers. They have no internal amplifier and do not require batteries or external power.

How Dynamic Microphones Work As you may recall from your school science, when a magnet is moved near a coil of wire an electrical current is generated in the wire. Using this electromagnet principle, the dynamic microphone uses a wire coil and magnet to create to create the audio signal.

The diaphragm is attached to the coil. When the diaphragm vibrates in response to incoming sound waves, the coil moves backwards and forwards past the magnet. This creates a current in the coil which is channeled from the microphone along wires. A common configuration is shown below.

Earlier we mentioned that loudspeakers perform the opposite function of microphones by converting electrical energy into sound waves. This is demonstrated perfectly in the dynamic microphone which is basically a loudspeaker in reverse. When you see a cross-section of a speaker you'll see the similarity with the diagram above. If fact, some intercom systems use the speaker as a microphone. You can also demonstrate this effect by plugging a microphone into the headphone output of your stereo, although we don't recommend it!

Technical Notes:

Dynamics do not usually have the same flat frequency response as condensers. Instead they tend to have tailored frequency responses for particular applications.

Neodymium magnets are more powerful than conventional magnets, meaning that neodymium microphones can be made smaller, with more linear frequency response and higher output level.


Condenser Microphones Condenser means capacitor, an electronic component which stores energy in the form of an electrostatic field. The term condenser is actually obsolete but has stuck as the name for this type of microphone, which uses a capacitor to convert acoustical energy into electrical energy.

Condenser microphones require power from a battery or external source. The resulting audio signal is stronger signal than that from a dynamic. Condensers also tend to be more sensitive and responsive than dynamics, making them well-suited to capturing subtle nuances in a sound. They are not ideal for high-volume work, as their sensitivity makes them prone to distort.

How Condenser Microphones Work A capacitor has two plates with a voltage between them. In the condenser mic, one of these plates is made of very light material and acts as the diaphragm. The diaphragm vibrates when struck by sound waves, changing the distance between the two plates and therefore changing the capacitance. Specifically, when the plates are closer together, capacitance increases and a charge current occurs. When the plates are further apart, capacitance decreases and a discharge current occurs.

A voltage is required across the capacitor for this to work. This voltage is supplied either by a battery in the mic or by external phantom power.

Cross-Section of a Typical Condenser Microphone

The Electret Condenser Microphone The electret condenser mic uses a special type of capacitor which has a permanent voltage built in during manufacture. This is somewhat like a permanent magnet, in that it doesn't require any external power for operation. Therefore you don't need to worry about batteries or phantom power.

Other than this difference, you can think of an electret condenser microphone as being the same as a normal condenser.

Technical Notes:

Condenser microphones have a flatter frequency response than dynamics.

A condenser mic works in much the same way as an electrostatic tweeter (although obviously in reverse).