Studio Knowledge 101: Different Types of Microphones and Their Uses

There are many different types of microphones on the market today. From dynamic to condenser, each type has its benefits and drawbacks. Knowing which microphone is suitable for your project can be daunting, but it’s important to understand the different types to make the best decision for your needs.

Types of microphones are specialized for different frequency ranges. Some are sturdier than others, so choosing the right microphone is crucial – it’s what makes the difference between a “clean” and a “dirty” vocal. Depending on what kind of vocal you’re aiming for, you will need a good microphone to back it up.

Microphones also differ in picking up the sound, connectors, price range, and how sensitive the mic is. Even if you can immediately afford the Neumann U87, we’ll show you why you don’t need to have a quality recording.

This blog post will explore some of the most common types of microphones and their uses.

What Is a Microphone, and How Does It Work?

A microphone is a tool that captures the sound and turns it into an electrical signal. That signal is then sent to the mixer to later be turned back into sound waves that allow us to hear what was recorded. Different microphone types have different methods of converting the sound into electrical signals.

Microphones can be categorized in many different ways. Based on the how they are built or what is used as a diaphragm, there are:

  • Condenser microphones
  • Dynamic microphones
  • Ribbon microphones

Based on the use, microphones can be:

  • Multi-pattern microphones
  • Bass microphones
  • Boundary microphones
  • Shotgun microphones
  • USB microphones

Microphone Diaphragm

Depending on what the microphone consists of, it will be more sensitive to sound impulses. The higher the sound pressure level (SPL), the more durable the mic is, but sound clarity and conversion are distorted.

Condenser Microphone

Condenser microphone types have a thin plate in their center and a thin conductive diaphragm sitting next to the plate. These two work as one capacitor in which sound pressure makes the diaphragm vibrate, changing the capacitance to produce the audio signal.

Using capacitance rather than moving coils allows this microphone to deliver a more genuine convergence, so condenser microphones are perfect for precision recording in the studio. Note that the thin plate isn’t sturdy enough to withstand high SPL, so handle with care. In other words – please don’t drop them.

Condensers require more power than ribbon or dynamic microphones, so a mixer with phantom power is needed. Phantom power is an extra battery that gives the boost needed for the condensers to work as they should. Some microphones like the Shure PGA81 have their own phantom power supplies of 48v.

Because of their fidelity, condenser mics are usually the most common mic types used in studio recordings. Large-diaphragm microphones are used the most for studio vocals and acoustic instruments, while small-diaphragm microphones are used for close miking of acoustic instruments like cymbals or a piano.

Dynamic Microphone

Almost the opposite of a condenser, a dynamic mic is sturdy, reliable, and versatile. Using a moving coil magnetic diaphragm, this type of microphone captures sounds at the highest pressure levels, so they are used on guitar and bass amplifiers and even for drum kits.

Due to their durability, you do not have to worry about sound distortion or damage to the mic. Dynamic microphones are pretty inexpensive and thus easy to replace. If you are looking for an affordable first microphone that is versatile and durable, a dynamic mic is the way to go.

Ribbon Microphone

A ribbon microphone is an older type of microphone that is primarily outdated today. A fragile ribbon is used as an electro-conductive material balanced between magnet poles to generate the signal.

They are perfect if you are aiming for that vintage, warm tone or for miking guitar amps, drum overheads, and brass instruments. They respond well to equalization and produce a natural figure-eight polar pattern.

Although the ribbon microphones are sturdier than they used to be, they are still more fragile than a dynamic mic or a condenser. Putting phantom power through them will electrocute the ribbon.

Microphones for Every Need

When considering what you need the microphone for, keep in mind that not every mic will be suitable for every situation. A studio mic won’t be enough for a conference or an outdoor recording. Hence, picking the right one for the right occasion would be significant.

Multi-pattern Microphones

One of the most difficult things in sound engineering is to clean your recording from unwanted ambient sounds, noise, and murmur. Easy enough during the mixing process, noise removal is practically impossible during the recording without a booth.

A mic can’t pick zero sound from one direction and 100% sound from another. You will always have at least a bit of noise coming from somewhere, but the question is how much noise is tolerable.

Microphones are intentionally made in a way that picks up most of the sound from a particular direction. You’ll get a clearer vocal from a unidirectional mic than from an omnidirectional one if you are doing your vocal recording outside.

Based on the polar pattern and directionality, there are different types of directional microphones:

  • Omnidirectional microphones
  • Bidirectional microphones
  • Unidirectional microphones (cardioid)

The unidirectional microphones can be further divided based on the polar pattern they emit:

  • Super-cardioid
  • Hyper-cardioid
  • Sub-cardioid
  • Lobar

Omnidirectional Microphones

Omni-directional types of mics pick up sound from all directions, recording 0º-360º with equal gain. In the studio, they are usually used to record multiple singers simultaneously by putting them all around the mic and, of course, best where you can control the noise. It’s easier and sounds better when the echo is natural instead of imported from a VST.

Bidirectional Microphones

Also known as figure-eight microphones, these mics are susceptible from the front and the back and have low sensitivity from the sides. The diaphragm accepts the sound waves hitting it on both ends, but at the wrong angles, the sound waves will simply miss the diaphragm, and it’ll absorb the minimum, depending on how close the object is.

Unidirectional Microphones

Unidirectional types of microphones only pick up the high gain from a specific side of the microphone. The speaker must speak into the correct side, typically called the voice side, to get good gain on the recording. They are also called cardioid microphones, as their pickup patterns resemble the shape of a heart.

Cardioid microphones can be super-cardioid, hyper-cardioid, and sub-cardioid, all highly used in films due to their high directionality. Knowing which cardioid pickup pattern to use and when will aid you if you plan to do both studio and stage recording.

Bass Microphones

The name of these mics speaks for itself; they are used to record particularly deep frequencies. They are often tagged as kick drum mics, but that’s just one application, as many more instruments can be recorded by bass microphones, such as cello, bass guitar, trombones, etc.

This type of mic is designed to record vibrations in the bass region. It also has a low-end boost and a mid-frequency scoop used to clarify the muddy boom sound that bass instruments have in small rooms.

Shotgun Microphones

The big microphone you see in BTS scenes of a movie or a TV show? The ones hanging above actors’ heads when they are doing their scenes? Those are shotgun mics, also known as lobar microphones.

Perfect for when you’re trying to record something from a distance, these mics are condensers consisting of a small diaphragm with a shotgun pickup pattern. Shotgun microphones deflect as much ambient noise as possible coming from all directions other than the highly concentrated area you’re aiming it at.

These mic types usually have a long interference tube at the front that filters even more from the sides. They look like shotgun barrels, which is how they got their name.

Boundary Microphones

Boundary mics are also known as pressure zone microphones (PZMs). They are used to record in entire rooms, usually for conferences, theatre auditoriums, or when you need room ambient noise for more mixing options.

These microphones are typically mounted on the walls, making them more directional. Boundary mics pick up less of the room’s acoustics.

USB Microphones

In the mid-2000s, when a USB microphone was first presented, it was only an external microphone for a computer as the quality of the sound generated by that mic was not even close to satisfactory. However, they were cheap and in high demand, so the quality improved over time.

These types of microphones are a great first option for hobbyist music producers, people who want to start a podcast or narrate audiobooks, or are getting into live streaming.

USB microphones come with miniature preamplifiers and analog-to-digital converters inside. The mic sends the digital signal to the USB port to the computer that directly catches the recording.

Depending on what kind of recording you’re planning, a USB microphone can be a great first step toward setting up your equipment. Still, they are not an exact substitute for a professional studio-type microphone.

Additional Things To Keep in Mind

When choosing your first microphone, condenser vs. dynamic is only one of the decisions you’ll need to make. The packaging is likely to display some information that may seem confusing at first. Things like frequency response, impedance, or proximity effect are all common terms in the audio industry, so let’s look at what each means.

Frequency Response

Frequency response is the range of frequencies that a mic reproduces at an equal level or within a small tolerance margin. Different instruments, including the human voice, emit different frequencies, and different frequency response is required for higher fidelity.

Proximity Effect

When a microphone is close to the sound source, it picks up more of the low frequencies. This is why stage monitors are always placed close to the performers, so they can hear themselves better. This can be helpful when you want to add some extra punch to your music, but it can also cause problems if you’re not careful.

When recording the bass, the proximity effect commonly happens with unidirectional and bidirectional microphones.

Impedance (Z)

This is the microphone’s effective output resistance at 1 kHz. The lower the impedance, the better. Low impedance allows you to use longer mic cables without picking up hum or losing high frequencies.

No matter what microphone types you’re looking at, always check each of these categories to ensure you get the microphone you require.

Final Words

Microphones come in all shapes and sizes and with different purposes. Whether you’re looking for a microphone in your home studio or on stage, we hope this article has helped you understand the different types of microphones available and which one might be best for your needs.

Before purchasing your equipment, you need to know what different types of microphones there are and how they work. The better informed you are, the better the choice you’ll make. If you’re simply recording a podcast interview, a microphone app on the phone will do the job just fine. Still, if you’re thinking of starting a career in audio engineering, you might want to look into more professional equipment.

FAQ

What are the four types of microphones?

There are three types: dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones. Condenser microphones are further divided into large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm microphones.

What are condenser microphones?

Condenser microphones have a thin plate in their center that acts as a capacitor in which sound pressure makes the diaphragm vibrate. This vibration corresponds to the soundwaves by converting them into digital signals.

What is the best type of microphone?

It depends on what you are looking to get out of a microphone. If you are looking for durability, then a dynamic microphone is the best option. However, if you are looking for a versatile microphone that can give you a more precise sound, a condenser microphone would be better.

What is a crystal microphone?

A crystal microphone uses a piezoelectric crystal to transform sound waves into electrical energy. These types of microphones were popular between the 1930s and 1960s but have since been outdated.

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