There are a lot of different mics out there, and lots of different words used to classify them, dynamic, condenser, ribbon, cardioid, flat frequency response….
But what do all these mean and how can they help you get the best sound for your recordings?
There are various factors you need to consider when picking a microphone for recording. Different mics will favor different sources, so you probably wouldn’t use the same microphone to record your voice as you would a kick drum. While there are loads of different intricacies when comparing mics, there are four main areas to consider.
- Type of Microphone
- Pickup Pattern
- Frequency Response
Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense, we’ll go through what that all means!
The three most common styles of microphones are dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics. These capture sound in different ways from one another and therefore have slightly different characteristics.
Dynamic microphones are generally cheaper and more durable than other types which is why they are so popular for live music. They are often used for loud sources, so they are great for recording drums and guitar amps. They are generally less sensitive at higher frequencies, which means they don’t pick up high frequencies as well as other mics, however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on what you are recording.
Condenser mics generally cost more than dynamic microphones and are more delicate. Due to the way they pick up sound, they need some kind of power, usually referred to as phantom power or +48V. Pretty much all audio interfaces will have phantom power onboard. Condensers are often described as being more detailed than other mics, capturing more of the frequency range. So they are great for a wide range of applications where detail is important
Ribbon mics are pick up sound using a thin piece of metallic ribbon and are known for giving a warmer, softer sound. This can come in very useful for making harsh sounds softer. Ribbon Microphones, however, can be quite fragile and therefore are not always suitable for loud sources.
Microphones have different pickup patterns, often referred to polar patterns, which as the name suggests controls how the mic picks up the sound. These are typically grouped into 4 categories:
Cardioid is a pickup pattern which most picks up sound from the front and rejects sound from the rear of the microphone. This kind of microphone will also pick up a little bit of sound from the sides.
Similar to a cardioid but with a slightly tighter pickup pattern. This mic will pick up sound mostly from the front and reject a lot of sound from the sides and rear.
A figure 8 microphone picks up sounds from both the front and back of the microphone but rejects sound from the rear. Most Ribbon microphones use this pattern but its also available on some condenser microphones.
An omnidirectional microphone picks up sound from every direction with no rejection whatsoever.
When selecting your pickup pattern, make sure you consider what you will be capturing with the microphone. For recording a vocal, for example, a cardioid is great as it picks up the vocal well from the front but rejects noise and echoes from the rear of the microphone which could mean the vocal is less clear.
On the other hand, when recording the ambiance of a room, such as recording a piano in a great sounding hall, omnidirectional microphones are great because you get a nice blend of the direct source and the reverb of the room.
Think about what you want to capture and what you don’t and then use the pickup pattern to your advantage!
The frequency response of a microphone determines how much of each frequency a microphone picks up.
If you’re not already aware, the human ear can hear between 20Hz and 20kHz so we usually want a microphone that can pick up audio between this range.
Some microphones will have a flat frequency response where all frequencies are captured equally whereas some will boost or cut certain frequencies. Again, this all comes down to what you are capturing with your microphone.
For example, if you were trying to record a string quartet you’d want a flat response so that the Violins, Violas, Cellos, and Double Basses are all captured equally. Otherwise, if you were trying to capture a kick drum on a drum kit, you’d want a microphone that puts emphasis on the lower frequencies.
Finally, we can look at the sensitivity of a microphone. This is how easily a microphone will pick up a sound in a room and how loud a sound needs to be picked up by the microphone.
As a rough rule, dynamics and ribbons will be less sensitive than a condenser simply due to the way they are designed. Condensers, for this reason, are therefore great for getting incredibly detailed recording where every nuance is captured. However, sometimes this isn’t ideal.
A less sensitive dynamic will typically struggle to capture sound further than a few feet away, so if you’re trying to avoid background noises, a dynamic may be the better way to go.
As you can tell, there are many different microphones to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. However, just taking a quick moment to choose the right microphone can make a large difference to your recording.
While we can’t all have massive mic lockers with loads of different microphones, getting a couple of useful microphones will help endlessly. Some microphones will even have adjustable pickup patterns, filters to adjust the frequency response and pads to adjust the sensitivity so look out for these features when getting a mic.
However, as always, we always encourage you to experiment and see what sounds good! Maybe get a friend and sing into both sides of a figure of eight microphones or hunt out a cheap microphone with a very limited frequency response to get those lo-fi vibes. The possibilities are endless!