A high-quality microphone is essential for your video and audio quality, but there are so many microphones out there that it can be tough to know which one is best for you and your setup. These different microphones generally fall under two main categories: condenser and dynamic. Both have pros and cons and serve different purposes depending on the setup.
When choosing the right microphone for you, make sure it can pick up high-quality sounds while also blocking background noise and other sounds that can interfere with your recording’s quality. The wrong microphone may cause audio issues no matter how good the rest of the equipment is.
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about choosing the right type of microphone for any given situation. I’ll also review a few helpful tips on using these mics in the most effective way possible. Let’s begin!
Table of Contents
- An Introduction to Mic Polar Patterns
- Types of Microphones
- Factors To Consider When Choosing a Microphone
- Final Thoughts
An Introduction to Mic Polar Patterns
The polar pattern of a microphone is the response curve of its pickup in different directions. It describes how microphones respond to sounds coming from different angles. Microphone polar patterns tell a little about how sensitive a microphone is to sounds coming from different directions.
Different microphones have different polar patterns. Essentially, some microphones are more sensitive to the sounds right before them. Pointing these mics away from the sound results in muffled, inaudible, or unclear sounds.
Other microphones will capture audio from any direction; hence, “omnidirectional” is applied whenever we talk about them (more on that later). For instance, polar patterns play an essential role in sound quality when recording vocals vs. instruments.
As the name suggests, omnidirectional polar pattern microphones capture incoming sounds from all sides, including the front and the rear. Omnidirectional mics are perfect for orchestras, where multiplayer instruments are essential to the performance.
Omnidirectional mics are great for capturing a large group of people at a conference or meeting or recording an acoustic song with a full band.
Some of the best makers of omnidirectional mics include Shure, Audio Technica, and Electro-Voice.
Bi-directional microphones are a type of microphone that can record and pick up sounds in both directions. For example, if you’re in front of the mic and start recording, it will record your voice in that direction.
If another person joins the conversation, sits in front of the mic, and starts speaking, it will also pick up their voice and record it.
The nature of these mics makes them more ideal when two people are seated on opposite sides. Bi-directional microphones also minimize space and equipment requirements since one mic can be set up for a conversation between two people.
You guessed it; unidirectional microphones pick up what’s coming from the front. Unlike bi-directional and omnidirectional microphones, these types try to isolate other sounds from the sides and rear.
Unidirectional mics can further be classified into cardioid, super-cardioid, and hyper-cardioid:
- Cardioid – These mics have a 180-degree rear null point, meaning they’re most sensitive to on-axis sounds coming from the front. Most cardioid microphones can be pointed in one direction or another by angling the microphone capsule. They are commonly used in recording studios, live sound, and public address applications.
- Super-cardioid – There’s not much difference between the cardioid and the super-cardioid. The only significant difference is that the super-cardioid mic has a sensitive back lobe and null points at 127° & 233°. Supercardioid mics are used to broadcast news, conference recording, voice-over work, and other situations where many background noises must be reduced.
- Hyper-cardioid – The hyper-cardioid pattern is similar to the super-cardioid mics, the major difference being that a hyper-cardioid mic has its null points at 110° and 250°. Another difference is that the hyper-cardioid pattern is narrower than the super-cardioid.
A hyper-cardioid pattern focuses the sound toward the front of the microphone, rejecting unwanted sound from the sides and back.
This directional pattern is helpful in various situations, such as reducing feedback in live performance settings, keeping sound from undesired sources out of the recording, and focusing the microphone on a single source of sound in recording or broadcast scenarios.
Types of Microphones
We’ve seen how microphones pick up sound from different directions. Although that is one way we see microphones, your recording’s quality will be subject to the type of microphone you have in your studio.
Some mics are perfectly suited to live performances, others go great with filmmaking, and others are best for podcasts and conversations.
The most common microphones are dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones.
Dynamic microphones are probably the most common type of microphone. They are based on the principles of electromagnetism, where sound causes a diaphragm to move. These mechanical vibrations in a magnetic field turn the sound waves into electrical signals fed to the speaker.
These mics require a preamplifier plugging into your audio interface or computer. That’s because the sound waves that cause vibrations do not wield enough power to move massive speakers. Dynamic microphones are generally very affordable and durable, but they are less sensitive than condenser mics.
Applications: General Use, Broadcasting, & Live Performances
Dynamic microphones are the most popular mics used for live performance and broadcasting. They are cheaper and less prone to distortion and overload than condenser microphones. Moreover, they are stronger and more durable than condenser and ribbon microphones.
Lastly, dynamic mics don’t require any phantom power like our next item on the list. Will Unnecessary Phantom Power Hurt a Microphone?
Condenser microphones capture sound using two metal plates. One plate is attached to the movable diaphragm, while the second is fixed on the backplate, forming a capacitor.
So when a sound wave hits the diaphragm, the distance between the two plates changes, converting the sound wave to electrical signals.
Applications: Superior Quality Sounds and Filmmaking
Condenser mics are often more expensive than dynamic mics, but for a good reason. Unlike dynamic microphones, condenser microphones are highly sensitive, making them an integral part of filmmaking. The high sensitivity captures amplitude and tone as naturally as possible.
However, that high sensitivity makes them less ideal for a live performance. High sensitivity picks up subtle noises, rumbles, and bumps in the already noisy stage. That is to say that unless you want to pick up any little sounds in your recording, it would be better to switch to a dynamic mic.
Ribbon microphones are slightly different. As the name suggests, a very thin metal ribbon (such as aluminum) is suspended in a magnetic field (usually two strong magnets). Incoming sound collides with and vibrates the ribbon to induce a signal.
Applications: High Fidelity Sounds and Instruments
Look for ribbon microphones when you need high-fidelity sounds. These mics are more sensitive than dynamic and condenser microphones and process the most authentic sounds you’ll get. As you may have guessed, their high sensitivity and delicateness make them unsuitable for live performances.
Instead, you want to use yours in a space where decent recordings of instruments are required. Ribbon mics capture super clear highs and accurate, clear lows, but there’s a catch. Keep external noises as far as you can from your mic.
Factors To Consider When Choosing a Microphone
If you’re looking to buy a microphone, you should keep a few things in mind, from price and features to compatibility. The type of microphone you need depends on what you’ll be using it for. If you’re recording music, you’ll need a different type of microphone than using it for a podcast or Skype call.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing the right microphone for your situation:
The frequency response of a microphone refers to the range of frequencies it can reproduce. This is usually between “20Hz-20kHz”, which refers to the bass range to treble frequencies. When selecting a microphone, it’s important to ensure it covers the frequencies you will most likely use.
Most vocal microphones have a frequency range of 100Hz-16kHz, so they are suitable for singing.
If you’re recording instruments, you may want to look for a microphone with a broader range. Sometimes, you’ll find different frequency ranges noted, such as “40Hz-16kHz” or “30Hz-20kHz”. On that note, condenser mics are said to have the best performance with high-frequency sounds.
On the other hand, you’re better off with dynamic mics if you need to capture crystal-clear lower frequencies.
Weight and Size
The weight and size of the microphone are important factors to consider, particularly if you plan to support yours with a boom arm. Some microphones are made with heavy magnets and metal bodies that are difficult to support with a lightweight boom.
While these microphones are often of excellent quality, they are not great for travel.
A lighter microphone may not be as high-quality, but it will be more practical if you use a boom arm or travel with it.
Consider Your Budget
The price of a microphone is one of the first things people consider when buying one. This is understandable, but it’s important to remember that price is not everything. It is surprisingly easy to spend several hundred dollars on a microphone you’ll outgrow.
However, you don’t have to spend excessively for a decent-quality mic that will serve you throughout your career.
There are many high-quality microphones available at varying prices. Strive to understand what features are included with the price tag.
What Kind of Environment You Will Record In
While this might not seem like a big deal at first, it can greatly impact the quality of your recordings. Think about where you’ll be recording. Is it in a quiet room, or do you have noisy neighbors? Do you have access to a studio?
The kind of environment you record in can either improve or hinder the quality of your audio, depending on which microphone you choose.
While most microphones will perform just fine in an average room, others are meant to be used in specific situations. For example, studio microphones are designed to work in a controlled environment and are better suited than a cheaper, handheld microphone.
As another example, if you’re interested in streaming, you’ll need a dynamic microphone if you stream in an environment with lots of background noise.
I’ll go into more detail about the differences between condenser and dynamic microphones for streaming in my complete guide. Do Streamers Usually Use Dynamic or Condenser Mics?
How Much Sound Quality Is Important to You
“Good” audio quality is subjective. What one person might think is “good” audio, another person might think is a noisy mess. For most YouTubers and podcasters out there, the quality of the audio in their video is important but not critical to their success.
If you’re in this boat, you can skip everything I’ve said and choose whichever microphone you want. I won’t judge. However, if audio quality is important, you must be more careful in your choice.
Choosing the right microphone can make a huge difference in sound quality. For instance, you may want to choose a mic with a high SPL rating if you want to steer clear of distortion.
Maximum SPL refers to the maximum sound pressure level (loudness) the microphone can handle before it sounds distorted.
This is important to consider when recording loud sounds, such as drums. If you are recording drums, you may want to consider a microphone with a high maximum SPL so you don’t overload the microphone and distort the recording.
What Kind of Content Will You Create
Choosing the right microphone is relatively straightforward if you only plan on making solo videos. You must consider your environment and how your microphone will affect the sound quality.
However, if you plan on collaborating with others or you want to start a podcast, you need to think about microphones that multiple people can use, such as omnidirectional mics.
Choosing the right microphone is more complicated than just looking at the cheapest one. If you pick a microphone based on price alone, you might end up with something that doesn’t meet your needs because you didn’t research beforehand.
First, you must decide how much you’re willing to spend and pick a microphone based on its features.
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