Choosing the right microphone for music production can be a bit confusing. You have to think about what you are recording, vocals, or an instrument, what instrument it is, and what kind of sound you want.
There are no absolute rules for every situation, but there are three types of microphones that you must know.
The three main types are dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones. In this article, we will take a look at each and what they are best for.
1. Dynamic microphones
Dynamic microphones are the most robust and reliable microphones in the music industry. The Shure SM57 dynamic microphone has long been an industry standard, and that’s unlikely to change.
People talk about life on the road being tough on gear, but the same can be said about studio life at times. Through time, equipment will take a few bumps and scrapes, no matter how careful you are.
So, before even getting into how they sound, dynamic microphones are loved because they are built to endure a working life. Plus, if you go all out and break one, they are the cheapest of the three microphone types to replace.
Dynamic microphones have a cardioid polar pattern, or unidirectional pattern, as it’s also called. A cardioid polar pattern means that the microphone picks up sound from the direction you point it in and cancels any sound coming from behind.
Being unidirectional allows you to pinpoint your sound source more accurately, which can be useful in a lousy room/space. It lets you avoid any clear problem areas in the room, which makes them a good choice for the bedroom producer.
These microphones are insensitive, thanks to their moving coil diaphragm, making them ideal for any loud sound sources. In other words, they often get the jobs that other microphones wouldn’t want. Things like recording snare drums and distorted electric guitar amplifiers. This quality makes them very versatile microphones to have around.
Dynamic microphones will generally boost the high-mids and have a bit of a roll-off in the bass frequencies. Despite their versatility, the bass roll-off means they aren’t particularly suitable for low-end instruments (although, there is such a thing as a low-end dynamic microphone).
The sound captured from a dynamic microphone tends to mirror the microphone’s characteristics and be a little harsh or aggressive. It also tends to have some added warmth, which may not be as accurate or pure as some other microphones, but it might be just what you need.
2. Condenser microphones
Condenser microphones are a little more sophisticated than dynamic microphones. With that added sophistication comes added cost and fragility. In other words, they aren’t built to take too many bumps, so be careful, or you could be out some serious cash.
Although we have to say, condenser microphones at entry-level are far cheaper than they were some years ago.
If we put the price to the side for a minute, what you get in comparison to a dynamic microphone is a trade-off between versatility and accuracy/quality. Condenser microphones are by far more accurate, more balanced, and have a sweetness to their sound.
They are more sensitive, too, so they aren’t great for loud sound sources. But, that well-balanced, detail-rich sound makes them ideal for softer, brighter sound sources.
If you can afford to lose some of the versatility of a dynamic microphone, you’ll generally get a higher quality result with a condenser.
Condenser microphones have a bit of a high-end bump. The added clarity in the high frequencies gives more space to the sound, making it more natural and less muffled.
Another benefit of a condenser microphone is that they offer a range of polar patterns. Many condenser microphones even let you switch between polar patterns to suit your needs.
As well as a cardioid pattern, they can offer bidirectional and omnidirectional polar patterns. Bidirectional picks up sound from the front and back while canceling any noise from the sides. Omnidirectional polar patterns pick up sound from all directions and don’t cancel out anything.
Condensers come with either a large or small conductive diaphragm positioned in front of a metal backplate. A large-diaphragm condenser will pick up more low and low-mid frequencies but less high frequencies. Small-diaphragm condensers pick up less low and low-mid frequencies but offer enhanced detail at the top-end.
Condenser microphones require 48 V phantom power in order to work. Before you buy one, just make sure that your interface offers phantom power.
3. Ribbon microphones
Ribbon microphones are either the best thing ever or the worst, depending on who you ask. They are, by some way, the most fragile, the most sensitive, and the most expensive. But, you could say that about any vintage equipment, and it doesn’t make us want it any less.
These microphones were the standard in the 50s and 60s, two decades that produced some remarkable sounds. Much of the current appeal of ribbon microphones is in trying to recreate some of that 50s/60s magic.
Ribbon microphones are bidirectional, which makes them less useful for a home studio. That’s not to say they can’t be used for home recording, but they are better placed in an acoustically-treated room.
In their glory days, ribbon microphones were commonly used on vocals or orchestral stringed instruments.
Summing up how a ribbon microphone sounds can be difficult; it’s almost a feeling you get when you hear it. Think of that feeling when you hear Etta James singing I’d Rather Go Blind; you could close your eyes and almost be right there at Chess Records.
Well, if it’s that authentic vintage warm feeling that you want, nothing will do it like a ribbon microphone.
Don’t be hasty in buying one though, if you don’t need it or can’t get the best out of it is just throwing your money away.
If you’re a beginner, buying a ribbon microphone is somewhat like buying a concert grand on your first day of piano lessons. Or, if you primarily record death metal, buying a ribbon microphone might be like handing the lead guitarist an unplugged ukulele; it just doesn’t fit.
When/where to use each mic type?
Now that you are more familiar with the main types of microphones let’s take a look at when you should use them.
Recording vocals is an example of a situation where all three microphone types might apply. It depends on the singer and the kind of sound that you want to create.
Remember, different mics boost and roll-off different frequencies as well as add warmth or sweetness to the sound.
So, you might choose a microphone because it highlights a natural warmth or sweetness in the voice, or you could choose the opposite to counter it. Then you need to think about the vocalist’s range and where that sits with each microphone.
There’s no exact answer, but each type of microphone has a general suitability level, and here they are:
- Dynamic microphones are better suited to genres like rock, metal, and anything of a more aggressive nature.
- Condenser microphones are better suited to more balanced, controlled vocals like typical pop music.
- Ribbon microphones are best reserved for more specialist or vintage genres, like jazz or blues.
Recording the piano can be done successfully with either dynamic or condenser microphones. The piano is a beautifully melodic instrument, but remember it has a percussive nature, too, which means it can be harsh at times.
For a more full-on performance, like rock or boogie-woogie (especially with an upright), a pair of dynamic microphones will do the job.
If it’s a ballad on a concert grand, use a pair of condenser microphones. Small or large-diaphragm depends on the frequency range you want to highlight most.
Small-diaphragm condenser microphones, with their stunning high-end clarity and low-end roll-off, are perfect for capturing the brightness of an acoustic guitar.
Nothing rocks like the electric guitar; if you play, just ask your neighbors! To compensate for the loudness and lack of high-frequency content, it has to be a dynamic microphone.
We briefly mentioned that there is such a thing as a low-end dynamic microphone. A durable, insensitive, robust microphone with a low-end bump instead of a roll-off. Recording a bass amp is when you want a low-end dynamic microphone.
For some playing styles or even upright bass, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone will provide another option.
Recording drums can get tricky and expensive, so let’s keep it simple. If you are using a single room mic, then it should be a large-diaphragm condenser.
If you are close-miking individual drums, it should look something like this:
- A dynamic microphone should be used for the snare and each of the toms.
- A low-end dynamic microphone should be used for the kick drum.
- The hi-hat should be recorded with a small-diaphragm condenser.
- If you use overhead microphones, they should be a pair of small-diaphragm condensers.
Recording strings will generally be done with a condenser or ribbon microphone. If using a condenser microphone, the size of the diaphragm will depend on the specific instrument being recorded.
Condenser microphones will more accurately capture the subtle nuances of the instrument. Ribbon microphones, on the other hand, won’t be as accurate, but they add a certain vintage character to the recording.
When recording horns, it will almost always be a large-diaphragm condenser or a ribbon microphone. As we said, with recording strings, condensers will be more accurate, but ribbon microphones provide more character.
Keep in mind that some horns can be quite harsh on a sensitive microphone with their large dynamic range. So, you need to think about positioning and distance, too.
There are good reasons to use either a dynamic microphone or a condenser microphone for podcasting.
If you produce a podcast without any live guests, as in guests in the same room, then a dynamic microphone with its cardioid polar pattern is perfect. This example is a one-voice one-microphone scenario. The warm sound of a dynamic microphone is what gives you that real radio voice.
You could stick with dynamic microphones if you have live guests and just use two microphones. The downside is that it requires a little extra editing, and it’s generally better to avoid that if you are a one-person operation.
With their various polar patterns, condenser microphones offer more versatility in terms of the sound that can be picked up with just one microphone. Another reason to go condenser is that most USB microphones are condensers.
Like podcasting, condenser microphones are often the go-to choice for streamers because there is an abundance of USB condensers available. Of course, high-quality capture is an advantage, too.
But, there may be a stronger argument to go with a dynamic microphone for streaming. Dynamic microphones will cancel out most unwanted noise and handle any over-excited screams you let out.
Let’s face it, if it’s a gaming stream or similar, that’s bound to happen. Go for a dynamic to be safe.
When you are recording anything, whether it’s jazz vocals, electric guitar, an interview, or a gaming stream, there are lots of variables that make choosing the perfect microphone difficult.
While we have given you some great guidelines, there will always be situations where you decide to go against the norm. So, we will leave you with the golden rule of music; if it sounds good, it’s right.