I recently attempted to record a meeting for a project taking place in a somewhat noisy cafeteria. Unfortunately, I discovered that phones have tremendous difficulty picking up human voice over background noise at even just 6 feet away.

This somewhat surprises me, as my human ear had no trouble in distinguishing these voices at this distance.

This doesn't just seem to be a problem with phone microphones easier. I've noticed that, when using hand-held microphones, I've had to keep my mouth just inches away.

What mechanical property of microphones differs from the human ear leading to their dramatically reduced sensitivity? Why can't someone develop a high end microphone that can lock onto a conversation despite noise and distance like the human ear can?

  • You might try using highly directional mics (supercardioid, shotgun, etc) if your situation allows it in order to reject as much unwanted background noise as possible. – uint128_t Jul 5 '17 at 6:10

It's not the ear can can differentiate a voice from background, it's the brain.

It can use the minute differences in timing that a sound arrives at each ear (known as the Haas or Precedence Effect) to precisely place a sound source in space, & we are so attuned to picking out conversation that a human voice is easily differentiated & understood.

The human ear/brain combination is also tuned quite specifically to the frequencies a human voice uses.

A microphone can do none of this.
It can only hear what is there, it cannot differentiate what is wanted sound & what is unwanted.
It cannot rely on the Haas effect for placement in space, even when using a stereo pair.
Binaural recordings are an attempt to recreate this effect using a dummy head with microphones in the 'ears'. (Results are less than perfect).

  • This does not explain why you don't understand the voice when recorded, even if recorded with a HQ stereo microphone and played through HQ headphones. – yo' Jul 3 '17 at 16:38
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    Headphones push the sound straight at your ears. No 360° sound, no Haas effect. Stereo is not binaural. – Tetsujin Jul 3 '17 at 16:40
  • Sorry, I lost you. So there is a difference between two ears places at 20cm distance and two microphones placed there? You speak about the effect of having 2 ears, and I don't see a difference between 2 ears and 2 sets of microphone-recorder-player-speaker. (I mean, I see a difference, but not from the sound point of view, given all four devices are perfect) – yo' Jul 3 '17 at 16:42
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    Microphones do not get Haas effect, as there's no 'head' to have to go round. There is no method [& I include binaural in that sweeping generalisation] that can recreate the Haas effect on speakers or headphones. The brain just doesn't reconstruct the full 360° sound-field from 2 speakers, wherever they are placed, it perceives only left-right differentiation, including the physically impossible "sounds in the middle of your head" phenomenon. – Tetsujin Jul 3 '17 at 16:45
  • Yet this has nothing to do with the OP, it's now just gone off on its own journey. Also, if people are still publishing research papers on it rather than selling it to the mass-market, let's say "it's not there yet." & no, they are not mutually exclusive; one is a subset of the other. I said stereo is not binaural, I didn't say binaural is not stereo. The proponents of it claim it can be encoded in just 2 channels... that makes it 'stereo'. – Tetsujin Jul 3 '17 at 17:41

Let me start by addressing the lack of microphones that can do this. There isn't one. We have specialized highly directional microphones that can pick up very specific points at fairly long distances, however they require being very carefully aimed.

The area that a microphone picks up sound from is called the pickup pattern. Most consumer mics (and many professional ones) use either omni-directional (picking up in all directions) or cardioid (picking up mostly in the general front of the mic, but a little bit all around). There are also shotgun mics which are typically rather long mics which use super cardioid or hyper cardioid patterns that are much more highly targeted in picking up only sound directly in front of them. There are also specialized distance mics that use large reflectors to direct sound from a particular source.

The reason the microphone can't discern the sound is a combination of the wide pickup pattern (which means it gets sounds coming from all directions) and the fact that the intensity of sound falls off very quickly, so it doesn't take much distance for the actual "volume" of the sound to drop off to the point it is a similar level to that of the surrounding background noise.

So this only leaves the question why you, as a human, can understand what they are saying still when you are in the room. The answer to this is actually very similar to the pickup patterns of the mics, but much more complicated in practice. A microphone hears from a particular point, your ears hear from two points and compare between them. Your brain is very, very good at processing what it hears and can localize the source of sounds based on the delay between when sound reaches your ears and subtle ways that the shape of your head and ears impact the sound. The end result is that your brain can isolate the speaker and only pay attention to information coming from that source while filtering out the noise that doesn't matter to it.

There actually are forms of binaural recordings that use multiple microphones and sometimes even a mannequin head to achieve a recording that can be played back on headphones to produce something which sounds more natural as if you were physically in the space the recording occurred. HRTF (head related transform function) is a technique of modeling the impact to sound from the delays and changes your head and ears make and allows producing virtual surround sound with only a pair of headphones.

Both binaural recordings and HRTF sources use the same principles, it just differs in whether it results from an actual recording or from simulation of what a recording would capture. Either way, they are both utilizing the same property of our ability to localize sound with our brains very complicated signal processing, which is the same signal processing that lets you listen to someone in a noisy room.

  • Note that you can even influence the clarity of which you are hearing individual voices in a crowd (at least I can). If sitting at a table with several people talking at the same time, I can either "zone out" and kind of "defocus my ears" (obviously not at all in the same way like you would the eyes) by "not listening". All sounds will fuse together. But when I concentrate on one person (probably involving also looking at them), I can easily pick them out again. The brain is a great DSP. – AnoE Jul 3 '17 at 15:31

Apparently you used a phone microphone. Not all that surprisingly, they are built to make use of the proximity effect in order to emphasize the speaker over the background.

You would have been a lot better off with a more suitable microphone characteristic. For blending out background noise, a hypercardioid is likely not all that bad. Cardioids are even less sensitive for noise behind them, but have a wider area of focus. Shotguns are fine for capturing a single static speaker but are not all that good for conversations.

If you want to use a phone, just putting it flat in the middle of the table is likely your best choice.

Singers' microphones are built specifically to make use of proximity effect. Don't use them when not actually placing microphones right in front of speakers.

  • At a distance, a cardioid pickup pattern is still going to pick up far too much noise. It makes sense as a cardioid lav placed on a podium, but not for recording at a distance. Also, a phone's speakerphone mic isn't making use of proximity effect as they are far too far away from the speaker for it to be effective. It's simply an omni-directional mic picking up anything in the room. – AJ Henderson Jul 6 '17 at 13:51

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