Things can get quite complicated in the world of microphones. If you’re a new producer, choosing a new studio microphone can be overwhelming and confusing initially. So, what do all of those different types of microphones mean for you? What type of microphone do you need for your specific needs?
Well, that’s precisely what we’ll be going over in this article. Now, the topic of microphones can quickly become very technical, so I’ll do my best to break down all the jargon as best as I can. To that point, before we can learn about the different types of mics and their uses, we need to first understand how these technical marvels work.
How Do Microphones Work?
Every microphone follows the same base principle. In every microphone, there’s a thin membrane. When sound waves come in contact with that membrane, it vibrates. From there, the energy created from the membrane needs to be converted into either an electrical signal or voltage in order to reproduce the source sound. To put it simply, we’re talking about a conversion of sonic energy into electrical energy.
One of the main differences between microphones lies within that conversion process. For example, each of the three main types of mics for studio recording —condenser, dynamic, and ribbon— has their own method of converting sound waves into electrical signals. Some microphones use coils, and others use capacitors, but we’ll get into all of that in more detail later on.
With that in mind, they still each have the same base principle in their design.
So, you have a capsule (sometimes called baffle) that houses the membrane (or diaphragm), but certain microphones have diaphragms that are larger, or smaller. That leads us to the next major difference between types of studio microphones.
The size of the diaphragm and the design of the capsule that houses it is one factor that delineates the numerous types of microphones out there. To better understand this, we need to break down each of the most common diaphragm sizes in detail.
Large diaphragm mics can pick up more sound waves, which in turn means a more robust vibration and better overall sound reproduction. They are typically highly sensitive and tend to be less resistant to a high sound pressure level (or SPL).
Small diaphragm mics can handle higher SPL ratings, which makes them ideal for recording instruments. Being usually front addressed, they are easier to position in a more precise manner. The capsule design is usually more durable as well.
Known as “hybrid,” medium diaphragm mics are not as common as the two other sizes. That being said, microphones with medium diaphragms are gaining popularity due to their warm, full sound while still retaining high SPL ratings. They are a perfect middle-ground between large and small diaphragms.
Outside of the diaphragm size, there is yet another key difference between the various types of studio microphones that’s important to understand.
While the diaphragm size plays a huge role in how a microphone converts sound energy into electrical energy, the polar pattern determines where the sound is captured in spatial and directional terms. Yet again, we need to break down the different polar patterns typically found in microphones to understand this topic better.
CardioidGalak76, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s only fitting to start out with the most common polar pattern found in studio microphones. Cardioid microphones capture sound in the front, while blocking the back and sides. This pattern helps to limit ambient noise while also making your positioning more accurate.
This pickup pattern is most ideal for almost any kind of task including live performances and studio recording applications. You can position this type of microphone away from reverberating parts of your room, which ultimately leads to a more faithful and reliable recording process.
Keep in mind that positioning is extremely important with cardioid mics. If your mic is even slightly off axis, you could introduce some unwanted coloration in your recording.
Hyper/Super CardioidGalak76, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As you probably have guessed, this type of polar pattern has the same front-address directionality as a regular cardioid pattern, but has two key differences. For one, it has a narrower, more precise area of sensitivity for improved accuracy, better isolation, and a higher resistance to feedback.
This pickup pattern works great in loud environments and sound sources with high SPL. The one downside is that there is a little bit of sensitivity in the back with this polar pattern, so you’ll have to take placement and positioning even more seriously here.
OmnidirectionalGalak76, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As the name suggests, this polar pattern is made to capture sound from all directions. There is no blocking whatsoever. As you might assume, microphones with omnidirectional polar patterns are excellent at catching any and all of the subtle nuances in the source sound.
Omnidirectional polar patterns truly shine when used for live recordings of multiple instruments and ensembles of vocalists. The only catch is that microphones with this polar pattern tend to be very sensitive to harsh frequencies, which means a lower overall SPL rating. They are also more prone to feedback. The point is, you need to go very easy on microphones with an omnidirectional pickup pattern in most recording scenarios.
Figure-8Galak76, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This one doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power to figure out. This polar pattern is made to capture sound from the front and the back, while blocking out the sides. Although it’s not the most common pickup pattern found among microphones, it’s still extremely useful and can be found in certain types of studio microphones.
Now, there are a number of different recording jobs that this type of polar pattern can handle well. For example, if you want to record two instruments simultaneously, then you can record them one either side of the figure-8 microphone and things will sound adequately separated. Outside of that, figure-8 microphones are exceptional to use for stereo recording tasks.
ShotgunGalak76, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Otherwise known as “line” or “gradient,” this polar pattern has a tube-like area of sensitivity. This makes for a super fine directional accuracy that’s even more pinpointed than hyper-cardioid. Microphones with a shotgun pickup pattern are mostly used for film and theater, but they’re not entirely useless in a recording studio.
The most common use for a microphone with a shotgun polar pattern in the studio specifically is for recording drum cymbals. Overhead drum mics are usually thin and cylindrical and feature shotgun polar patterns due to its resistance to ambient noise and its ability to withstand harsh frequencies. This pickup pattern is also inherently great for recording groups of vocalists.
Certain microphones are equipped with multi-pattern (or switchable) polar patterns. This is an excellent feature to look for in a studio mic for obvious reasons. For one, the added versatility of multiple polar patterns means that you can be ready for any recording scenario when it arises. Secondly, you’ll have more freedom with placement and positioning.
If you need to change up the pickup pattern on the fly, all you have to do is flip a switch. We’re talking about a level of flexibility that will improve your workflow exponentially. The only downside is that microphones with switchable polar patterns are typically more expensive, and the added components means that they require extra-careful handling.
The 3 Main Types Of Microphones Used In Recording Studios
Now that we have some technical knowledge about microphones in our back pockets, it’s time for us to get into the three most common types of studio mics used for recording music and vocals in a home studio environment. I mean, this is what we’re all here for right?
So, remember earlier when we went over how a microphone actually works? Remember when we talked about the different ways that microphones convert sonic energy into electrical energy?
Well, now we’re going to talk about that. The manner in which a microphone converts energy is the biggest differentiating factor among the various types.
Let’s start out with a quick overview from the infographic below, then we’ll break each type down even further afterwards.
First and foremost, we have the most popular type of studio microphone out there. Condenser microphones work by using a thin, ultra-conductive membrane that’s attached to a metal backplate. The membrane acts as a small capacitor (or condenser) as it moves back and forth against the backplate. This process creates “capacitance” and the resulting voltage changes reproduce the source sound.
In other words, condenser microphones use electrostatic technology to function rather than magnets or coils. This type of conversion makes for ultra-accurate high frequency reproduction, and a better overall sensitivity to subtle sound waves. Overall, the recording quality of condenser mics is detailed, crisp, and precise.
Condenser mics are widely regarded as the best option for recording just about anything. They’re particularly great for recording dynamic sources like vocals, but they can also be used for instruments. They also tend to produce a louder output signal as well.
All condenser mics require an extra source of power to work properly. I mean, these things are small capacitors, so it’s not that hard to believe. To that point, condenser mics need 48v Phantom Power and an adequate mic preamp for optimal performance. You’ll find mic preamps with 48v Phantom Power in most modern audio interfaces.
The sensitive nature of condenser mics means that they suffer from lower SPL ratings. It’s important to note that these microphones are not meant for extremely loud sound sources. Only use them for vocals, acoustic instruments like an acoustic guitar or violin, and really for capturing anything with subtle nuances. Don’t throw this thing near a loud amplified speaker cabinet and expect it not to burst the membrane.
On top of that, they’re typically far more expensive than other types of studio microphones and tend to be more fragile.
Dynamic microphones are the workhorse of the music world. They are commonly used on-stage in live performances and for capturing louder sound sources in the studio. Dynamic mics convert sound waves into electrical energy by using a movable induction coil suspended in the field of a magnet. When sound waves come in contact with the Mylar diaphragm, it moves the induction coil in the magnetic field, and thus, creates an AC voltage.
In fact, this conversion process is exactly how a speaker works, but in reverse.
This method of conversion is tried and true and has been used for generations. The electromagnetic induction process is far more resistant to high sound pressure levels, and the capsules are inherently more durable than those found in condenser mics.
Typical applications for dynamic microphones are more demanding. They can withstand a lot, and are perfect for recording loud sources like guitar amps and drums. They’re also excellent at reproducing sound in loud environments. They’re not quite as sensitive to subtle frequencies in the same way condenser mics are, but they aren’t terrible at detailed recording jobs either.
Overall, dynamic mics are a great all-around option for any producer. They’re versatile, rugged, and can handle a multitude of tasks with ease. You shouldn’t expect the same level of accuracy as you’d find with a condenser mic, but you can still achieve great recordings with a dynamic microphone.
Also, they’re usually much more affordable, which is a big plus. You’d be hard pressed to find a producer that doesn’t have at least one dynamic mic in their arsenal just to have it around.
Ribbon microphones date back to the early days of recording. They use an old, yet reliable method of conversion, one that is somewhat similar to how dynamic microphones work. Ribbon mics utilize an ultra-thin rectangular membrane made of aluminum that’s suspended between two poles of a magnet. When sound waves hit the membrane, it vibrates and creates an electrical signal.
Ribbon microphones used to be very popular. The light metal ribbon design allows it to capture the velocity of the air, not just air displacement. This makes for a rich and warm tone that is very unique.
All in all, the sound reproduction of a ribbon mic is natural and most options feature a figure-8 pattern. They can handle high-end frequencies with grace and are renowned for their detail.
The problem with ribbon mics is that they’re overly fragile. The metal ribbon is flimsy, and when it’s damaged, there’s not a whole lot that you can do about it. Thankfully, modern ribbon mics are sturdier and tend to last longer than their older counterparts. This has made them desirable among producers looking for that vintage vibe in their recordings.
Unfortunately, ribbon microphones have become a sort of niche item and their sought-after tone comes with a hefty price tag.
Large Diaphragm Vs. Small Diaphragm Condenser Mics
Okay, now that we’ve gone over the three main types of microphones, we need to step back to condenser microphones for a moment. This is something you’re sure to come across at some point. We’re talking about the distinct difference between large diaphragm and small diaphragm condenser mics.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones – as we went over before, large diaphragm microphones can capture more sound waves. This means more detailed sonic reproductions and higher sensitivity. The trade-off is lower SPL ratings and a more delicate design.
Large Diaphragm Condensers specifically are probably the most universally useful microphones out there. They truly are the best example of a recording studio microphone, and they can record just about anything and do it very well.
They handle dynamic sound sources with ease, and offer a loud output level. LDCs are responsible for those big, in-your-face vocal recordings that are in most tracks nowadays.
If you’re looking to record acoustic instruments and vocals, then a LDC is most likely the best route to go. They aren’t quite as resistant to high sound pressure levels, and their fragility is something you need to take into account. Again, don’t forget that you’ll need 48v Phantom Power to power one of these.
Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones – otherwise known as pencil condenser mics, SDCs are mainly used for recording acoustic instruments. They have fantastic transient response, handle top-ends very well, and have reliable pickup patterns.
They are typically more durable than a Large Diaphragm Condenser microphones and can easily be used for stereo recordings. The downside to SDCs is their tendency to to introduce more internal noise and a lower level of sensitivity.
At the end of the day, Small Diaphragm Condenser microphones should be used for stereo recordings and instruments. Large Diaphragm Condenser microphones are a well-rounded choice, but they excel at recording vocals specifically.
5 Other Types Of Microphones
The vast majority of recording tasks can be accomplished by using one or all of the three main types of mics that we just discussed. That being said, there are a handful of other microphone-types that are worth knowing about.
1. Multi-pattern Mics – we went over this before, but multi-pattern mics feature switchable pickup patterns. They’re very flexible and can add some flexibility to your recording workflow. They need to be handled with care due to the extra internal components though. They are also usually pretty pricey.
2. Bass Mics (or Kick Drum Mics) – this type of microphone was made with one task in mind: to handle low-end frequencies. They are great for recording kick drums, bass guitar cabs, or any other instrument that produces rumbling lows.
3. Shotgun Mics – again, we talked about shotgun pickup patterns earlier on. Shotgun mics are most commonly used in film and theater, but they can find use in the studio as an overhead drum mic for cymbals. The tube-like design on a shotgun mic makes it great at handling harsh high frequencies, so there are a number of other uses one could find for one in a recording studio as well.
4. Boundary Mics – these mics are pretty unique, and they really only have a couple of different uses. These mics are meant to be mounted on a wall to record audio in a conference room, church choir, or theater stage environment. They don’t suffer from comb filtering due to the mounted design, which makes them great for recording kick drums if placed on the shell. Outside of that, there’s not a lot you can do with a Boundary mic in the studio short of a room mic for general purposes.
5. USB Mics – ah yes, the old USB microphone dilemma. These types of microphones have tiny internal mic preamps that utilize USB bus power through your computer to operate. They aren’t the most accurate mics in the world, and are better suited for hobbyists. They are not recommended for use in a serious recording studio or streaming studio.
Microphone Use By Application
So, now that we’ve tackled the big stuff, you’re probably wondering what microphone to use and when to use it. To make this easier to digest, let’s go over all of the common recording scenarios in the studio and discover which microphone will be best suited for the task from there.
There are a number of different types of microphones that can be used for recording vocals. With that, the best choice is usually a Large Diaphragm Condenser mic due to their ability to capture subtle nuances and their high level of sensitivity.
That being said, you can just as easily use a ribbon mic if you want more of a vintage tone. Certain dynamic mics, like the Shure SM7B, are famed for their vocal recording quality as well. You have choices, but again, LDCs are probably the safest bet here.
Recording Acoustic Instruments (Acoustic Guitar, Violin, etc.)
Once again, Large or Small Diaphragm Condensers are probably the best options for recording acoustic instruments. Outside of that, ribbon microphones with a figure-8 pickup pattern will work quite well too. A solid dynamic mic is never a bad choice for recording instruments either.
In all actuality though, LDCs and SDCs are still the best overall choice here. Acoustic guitars in particular are a pretty dynamic source that produce an array of sound waves across the spectrum. You’ll need a microphone that’s made to capture all of that energy without missing out on anything valuable.
Electric Guitar Amps
Amplified guitar cabinets are extremely loud, and they can take their toll on a microphone. You need something that’s ultra-resistant to high sound pressure levels, which where Small Diaphragm Condensers truly shine. If you can, you should opt for an SDC that has a hyper/super-cardioid polar pattern and place it right in front of the speaker cabinet.
Ribbon mics can be used here as well, but you certainly shouldn’t place it very close to the cabinet as you run the risk of breaking the flimsy membrane.
The obvious option here is a bass mic for the kick drum. For the rest of the kit, you’ll need a set of cardioid dynamic mics that can handle high sound pressure levels. You’ll also need either SDCs or ribbon mics as overheads for the hats and cymbals.
Certain microphone manufacturers have specially made kits for recording drums. These kits will feature various types of microphones for each part of your drum kit. This is probably the best route to go so you’re not spending too much money piecing together your own set of mics one by one.
Live Vocal Performances
The only choice here is a dynamic microphone. Dynamic mics are durable, resistant to loud environments, and are cheap enough to replace should you do any damage.
Remember, vocal recording tasks in a studio are a completely different entity than live performances.
What Does All Of This Mean For You?
The truth is, none of what we’ve gone over here is set in stone. As you gain more experience as a producer or recording engineer, you’ll learn a number of different tricks of the trade. You’ll start to experiment with different techniques and you’ll realize that most microphones are capable of capturing almost anything you could possibly throw at them.
Microphones in general are amazing, and really are modern marvels of technology. Now that you know the basics, you’re ready to start creating your own awesome recordings. This is definitely one of the most important pieces of studio equipment you’ll invest in, and it never hurts to have multiple mics for different scenarios.
As always, feel free to reach out with any questions you may have. Now, it’s your turn to get out there and record something great!