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The 3 microphone types compared in different use cases

Understanding the differences between various types of microphones is crucial for choosing the right one for your recording needs.

Dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones are the three main types, each offering unique characteristics and strengths.

In this article, I’ll take a deeper look into these microphones and their subtypes, explaining how they work and comparing their performance in various applications to help you make an informed decision.

Behind the insights

Brandon Schock, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a seasoned audio engineer and musician with over 15 years of experience in the industry.

Throughout my tenure, I’ve owned and repaired a myriad of microphones of varying types and designs that I have deployed in countless recording settings and applications.

I’ve worked with a plethora of groups, artists, and vocalists throughout my career and have a passion for helping others achieve sonic excellence.

Contents

Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What is a dynamic microphone?

A moving-coil microphone, more popularly referred to as a dynamic microphone, consists of three main components: a diaphragm, a coil, and a magnet. The diaphragm is attached to the coil, which is then wrapped around the magnet.

When a sound wave pushes the diaphragm, this causes the coil to move within the magnetic field of the magnet, generating an electrical current through the coil.

Shure SM57 on a microphone stand
Shure SM57 dynamic instrument microphone | Image: Higher Hz

Dynamic microphones tend to be highly directional (cardioid, supercardioid) and less sensitive than other types of microphones. Their lack of sensitivity makes them ideal for loud sound sources as well as live applications.

The most common applications of a dynamic mic include recording drums, electric guitar, bass, and more aggressive vocal performances.

What is a condenser microphone?

In simple terms, a condenser is a highly sensitive microphone that converts sound waves into electrical signals via a thin, electrically conductive diaphragm.

Instead of the moving coil and magnet present in a dynamic microphone, however, the condenser microphone utilizes a solid metal plate (also known as a backplate) and an amplifier.

The diaphragm and backplate are designed to have a little bit of space between them so that when a sound wave hits the diaphragm, the space between the diaphragm and the backplate changes, thus varying the capacitance and resulting in an electrical current.

Another common term for a condenser is a capacitor microphone for this reason.

Roswell Mini K87 on a microphone stand
Roswell Mini K87 large-diaphragm condenser | Image: Higher Hz

Aside from being more sensitive than their dynamic counterparts, their circuitry also requires phantom power.

The delicacy and accuracy that these microphones offer make them great candidates for soft and more intricate recordings of vocals, acoustic instruments (guitars, violins, mandolins), brass, and winds.

Large vs small-diaphragm condensers

You may also encounter the terms “large-diaphragm” and “small-diaphragm” when researching condenser microphones. The difference, if it wasn’t already obvious, lies in the size of the diaphragm being used.

While there isn’t any agreed-upon standard regarding what size diaphragm constitutes “large” or “small”, generally speaking, if the diaphragm has a diameter of one inch or more, it is considered large. If it’s less than an inch in diameter, then it’s considered small, roughly speaking.

AKG C451 B on microphone stand
AKG C451 B small-diaphragm condenser | Image: Higher Hz

Small-diaphragm condensers tend to be more neutral in character and have better transient responses. This is due to the membrane of the diaphragm being smaller and lighter-weight, making them more responsive to sound pressure changes.

Large-diaphragm condensers, on the other hand, tend to be warmer and less noisy, thanks to their less consistent pickup pattern and higher signal voltage, respectively.

What is a ribbon microphone?

A ribbon microphone operates very similarly to a dynamic in that it also transduces acoustic energy through electromagnetic conduction. However, ribbons aren’t as rough as moving-coil microphones.

As the name implies, a ribbon microphone uses a thin metal ribbon placed between the poles of a magnet, which generates an electrical current when vibrated.

Coles 4038 on a microphone stand
Coles 4038 studio ribbon microphone | Image: Higher Hz

This design is interesting as the ribbon serves as both the diaphragm and the transducer, allowing for even greater sensitivity and transient response.

Of course, there is always a trade-off, and in this case, the high sensitivity of this microphone makes it extremely fragile.

The ribbon elements are remarkably thin (normally only a few micrometers) and are easily damaged if not stored or cared for in the right way. One small accidental drop to the floor runs the risk of termination.

Ribbons tend to have an extremely “warm” and “dark” sound to them and tend to be more honest rather than flattering, per se.

They also have a figure-eight polar pattern due to the nature of their design, picking up signals only from the front and back of the mic.

So, what are the key differences?

Beyond their overall construction and functionality, the key differences are as follows:

  • dynamic mics are fairly directional and not very sensitive, making them ideal for loud and direct sound sources;
  • condenser microphones provide more sensitivity and detail in sound reproduction, making them better suited for capturing delicate sounds;
  • ribbon mics are equally proficient at capturing delicate sounds as condensers, but they offer a much warmer tone and demand more attention in terms of handling and storage.

Are there any other microphone types?

While these are the primary types of microphones, there are also sub-categories such as shotgun, lavalier, crystal, and USB microphones.

Shotgun microphones are extremely directional and are great for capturing focused sound from a distance, while lavalier microphones are, most often, used for hands-free operation during interviews, film shoots, plays, and presentations.

Crystal microphones offer a vintage and oftentimes “tinny” sound, while USB microphones offer convenient plug-and-play functionality for digital recording.

Condenser vs dynamic vs ribbon mics

Here’s a side-by-side comparison in different applications/recording scenarios:

Studio vocals

For studio vocals, consider either a dynamic microphone for more brazen performances or a condenser microphone for more delicate singing.

A large-diaphragm condenser, such as a Neumann U 87 Ai, is often a go-to microphone for this application.

Live vocals

For live vocals, a dynamic microphone is often a better choice as it is less sensitive and will pick up less bleed from surrounding instruments as well as audience chatter.

The classic Shure SM58 is an incredibly robust and reliable choice for any live applications.

Podcasting

For podcasting and spoken word, robust dynamic microphones such as an Electro-Voice RE20 or Shure SM7B are often used for this application.

Streaming and gaming

For streaming and gaming, a dynamic microphone with a shock mount, like a Shure SM7B, is often the best choice to handle any desk rattling or the more passionate moments of the gameplay.

Acoustic guitars

Acoustic guitars take kingly to condensers such as an AKG C414 XLII. Small-diaphragm condensers such as the Neumann KM 184 are also great candidates for acoustics.

Electric guitars

Electric guitars do well with any type of microphone.

Dynamic mics like a Shure SM57 are great for getting up close and personal. Condensers such as a Neumann U 67 can be used at a further distance for more room and character.

A ribbon microphone in conjunction with a condenser can also add more depth and life to your electric guitar sounds.

Bass guitars

Bass guitars do well with dynamic or condenser microphones, depending on the tone and character you’re aiming for.

An Electro-Voice RE20 dynamic microphone with an AKG C451 B small-diaphragm condenser can herald some great results.

Drums

Drums can be recorded with a myriad of combinations of microphones.

Most often, you’ll have a dynamic mic for kick drum (AKG D112 Mk2), a dynamic (Shure SM57) or condenser (Earthworks DM20) for snare top, a dynamic (Sennheiser MD 421-II) for floor toms, a condenser (AKG C414 XLII) for overhead, and a condenser like the Neumann U 87 Ai for room.

Piano

Acoustic pianos do great with almost any stereo pair of condensers, such as AKG C414 XLII or Neumann KM 184.

Brass instruments

Brass instruments are best served with either a condenser, such as a Shure SM137, or a ribbon microphone, such as a Coles 4038.

Frequently asked questions

As the man behind microphones here at Higher Hz, I constantly receive questions about the different types of mics and how they compare in various recording scenarios.

To help you better understand, I’ve compiled answers to some of the most frequently asked questions in this section.

What’s the best type of microphone for a home studio?

If you’re just starting out, a condenser microphone such as the Audio-Technica AT2020 is a good option. It offers a good amount of versatility and detail, making it a popular choice for smaller-scale projects.

However, the answer to this question pretty much depends on what you’re planning on recording, as well as the nature of your home studio.

What type of microphone is best at rejecting background noise?

A cardioid dynamic microphone is often considered the best option when it comes to rejecting unwanted background noise.

Why are some microphone types more sensitive than others?

Sensitivity is largely determined by the design and materials used in constructing the microphone.

In the case of a dynamic microphone, the moving diaphragm physically pushes the coil wrapped around a magnet, as mentioned earlier in the article.

However, the coil’s weight and the physical mechanism it employs mean that dynamic microphones lack the natural quickness or capacity to be as sensitive as condenser or ribbon microphones.

This is because the design of condenser and ribbon microphones is much lighter and requires less kinetic energy.

In a condenser microphone, for example, the moving diaphragm varies the capacitance, while in a ribbon microphone, the ribbon itself serves both as the diaphragm and the coil of a standard dynamic microphone.

This design makes condenser and ribbon microphones much more effective and sensitive overall.

Which microphone type is less subject to feedback on stage?

A dynamic microphone’s low sensitivity and high directionality make it much less susceptible to feedback.

Which type of microphone is usually the most accurate?

This question is a bit misleading, but for the sake of brevity, a condenser or ribbon microphone tends to be more accurate than a dynamic one due to how sensitive they are.

What type of microphone requires phantom power and why?

Condenser and ribbon microphones both require phantom power to charge the internal circuitry.

Can I use a condenser microphone for live performances?

Yes, you can! Just be careful, as these microphones are more susceptible to feedback and background noise, so higher attention to proper placement and leveling is important.

Does a condenser microphone make you sound better?

Not necessarily. A condenser can capture a more detailed and nuanced performance, which some might find to be preferable in certain situations, but there are other factors to consider here.

For example: What is the specific model of condenser being used? What specific sound source is it going to be used to capture? Will the character of this microphone complement the character of the sound source?

When a singer walks into the studio, oftentimes, the engineer will bring out a handful of different microphones to shoot out in order to find which one best suits the tonal characteristics of the vocalist, as well as what style they’ll be singing in.

Not always is it the case that the “best microphone” will be chosen, but they will go with the microphone that best serves the artist and music overall.

Sometimes, that means going with a cheaply bought and beaten-up Shure SM58 (a dynamic microphone) over the hypersensitive, highly sought-after, expensive ribbon microphone on hand.

Are USB microphones good enough for professional recording?

While a USB microphone might be good enough for a number of different recording situations, I doubt any studio professional will jump toward their USB mic in the midst of a session.

USB microphones present the risk of latency and digital artifacts, and most of them are cheaply-made consumer products anyway.

Final thoughts

When choosing the right microphone, several factors must be considered. Sensitivity, durability, and the tonal character of the microphone in question are chief among these factors.

While there is certainly a place and advantage to almost every type of microphone, there isn’t a microphone on the planet that excels in every situation.

By having a better understanding of how these microphones work and sound, you can begin making informed decisions on how to get the best results out of your recording.

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