Making beautiful music with smart MEMS microphones

MIG is very excited to announce that this article was featured in the “Top Stories” section of EE Times today.

By Karen Lightman, managing director, MEMS Industry Group

Remember what a big hit Guitar Hero was when it first came out? All of us air-guitar amateurs were able to justify and perfect our skills at playing in a rock band—all in the comfort of our family rooms. If you are a MEMS-nerd like I am, you may recall that MEMS played a significant role in the success of the Guitar Hero. (Without the tilt motion-sensing provided by the MEMS accelerometer inside, we might as well be playing “Kumbaya” instead of “Walk this Way.”)

After hearing the beautiful sound achieved with the high-performance MEMS microphone that Rob O’Reilly of Analog Devices demonstrated at Sensors Expo 2012, I have the same kind of anticipation for what kind of rock star(s) this MEMS device might unleash. Because what makes this MEMS mic so different is that the quality of the sound is so clear and perfect that it can make anyone sound like a rock star, sans the million-dollar recording studio. What’s more, my sources at Analog Devices tell me that this new “smart” MEMS is also lower cost.

What makes it smart? According to the folks at Analog Devices, their MEMS microphone technology provides a higher signal-to-noise ratio for better near and far-field performance, flatter frequency response and noise rejection, ultimately producing better quality sound. Throw beam forming, directionality and proximity response into the mix and you have a microphone for a wide range of applications.

With all deference to the Walt Disney Company, I asked Rob O’Reilly how ADI makes the magic. “With our MEMS microphone, we integrate more of the signal chain than any other MEMS mic by integrating a MEMS transducer with a proprietary audio ASIC that leverages our decades of audio signal-processing experience,” he replied.

In this video clip, you can learn more about the MEMS mic from my interview with Jerad Lewis, microphone applications engineer at Analog Devices.

There are several MEMS manufacturers in the MEMS microphone space including Akustica (part of the Bosch Group), Knowles, STMicroelectronics (jointly developed with their partner OMRON), and a few other smaller players. I don’t want to start a contest of whose MEMS mic is “better.” I happened to hear Rob’s demo, and was astounded by the sound quality.  I am all ears if anyone else wants to demo the amazing qualities of their MEMS microphone. Or you can hire me to record a little something for the Grammys. That would be good, too!

MEMS everywhere

Why is a smart mic important? For starters, in the consumer market a smart MEMS mic is optimal for high-end audio capturing applications/products like conference phones, studio mics, DSLR cameras, smartphones, tablets and headsets. The “smartness” of a MEMS mic will differentiate these products from their low-end (and low-intelligence) counterparts. But let’s not stop with the consumer applications, smart MEMS mics can also find themselves in other markets including industrial, health/medical, military/public safety, security systems, and you can take it from there. (I actually encourage you to let your imagination run with it—going along with my mantra and vision of “MEMS frickin’ everywhere.”)

Before I go off into further imagining a world in which everything has MEMS inside—and everything and everyone is smart (thanks to MEMS)—I want to emphasize why I decided to write this story in the first place: I was awed by the beautiful, accurate sound that the MEMS microphone enables and what it can potentially unleash in the music biz.

When Rob O’Reilly demonstrated the ADI MEMS mic, he played a compilation of several musicians who recorded tracks at Cybersound in Boston using ADI MEMS mics, including Silvio Amato, Miguel Pessoa and Aaron Flanders. The sound was simple elegance. Rob also played a rap song by Boston rap artist MillyZ, who on the fly made up the song “Analog Devices’ MEMS Mic Rap.” Imagine what you would record if you had the intelligent power of a smart MEMS mic. I think it’s time to get the band back together, dude.

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