A common question we receive sometimes from our readers is asking to help spell out the differences between small-diaphragm and large-diaphragm condenser microphones. We’ll give you an annoying but honest answer — it depends! To be a bit more objective for you, it all comes down to a few minor details. One would think that the thickness or the diaphragm size of a microphone is only a design but behold, size does matter! In fact, the diaphragm is the most critical component in any microphone for determining the produced sound. It has a significant purpose with a technical explanation to it, but we’ll try to keep it simple.
- Large-diaphragm condensers
- Small-diaphragm condensers
- Pros and cons of each
- Important terms to understand
- In conclusion
Difference Between Large and Small Condensers
Here are a few key points to give you a straight-away answer before we get into some big details:
- Both of these can overlap when it comes to using each one, it will just depend on what type of sound you’re after.
- Large diaphragm mics are better at picking up a wide variety of the frequency spectrum but are preferred for low-ends as compared to small diaphragm.
- Small diaphragm mics help pick up the brightness of instruments and voices. They can help provide some ‘shimmer’ to your tracks.
- Small diaphragm mics are better for recording sources that have a higher Sound Pressure Level (SPL), or in Layman’s terms, are just louder in general (think snares or guitar amps).
- Sometimes we record the same source with both our large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm in order to capture a more fuller sound. We combine both recorded tracks (and maybe EQ them a little bit) and layer them on top of each other and find that this sounds great for a lot of instruments, such as acoustic guitar.
This type of condenser microphone, also known as large capsule microphone, is one inch or more in diameter. When many attempt to imagine what a microphone looks like, this is what they’ll picture in their mind. Large diaphragm condensers are definitely more popular in the consumer market due to their versatility in being able to record pretty much anything. Most microphone bundles come with a large-diaphragm. And nowadays, many of us are becoming more attuned to the home recording studios (thankfully so, we’re getting better gear and more power to recording in our homes instead of needing to rent out actually studios).
Because of the larger surface, it will respond well to lower frequencies, producing a fuller sound. Large diaphragm microphones are used (most commonly) on vocals, piano, drums, bass amps, and acoustic guitars.
The small diaphragm condenser microphone is half an inch or less in diameter. But many small diaphragm condenser microphones for audio recording use slightly larger capsules. Small diaphragm microphones, including pencil microphones, do not respond to lower frequencies as well as large diaphragm microphones do. Because these types of microphones have less mass to the diaphragm, they work well with higher frequencies.
They can be practically used on almost anything, but will work better on cymbals, acoustic guitars, hi-hats and rides, small percussion instruments or any instrument where a lot of detail needs to be captured and you want to hear the brightness of the sound.
Although the difference in size is not significant, but it has a wide range of effects on the microphone’s performance. If we can give you some advice — don’t be afraid to have both at your disposal! Here are the pros of each of the small and the large diaphragm condenser microphones:
Pros of small diaphragm condenser microphones
These types of microphones have uncolored and neutral sound, consistent pickup patterns and wider frequency range. Small diaphragm condenser microphones are usually preferred by sound engineers to record choirs, acoustic guitars, pianos or string ensemble.
Pros of large diaphragm condenser microphones
These types of microphones are good when you want a big and warm sound as it can make you sound nicer. These are generally used for vocals, voice-overs and some instruments. Large diaphragm condenser microphones have high sensitivity and warm sound around the low frequencies.
The following are some of the important microphone specs that you should be considering when you are going to buy a condenser microphone and don’t know which one is good for you; a small diaphragm condenser microphone? Or a large diaphragm condenser microphone?
Sensitivity and noise level:
Given the same input, a large diaphragm condenser microphone is more sensitive, hence giving a louder output signal and has lower self-noise levels than a small microphone condenser microphone. Self-noise is due to the active components of a microphone adding noise to the signal as they process and boost the levels of the microphone signal. Moreover, it tends to generate a higher output voltage.
On the other hand, the small diaphragm condenser microphone can be more rigid which can prevent other types of distortion and greater sensitivity because it takes less sound pressure to set it in motion because of its low mass.
Large diaphragm condenser microphones generally have deeper low frequency response with slight boosts in the upper range followed by slight roll-offs in their very top end. Since the diaphragm of a large diaphragm condenser microphone have a higher mass, its frequency is lower. Small diaphragm condenser microphones generally have very flat frequency responses that extend beyond the audible range.
The smaller mass of a small diaphragm condenser microphone helps it respond better to extreme high frequencies. An example of it would be cymbals. An exception to the “formula” would be an omnidirectional condenser microphone. Those kind of microphones, in any size, have a good low frequency response; it responds well to very low frequencies, no matter what the size of the diaphragm is.
As you may already know, the proximity effect in audio is an increase in bass or low frequency response when a sound source is close to a directional or cardioid microphone. A small diaphragm condenser microphone tends to roll off more at low frequencies than a large diaphragm condenser microphone. The proximity effect emphasizes the mid lows in a small diaphragm condenser microphone, but emphasizes the deep lows in a large diaphragm condenser microphone.
In definition, a transient response is the ability of a speaker or microphone to start and stop exactly when the sound going into should start and stop. A small diaphragm condenser microphone responds quickly to transient sounds than a large diaphragm condenser microphone. Although some Large diaphragm condenser microphones react slowly to transients due to their size, but it is typically not noticeable.
Sound pressure level handling:
Sound pressure level is the pressure within a sound wave that determines the loudness of the sound source. So, usually, very loud instruments have a very high sound pressure level. A small diaphragm condenser microphone can handle higher sound pressure levels because of its build. To accommodate the larger diameter, large diaphragm condenser microphones are probably going to have a thicker diaphragm which will make them more durable in high sound pressure levels.
An off-axis coloration is a distortion or change in the frequency response of the reproduced audio signal. Most small diaphragm microphones have less off-axis coloration than a large diaphragm condenser microphones. This is due to the reduced mass of the smaller diaphragm which allows it to follow any air movement it is subjected to more closely.
A microphone’s address type tells us where the on-axis angle is or where the microphone is pointing, so that we can capture the sound in the best way possible. Large diaphragm condenser microphones are all side address. Whereas small diaphragm condenser microphones are usually top address, like the pencil microphones and can also be side-address.
Psychologically speaking, people think that a larger microphone condenser microphone in a singer’s hand at a performance is more appealing than a small diaphragm condenser microphone. Singers feel special when their microphone looks large and important.
So what is the difference between large and small diaphragm condenser microphones? Simply put, they are great recording tools for your intended sound. You should choose the right microphone for the right job. The more experienced you become with each, the better you’ll be able to interchange them when it comes to your work.
When choosing the right microphone diaphragm size, you should know where you are going to record it. The room you are going to record will relate to the type of sound you will get. That room might be good for a type of sound, but not so good for another. Another important question you should ask yourself when buying one is what are you going to record with that microphone? Where? How? Who?
Large diaphragm condenser microphones make the sound appear bigger, more engaging and beautiful. Use a large diaphragm condenser microphone to put vocals and other lead instruments. Choose a large diaphragm condenser microphone when the application requires the following:
- Low noise and high sensitivity
- Deep low frequency response
- Good sounding proximity effect on singers
Some examples of these situations would be deep sounding drums, quiet or distant instruments or vocals, studio vocals, mic’ing a drum kit overhead, when the overhead microphone is the main pickup.
On the other hand, small diaphragm condenser microphones give you neutral, uncolored and very detailed sound. Use it to capture sound just like it is. Choose a small diaphragm condenser microphone when the application requires the following:
- Extended high frequency response
- Excellent transient response
- Increased directivity
- Flatter frequency response
- Lower handling noise
- Low off axis coloration
- Very consistent pickup pattern (which is very important) (Some examples of these would be orchestral stereo mic’ing, acoustic instruments, cymbals, percussion)
As we’ve said previously, it really depends on what you’re going to do with the microphone. For example, if you are going to record an acoustic guitar track by itself or with a lead vocal, it is recommendable to use the wide diaphragm microphone; reason being is that you want to get a full, rich sound. Whereas if you want to record a guitar track with a full rock band, it is recommendable to use a pencil condenser microphone because you want the brightness of the guitar to cut through the rest of the band. Yet in another example, if you’re going to use an acoustic guitar as a lead sound, it is recommended that you use a wide diaphragm microphone to get a fuller sound on the individual notes of the solo. Perhaps use both and experiment when you mix?
If you are on a budget, go with a wide diaphragm microphone, but if money is not an issue, then buy the microphone that works best for wherever the instrument will sit in the mix. Or both!
It is important to use the right microphone for the right application. So the best thing to do is to experiment and find the right sound for the project you’re going to work on. We hope this article of the difference between large and small diaphragm condenser microphones has helped you instead of confused you more!