Building a Contact Microphone

Recording SetupAfter doing a little research on various websites and conferring with some knowledgeable Twitter acquaintances, I decided to try building a contact mic. What finally put me over the edge were the recordings at Tim Prebble’s fantastic website, The Music of Sound. Since these devices measure vibrations picked up through objects rather than air, the recordings take on an amazingly exaggerated character. This process renders audio fodder that is perfect for further processing into larger-than-life sounds.

The fact that a contact mic can be built for only a few dollars means that the barrier to entry is almost zero. Let’s take a look at the process of building one of these devices, and at the end I’ll link you to some monster growling sounds I made while testing the mic.

SuppliesFirst, let’s take a look at the required materials:

  • soldering iron and solder
  • piezo transducer (Radio Shack part #273-073A
  • 1/8″ audio jack
  • pliers

Optional stuff that I bought:

  • clamp for securing the mic to surfaces
  • heatshrink tubing for covering the wires
  • foam paintbrushes for covering the piezo, itself

Supplies

The first step was to break the plastic casing off from around the piezo element. Needless to say, patience is a virtue here because you have to snap off the housing a little bit at a time.

Since there’s a little hole on top of the casing, I chose to wedge in a scissor blade in order to cut out a little notch. Once I cut this little flap of the plastic, I used needle nose pliers to start pulling away the rest of he housing, bit by bit.

Chipping AwayOnce I chipped off enough of the plastic, the housing basically fell apart in my hand and it became much easier to pop out the wafer-thin piezo element. As you can see, there isn’t much to this device, so you’ll want to be gentle with it. However, they’re so cheap and quick to make that it won’t be a huge issue if it does get broken.

Heatshrink and Jacksleeve

The next step was to slip some thin heatshrink tubing over the wires coming from the piezo. I only did this as a simple way to keep the wires together and somewhat protected from the elements. (After I was done making and testing the mic, I used a hair dryer to shrink the tubing down, creating a snug shield for the wires.) Additionally, I unscrewed the sleeve off of the audio jack and slid it over the tubing so that it would be ready to pull over the jack once the soldering was complete.

The SolderNext comes the soldering. First, I tinned the two piezo wires so that minimal heat would be needed to solder them to the jack: When working with electronics this small, you can cause a lot of damage by applying extreme heat for more than a few seconds. Next, I connected the black wire to the large contact which protrudes from the bottom of the jack and the red wire to one of the contacts further up on the jack. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, just take a look at the picture and you’ll see the correct configuration.

Finished Product

After soldering, I pulled the sleeve up over the connection and screwed it back on to the jack, itself. All done!

Foam Brush

Since I was going to be using a clamp to hold the piezo firmly on various surfaces, I wanted some kind of padding to protect the delicate unit. While searching around in a hardware store I came upon some foam paintbrushes. These ended up being the perfect padding after I pulled out the handles, leaving just a piece of foam with a little slot in the middle. Just slide the piezo into the slot and clamp it onto a surface and you’re ready to record.

Now that the microphone was done, I connected an 1/8″ cable between the mic and the input on my Edirol R-09HR, making sure that the mic input mode on the R-09 was set to “mono.” I also did a few test runs in order to set the correct high-pass filter frequency and input level. I walked around the house, clamping the mic to various surfaces and listening to how they sounded when hit with various objects. The results were quite satisfying! Although I’m going to save most of these sounds for future posts, I thought I’d share three “monster growl” variations that resulted from clamping the mic to a piece of acoustic treatment in my studio while I rubbed my fingernail across the fabric.

This project was cheap and easy, and I can’t imagine being without one of these devices as a sound designer. What excites me most is that this little mic will open up even more options for creating original sounds while relying less on commercial libraries and stock effects. More posts will come in the future as I continue to experiment with different builds and surfaces to record on.

Building a Contact Microphone by

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24 Responses to “Building a Contact Microphone”

  1. thesimplicityOctober 29, 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    Wow. Contact mics sort of “just work?” There’s no need for a pre-amp or any kind of signal boost? That’s pretty inspiring.

    Thank you for the meticulous photos! I’m going to try making one of these when I have some free time. I can’t wait to try a few of these used in tandem with traditional mics for something like an acoustic fretted instrument.

    And I have to say, using the foam paintbrush is absolutely genius.

  2. adminOctober 29, 2009 at 10:41 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words 🙂 A contact mic needs a pre-amp to function, and my Edirol recorder has one built-in which is good enough for my purposes.

  3. ~Jon~ AudioGeekZineOctober 29, 2009 at 11:24 pm #

    I’ve built a contact mic too. I had the piezo element in my parts bin for a while, I think it came from a toy drum machine.
    I wired some dollar store speaker wire (about 10ft) to it and covered the top with hot glue to hopefully keep the solder solid for a while.
    I wired a 1/4″ plug to the other end to run into a DI box.

    For protection on the piezo I used a bit of mousepad superglued around it

  4. Mark TOctober 30, 2009 at 8:56 am #

    Awesome. Going to make me one.

  5. Joe GilderOctober 30, 2009 at 9:04 am #

    Nice. You sound design guys are so much cooler than me. 🙂 Those growls sound great.

  6. Mark TOctober 30, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    Nick, I wanted to buy one of your courses. Will you be accepting Paypal in the future?

  7. adminOctober 30, 2009 at 10:38 am #

    @Joe haha, glad you enjoyed 🙂

    @Mark I’m still working it out in my site design, but I actually do accept Paypal. Please feel free to contact me through the site and let me know what you were interested in and I can generate a button for you. Thanks for the interest!

  8. MiguelOctober 30, 2009 at 11:36 am #

    Great post, Nick! Very instructive 🙂

  9. JasonNovember 8, 2009 at 2:39 am #

    Great tutorial. I built one of these a few years ago and mounted it inside my acoustic guitar. It gave a great distinctive sound.

  10. JasonNovember 8, 2009 at 2:40 am #

    Oh yeah, and the foam paintbrush idea is brilliant!

    • adminNovember 8, 2009 at 2:22 pm #

      Thanks for the nice comments, Jason. As you stated, contact mics are most often used to get a nice sound from acoustic instruments. It’s pretty amazing what such a cheap device can achieve.

  11. NeilMarch 3, 2010 at 12:56 am #

    Looking forward to trying this out! I ordered some of these:
    http://scientificsonline.com/product.asp_Q_pn_E_3035200

  12. NeilMarch 31, 2010 at 10:58 pm #

    Just built one of these – fun stuff! I think my favorite has been slapping it on a cookie sheet suspended by string. Makes a really unique plate reverb sound when you sing into it (some resonant frequencies get out-of-control, but a little surgical EQ fixes that up). I also started using a small (but powerful) magnet for attaching it to metal stuff — very handy for moving it around and exploring the sounds you get from different positions.

    • adminMarch 31, 2010 at 11:07 pm #

      Excellent ideas, Neil, thanks for your feedback. I’ll have to give the magnet thing a try for myself when I get some time this week 🙂 Do you have any links to music or sound design that uses contact microphones?

  13. NeilApril 1, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    I don’t have anything up now, but I’ll be playing with it more this weekend. There’s an elevated subway station right by my apartment, so that’s definitely on the agenda;) I was also thinking about trying ‘stereo’ — what happens when you mix two sounds recorded from different points on the same object?

    Incidentally, I heard an interview with Ben Frost on NPR’s Sound Check, and I think he said there are some samples in his recent “By the throat” album that were recorded from contact microphones placed on wolves while eating… pretty badass!

  14. NeilApril 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    Ok, here’s a few things I tried — these are totally unprocessed, so I’m sure there’s room to make something cool out of these:

    A couple trains coming through the station, recorded from a steel support pillar:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2998392/trains.wav

    My box fan starting and stopping:
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2998392/fan%20starting%20and%20stopping.wav

    Some crazy low-pitch thumps from my radiator (bass drum sample perhaps?):
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2998392/superbass%20drum%20sounds.wav

    I improved a song (3 tracks) playing/singing into a cookie sheet. I like the effect on the acoustic guitar (chords & solo), but not much on voice. I had a lot of noise, I think I need to buy a power conditioner…
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/2998392/singing%20into%20a%20cookie%20sheet.mp3

    • adminApril 4, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

      Thanks for sharing this stuff, Neil!

  15. JoelAugust 10, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    I’d be interested in hearing how a cheap diy contact mic like this sounds attached to the body or bridge of a bowed instrument, or to an acoustic guitar. In the past, I’ve used a “professional” piezo bridge pickup on violin, and I’m wondering how it compares to a cheaply made one. I’m guessing that it could be pretty similar. When I have time, I definitely want to try making my own. It looks like a very fun useful project and I’m loving the sounds.

    • NickAugust 10, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

      I haven’t had a chance to do this yet since I don’t have any bowed instruments around the house, although I have been thinking about creating an improvised one.

  16. archosAugust 26, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    Great instruction, thanx! i made my one. but few questions –

    is there a mono cable connection? can one piezo transductor give out a stereo or for stereo it should be splitted double?

    • archosAugust 26, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

      oops i missed – its a mono. so second question is actual

  17. TJMay 29, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    How about connecting a piezo mic to a laptop or mic in on a PC sound card?

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  2. Want Some Free Samples for your Multimedia Project? #twsfx | Nick's Tutorials - February 18, 2010

    […] in the pack:  I've provided a number of contact microphone recordings in both unprocessed and processed forms.  These samples would work well as […]

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