Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Explaining microphone types, part one.

There is a great host of microphone types available today for the home recording enthusiast. Choosing the correct type of microphone for the right application that you need it for can be crucial! There is quite a lot that can go wrong in a typical recording session, not to mention the chances of not getting the best possible recording.

Some common mistakes are overpowering a microphones sound pressure capabilities, choosing a set up that makes for phase issues, and even using the wrong microphone to record an instrument or vocal.

But how do we know which microphone to use for what? Well, lets dive in and see just what some common microphones do, what they are capable of, and how to use them in your next session.

What you are recording may in fact dictate what type of microphone you might need to use, but it can be even more detailed than that. You must think about several things when it comes to choosing a microphone such as sound pressure levels (SPL), side bleeding of unwanted noise, and weather you want a mono or stereo recordings.

As far as types of microphones, there are not that many different types.

Some common types that you will use the most often are the condenser, ribbon, and the dynamic microphones. Here is a quick run down of what the three types are, and what they work best for.

Condenser microphones

Within the condenser microphone family tree the tree breaks down into two major types, the large diaphragm and the small diaphragm condenser microphones. The diaphragm is the piece that air moves in order to make an electrical current.

Then the family tree branches out even more, and includes polar patterns of the two types of condenser microphones. These may include cardioid, hypercardioid, wide cardioid, figure eight, and omni directional. All of these terms simply explain what the microphones can “pick up” in terms of the microphones surroundings. Omni means that the microphone can pick up sound from all around the microphone, where figure eight is only in front of and behind the microphone itself. The cardioid mic can hear only in one direction, and hypercardioid mics hone in to less of a wide angle, or a more direct incoming path.

A mic can also be either a mono or a stereo mic, which is actually two microphones in one. The detailed list goes on to include such internal workings of microphones such as a tube or a solid state microphone, phantom powered, and some mics may even have “EQ-ing” features such as a low frequency (LF) roll-off and/or a high frequency (HF) roll off pot.

The inner workings of most condenser microphones are a pair of conducting plates that make up the diaphragm. When moving air moves the plates of the diaphragm, an electrical current is made. When compared to dynamic microphones inner workings, condenser microphones are more sensitive due to the fact that they are more efficient in their movement. They simply require less sound pressure in order to make them work.

There are two sizes of condenser microphones available because of the type of sound that they can capture. A large diaphragm condenser microphone can work great for vocal work because of their warm sound. Small-diaphragm models tend to be chosen where a very high accuracy of representation of a sound is required.

Dynamic microphones

Dynamic microphones are perhaps the most common mics that you will see and use on the road. These are tough mics made to handle high SPL’s. Dynamic microphones work almost in the same way as condenser microphones, but not exactly. The electricity is made in a slightly different way. When you think of a speaker working in reverse, then that is a crude dynamic mic. These mics are road tough and can be dropped for any stage height and continue right on working. The most common dynamic microphone of all time has got to be the Shure SM-57. Basically, it takes a lot of air to get a dynamic microphone working. Guitar amps, bass rigs, and drums soak up a bands dynamic microphone supply.

Ribbon microphones

Ribbon microphones are a gentile creature. They do not like to handle the higher SPL’s, but the newer ones are getting better and better at this. Ribbons are known to give a very realistic or un-colored sound when recording. This is in part to the fact that it takes little moving air to set the ribbon in motion.

Next time we will dive in a little deeper and find out what other specifications some of these basic microphone types can come with, and what their capabilities are.


  1. Great tricks Kern !
    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge man .
    A hug from Brazil .