A Plethora of Microphones


Types of Microphones:

When attempting to purchase my first microphone for my home recording purposes, I was overwhelmed and flooded with information of the various types of microphones and their purposes. Depending on the instrument, range and type of recording there could an absolutely perfect or terrible mic for the job. After hours of research I decided to compile the information and a little extra into this article to explain how microphones work and what they can do.

Put simply, microphones convert the sound vibrations in the air to electrical signals. There are a range of specifications and varieties, which can cause buying a microphone suddenly turn into this big overwhelming decision.

Condenser vs. Dynamic:

Microphones fall into two categories: condenser and dynamic. As always, both have their pros and cons, but with a little research it is pretty clear which mic is best suited for your needs.

Dynamic microphones are the stereotypical mic that you see primarily in live shows. The mesh, metal globe encompassing the handle. These mic’s are generally used in live performances because of their durability and louder, more consistent output. Unlike, with condenser mic’s, there is not power supply needed which can also be advantageous if playing or performing without a mixing desk. Without getting to deep into the science of it, dynamic mic’s uses an inductive coil, and magnet that produces power when in use, or you could just say magic. It is actually quite fascinating if you look into it, but for time purposes, will leave it at that. Due to the mechanism itself producing both the sound and the power, the responsiveness of the mic, especially with higher frequencies is stunted. Dynamic mic’s tend to be less expensive in comparison to condenser mic’s as well.

Although condenser mic’s may be a bit more expensive, the price makes a difference. Condenser mic’s have much better sensitivity at all frequencies and because of that are much more commonly used for recording than dynamic microphones. Their sensitivity to sound also leads them to be much more vulnerable to damage and also any external vibration. All condenser mic’s need an external power supply. By using external power, an electric charge interacts with the sound waves in a much different way than dynamic mic’s but ultimately the mic is able to pick up on a lot of small variations in the sound that a dynamic mic couldn’t. The external power, called phantom power can come from either the mixing board, a pre-amp or sometimes batteries within the condenser mic itself. Condenser microphones usually require an external structure to shelter it from any external  vibration, but ultimately are a great option if used for recording purposes.

Reference: Which type of microphone should I choose?

Condenser microphones seem like a much better choice because of their “good sensitivity,” but sometimes that can cause a nuisance rather than an advantage. That is why a vocalist with condenser mic would use a “pop-shield filter” to prevent the mic from picking up on ever fragment of the singer’s voice.

On the other hand, condenser microphones are not suited for high-volume recording or performance, so dynamic microphones are mainly used in situations where loud audio is to be picked up. There are also many other specifications within the umbrella category of condenser and dynamic microphones.

Microphone Directionality:

Polar Patterns / Microphone Directionality:

Microphones generally have one of three polar patterns, which is the mic’s shape of sensitivity. Depending on the type, mic’s can either pick up or ignore sounds in multiple, all, or singular directions. Below, the chart illustrates the types of mic patterns: Undirectional, Bidirectional and Omnidirectional. It is important to think about the purpose of the mic, if you using the mic for vocals then usually you want an unidirectional mic. Otherwise, with an omnidirectional mic for example, the mic would pic up sounds from everywhere around you, not just your voice directly in front of the mic.  Other names for these polar patterns are cardioid, super-cardioid and hyper-cardioid.

Frequency Responses:

Different mic’s can also pick up different frequencies. This is important due to the range of sound each instrument will produce. Drums and bass guitars would sound better with a low frequency mic, because, for example the kick drum has a frequency around 30 – 40 hertz.

Other specs with different microphones include the sensitivity and proximity effect. Sensitivity, sometimes called the SPL or the sound pressure level. Mic’s with higher SPL levels would be able to withstand louder instruments, like drums.  The proximity effect is whether or not the sound changes depending on how close you are to the mic, no just the volume. Some musicians prefer mic’s with a proximity effect, because with each distance the mic will pick up different hertz and ranges of sound.

Are you buying a mic? It might be worth thinking over these questions before making a decision.

What are you your microphone for? Multi-instrumental? Vocals? Live performance? Recording?

What quality are you aiming for? What standards do you hold for your production?

Where will you be using it?