Trying to decide on the right mic for you?
Needless to say, choosing the right microphone – especially if it’s your first – can be kinda daunting.
Microphones are such a fundamental part of the recording process that nowadays there’s an overwhelming amount of choice.
Each has their pros and cons, but all have one thing in common: if not used correctly, they can have inferior results.
Quality > quantity
However, bear in mind that you don’t actually need that many microphones. Most are reasonably versatile and can cover a variety of scenarios.
There are numerous types of microphones used in both live and studio scenarios, but here’s the thing…
There just aren’t that many types to learn, overall. Great news for newbies, right?
Although production seems to increase every year and more models flood the market, the core principals stay the same.
By the end of this article, you should have a much easier time making the right choice for your purposes.
There are only 3 types of microphones
That’s right – all microphones are just a variation of these.
These 3 are the most common choices for most recording or broadcasting applications. In fact, most situations will call for Dynamic or Condenser mics; Ribbon mics are more of a specialty.
The main differences between them is sensitivity and their tonal characteristics. I’ll go into this later.
It’s been said a thousand times because it’s a well-known fact: Dynamic microphones are the workhorse microphone of both stage and studio.
Dynamic microphones have a Unidirectional/Cardioid pattern, named as such because it’s the shape of a heart. It picks up sound from the direction it is pointing, while canceling out sound behind it.
This is especially helpful in home recording studios where they can’t always be set up in the most ideal rooms. Instead, you can place your recording mics to face away from problem areas in your room.
This makes them much easier to manipulate for better results.
Not particularly sensitive, but Dynamic mics are responsive to transients. They also handle high SPL very well, without distorting or being damaged.
They are a lot less susceptible to unwanted ambient noise.
Dynamic microphones are passive, meaning they do not need phantom power. This is because their moving coil magnetic diaphragm generates enough power on its own through movement.
Dynamic microphones contain a heavier, stronger diaphragm. This makes them ideal for recording loud sources, like drums and guitar cabinets.
Much more durable than Condenser or Ribbon mics thanks to a stronger design. Also more resistant to environmental changes.
They tend to be warmer and a little more aggressive-sounding than Condensers.
Best for low-mid frequency instruments. This is often compensated with a presence boost in the high mids.
Not ideal for low end instruments such as kick drums or bass guitars, as most dynamic mics have a bass roll-off.
Dynamic mics are generally cheaper than condensers or ribbon mics.
Dynamic mics are an all-rounder; they’ll work well for most sources.
In the studio, Dynamics can be either close- or distance-miked, but they shine when used on loud sources or instruments/vocals with a wider range in amplitude, such as:
- Guitar amplifiers/cabinets
- Snare drums
- Loud vocals in more aggressive styles such as rock, metal or even rap.
Live, they are also the preferred choice for their durability and feedback resistance.
Condensers are the types of microphones that are the sensitive, detail-oriented choice for higher-frequency instruments.
Condenser microphones feature more polar patterns than dynamics, which makes them versatile for creative, and even experimental, miking techniques.
Many Condensers feature variable polar patterns, and can switch between:
- Bidirectional, which picks up sound from the front and the back, while rejecting sound from the sides.
- Omnidirectional, which picks up sound from all directions at once, not rejecting anything.
Condenser microphones are extremely sensitive and can pick up detail that Dynamics can’t. They are ideal for softer and brighter sounds, as they are fantastic for picking up subtleties and nuance.
As a result, Condensers are favored in the controlled environment of the studio over live applications.
Condenser microphones are active, meaning they require 48v phantom power to operate. Phantom power allows Condenser mics to reach higher gain and record softer sounds.
Condensers are the most common configuration USB mics today. Please note that USB powered versions don’t require phantom power.
Condenser microphones are known for their fragility, and require care when being handled. Besides not being as sturdy as Dynamic mics in general, they are also susceptible to damage from high sound pressure level (SPL) sources.
Condensers offer much more accuracy, balance, clarity and detail than dynamics.
They are known to have a “sweeter” sound, thanks to a top-end boost that gives a little extra “air” or “sparkle” to what they pick up.
Condenser mics are generally more expensive than Dynamics as they are more complicated. However, thanks to advancements in technology, they are much cheaper than they once were.
Condenser microphones aren’t designed to be used on as many sources as Dynamic mics are.
They have more specific uses that sound a great deal better because of them.
Condenser microphones are used when you need to capture subtle nuances and details.
- Acoustic Guitars
With condenser microphones, there are 2 main diaphragm sizes:
What is a microphone diaphragm?
The diaphragm is what a microphone uses to pick up sounds. It consists of a thin membrane that reacts to sound by vibrating when it comes in contact with it. That vibration is what converts acoustic energy into electrical energy.
How it works
Consisting of a thin conductive diaphragm, the Condenser microphone works like a capacitor. Sound pressure vibrates the diaphragm, which produces the audio signal via changes in capacitance.
The result of relying on capacitance instead of actual moving coils is what allows for better fidelity and sound quality. Higher frequencies contain less energy than lower frequencies, meaning they don’t generate as much power.
This means that they have less effect on heavier diaphragms of dynamic mics, which is why dynamics can sound “muffled” in comparison.
The three main diaphragm types are:
- Moving-coil (as featured in Dynamic microphones)
The size of the diaphragm can vary, and affects the microphone’s:
- Sound Pressure Level handling
- Dynamic Range
- Internal Noise Level
Large Diaphragm Condenser (LDC)
The all-rounder (in terms of Condensers, anyway) as it can handle most tasks The recording studio staple. When you see studio microphones in movies or music videos, it’s a Condenser.
The Large Diaphragm Condenser is a versatile choice. It is effective on almost any source (so long as the SPL isn’t too high) and many models these days offer selectable polar patterns.
LDCs are way more sensitive than Dynamic or Ribbon mics. They also output a louder signal and can distort at high sound pressure levels.
The larger diaphragm moves easily and can react to even the subtlest difference in sound pressure levels. This translates to a natural, detailed and transparent sound which offers a detailed sound.
By far, Condensers are the best choice for vocals as they record a lot of detail and nuance. They are key to getting that ‘pro studio vocal’ polish.
Condensers also make great room mics with their tendency to pick up ambience.
- Other instruments
Small Diaphragm Condenser (SDC)
Also known as ‘Pencil Mics’ due to their thin, cylindrical shapes. Small Diaphragm Condensers have a compact design that is lighter and much easier to move around as needed.
They feature a great response to transients and offer consistent pickup patterns. This makes them ideal for accurate, realistic stereo recordings of ambient spaces.
The stiffer diaphragm of the SDC allows it to handle higher sound pressure levels, with a greater dynamic range.
Small Diaphragm Condensers feature an enhanced top end that helps them excel at recording brighter, high-frequency instruments with that high-end detail and ‘sparkle’.
SDCs tend to pick up less lows/low-mids.
In use, you would generally position an SDC at some distance from the source, rather than close-miking.
They work a treat on:
- Acoustic Guitars
- Acoustic Instruments
- Cymbals & Overheads
They are employed for certain realistic stereo techniques and serve as great room mics, too.
Ribbon mics were some of the earliest microphones (even before dynamic and condensers) that became especially popular in the 50’s and 60’s, not just in recording, but broadcasting too.
They’ve made somewhat of a comeback in demand for their warm, vintage tone, but despite this are still quite rare. You are not likely to encounter a ribbon mic in most cases.
Ribbon mics are always bidirectional/figure-8 polar patterns.
Ribbon microphones are the most sensitive mics around, above and beyond condensers.
They have an enhanced high-frequency sensitivity that enables them to capture higher sounds without abrasiveness.
They are designed to be used on softer, subtle sounds (vocals or strings, for example)
However, ribbon mics are the only ones – out of all microphones – that aren’t dynamic or condenser, but operate somewhere in between the two.
The ribbon microphone’s unique diaphragm is the reason why it gets its own category.
That’s because…it’s not technically a diaphragm. The ‘diaphragm’ is actually a thin ribbon made of an electro-conductive metal material that is suspended between magnetic poles.
Ribbon mics are extremely fragile, even more than condenser mics. Thankfully, some modern designs aren’t quite as fragile as the earlier models. However, they are still easier to damage than dynamics or condensers.
Note: Never supply 48v phantom power to ribbon mics as this has potential to destroy the ribbon! DON’T DO IT!
Back in the day, Ribbon mics were incredibly expensive. For the most part, they still are, which makes them a rarity in most home studios.
Ribbon microphones can be used on a variety of sources, from vocals, to pianos, to guitar cabinets…even drum overheads. However, it’s very dependent on the microphone.
Their warm voicings can tame excessive, harsh high-end frequencies on things like:
- Guitar Amps
- Drum Overheads
- Brass Instruments
They can also be used in tandem with dynamic or condenser mics for a more open sound.
The sub-types of microphones, a.k.a. “The Rest”
There are other types that can’t really be classed as one of the big 3, despite the fact that all of them technically are Dynamic, Condenser or Ribbon microphones.
Ironic, I know.
This is because they serve a very niche, specialized purpose and aren’t what you’ll generally encounter in the studio. It’s worth getting to know them though.
Multi-Pattern microphones are a particular type of condenser which, thanks to an unsual dual capsule design, allows you to switch between Cardioid, Figure-8 or Omnidirectional pickup patterns.
Basically, multi-pattern mics give you the choice to record in:
- A tight, focused shape in a singular direction
- Front/behind or left/right
- Every direction, all at once
Sounds pretty versatile, doesn’t it?
It is, but also keep in mind that – as with anything in life – something purpose-built for a specific task will always trump something made to multi-task.
In general, you won’t use these, so it makes more sense to stick with a condenser/cardioid polar pattern.
- Capturing the environment and ambient sounds
- Group vocals such as choirs, duets or harmonies
Bass microphones, if you couldn’t tell from the name already, are specifically designed for low-end instruments. They feature a unique frequency response for this purpose: a low-end bump and a scoop in the mids.
Use these for miking bass instruments, but they aren’t recommended for bass vocals.
- Kick drums
- Bass guitar cabinets
- Any deep frequency sounds or musical instruments
Given the name because of their resemblance to shotgun barrels, Shotgun mics are all about sound isolation. They are actually small diaphragm condensers with a pickup pattern that rejects sound from everywhere except where you aim it.
Shotgun mics are great for recording from a distance, as well as noisy environments.
- Shotgun microphones don’t typically find a use in commercial studios, let alone home studios
- Use predominantly for recording actor dialogue on set for TV or film. These are the boom mics you might see accidently drop into shot on old TV shows
- Shotgun microphones are also used in the field – think news reports, nature documentaries etc
Another one you’re not likely to come across too often. Boundary mics are mounted to walls to record entire rooms.
They can be used in the studio to capture the room ambience, which will provide more options in mixdown.
The main advantage of Boundary mics being mounted is that they don’t suffer from comb filtering issues like many other microphones do when used in pairs.
To many professionals, Boundary mics are considered essential, but if you’re building your own studio, these are pretty low on the priority list.
Boundary microphones are designed to recording entire rooms such as:
- Conference rooms
- Theater auditoriums
- Church choirs
- Room mics in the studio
Microphone polar patterns
A polar pattern is the area where a microphone picks up sound and where it blocks sound. This can vary, depending on the configuration used.
Polar patterns are frequency-dependent. They tend to be less directional at lower end of the frequency spectrum, and more directional at higher frequencies.
This is the case for pretty much all microphones and polar patterns.
Named for their heart-shaped pickup pattern, cardioid microphones are a combination of omnidirectional and figure-8 patterns.
They record everything to the front, while reducing pick-up from the side and rear.
Cardioids are the most widely used pickup pattern, as most recording sessions are about capturing each instrument individually.
It’s the most common directional polar pattern and you can’t go wrong with one of these for the majority of recording applications.
As stated previously, cardioids are widely used to focus on one sound source, while reducing pick-up from the sides and rear at the same time.
This obviously makes them a great choice for vocals, both live and in the studio.
They’re also useful for miking drum kits, where instrument separation can be tricky. Used correctly, a cardioid’s directionality can help a lot.
Cardioids are especially helpful in recording in untreated rooms with poor acoustics. The rear rejection can help filter out a lot of reflected sound.
With a pair of cardioids held at 90 degrees from each other, you can use the X/Y technique for a stereo image recording.
Supercardioid and Hypercardioid Microphones
Both are a variation of the cardioid shape, but with enhanced directionality at the front.
The Supercardioid has more front direction than a cardioid, and less rear rejection.
The Hypercardioid exaggerates these features even further, with an even narrower field of sensitivity.
These patterns offer improved isolation and higher resistance to feedback.
However, a side effect of these microphones is that this would also create a small area of sensitivity at the rear.
Supercardioids and Hypercardioids actually aren’t generally used in studio recordings, having more of a place in Film/TV or live scenarios.
Because of their inherent noise rejection, they are great for noisy environments (i.e. live) or untreated rooms. They also can tolerate a lot of gain before feedback.
Also known as Pressure Microphones, omnidirectional mics are non-directional. They are equally sensitive to sound from all directions, all at once, within a sphere-shaped area surrounding the microphone.
As a result, Omnidirectional mics have zero sound rejection. This lends them a more nuanced, natural sound. Unfortunately, this also makes them prone to feedback, which makes them less useful live.
- Capturing the sound of venues with excellent acoustics (cathedrals or amphitheatres, for example)
- Recording of multiple instruments simultaneously
- Recording ambient sounds
- Room mics (e.g. for drums)
- Wide sound sources, such as choirs or orchestras
These mics derive their name from the shape of their polar pattern, which resembles…you guessed it…a figure-8.
Figure-8s are sensitive to sound from the front and rear, and reject sound on the sides. In fact, it has the most effective side rejection out of all the polar patterns
They are a fairly uncommon pattern, used more on ribbon mics and only some large diaphragm condensers.
Capturing more of the natural ambience of the recording space, alongside the sound source.
However, their ability to isolate close-miked sources can achieve some excellent results, thanks to the side rejection.
They can be useful when recording two or more instruments simultaneously, and are required for certain stereo recording techniques, such as Mid/Side and Blumlein.
The shotgun mic, also known as the “Line and Gradient”, sports a polar pattern that is even more directional than hyper cardioids, thanks to its tube-like design.
- A much longer pickup range
- A narrower frontal polar pattern
- Side sound rejection
Shotgun mics are about as directional a microphone can get.
- Film, television and theatre
- Distance recording
- sports events and wildlife documentaries
- Overhead mics for things like singing groups or drum cymbals
Narrowing it down
Between the two you have 99% of situations covered. The other microphone types (including Ribbon mics) are so specialised that you’re rarely going to encounter them anyway.
My rule of thumb for beginners
- If you mainly want to record vocals, go for a Condenser first.
- If you want to record a variety of instruments, start with a Dynamic.
Once you get to know your dynamic and condenser mics well, then possibly consider experimenting with some of the others, like room mics, for example.