No home studio is complete without a good quality microphone.
However, finding a quality mic is usually easier said than done, especially if you are in the market for this equipment for the first time.
Many people end up wasting a lot of time and money simply because they are unaware of the different types of microphones and their intended uses.
While they all serve the same primary purpose – converting sonic energy into an electrical signal – the fact remains that different mics are designed to work with different instruments and in different settings.
So, if you want your soundtrack to sound like it was recorded in a professional studio, it’s imperative that you learn more about the types of mics available in the market.
In this guide to different microphone types, we cover:
- Main types of microphones
- Condenser mics
- Dynamic mics
- Difference between the condenser and dynamic mics
- Other types of mics
Main Types of Microphones
The different types of microphones available in the market can be broadly classified into two main categories, namely, condenser microphones and dynamic microphones.
Many acousticians identify a third main category too, ribbon microphones. But these mics are generally only used in professional recording studios.
We’ll shed some more light on ribbon mics later.
But for now, let’s take a more in-depth look into the two most popular microphone types that are commonly used by amateurs recording in their home studios.
Condenser mics get their name from their internal circuitry that uses capacitors to recreate and record an audio signal.
Capacitors were originally known as condensers, hence the name condenser microphone.
A lesser-known alternative name for these microphones is electrostatic mics.
Condenser mics were invented in around 1916, and continue to dominate the acoustic industry till date.
They are more sensitive than dynamic mics and are prized for their ability to accurately reproduce sound.
Condenser mics are powered by an external source and consist of a diaphragm that serves as a capacitor plate.
When you speak or sing into the mic, the diaphragm moves back and forth, consequently changing the capacitance value of the circuit.
The signal created by these vibrations is then recorded in an appropriate format for further use.
Condenser mics are useful for recording vocals as they help you capture voice in a way that sounds natural and more ‘transparent.’ They are also great for use with acoustic guitars and pianos.
However, an important thing to keep in mind when using condenser mics is that their high sensitivity also makes them susceptible to distortion from surrounding sources.
They can easily capture subtle nuances and cannot handle very high sound pressure.
You can avoid these problems by maintaining a certain amount of distance between the mic and the source of the sound.
Similarly, you can also use a popper stopper. It prevents the extra air pressure from moving the diaphragm and creating undesirable effects.
Condenser mics are suitable for overhead and ambient recordings too. They come with different features, and as such, have a varying price range as well.
High-end options can cost over $500 or more, although it is possible to get a quality condenser mic with the required features for under a hundred dollars only.
For example, this condenser mic by Blue combines affordability and functionality. It offers multiple controls, including recording pattern selection.
It is compatible with both Windows and Mac OS and can be used for podcasting, musical recordings, conference calls, and more.
Dynamic mics, sometimes also called moving-coil microphones, are a really robust option for recording sounds in a home studio.
Viewed as the ‘workhorses of the microphone world,’ you will frequently spot them on concert stages as they are the go-to vocal gear for live performances.
This is because they do an excellent job of handling sound signals with high amplitudes without creating the least bit of distortion.
When it comes to home studios, dynamic mics offer a relatively low-cost yet high-performance solution for recording in a less-than-professional setting.
They are cheap, durable, and compatible for use with a wide range of instruments.
Dynamic mics are based on the electromagnetic effect. They have the same ‘dynamics’ or the working principle of a loudspeaker, except that it is reversed.
While a loudspeaker converts electrical energy into sound energy, dynamic mics do the opposite.
They use the mechanical energy in sound waves to move the diaphragm, which, in turn, converts it to electrical energy.
Dynamic mics consist of a small induction coil suspended in a magnetic field.
The coil is attached to the diaphragm of the mic and moves every time a sound wave hits, what is commonly called the ‘windscreen’ of the microphone.
As this thin sheet inside the microphone vibrates, the coil moves alongside, creating a varying current due to the principle of electromagnetic induction.
Given their high Sound Pressure Level (SPL) rating, dynamic mics are the preferred choice for recording sounds from loud sources such as drums.
They respond well to transients, which means that with a dynamic mic, you will have no trouble capturing sounds that last for as little as a fraction of a second.
These types of mics are known for their versatility. They are suitable for use with a variety of sources, including guitars, bass cabs, and snare drums, to name a few. However, there are some limitations.
Dynamic mics do not work well in cases that require ambiance – i.e., recording faint background noises to give a natural, more authentic feel to the soundtrack.
Moreover, the results are greatly compromised if you position a dynamic mic too far away from the source.
Nonetheless, having a dynamic mic in your acoustic arsenal is never a bad idea.
In fact, a dynamic mic is a must-have for recording in home studios because it yields exceptional results when it comes to close micing and recording at close distances.
If you would like some suggestions, we recommend going for the Shure SM57. It has become the industrial standard for snare drums owing to the unique design that allows it to deal with the high-pressure sound that explodes from these instruments.
If you are on the lookout for a microphone that would help you get the rock-and-roll vibes from kick drums on tape, consider going for the AKG D112 instead.
Condenser Mics vs. Dynamic Mics – What Is the Difference?
Since almost all the microphones available in the market can be classified as either condenser or dynamic, it’s essential to learn what separates one from the other.
This will not only help you distinguish between the two categories but also help you decide which one is best suited for the task at hand.
So, let’s take a look at the different characteristics of these microphone types one by one:
In acoustic terms, the frequency response of a mic is defined as the dependence of the generated signal on the frequency of the input sound waves.
Put simply, the frequency response of a mic determines which instruments it can and cannot be used with.
The general rule of thumb states that condenser mics are designed for use with instruments with a high frequency, whereas dynamic mics are originally meant for use with instruments with a low to medium frequency.
This means that condenser mics work well with acoustic guitars, pianos, cymbals, and the likes.
On the other hand, dynamic mics are the more favorable option when using drums and electric guitar cabs.
However, this is not a hard and fast rule because various other factors such as diaphragm size, weight, and durability, as well as internal circuitry and feedback gain, affect the overall functionality of a microphone.
To understand how the diaphragm specifications affect the functionality of a mic, you first need to understand the purpose that a diaphragm serves.
A diaphragm is the main component that enables a microphone to ‘listen.’ It picks up sounds by vibrating whenever there is a disturbance in the air that surrounds it. It is usually made from a thin material.
The size of a diaphragm denotes the microphone’s sensitivity, internal noise level, dynamic range, and the amount of sound pressure that it can handle without any damages to this sheet.
Dynamic mics work at low frequencies because they consist of a comparatively bigger and heavier diaphragm.
Since sound waves with a low frequency have a higher energy level and vice versa, this means that waves with a high frequency will not be able to move the heavy diaphragm in a dynamic microphone.
These diaphragms are only responsive to sound waves with high energy.
In contrast, condenser mics comprise a relatively smaller and more lightweight diaphragm than that used in dynamic mics.
This allows them to effectively capture sounds waves of a higher frequency but distort the signal with a low frequency because its inherent energy vibrates the sheet too violently for the internal circuitry to accurately map it onto an electrical signal.
While the thin and small diaphragm in a condenser microphone makes it perfect for recording with high-frequency instruments, it has a catch.
The fragile layer decreases the overall durability of the mic.
You have to be extremely careful when using condenser mics around loud instruments because their high sound pressure level can easily damage the thin diaphragm beyond repair, thereby rendering the mic useless altogether.
Dynamic mics, on the other hand, are valued for their durability.
They are really tough mics that can not only take a beating in terms of high sound levels but also some from drumsticks as well – literally!
This is because dynamic mics have a more robust assembly and an overall structure that makes them less prone to wear and tear.
You might have to toss a condenser mic in the bin if you accidentally drop it while using it.
But as far as dynamic mics are concerned, you can drop them from a double-story building, and their performance won’t be affected in the least bit.
One of the main reasons why many amateur users struggle to get the most out of their purchased microphones is that they fail to consider the effect of the environment in sound recording.
As surprising as it might seem, weather conditions like humidity, affect the quality of recorded sounds.
If you don’t store the mics properly after use or use them in different places such that they undergo an extreme humidity change in any other way, their performance will decline sharply.
Dynamic mics are more resistant to environmental changes as compared to condenser mics.
So, if you are a hippie or a musician who’s constantly on the move, it’s best that you opt for a dynamic mic instead of other alternatives.
Gain Before Feedback
Gain before feedback (GBF) is a parameter used to signify the use of instruments in live sound mixing.
Feedback is a common, and inevitable problem in settings where sound producing and sound detecting equipment is being used at the same time.
Ever heard a high-pitched screech when using a mic? That’s your microphone entering into what sound engineers call an ‘infinite feedback loop.’
It occurs when a mic picks up the faint noise signal from its surroundings, amplifies and sends it back to the speaker, creating an even noisier environment.
Dynamic microphones have a high GBF value, which means that they cannot pick up subtle sound signals from the environment.
However, condenser mics cannot resist this open-loop feedback as effectively as dynamic mics.
Other Types of Mics
Ribbon mics are a somewhat antique type of mics. They are one of the oldest microphone types that were extremely popular during the ‘50s.
Ribbon mics have a high sensitivity to their surroundings. They are really responsive, even to soft and subtle sounds like those produces by strings.
Typically shaped like a disc, these mics are bidirectional and, thus, capture sound from the front and behind.
Ribbon microphones are good for people trying to produce warm and vintage vibes in their recordings.
However, remember that even the cheapest model of a ribbon mic can cost you a few hundred dollars.
Even if you are bent on purchasing one, it’s best that you resist the impulse until you have mastered the art of using dynamic and condenser mics to get the desired results.
Bass mics, as the name suggests, are a special type of microphone designed to work with bass instruments.
Most dynamic mics do a pretty good job at recording bass as they work well with low-frequency instruments.
But to really capture those low-end harmonics, using a bass mic is your best bet.
These microphones allow you to take the maximum advantage of high feedback gain. They have a large input-output ratio that makes recording the deep ‘thumping’ sound a breeze.
Bass mics are sometimes also called kick drum mics because they are the most sought-after option for kick drummers eager to bring their work in the public eye.
This ought to be a no-brainer.
A USB mic is, well, any microphone that consists of a USB port.
USB mics are a more modern version of microphones that rose to popularity with the recent rise in podcast marketing, and the increasing trend of using bedrooms and similar make-shift studios for recording quality audio.
The reason why they have become so famous is quite simple. Unlike standard microphones that require analog cables, preamps, and whatnot, USB mics are incredibly simple to use.
All you need to do is plug them into your computer and voila! You are now ready to start recording.
Since a USB mic does not require any analog-digital interfaces, most of the models are compatible for use with mobile devices like laptops and tablets too.
Another huge plus point of these mics is their affordability. If you are looking for a quality sound recording gear on a budget, look no further than a USB mic.
Boundary mics, sometimes also called pressure zone mics (PZM), are a common tool in professional studios.
However, you might also find them in certain home studios of dedicated musicians.
Boundary mics are an exclusive type of microphone. Instead of being positioned on a stand like an average mic, these sound recorders are mounted on walls or any other similar flat surface.
If you are looking for a mic to improve the quality of your audio on conference calls, boundary mics might be a good choice to consider.
Shotgun mics are normally used by news reporters and people recording outdoors, such as in wildlife documentaries.
This is because they are able to isolate the desired sound signal from surrounding noises.
You might not want to buy a shotgun mic because they aren’t typically fit for use in home studios.
But if you are interested in growing your mic collection and want to own one of every type, we’d say why not?
Choosing between the different microphone types can indeed be a rather daunting task.
But if you keep in mind the key differences between dynamic and condenser mics, as well as the main features of other types of microphones discussed in this article, making the right pick will be a piece of cake.