So, you’re getting ready to buy your first mic, but you’re more than a little bit lost.
What is a condenser mic? Which polar pattern do I need? What the hell does phantom power mean?
There are a lot of questions to be answered before deciding on the perfect mic, and the most pressing of which is this:
What are the different types of microphones?
Understanding the different kinds of microphones and their different uses will not only power up your purchasing decisions but will open up a whole new world for you when it comes to audio production.
Right, so, let’s get straight into it.
The first thing you need to know is this:
There are different kinds of types of microphones.
The different kinds of types of microphones
When we’re talking about different types of microphones, there are a few ways to make this distinction.
In fact, there are three main ways to divvy up the microphone world:
- Type of element
- Type of polar pattern
- Type of connection
This guide is going to give you a rundown on each category, as well as recommend some epic mics to put in your mic locker.
Types of microphone by element
The first thing you need to know about microphones is that back when they were invented (early 1900s), there were a few different companies working toward the same end goal.
As a result, we ended up with a few different technologies that achieve the same result (capturing audio), but with different characteristics.
You may have heard of these terms before:
These are the three kinds of elements (the guts of a microphone) that mics come with. Let’s take a look at each in more detail.
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Dynamic mics use the means of electromagnetism to turn sound into electrical signals.
In a nutshell, that means that they have magnets inside them that act on a coil of wire to turn sound (vibrating airwaves) into a signal that can travel down a cable.
Okay, I hear you. Enough of the nerdy stuff.
What are dynamic mics good for?
By nature, dynamic mics are great at handling loud sound sources, and at rejecting background noise or anything that’s fairly far away from the mic capsule.
So, they are great for live sound applications, as well as recording in environments that leave a bit to be desired in terms of acoustic treatment (for example, at your house).
They aren’t so great at picking up intricate sounds (like softly plucked guitars or pianos) or very high frequencies (like the top end of cymbals).
Typically uses for dynamic mics include:
- Drum components such as kick, snare, and toms
- Guitar cabinets
- Bass cabs
- Live vocals and instruments
- Recording at home
Examples of dynamic mics
There are a tonne of dynamic mics available, and it can be tough to choose between them.
Here are a few that I’d say are the best of the best.
The Shure SM58 has got to be the quintessential dynamic mic.
It’s widely used for live sound applications, and you’ll probably find it on every stage in town.
There are a few reasons for this:
- The SM58 is built like an absolute tank, so it can stand up to the rigors of touring
- The frequency response of the SM58 has a nice roll-off in the low-end, with some subtle bumps in the upper-mids, which really brings vocals to the forefront of a mic
- It has a cardioid polar pattern (more on this soon) with a strong off-axis rejection. So, it picks up what you point it at and that’s all
If you’ve read any of my other posts on mics, you’ll know that I’m obsessed with the SM7B.
Not only has the mics been used by tonnes of famous recording artists (Michael Jackson, Anthony Keidis), and a bunch of podcasters (Joe Rogan), it’s also widely used for recording hardcore and heavy metal screamed vocals, a personal favorite of mine.
The 7B, like most dynamic mics, has great off-axis rejection, but this guy is even less sensitive than most dynamic microphones, making it a great option for recording in environments that are less than ideal acoustics-wise.
Plus, the SM7B has a cool broadcaster-style swivel mount, as well as a bass roll-off filter and a presence boost switch, which gives you a whole world of sonic options, almost.
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the MD421.
I love it, because it sounds so great. I hate it, because of the weird mic clip they use. When you’re miking up toms, they have a tendency to slip off the clip, especially when the mic is well used.
Other than that, though, the MD421 is a fantastic microphone with a strong boost in the upper mid-range, starting from around 1kHz.
This gives it a super forward sound in the mids, making it a great mic on bass and guitar cabinets, as well as toms and kick drums.
Dynamic mics are also very often used to mic up kick drums, and my favorite microphone for recording the good old kick is the D6 from Audix.
Audix is a slightly lesser-known brand from the US, but they build absolutely excellent microphones at a fairly affordable price.
Plus, their dynamic mics (D2, D4, and D6) offer a really modern sound, which is just what I’m looking for when recording drums.
For example, the D6 has a ridiculously scooped frequency profile, with a massive boost in the low end (around 80Hz), and another rising from 1kHz up to a huge 15dB boost at 5kHz and trailing off from there.
As a result, the D6 has a big low-end, and a very in-your-face, slappy, wet, attack-driven tone. It’s not going to achieve that vintage, jazzy kick drum sound, but that’s rarely what I’m going for, so I’m happy.
A condenser mic, by contrast, doesn’t have a magnetic coil.
Rather, the mic has a thin membrane (the diaphragm) in close proximity to a charged metal plate (known as the backplate).
The diaphragm moves back and forth as it’s vibrated by air, which creates changes in the capacitance between the two elements, which is translated into an electrical signal carrying whatever it is you’re recording.
Where dynamic mics are built tough and rough, with a natural tendency to reject sounds that are further away, condensers offer pretty much the reverse.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive than their dynamic counterparts, which makes them better suited for use in a recording studio (rather than on stage).
This sensitivity relates both to their physical design (you can much more easily damage the internals of a condenser by dropping it), but also to the way that they pick up sound.
This means they are more likely to pick up sound from a distance, like natural reflections in the room you’re recording in, or even sound from the street.
You can think of the difference like this:
As you move away from the sound source, dynamic mics become quickly less sensitive. Condensers, on the other hand, have a smoother drop-off, making them more sensitive to the sound of the room, or to any racket going on outside.
As a general rule, then, you’ll want to make sure you have a nice, quiet, well-treated environment to work in before you invest in a condenser.
There are a few different kinds of condenser mics:
- Small-diaphragm condensers (SDCs)
- Large-diaphragm condensers (LDCs)
- Tube condensers (usually LDCs)
Let’s see some examples of each.
Examples of small-diaphragm condenser microphones
The quintessential SDC, the C451B offers an incredibly detailed top-end, with a smooth high-frequency boost from around 3kHz.
The mic responds right up to 20kHz (making it awesome for miking up cymbals and hi-hats, or acoustic guitars), and even has two levels of low-cut filter to get rid of those nasty, rumbly lows.
A quick look at the NT5 and you’ll see a striking similarity in design to the C451B.
Well, you can kind of consider the NT5 a more affordable alternative to the C451B, though the NT5 is far from a rip-off.
I love the NT5 for its 10-year warranty, incredibly low self-noise, and accurate, focused cardioid polar pattern, and smooth frequency response.
The sound of the NT5 is a little less hyped in the top-end than the C451B, with a softer high-frequency boost and a fixed bass roll-off.
The AT4022 is an interesting option due to its omnidirectional polar pattern.
For that reason, I love using the AT4022 as drum overheads in a really nice room, or when stereo-miking an acoustic guitar.
The sound of the AT4022 is a lot more shaped than the other two SDCs mentioned here, with a few subtle, refined high-frequency bumps and dips, as opposed to one broad, smooth boost.
The low-cut filter is also helpful for taming the proximity effect, especially when used up close on acoustic guitars.
Examples of large-diaphragm condenser microphones
The NT1A is basically Rode’s answer to the famous Neumann U87, but at a fraction of the cost.
I mean, it really doesn’t achieve the same kind of sound as the 87 does, but for all intents and purposes it’s a suitable substitute for anyone working on a budget.
The NT1A is known for being the quietest condenser mic on the planet, which is pretty impressive, to begin with, but it also ships with a shock mount, an XLR cable, and a pop filter!
Just bring your own audio interface and you’ve got a serious vocal recording studio focused around a super capable cardioid condenser mic.
I do love my AT mics, and the AT2020 is a strong contender for best value LDC.
It offers a fixed cardioid polar pattern, strong SPL handling, and insane build quality.
In my opinion, it sounds a bit more refined and serious than other cheap condensers, which have a tendency to get a bit harsh up in the top end.
The AT2020 achieves this transparency with a fairly flat frequency response, with no more than a couple of dBs boost in the top end, and a low-end dip around 90Hz which helps deal with proximity effect when recording voice or guitar amps.
Examples of tube condenser microphones
Condenser mics need an active component to boost the signal from the mic capsule and lower it’s impedance.
Often, this is taken care of by a transistor, but in some special cases, a vacuum tube is employed.
These mics are known as tube mics, and, like tube guitar amps, they have a lovely, vintage, warm sound which sounds great on the likes of vocal performances.
Avantone Pro CV-12
The Avantone Pro CV-12 is a lovely large-diaphragm tube condenser that works great for this purpose, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (like a lot of tube mics do).
It ships with a nice little box, power supply, shock mount, and large carrying case, and also offers a low-cut filter and a -10dB for louder sound sources.
I love the CV-12 for it’s tall, slender body, which makes it easier to position in front of instruments when sitting inside the shock mount.
The Blue Bottle is a special little microphone because of its interchangeable capsule design.
The microphone is hand-built in the USA and really captures the soul and feel of more vintage tube mics thanks to a Class-A tube circuit.
It ships with the B6 Bottle Cap mic capsule, which is a cardioid unit, but it’s compatible with all of Blue’s Bottle Cap range, which includes small and large-diaphragm capsules and all of the polar patterns that exist.
The last type of mic in terms of element is the ribbon microphone.
Technically speaking, the ribbon mic is actually a form of dynamic microphone, but they use a very different technology and as a result have a vastly different sound palette.
Ribbon mics employ a thin strip of metal (known as the ribbon) which is suspended in a strong magnetic field.
When the air acts upon the ribbon, changes in the magnetic field create an electrical signal.
All ribbon mics are, by nature, figure-8 microphones, as air pressure can act on either side of a ribbon but not directly on the side.
Examples of ribbon microphones
The Royer 121 has got to be the most widely used ribbon mic out there, despite being quite a modern design (most ribbon mics are of the more vintage variety).
I’m a big fan of using the Royer 121 on electric guitar cabinets, pairing it with an SM57.
The 57 is a lot brighter with more edge and nasality, whereas the 121 has a very subtle frequency response and an air of maturity to it.
The two mics complement each other extremely well.
The R84 is a classic example of a vintage ribbon mic.
This unit is a slightly more modern version of one of the first microphones ever used for recording vocals, the R44.
The R84 certainly looks the part, with its cylindrical body and broadcast-style swivel mount, but it also sounds awesome.
Like most ribbon microphones, the R84 has a fairly flat, subtle frequency response, with a slightly more pronounced low-end and a top end that gradually and naturally tails off.
You’ll get more of a laid-back, croony, vintage type of vocal sound out of this mic, as opposed to a super hyped or forward sound.
Types of microphone by polar pattern
Another way to categorize the different types of microphones is to look at their polar patterns.
Polar pattern is a term that refers to a microphone’s sensitivity with regard to direction.
Basically, what we are looking at is whether the mic will pick up sound from the front, back, or sides, or a combination thereof.
Each polar pattern has it’s pros and cons, and we’ll use them in different applications, though it’s fair to say that some have more uses than others.
Cardioid polar pattern
By far, the most common polar pattern that microphones employ is the cardioid pattern.
Mic’s with a cardioid pickup pattern are sensitive to sound from the front, a little bit from the sides, and not at all from the rear (forming somewhat of a love heart shape, hence the name).
It’s easy to see why this kind of mic is so popular: it picks up what you point it at, and not much else.
Cardioid mics are great for recording vocals, guitar amps, drums, and live instruments. To be fair, there aren’t many times when a cardioid isn’t a good choice.
Examples of cardioid microphones
The Shure SM57 is the classic example of a cardioid dynamic mic, and you’ll have heard it on thousands of records.
The 57 is small in size but not in sound, with a whole lot of presence in the upper mid-range and a fair bit of honk happening in the lower-mids as well.
I love using the SM57 on electric guitar amps, and for recording snare drums, as they can take a huge amount of SPL, and are tough enough to hold up to the odd smack with a drumstick as well.
Super/hypercardioid polar pattern
Another option for recording stuff you’re aiming and nothing else is the super cardioid or hypercardioid polar pattern.
These two patterns take the cardioid idea to new heights, reducing sensitivity to the sides and focusing more on the front (the hypercardioid more so than the supercardioid).
However, with these two polar patterns, you start to get a pronounced rear bulb (again, more so with hypercardioid), so it’s a tradeoff between rejecting the sides and rejecting the rear.
For that reason, I tend to only use these polar patterns when I’m really trying to isolate an instrument that has others close by its side.
A good example is when recording a drum kit. I want to get microphones on each tom drum, but on one side of the rack tom is a hi-hat and on the other is another tom.
I’ll employ a supercardioid here to avoid picking up those other instruments, and I’ll make sure that the rear of the mic is pointing up into dead space, rather than into a cymbal above it.
Examples of hypercardioid microphones
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:
I love Audix mics on a drum kit.
I’ll quite regularly set up a D6 in the kick, and D2 and D4s for the toms.
The D4 is a super focused sounding mic thanks to that hypercardioid polar pattern, and it can pick up insane SPL levels.
It has a really pronounced upper mid-range, great for bringing at the attack on the beater head of a tom, and it’s nice and compact as well, so it stays nicely out of the way of my drummer.
Omnidirectional polar pattern
Omnidirectional microphones pick up sound from all directions equally.
This is a great choice of mic when you’re recording in a really nice room, like a church or an epic recording studio, as you’ll pick up a lot of the natural reverb and reflections in the room.
Omnis can be great for recording stuff like piano or stringed instruments, or as overheads on a drum kit.
They are also a common choice for room mics.
Examples of omnidirectional microphones
Warm Audio WA-47
Based off of the famous U47 from Neumann, the Warm Audio WA-47 is a large-diaphragm tube condenser mic with an omni pickup pattern.
This mic oozes class and character, right down to the wood box it comes in, and it sounds bloody fantastic.
This mic is awesome on vocals or acoustic guitar, or as a room mic when recording a full drum kit in a great room.
Figure-8/bidirectional polar pattern
Figure-8 mics are so-named because they pick up sound from the front and back, but not at all from the sides.
There aren’t a tonne of uses for this polar pattern these days.
One typical use is when recording two voices at once (like in an interview), though to be honest this is sort of a relic of a bygone era when mics were more expensive and less accessible.
These days, it’s not unusual to be able to use two mics, which is always better.
Another use for bidirectional mics is in the same place as a hypercardioid, where there is nothing behind the mic, as this polar pattern offers the best side rejection.
Examples of figure-8 microphones
Ribbon microphones are, by design, figure-8 mics.
We’ve already discussed a couple of epic ribbon mics, so I’m going to throw something new and exciting out to you, the Rode NTR.
This is a large-ribbon mic from the Australian manufacturer (who are one my favorites, by the way), with a smooth, classic ribbon sound and a classy feel to it.
Rode back the NTR with a 10-year warranty and even offer one free ribbon replacement during this period (ribbons are known for breaking down over time or when met with high-SPL sources).
Switchable polar pattern
Though many mics offer just one polar pattern, some high-quality microphones implement more than one mic capsule, meaning you can pick and choose which pattern you want, when you need it.
Examples of multi-pattern microphones
The AKG C414 has a long history in recording studios and is probably one of the most widely used LDCs of all time.
The main reason I love it is because it’s so damn versatile.
It offers switchable polar patterns (Omni, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, figure-8, and a less focused cardioid option), as well as -6, -12, and -18dB pads, and three high-pass filters: 40, 80, and 160Hz.
This makes the C414 an incredibly versatile mic. I also really like the quick-release shock mount that the C414 ships with, which is much easier to use than most.
Types of microphone by connection
The third way to classify different types of microphones is to look at how they connect to other devices.
We’re going to take a look at three connection types:
By far, XLR is the most common type of professional recording microphone.
XLR is a three-pin, analog audio protocol, and it’s the OG type of microphone connection.
The output of the microphone is always a male connector, which interfaces with your mic preamp via an XLR cable.
All of the microphones we’ve discussed up until this point have been XLR mics.
XLR mics have always needed a mic preamp and analog to digital converters to be able to speak to computers, because their output is analog and your computer speaks digital.
USB mics essentially bring the main components of an audio interface (a preamp and converters) into the microphone body itself, so it can connect directly to your laptop via USB.
Though there are plenty of really high-quality USB microphones, XLR is still the standard in pro-audio circles, and USB mics tend to be aimed more at the consumer audio market.
Examples of USB microphones
You’ve probably realized by now that I have a bit of a crush on Rode mics.
That’s because they are, in my opinion, some of the best value microphones around, delivering pro-level recordings at a cost closer to entry-level equipment.
The Rode NT-USB is their USB condenser offering, and it sounds as good as it looks.
It has a fairly flat frequency response across the low and mid-range (with a slow roll-off from around 100Hz) and a hefty boost in the upper mids which gives vocals a decent sense of clarity,
This mic even comes with a desktop tripod stand and pop shield, and has a dedicated headphone output for zero-latency monitoring.
The increase in camera quality on smartphones has led to a huge rise in the amount of content created on these handy little boxes.
Unfortunately, the audio quality hasn’t been given quite the same amount of attention, which has opened up a market for portable mics for smartphones.
Most Android phones still have a trusty 3.5mm, but because Apple is dead set on their Lightning jack, if you are an iPhone user, you’re going to need a specific iOS mic which can connect directly to that port.
Examples of iOS microphones
I really like the Shure MV88 because it’s tiny, and attaches to the base of your iPhone or iPad without any fussy cables or converters.
It’s a digital stereo mic, and even comes with a recording app to save all of your creations to.
I’d recommend the MV88 for roving reporters and podcasters, and anyone who needs a quick way to record ideas to their phone when they’re jamming out on an acoustic guitar.
It’s safe to say that there are a tonne of different types of microphones out there.
Between different polar patterns, elements, and connectors, you’ve got a lot to choose from.
Ultimately, it will depend on what you intend to record, but hopefully this guide has brought you a few steps closer to identifying the perfect microphone for your needs.