When designing a microphone assembly the other day, I reached for an electret condenser microphone capsule without thinking. To be strictly accurate I ordered a pack of them, these small cylindrical microphones are of extremely high quality for their relatively tiny price.
It was only upon submitting the order that I had a thought for the first time in my life: Just what IS an electret condenser microphone?
A condenser microphone is easy enough to explain. It’s a capacitor formed from a very thin conductive sheet that functions as the diaphragm, mounted in front of another conductor, usually a piece of mesh. Sound waves cause the diaphragm to vibrate, and these vibrations change the capacitance between diaphragm and mesh.
If that capacitance is incorporated into an RC circuit with a very high impedance and a high voltage is applied, a near constant charge is placed upon it. Since the charge stays constant, changing the capacitance causes a tiny voltage fluctuation that can be retrieved as the audio signal from the microphone. Condenser microphones built in this way can be extremely high quality, but come at the expense of needing a high voltage power supply to supply the charge and an amplifier to buffer and magnify the audio.