The Different Types of Microphones

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The Different Types of Microphones

The World of Microphones

The terms and phrases around microphones can be voluminous, but it's important to understand some key factors in what defines a characteristic of a microphone. Often, these differentiating factors isn't a matter of "worse" or "better", but preference.

The Polar Factor

Every microphone has a pickup pattern, the direction in which the microphone picks up audio. The most common ones are "cardioid", "bi-directional", and "omni-directional.

Cardioid

Cardioid

Bi-Directional

Omni-Directional

Omni-Directional

"Cardioid" microphones pickup sound from the front and sides, while rejecting sound from the back. A "Supercardioid" pattern is more focused on the front with more rejection on the sides and a smaller pickup on the back. "Hypercardioid" is similar but with more noise being picked up from behind, but still focused on the front. "Bi-directional" mics pickup audio from the front and back equally, with rejection on the immediate sides. "Omni-directional" microphones pickup sound equally from all directions.

Dynamic

Dynamic microphones capture sound via a process called electromagnetic induction. What that means in practicality is that they are more durable and less sensitive than other types of microphones. Dynamic mics are great for live environments where they can be prone to damage and movement (the classic "mic drop" is guaranteed to be a dynamic). They are less responsive to transients but able to handle high SPL (sound pressure levels), which makes them ideal for mic'ing guitar cabinets. They are also often "workhorse" mics that offer a lot of value for the price. If you're a live performer, a dynamic is what you're looking for.

Condenser

Condenser mics use a capacitor (a "condenser") to convert sound waves into a signal. They need to be powered (often by a 48V switch on an audio interface), and are very sensitive to transient sound when recording. The internal components are also very physically sensitive. Therefore, these mics are meant for the studio environment. The most common way people hear a condenser mics are through studio recorded music, such as crisp vocals, clear strings, or an intimately captured piano. These microphones offer a variety of different polar patterns, sometimes switchable. Condenser microphones come in large diaphragm, usually used for vocals, and small diaphragm, which can be used in tandem with other mics to record instruments such as a piano.

Ribbon

Ribbon microphones use an extremely thin, conductive ribbon to generate a signal. These small, fragile mics are known for a warm, vintage tone with plenty of character. They don't capture the same transient detail in the highs as condensers, and are well suited to capturing guitar cabinets, natural room tone, or giving some character in the drum overheads.

The Recording

Ultimately, the choice of microphone boils down to your specific usage. Are you a podcaster or live performing artist? Do you need to record vocals only or a variety of instruments or sounds. Always make sure your decision fits the purpose of the recording.

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