Microphones are one of the most commonly used pieces of gear in the music production process. They come in a wide variety of prices and styles, they have different frequency response ranges and come in different types. In this article, you’ll learn about the different types of microphones used in music production, what they do, their best uses, and more.
Preliminary and basic information you should know
What is a microphone?
A microphone is a piece of audio equipment that converts sound waves into electrical energy which then can be amplified, recorded, or broadcasted.
What is a microphone used for?
Starting out with the basics, microphones are used for picking up sound waves from various audio sources. From there, this audio is then recorded onto a computer into a DAW or sent to speakers or another audio system, depending on whether you’re using a microphone for recording music or broadcasting live, both, or something completely different.
Getting into the specifics – Types of microphones
What are the different types of microphones?
There are quite a few different types of microphones. What sets these microphones apart from each other are a few things: certain types work better with certain instruments than others, they each have different circuitry, and require different levels of power to properly operate. A lot of this depends on the specific design of each microphone model, as each mic has its own sonic characteristics. Keep reading to learn more about what makes each type of mic different from one another!
There are two main ‘umbrella categories’ of microphones: condenser microphones and dynamic microphones.
Condenser microphones are the type of microphone that you probably think of when you imagine someone recording in a music studio, mainly vocals. Usually they are not handheld, they stay stationary, either mounted upside down from the ceiling or on a stand upright.
Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, are more likely the type that you’d see someone using during a live performance on stage, for vocals or instruments. These microphones are usually handheld or set up in front of amp cabinets or drums with a gooseneck stand.
Chances are, you have used one of these types of microphones before or will at some point.
What makes condenser and dynamic microphones different from each other?
Comparing the two types of microphones, there are a few criteria we look at:
- Frequency response
- Diaphragm size and weight
- Internal circuitry
- Durability of the diaphragm
- General durability
- Resistance to moisture
- Gain before feedback
Let’s go over condenser mics first.
1. Frequency response
Condenser microphones work better when used with high frequency instruments, including:
- Acoustic guitar,
- Vocals, especially higher voices.
2. Diaphragm size and weight
Condenser mics use a lighter, smaller diaphragm to capture sound. Higher frequencies have less energy than low frequencies, so smaller and lighter diaphragms are better for higher frequencies because they don’t need as much power to be picked up by the microphone accurately. There is such a thing as a condenser mic with a large diaphragm, but we’ll talk about those later.
3. Internal circuitry
Because condenser mics have a smaller diaphragm, they need more voltage to operate properly because they don’t have as much power as large diaphragms. Condenser mics have what is called an active internal circuit. Because of this circuitry and the mic’s need for high voltage, condenser mics need to have something called phantom power employed in order for the mic to be powered and receive and convert sound waves.
Phantom power is a button usually built into an audio interface or mixing board. When you press this button on the same channel that the condenser mic is connected to, it gives it a boost of 48 volts. This boost of electricity sufficiently powers the mic so that it can be used.
4. Diaphragm durability
Although condenser mics sound amazing, the smaller and lighter diaphragm is a lot more fragile. Some of them are so fragile that they can be damaged at high sound pressure levels (SPL). This is a big downside, so it’s extremely important to keep your condenser mics well taken care of.
5. General mic durability
Condenser mics are in general pretty fragile, it’s not just the diaphragm that’s fragile. They will definitely take a beating if they are dropped.
6. Resistance to moisture
The performance of condenser mics suffers quite a bit if the air is more humid, especially with extreme changes in humidity. This further confirms that they’re not as good for performances on stage than they are in the studio where the climate can be controlled.
7. Gain before feedback
Condenser mics are known as being extremely sensitive, and that’s why it’s important to record in a properly acoustically-treated room or music studio. Because of their high sensitivity, they can give you some nasty sounding feedback pretty quickly, which means that you can’t have the gain turned up very much before getting feedback.
The price range of condenser mics really varies. The best-quality ones are easily thousands of dollars, while others are more budget-friendly, some even being $100 or less. Some well-known companies that make condenser mics are Neumann, Audio Technica, AKG, Shure, and Blue.
Now let’s talk about dynamic microphones.
1. Frequency response
Typically, dynamic mics work better when used with instruments that have a lot of low frequencies, for example:
- Bass amps,
- Electric guitar amps,
- Low male vocals.
2. Diaphragm size and weight
Dynamic microphones have larger diaphragms that weigh more. This means they can handle low frequencies much better than condenser mics. Lower frequencies require more energy in order to be picked up by a microphone, and the large diaphragm of dynamic mics is big enough to put forth this energy and capture low frequencies.
3. Internal circuitry
Unlike condenser mics, dynamic mics don’t require phantom power. This is because they have a larger diaphragm that is already quite powerful, getting rid of the need for an external power source. This is called a ‘passive’ circuit.
4. Diaphragm durability
Because of the size and weight of dynamic mic diaphragms, they can handle high SPLs (Sound Pressure Levels) much better than condenser mics can, making them better for louder instruments like drums or electric guitars.
5. General mic durability
Dynamic mics are extremely durable. They’re commonly used on stage because they have extremely solid construction and design. If you drop a dynamic mic, it’s way more likely to take a beating considerably better than a condenser mic.
6. Resistance to moisture
Building onto the durability of dynamic mics, they also stand up great against moisture and changes in the humidity in the air. Now, this doesn’t mean that they’re waterproof or that they are safe to be used in the rain, because they’re not – they have electrical circuits and you can get electrocuted or you can fry the circuitry if a microphone gets wet. Keep this in mind.
7. Gain before feedback
Yet another reason why dynamic mics are suitable for stage performances is because they are less sensitive than condenser mics. This means that you can turn the gain up really high on them before you get any feedback. Usually there is a lot of stage noise during a live performance; with a dynamic mic you’re a lot less likely to have feedback issues from this stage noise.
Dynamic mics are a lot cheaper than condenser mics. You can find them easily for $200 or less. Their low price makes them a great option for beginner music producers and DJs, as well as artists and musicians.
Which mic is better for in the studio?
Truthfully, both condenser mics and dynamic mics can be used in the studio and they both will produce a great result, one type isn’t really better than the other. However, it also depends on how you use them. If you’re using the correct type of microphone with the corresponding sound source, things should turn out fine.
Each mic is good for certain things, there isn’t a microphone that is good for everything. However, this is why there are different subtypes of microphones within the two main umbrella categories of condenser and dynamic mics.
The subtypes of microphones
There are 8 subtypes of microphones. They are: small-diaphragm condenser mics, large-diaphragm condenser mics, bass mics, ribbon mics, multi-pattern mics, USB mics, boundary mics, and shotgun mics.
Now we’ll go over the details and information about these specific subtypes.
Large-diaphragm condenser mics
Large-diaphragm condenser mics are probably what you imagine seeing in a music studio. These are the industry standard subtype of condenser mics and are used everywhere in studios. It is considered the standard mic for recording vocals, but it also is great for recording many different instruments, so it’s quite flexible, making it the most popular microphone choice.
Small-diaphragm condenser mics
These microphones are long and thin, and are sometimes referred to as ‘pencil mics’. The small diaphragm in this subtype of microphone makes it ideal for recording instruments that have a lot of high frequencies, such as cymbals and acoustic guitar. Large condenser mics have small diaphragms to begin with, that are smaller than dynamic mic diaphragms. Small diaphragm pencil mics have a diaphragm that is even smaller than that! The size of the diaphragm in these condensers make this type of mic great for capturing detail, shimmer, and air in audio.
An average dynamic mic can be okay for handling bass frequencies, but to really capture all those low frequencies, especially in the sub range, a bass mic (also known as a kick drum mic) is ideal. These mics are dynamic and usually have a boosted frequency response curve. This curve usually will have:
- A boost in the low end to add extra thump and boom,
- A slight scoop in the mids to take out muddiness,
- A presence boost around 4 kHz for a bit of clarity.
When using a bass mic with a kick drum, it will capture the thump of the low end while also capturing the attack of the beater connected to the kick pedal.
These mics aren’t only good for kick drums, they’re also good for using with a bass guitar amp cabinet and pretty much anything else that has frequencies that low.
Multi-pattern mics are usually large-diaphragm condensers. These mics allow you to switch between polar patterns. Different polar patterns allow for audio to be picked up from certain areas of the microphone. Some of the most common polar patterns include:
- Cardioid: picks up audio from only the front of the mic,
- Figure 8: picks up audio from the front and back of the mic,
- Stereo: picks up audio from the front and sides to capture a stereo image,
- Omnidirectional: picks up audio from all sides of the mic.
Normally, these microphones aren’t for beginners, but they’re not very hard to understand and are extremely useful for recording audio in different situations, whether it’s a duet, a full band studio performance, or just you.
Ribbon mics are a bit of a wildcard here. Ribbon mics are neither dynamic or condenser types. They belong in their own special category because they don’t actually use a diaphragm to capture sound, instead a thin aluminum ribbon captures the sound. Most ribbon mics are passive, so they technically could fall under the dynamic mic category.
These ribbon mics are typically very durable in terms of external chassis construction and have a sensitivity level easily comparable to condenser mics. They also often usually have a figure 8 pickup pattern by default. They have a unique sound that makes them very coveted by the most popular music producers and audio engineers of today.
While ribbon mics are generally pretty sturdy due to the construction, the magnetically suspended aluminum ribbon is way more fragile, so even though the externally it is durable, you should take care not to drop it.
USB mics are a budget-friendly option for many beginner music producers as well as those who enjoy streaming gameplay and/or podcasting. You definitely won’t find them in a professional studio. USB mics fall under the condenser category and are typically plug-and-play, you just plug it into your computer and you’re set to record. Their ease of use and simplicity are very nice for beginners or those who don’t need a super expensive setup.
Boundary mics are not very well known among more beginner to intermediate producers, but they are some necessary tools for recording. Also known as PZM mics, they don’t require the use of a mic stand, instead they are meant to be mounted against a flat surface like a wall or the floor. Boundary mics are immune to problems that other mics are not immune to, like phase issues related to comb filtering.
In the studio, boundary mics are mainly used as:
- Room mics: by mounting it on the wall to pick up the sound of the room’s natural reverb,
- Kick drum mics: by laying it in the drum shell to directly pick up the low frequencies.
When not being used in the studio, boundary mics are most commonly used in the following places:
- Conference rooms: laying it on the table or podium to pick up the speaker’s voice,
- Theater performances: laying it directly on the stage to pick up voices.
The last main subtype of microphones is the shotgun mic. Shotgun mics are way less common in a music studio and more oriented towards being used in TV (like in news reporting and wildlife documentaries) and movies. These microphones are so popular for these situations due to their special ability to isolate sound.
The design of shotgun mics is unique in that they use a design called an interference tube. This tube has a bunch of slots that are designed to reject noise that is off axis and not directly going into the correct spot on the microphone. The longer the design of the tube, the narrower the angle of audio pickup is. Because there’s such a narrow pickup angle, you can use these mics from much farther away from the audio source, especially in noisy environments. This subtype of microphone is more or less the only kind that has this high of an isolation capability.
While these microphones are not super common among producers, it’s still good to be informed on them in case you do end up needing to use one at some point.
Microphone uses with instruments
Now we’ll go over which types and subtypes of microphones are the best for recording certain instruments. Many of the microphones out there are suited for multiple instruments, and if the mics you have are not extremely ideal for the instruments you want to record, many microphones should produce high enough quality audio (combined with other factors such as having a good recording that is free from background noise and interference, the mic was set up the proper amount away from the audio source, etc) that you can just EQ out any problem areas.
Really there is no ‘best mic’ for recording vocals. Everyone’s voice sounds different and it also is largely dependent on whether you plan to use the microphone on stage, in the studio, or both. As a rule of thumb without getting into too many specifics, condenser mics are more suitable for recording vocals while dynamic mics are better for live vocals during a performance.
Because of the many high frequencies and the shimmer that an acoustic guitar’s sound character has, condenser mics are the best choice to capture that shimmer. To be specific, small-diaphragm condensers will work best here, but large-diaphragm condensers as well as dynamic mics will be fine. Keep in mind that a lot of dynamic mics have a bit more of a limited frequency response range, so if you want a darker, warmer sound rather than a brighter, clear sound, use a dynamic mic.
The sound of an electric guitar can vary pretty drastically considering pedals can be run through an amplifier before being recorded. The best mics to record such a variety of electric guitar include condenser mics, dynamic mics, and ribbon mics. The outcome you get really depends on you and the microphone you end up choosing.
Recording an acoustic drum kit requires a lot of different microphones, mainly dynamic mics. For the kick drum, you will obviously want to use a bass mic, but you could use a boundary mic if you wanted to. It would just yield a different sounding result.
Small-diaphragm condenser mics should be used for cymbals, and standard dynamic mics can be used for the other drums. Two large-diaphragm condenser mics can be used above the drum kit on either side to be used as overhead mics, capturing some of the room sound and the cymbals. You could also add in a boundary mic to capture more of the room sound to give acoustic drums a more lively, realistic feel.
Bass guitar and kick drums
A standard bass mic will be fine for capturing audio from kick drums and bass guitar amp cabs. You could also use a boundary mic for a kick drum. I personally would choose a bass mic over a boundary mic for these situations as bass mics are specifically meant for capturing sub frequencies while boundary mics are more for capturing room characteristics and far away audio sources.
This article on the various types of microphones should provide you with enough information for you to be able to distinguish different microphone types from each other and identify which mics work best for live performances vs studio recordings, as well as determine which mics work best with which instruments.
Be sure to check out our reviews of the best condenser mics and the best dynamic mics available, and feel free to check back in the future for the most current and accurate information on audio gear for your studio, whether you’re a beginner or a pro!