Noise Cancelling Isn’t As Easy As You’d Think

On the face of it, producing a set of noise cancelling headphones should be a relatively straightforward project. But as [Pete Lewis] found out, things are not always as they seem. The result is a deep dive into microphone specifications, through which most of us could probably learn something.

Noise cancelling headphones have a set of microphones which provide anti-phase noise through an amplifier to the ‘phones, thus in theory cancelling out the external noise. Since [Pete] is a musician this pair would have to be capable of operating at high noise levels, so he checked the spec for his microphone and with an acoustic overload point at 124 dB for a 115 environment he was ready to go.

Unfortunately these ‘phones showed distortion, which brings us back to the acoustic overload point. This is the sound level at which the microphone has 10% distortion, which is a very high figure, and certainly meant there was enough distortion to be audible at the lower level. After a search for a higher spec microphone and a move to a digital codec-based solution with an ESP32 he eventually cracks it though, leading to an inexpensive set of noise cancelling headphones for high-noise environments.

If distortion interests you, it’s a subject we’ve visited in the past.

Header image: fir0002, GFDL 1.2.

Low-Cost Electret Microphone Preamplifiers

Before the invention of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) microphones, almost all microphones in cell phones and other electronics were a type of condenser microphone called the electret microphone. The fact that this type of microphone is cheap and easy enough to place into consumer electronics doesn’t mean they’re all low quality, though. Electret microphones can have a number of qualities that make them desirable for use recording speech or music, so if you have a struggling artist friend like [fvfilippetti] has who needs an inexpensive way to bring one to life, take a look at this electret microphone pre-amp.

The main goal of the project is to enhance the performance of these microphones specifically in high sound pressure level (SPL) scenarios. In these situations issues of saturation and distortion often occur. The preampl design incorporates feedback loops and an AD797 opamp to reduce distortion, increase gain, and maintain low noise levels. It also includes an output voltage limiter using diodes to protect against input overload and can adjust gain. The circuit’s topology is designed to minimize distortion, particularly in these high SPL situations.

Real-world testing of the preamp confirms its ability to handle high SPL and deliver low distortion, making it a cost-effective solution for improving the performance of electret microphones like these. If you want to go even deeper into the weeds of designing and building electret microphones and their supporting circuitry, take a look at this build which discusses some other design considerations for these types of devices.

Just What Is Tone, In A Microphone?

As long-time Hackaday readers will know, there is much rubbish spouted in the world of audio about perceived tone and performance of different hi-fi components. Usually this comes from audiophiles with, we’d dare to suggest, more money than sense. But oddly there’s an arena in which the elusive tone has less of the rubbish about it and it in fact, quite important. [Jim Lill] is a musician, and like all musicians he knows that different combinations of microphones impart a different sound to the recording. But as it’s such a difficult property to quantify, he’s set out to learn all he can about where the tone comes from in a microphone.

He’s coming to this from the viewpoint of a musician rather than an engineer, but his methodology is not diminished by this. He’s putting each mic on test in front of the same speaker at the same position, and playing a standard piece of music and a tone sweep through each. He doesn’t have an audio analyser, reference speaker and microphone, or anechoic chamber, so he’s come up with a real-world standard instead. He’s comparing every mic he can find with a Shure SM57, the go-to general purpose standard in the world of microphones for as long as anyone can remember, being a 1960s development of their earlier Unidyne series. His reasoning is that while its response is not flat the sound of the SM57 is what most people are used to hearing from a microphone, so it makes sense to measure the others against its performance.

Along the way he tests a huge number of microphones including famous and expensive ones from exclusive studios and finally one he made himself by mounting a cartridge atop a soda can. You’ll have to watch the video below the break for his conclusions, we can promise it’s worth it.

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Robotic Mic Swarm Helps Pull Voices Out Of Crowded Room Of Multiple Speakers

One of the persistent challenges in audio technology has been distinguishing individual voices in a room full of chatter. In virtual meeting settings, the moderator can simply hit the mute button to focus on a single speaker. When there’s multiple people making noise in the same room, though, there’s no easy way to isolate a desired voice from the rest. But what if we ‘mute’ out these other boisterous talkers with technology?

Enter the University of Washington’s research team, who have developed a groundbreaking method to address this very challenge. Their innovation? A smart speaker equipped with self-deploying microphones that can zone in on individual speech patterns and locations, thanks to some clever algorithms.

Continue reading “Robotic Mic Swarm Helps Pull Voices Out Of Crowded Room Of Multiple Speakers”

These DIY Super Headphones Take Sound Seriously

[Pete Lewis] from SparkFun takes audio and comfort seriously, and recently shared details on making a customized set of Super Headphones, granting quality sound and stereo ambient passthrough, while providing hearing protection at the same time by isolating the wearer from the environment.

Such products can be purchased off the shelf (usually called some variant of “electronic hearing protection”), but every hacker knows nothing beats some DIY to get exactly the features one wants. After all, off-the-shelf solutions are focused on hearing protection, not sound quality. [Pete] also wanted features like the ability to freely adjust how much ambient sound was mixed in, as well as the ability to integrate a line-level audio source or Bluetooth input.

Early prototype of Super Headphones (click to enlarge)

On the surface the required components are straightforward, but as usual, the devil is in the details. Microphone selection, for example, required a lot of testing. A good microphone needed to be able to deal with extremely loud ambient sounds without distortion, yet still be sensitive enough to be useful. [Pete] found a good solution, but also muses that two sets of microphones (one for loud environments, and one for quieter) might be worth a try.

After several prototypes, the result is headphones that allow safe and loud band practice in a basement as easily as they provide high-quality music and situational awareness while mowing the lawn. Even so, [Pete]’s not done yet. He’s working on improving comfort by using photogrammetry to help design and 3D print custom-fitted components.

A small black microphone in a black 3d printed mount. The mount is attached to an adjustable silver neck attached to a desk clamp from an IKEA lamp.

IKEA Hack – Kvart Into Mic Stand

While audiophiles might spend gazillions of hours finely honing a microphone stand that isolates their equipment from the trials and perturbations of the world, most of us who use a microphone don’t need anything so elaborate. Hackaday contributing editor [Jenny List] hacked together some thrift store finds into a snazzy adjustable mic setup as you can see in the video below the break.

Using the flexible neck and clamp of an IKEA Kvart as a base, [Lists]’s mic stand looks like a simple, but exceedingly useful tool. She first removed the lamp, shade, and cord before designing a 3D-printed mount to attach to the lamp’s neck. Since the bolted lamp end of the connection goes straight to an action camera mounting system, we can see this being handy for mounting any number of other things besides microphones. Another 3D-printed mount attaches the Logitech gaming microphone to the action camera connector, and the whole thing can either be bolted together or use a printed pin. All the parts can be found in a GitHub repository.

Looking for more microphone hacks? Check out this DIY ribbon microphone or the Ambi-Alice ambisonic mic.

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Using Sonar To Measure Traffic Speeds

One of the most common ways of measuring the speed of a vehicle is by using radar, which typically involves generating radio waves, directing them at a moving vehicle, and measuring the various ways that they return to the device. This is a tried-and-true method, but can be expensive and technically complex. [GeeDub] wanted an easier way of measuring vehicles passing by his home, so he switched to using sonar instead to measure speeds based on the sounds the cars generate themselves.

The method he is using is similar to passive sonar in submarines, which can locate objects underwater based on the sounds they produce. After a false start attempting to measure Doppler shift, he switched to time correlation using two microphones, essentially using stereo audio input to detect subtle differences in arrival times of various sounds to detect the positions of passing vehicles. Doing this fast enough and extrapolating the data gathered, speed information can be calculated. For the data gathering and calculation, [GeeDub] is using a Raspberry Pi to help keep costs down, and some further configuration of the microphones and their power supplies were also needed to ensure quality audio was gathered.

With the system in place in a window, it detected around 9,000 vehicles over a three-day period. The software generates a normal distribution of vehicle speeds for this time, with the distribution centered on around 35 MPH, slightly above the posted speed limit of 30. As long as there’s a clear line of sight to the road using this system it’s just as effective as some other passive systems we’ve seen to measure vehicle speed. Of course, active speed measurement systems are not out of the realm of possibility if you’re willing to spend a little more.