Microphones are used to record audio in a variety of different settings, from professional music production in a studio to podcasts to simple video calls at home. As you probably know, not all microphones are built the same way, and different types of mics are designed for different purposes. Each kind has its own advantages and limitations, and it’s important to learn about the major differences if you’re interested in buying a microphone.
There are three major categories of microphones, or ways a mic can pick up sound:
Condenser microphones use a conductive vibrating diaphragm and a capacitor to produce audio signal. You don’t have to know what all that means, but you should know what is unique about this microphone style. They have a light diaphragm which makes them more sensitive to high frequencies. For this reason, they are often used to record vocals or get detailed recordings on acoustic instruments like guitars and pianos. Their sensitivity also allows them to produce a more natural sound.
Condenser mics are active, meaning they require an external power source, which is often provided from equipment with phantom power like an audio interface or a preamp. While at first glance, that may seem like a disadvantage, external power allows these microphones to produce higher gain and record softer signals. These features render condenser mics unsuitable for live performances or loud environments. Their high sensitivity means sounds in the environment are easily picked up and feedback from speakers quickly becomes an issue.
These are the most versatile and widely used microphone style. They use a moving induction coil magnetic diaphragm to record audio. Dynamic microphones generally have heavier diaphragms, making them more suitable for low to mid-range frequencies because they can handle higher sound pressure levels. In other words, the diaphragm is more durable and can handle strong audio waves that produce lots of vibration, like a drum kit. Dynamic mics in general are more durable than condensers as well, so they are often used for live performances and outdoor settings. In contrast to condensers, dynamic mics are passive and require no outside power source, making them way more versatile.
The lesser known of the three main categories, ribbon microphones are an old style of mic that uses an aluminum ribbon to capture sound instead of a diaphragm. They can be rather expensive and are typically only used by serious musicians or producers who want to achieve a specific and unique sound. They are often highly durable and extremely sensitive to high frequencies, so they are mostly used for recording vocals.
Outside of the recording mechanism, there are two important features that influence the utility of a microphone:
This refers to the directional orientation of the microphone, or the areas where it is able to pick up sound and where sound is blocked. Common polar patterns include:
The size of the diaphragm impacts microphone capabilities as well:
With all of these factors in mind, there are a variety of microphones that are built for specific purposes.
Although you may often hear that you need a certain microphone to record good vocals or get the right sound, there is no one microphone that is best for any specific recording purpose. Some microphones excel at recording a variety of different instruments or environments. As long as you keep the basic limitations of each mic in mind, many recording tasks can be achieved with many different microphones, even recording vocals and instruments in a studio. Often times, musicians and producers choose a specific microphone based on personal preference.
When shopping for a microphone, factors like budget and versatility play a more important role than which type of microphone is technically going to produce the best sound. Unless you are absolutely certain you will only use a microphone for one purpose, it is always a good idea to get a more versatile utility mic instead of a specific microphone design that is more limiting.