If you’re putting together a home studio, its inevitable that you’re going to have to look beyond SM57s and SM58s when stocking up on your microphone inventory. The microphone market is flooded with so many different types of specialty microphones that its hard to keep track of what they’re all designed for. While the look of a microphone may change drastically, there are always some key words in the name of the microphone that will help you determine which is best for your needs. This guide will explain some of the various different types of microphones and their applications.
Microphone construction overview
Whether it’s a dynamic, small diaphragm condenser, ribbon, or large diaphragm condenser microphone, all microphones do the same thing: interpret sound waves into an electric signal to be later interpreted by amplifiers or computers. The technology for each different type of transducer is actually very similar. A small surface usually held in place by magnets receives sound vibrations. As the surface moves, the pattern of its movement is translated into the electric sound signal. This is not all that different from how our ears process sound, with our tympanic membrane receiving vibrations and our brains interpreting that vibration as sound.
The type of technology method used for the transducer in a microphone is probably the single largest factor in what that microphones best application will be. The next largest factor would be the housing of the transducer. When we think of a microphone, we often imagine those handheld microphones with the ball-shaped grill on the top that we speak into. Most often, microphones of that shape have a directional cardioid pattern. If you have more questions about what some of these terms mean, our microphone specification guide may help clarify a bit more.
The different microphone polar patterns
Here is a quick review on polar patterns:
- Omnidirectional: These microphones have equal sensitivity at all angles. An omnidirectional mic can be placed at the center of a room faced in any direction and would be able to pick up sound coming from anywhere in the entire room.
- Bidirectional: More commonly referred to as “figure 8” polar patterns pick up sound at equal levels from the front and rear of a microphone, but do their best to ignore sound from the sides.
- Cardioid: These mics have the most sensitivity at the front however this sensitivity begins to taper off around the sides reaching a null point with no sensitivity in the rear. These microphones are best used when monitor speakers are being used since it will help reduce feedback risk.
- Supercardioid: Similar to cardioid microphones, this microphone polar pattern offers great sensitivity in the front with a bit more focused pattern making the microphone more directional and less likely to pick up unwanted sounds in loud environments. This pattern however does have some rear sensitivity.
There are however various types of microphone enclosures that lend themselves to different polar patterns. Take for example this large diaphragm condenser microphone pictured above. This is not a handheld microphone, and the construction of this microphone does not allow you to speak down into the top of the microphone the same way you would into your typical dynamic microphone. Microphones that look like this are often designed to be placed parallel to and in front of their sound source. Sometimes, you may even find microphones that look similar to this with omnidirectional or bidirectional polar patterns.
The different types of microphones
The two most common words you’ll see when shopping for microphones are “Dynamic” and “Condenser.” Think of these two types of microphones as very broad generalizations for several different types of microphones that fit into either one of these types. The difference between the two types of microphones is their transducer technology.
These have a thin plastic membrane that initially receives the vibration from sound waves. Fixed underneath that membrane is a circular wire coil called a “voice coil” that floats in a magnetic field created by a permanently fixed magnet. The motion created by the vibrating membrane carries over to the voice coil and as that voice coil moves in its magnetic field, it creates a unique electric signal depending on the types of vibrations picked up by the membrane.
Dynamic microphones are typically known for their rugged construction, durability, and range. A dynamic microphone can do a decent job of recording almost any type of sound. This particular method of transducer technology is best when applied to recording louder sounds.
These types of microphones also contain a thin membrane this time made out of very thin metal or sometimes metal-coated plastic. Behind this membrane there is a small pocket of empty space between the membrane and an electrically charged backplate, known as a capacitor or a condenser (this is where this type of microphone gets its name).
Because the back-plate is electrically charged and the membrane is either thin metal or coated with metal, there is a magnetic field that is created in the space between the two surfaces. As sound waves cause the membrane to vibrate, the motion of the membrane and the movement in the electric field create the electric signal.
The electric charge on the backplate has to come from somewhere. As such, condenser microphones is a microphone type that will often require either batteries, or a feature on your mixer known as “phantom power.” Phantom power sends a small boost of power from the mixer to the microphone to power this backplate and boost the signal.
This more complex design leads to a transducer that can pick up extremely soft sounds with precision. Unlike dynamic microphones, condenser microphones can easily be overloaded with sound. Condenser microphones would not be your best bet when recording an extremely loud guitar amp. The difference between dynamic and condenser microphones isn’t as cut and dry, however.
Now that we’ve covered the two main types of transducer technologies in microphones, lets talk about some of the subcategories:
Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
This microphone type is exactly what it sounds like: condenser technology with large parts. This microphone is the industry standard for recording vocals. As such, it should be one of the first microphones you purchase for your home studio. These microphones can also be used for recording acoustic guitar or piano.
These microphones typically come in a cardioid pattern where usually the side of the microphone with the logo or branding is the side of the microphone that is “hot.” Sometimes these microphones will be bidirectional, or even come with a toggle to switch back and forth between cardioid and bidirectional.
An excellent large diaphragm condenser mic for your studio would be this Rode NT1A Anniversary Package. This package comes with a free XLR cable, protective sleeve, and even a pop filter.
Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
Again, this one is pretty self-explanatory. These microphones are commonly referred to as “pencil mics” thanks to their long narrow cylindrical shape. The small construction of this microphone makes it perfect for capturing higher and brighter tones.
You’ll typically find this microphone used for cymbals when recording a drum set and you’ll almost always see one of these aimed at the hi-hat. These can also be mixed and matched with large diaphragm microphones to pick up the brighter sounds that a large diaphragm microphone might not pay attention to.
My recommendation is the Rode M5 Matched Pair. As stated earlier, you’ll often see these microphone types used when miking the cymbals on a drum set. For this application, you’ll always want to use a matched pair to create a stereo channel. You might as well buy the matched pair to begin with. Rode also makes very high quality microphones and these are reasonably priced.
These microphones are specifically designed for picking up low-end frequencies like those produced by a bass drum or a bass amp. My recommendation is usually to use a direct box for recording the bass, so if you’re going to purchase a bass microphone you might as well purchase one tailored for a bass drum.
Bass mics use dynamic transducer technology. They’re larger than your average dynamic mic, which is to accommodate the lower vibrations created by bass instruments. As a drummer who has played live at hundreds of different venues and recorded in various studios, the bass mic that I’ve seen used more than any other is the Shure Beta 52A. The design of this microphone makes it very easy to use. It is manufactured to fit perfectly into a typical bass drum hole and comes with the adapters to fit on any microphone stand.
Ribbon microphones are the only types of microphones in this article that do not fall into the condenser or dynamic categories. They have a transducer technology that is completely differentfrom others. In a ribbon microphone, a small ribbon like sheet of metal will be suspended between two magnets on either side. As sound waves reach that ribbon, the vibrations are picked up by the magnets at each side.
Modern ribbon microphones are among the most efficient when it comes to output levels. When ribbon microphones were first introduced, they were brittle and delicate. Thanks to advances in the manufacturing process over the years, they are now some of the most durable microphones out there. Ribbon microphones specialize in capturing high-end frequencies with great sensitivity to low volumes and low residual noise.
Wait a second… Didn’t we say that dynamic microphones are great because they’re durable and condenser microphones are great because their ability to pick up high frequency sounds? And now ribbon microphones are more durable than dynamic microphones and better with high frequency sounds than condensers? So then what is the point of buying anything other than a ribbon microphone? Ribbon microphones are by far the most expensive of the three different types of microphones. Often, you can achieve a professional level of audio quality with different types of condensers and dynamics.
Ribbon microphones are ideal for miking electric guitar amps. The Royer 121 is a microphone that has established itself as a staple in the recording industry.
Mic types conclusion
I hope this guide has cleared up some of the confusion around all the different types of microphones. In a microphone name, you’ll typical see a model number, a transducer technology, and a polar pattern. Now, you should know what all those words mean.