Types of Microphones – The Quick and Simple Guide
There are so many articles explaining the types of microphones that you may be wondering, what is one more for me? What can I learn new from what I already know? Or you’re probably also an emerging engineer who is just learning about all of this recording and looking for a guide. In any of the two aspects where you assimilate best, this article will serve you and explain why.
More Complicated Than What It Is
Honestly the large number of articles where I see that explain the types of microphones I feel that they
go into such detail that in the end the reading and learning ends up being very complex and confusing.
Yes, obviously the details count, but I as an instructor have to know that the attention span of the readers is the closest to the minimum. I include myself when I am looking for information. I personally like to find the information quickly and explain it to me in a clear and simple way, so here I will summarize it for you so that when you finish reading it you can apply your knowledge.
It should also be emphasized that I will try to avoid as much technical information as possible to make it more digestible.
There is not a single answer…
To save you time, I want to start from a premise. Any type of microphone may or may not work for any audio source. That is, there are no rules for using the microphones. The most important thing is to use our ears to evaluate and find the sound that we are hearing in our head. Also, don’t be surprised if a type of microphone ever worked for you to record a certain instrument and on another occasion it doesn’t work for you. Not all microphones go hand in hand with all instruments and performers.
If you ever hear someone tell you that “that” type of microphone cannot or should not be used with a certain instrument, really ignore it because they really don’t know what they are talking about. Experiment and evaluate for yourself.
The 3 Most Important Types
These you have probably already heard, but the 3 most important types of microphones, or which you will find more followed in the studios or for sale are the following: Condenser, Dynamic and Ribbon.
Generally speaking, each of them has its essential characteristics, but each individual has its own characteristics. In this article I will build on the essential features that will serve as an excellent guide.
3 Polar Patterns
Within these 3 types of microphones that I mentioned to you, each one can have 1 or more integrated polar patterns. What do I mean by polar patterns?
Simply put, it’s practically how microphones listen to and detect the audio signal.
There are 3 polar patterns that it is important for you to know. Then you will find a little more variations but the most important are 3: Cardioid, Figure 8 and Omni.
How do they work?
Cardioid: This type of polar pattern works almost like a flashlight. Where you point the front of the microphone is where you will hear the signal and slightly from the sides. At the rear it will reject a lot of the sound.
Figure 8: This type of pattern works practically the same as the cardioid, only it hears the signal from both sides, the front, and the back of the microphone. Another of its qualities is that it rejects the signal from the sides quite well.
Omni: As you will notice, in this type of polar pattern the microphone detects the signal in all its circumference, bone, all 360 degrees.
How do you know which one to use?
The vast majority of microphones come with the most common polar pattern which is the cardioid, but there are also some that you can change the pattern with a simple switch and there are others that already come with the fixed Figure 8 and Omni patterns.
My recommendation, if you are starting, is that you always try to use cardioids. These are the simplest and most intuitive to use, but if you want to experience figure 8, it can be used, for example, to record two singers at the same time, to record with the mid/side technique and more. The Omni can serve you when you want to capture choirs, or the whole atmosphere of an instrument in a room.
Ultimately you have to experiment and the patterns are very logical. Just imagine how you want to capture the sound and evaluate which is the best pattern option and the best microphone.
Now if we go to the types of microphones …
1.) Capacitor And Common Uses
Capacitors are those microphones you always see in professional studio photography. They look robust, pretty, classy and fine. Within condenser microphones, there are 2 important types: the large-diaphragm condenser and the small diaphragm condenser or sometimes known as a pencil condenser.
Both have similar characteristics except that the large diaphragm captures the signal in a broader way and the smaller diaphragm in a more localized way.
Capacitors need external power to function called Phantom Power or often seen as a switch that says + 48V. This external power is usually built into your audio interface and is easy to turn on.
- Detailed, clear and fine sound.
- They are the most colorful microphones in sound.
- They have high sensitivity to sound.
- Voices, Guitars, Bass Drum, Tarola, Drum Overheads, Piano, Percussions, Podcasts, Strings, Metals, etc.
2.) Dynamics and Common Uses
Dynamic microphones are the ones you generally encounter in any live audio situation or the ones you see included in karaoke systems. Of course these are also highly used in recording studios in various situations. There are from dynamic to dynamic, but these generally have much cheaper prices and are the most durable.
- Useful when the source is reasonably close and when the sound is low or predominantly medium.
- The representation of the high frequencies is not as good
- They are durable, cheap and do not need external power to function
- Withstand high sound pressures (SPL)
- Electric guitars, percussions, voices, drums, amplifiers, metals, among others …
3.) Ribbon and Common Uses
Ribbon microphones are perhaps the most mysterious and the “least” popular because they generally tend to be very expensive because of the way they are made and therefore also quite fragile in handling.
Simply put they are called ribbon microphones because there is a small brittle sheet of metal that captures the sound and can easily break if high sound pressure levels reach it.
It is also very important that you be very careful not to use the Phantom Power with these microphones since activating it can break the metal strip. Although in modern versions that hardly happens anymore, it is better to be careful so that you do not fall into some unfortunate tragedy.
- They are expensive and fragile
- They have a mellow, robust and opaque sound with a noticeable cut in the high frequencies.
- Very sensitive to sound pressure
- Popular with distant microphone positioning techniques.
- Guitars, brass, room microphones, drum overheads, vocals, among others.
As you may have noticed, within these 3 types of popular microphones lie a large number of brands, models, characteristics, etc. The article would be very long if I were to recommend microphones of each type.
Rather, what I recommend you do is establish a budget and look for microphones and reviews/opinions on those microphones to know which is the most convenient for you. Better yet, if you can physically test them it would help you make a better decision.
If you are starting, start with a type of microphone, probably a condenser is the most versatile option. If you already have a condenser and want to expand, then follow with a dynamic and then a ribbon.
Experiment and try them on anything you can think of. As you saw in common uses, these 3 types of microphones lend themselves well enough for the same or similar applications. That’s where I tell you that there are no rules, only what our ears interpret is valid.