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It can seem very daunting to differentiate microphones, especially when there seem to be numerous ones out there. Additionally, picking out the right mic for what you need to do can be quite overwhelming. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. When you divide microphones into different groups, it’ll be much easier for you and it will all make sense. After all, a little knowledge goes a very long way.
If you’re uncertain about what a dynamic microphone is, what small-diaphragm condensers are, what a ribbon mic does – don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll be guiding you on the basic types of microphones and their uses.
Before we dive into the different microphone types, let’s first learn about polar patterns or pickup patterns. These patterns describe how microphones capture audio, specifically showing where mics listen spatially and which positions are blocked. Knowing polar patterns will also greatly help you in selecting the right kind of mic to capture the sound that you need.
Cardioid mics capture audio in front and block everything else. This pattern is front-focused, allowing you to point the mic to a sound source and isolate it from unnecessary ambient sounds. Due to that, cardioid mics are ideal for live performances and other situations where noise reduction and feedback suppression are needed. This pattern is highly popular in most microphone types.
These mics have a similar front directionality, however, they cover a narrower area of sensitivity compared to cardioids. They have an enhanced ability to reject noise and have a higher resistance to feedback. These can be used for loud sound sources, noisy stage environments, or untreated recording rooms.
Omnidirectional mics can pick sound equally from all directions. For situations that require ambient sounds or multiple sources, an omnidirectional microphone pattern will be a good choice. These can be used in studios, as well as venues with great acoustics. They can also be utilized for live recordings of multiple instruments as long as the noise level is low.
This type of polar pattern gets its name from its graphical representation, which looks like the number 8. They capture audio both from the front and back and reject sound from the sides. The front-back sensitivity makes these mics fitting for stereo recording and capturing two or more instruments. They’re essentially similar to omnidirectional mics but with sound rejection on each side.
Most microphones utilize a cardioid pattern as it’s a very useful pickup pattern, being able to record everything in front of it and on the sides while rejecting noise from behind. If there are other pickup patterns you want to use, this is where multi-pattern mics come in handy. These microphones usually have a switch on them that allows you to select different patterns according to your needs. These can include hypercardioid, figure 8, shotgun, omnidirectional, and the like.
In most cases, most people will only deal with three main types of microphones: dynamic microphones, condenser microphones, and ribbon microphones. These microphone types are generally the main choices used in recording and broadcasting situations.
Each type varies in levels of sensitivity and tonal characteristics. Moreover, they also feature different technologies to convert sound waves to electric signals. Once you get to know these three mic types, you’ll be able to easily figure out the right mic for your needs.
Dynamic microphones are pretty much the workhorses of the microphone world because they’re reliable and versatile. Employing a process called electromagnetic induction to convert sound waves, dynamic mics have a Mylar diaphragm inside, with a conductive coil attached to it. The sound waves move the coil in a magnetic field, creating voltage. Due to that, they’re sometimes referred to as moving-coil dynamic microphones.
Generally, a dynamic microphone is durable, reliable, and versatile. Dynamic mics are also able to handle high sound pressure levels very well. Live performances, guitar amps, horns, drums, and other high SPL sound sources work well with dynamic mics as the mics are less likely to overload and distort than condenser mics. A dynamic mic also has a capsule that tends to be less delicate than a condenser mic. Furthermore, unlike a condenser microphone, a dynamic mic doesn’t need any kind of phantom power to make it work.
Most dynamic microphones feature a cardioid pattern. Cardioid mics pick up audio directly in front of them and reject any sound that is off their predefined axis. This polar pattern adds to the suitability of dynamic microphones in live performances as it can pick out a singer’s vocals but not the sound coming from anywhere else on the stage.
Examples of dynamic mics include the Shure SM57, Shure SM58, and the Audio-Technica AT8004L.
Have you ever heard of the term “liquid microphone”? Invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson, a liquid mic was among the first working microphones to be developed in the world. It would be the precursor to what would later become the condenser microphone.
Sometimes called “capacitor mics”, condenser mics use electrostatic technology to function. A condenser microphone has a movable metal diaphragm attached to a fixed metal plate. Both are charged and have electrodes attached to them. The moment the sound waves hit the diaphragm, the distance between the sound waves and plate changes, creating capacitance and resulting in small voltage changes that imitate the original wave.
Condenser mics usually require an external power source to charge them. They require the use of phantom power from a mixer or an audio interface. Condenser microphones are typically chosen for studio recording or in a controlled environment with no noise and great acoustics as they can provide excellent sound quality. This also means that the sound won’t bounce around off the walls and back into the microphones.
The reason that condenser mics are chosen to be used in recording studios is that they’re extremely sensitive and they can capture sound details that other mics cannot. A condenser microphone is chosen mainly for recording vocals or for instruments such as an acoustic guitar, violin, and anything that doesn’t produce an audio signal that’s too loud. If you subject condenser mics to high sound pressure levels (SPL), you can damage the diaphragms.
Speaking of diaphragms, condenser microphones can be divided into two subtypes, large-diaphragm condensers, and small diaphragm condensers. While you may already have an idea about their differences based on their names alone, here’s a little more information about them.
Large-diaphragm condenser mics (LDC) are usually defined as having diaphragms that are 1 inch or larger. Typically, a large-diaphragm condenser mic is the first thing that comes to mind when a person thinks of studio recording mics. They work best for recording voices as large-diaphragm condensers have a well-rounded frequency response. Aside from vocals, large-diaphragm condensers are also great as room mics and for capturing finer details.
Many large-diaphragm condensers offer multiple microphone polar patterns, allowing users to switch between cardioid, omni, and bi-directional. There are also some large diaphragm condenser microphones that let users customize the polar pattern. Of course, any LDC mic will require phantom power from a preamp or audio interface as its power source.
Some examples of large diaphragm condenser microphones are Shure SM7B, Warm Audio WA-87, and the Rode NT2A.
Often called pencil mics due to their shape, small diaphragm condenser mics are the less-flashy cousin of the LDC. A pencil microphone is called as such due to its thin, small stature. They usually receive audio on the front end of the mic rather than from the side.
Small diaphragm condenser mics are about the accuracy and purity of sound. The sound reproduction on small diaphragm mics is more consistent across the frequency spectrum, making them ideal for situations where you need to record sound as close to its natural tonality as possible.
Unlike large condensers, small-diaphragm condensers are designed to handle higher sound pressure levels and a wider dynamic range. If you’ve seen someone play acoustic guitar with a mic positioned in front of them, they are most likely using a small diaphragm mic. Aside from acoustic instruments, hi-hats, cymbals, violins, drum overheads, and room mics are some of the most common applications of small-diaphragm condensers.
Some examples of small-diaphragm condensers include Audio-Technica AT2020, AKG C451B, Shure SM81, and the Sennheiser MKH 416.
Ribbon microphones are often called the rare beasts of the recording world. If you’ve seen vintage photos of broadcasting, the presenters would usually be speaking into a ribbon mic. Similar to dynamic mics, ribbon mics operate on an electromagnetic principle but instead have a strip of extremely thin foil that follows changes in sound pressure. That thin strip of metal is where ribbon mics got their name from.
Early ribbon mic designs were incredibly fragile. In fact, back then, if you moved a ribbon mic improperly or subjected them to high SPL, it would cause the ribbon to break. Despite their vulnerability, ribbon mics were prized for their warm, vintage tone. Nowadays, ribbon microphones are sturdier and more reliable, thanks to modern production and technology.
Although a modern ribbon mic is more durable now, it’s still recommended to handle them with a lot of care as they are still more susceptible to damage than a dynamic microphone or a condenser microphone. It’s also important to remember that you should not supply ribbon mics with a 48V phantom power as you could risk electrocuting the ribbon itself.
Ribbon mics are bidirectional, or have a figure 8 pattern, which means they receive a signal from the front and rear but not the sides. Often, ribbon mics are used to capture sounds from electric guitar cabinets or brass instruments. If you’re looking to record a vintage vibe, ribbon mics are what you should go for. You can also set it up in a combination with a condenser or dynamic mic to create an open-sounding track. They can also be used as a room mic.
Examples of ribbon microphones include the Royer R-121, Royer R-10, and the SE Electronics VR1 Voodoo.
We’ve learned the three main different types of microphones; however, we’ll be discussing five more microphone types that are based on their purpose. These microphones are all either condenser or dynamic but are built for more specific reasons, rather than the broad range that the main mic types cover.
Also known as a lapel mic, a lavalier microphone is a tiny mic designed to be clipped onto clothing or attached directly to the person’s body. They come in either wired or wireless varieties. A lavalier mic allows for hands-free operation in film, theatre, broadcasting, content creation, interviews, and more.
These mics have one key purpose in mind: to record bass instruments that are deep in the frequency spectrum. They’re frequently labeled as kick drum mics as they’re often used for a kick drum as the name implies, but they can also be applied to the bass guitar, cello, and the like. They’re designed to record nuances in the bass region and also have a low-end boost plus a scoop in the mids.
Shotgun microphones are small-diaphragm condensers that have a shotgun pickup pattern. This means that they will reject sound as much as they can from all directions except for the tightly focused area that you aim it at. Additionally, a shotgun mic has a very long inference tube at the front, allowing it to filter more sound from the sides. You’ll usually see shotgun mics used in recording actors on set for film or TV, recording sound effects in the field, or recording sound from a specific source from a distance. Boom mics also fall into this category.
USB microphones have become extremely popular in recent times due to the rise of online content creation. A USB microphone is a plug-and-play microphone, allowing almost anyone of age or level of experience to use it with ease. They’re generally used for home recording, streaming, podcasting, creating YouTube videos, and the like. Most USB mics in the market are large-diaphragm condenser mics.
A wireless microphone is any mic that has its signal transmitted wirelessly. They are used and attached to various types of transmitters that encode the mic signal and send it wirelessly via radio frequencies or matching receivers. A lot of handheld microphones operate as wireless microphones and they are widely used in a variety of settings such as concerts, musical performances, television shows, and such.
A laser microphone works by capturing vibrations off a smooth surface and transmitting the signal back to a photodetector, converting the reflected laser beam into an audio signal. Unlike the other microphone types, a laser mic isn’t suited for any general recording. Instead, it’s used for espionage and surveillance as it is highly discreet because the laser can secretly track sound over extreme distances.
An electret microphone is a type of condenser mic that’s widely used in cell phones, computers, and hands-free headsets. Their external charge is replaced with an electret material, putting them in a permanent state of electric polarization.
Choosing the right type of microphone can be quite challenging, especially if you have very little to no information about it. The three main types are the most important ones to remember, while the other types are mostly sub-categories that have their specific purposes. We hope that this article was able to help you out in learning the different types of microphones and that this will serve you well in your next microphone purchase.
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