When I first started recording one of the first things I wanted to do was record some simple acoustic guitar and vocals. Mainly because I only owned an acoustic guitar at the time, so I didn’t have much choice. With no line output from my traditional wooden guitar, I knew I would need a microphone to do this.
But when I started to google as to which one I should get, I soon realized it wasn’t that simple. Turns out there are different types of microphone. Two words I came across most often were ‘condenser’ and ‘dynamic’. But what is the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones? Did I need both?
Put very simply. The difference between a dynamic and a condenser microphone is a dynamic microphone is better for capturing loud, strong sounds (drums or loud vocals), particularly in a live setting, whereas a condenser microphone is used to capture more delicate sounds and higher frequencies (studio vocals for example), particularly in a studio setting. A dynamic microphone also doesn’t require power whereas a condenser microphone does.
These characteristics all have to do with how they are constructed and how they function. And it turns out they are both great for different reasons. They weren’t just made to confuse me.
In this article, I will try and explain in more detail what I discovered whilst researching this, the conclusions I made, and the microphones I eventually purchased.
Towards the end of the article, I will go through which type of microphone I think is most suitable for different types of instrument and situation.
What does a microphone do?
As per usual I will start with the very basics.
A microphone is used to convert sound waves, which can be created by anything from the human voice to a booming saxophone, into electrical waves that a computer or other recording device can understand.
The way a microphone converts this signal varies depending on the type of microphone.
What is a dynamic microphone?
Used for: loud sounds, live instruments/ amps, drums
Pros: cheap, durable, doesn’t need a power source
Cons: not very sensitive to quiet or high-frequency sounds
A dynamic microphone is the oldest type of microphone and is thus the most primitive in terms of design.
In very simplified terms, the sound in a dynamic microphone is created when a sound wave hits a diaphragm (a device usually made of plastic or polyester film used to sense a sound signal) causing it to move.
The diaphragm is attached to a metal coil which is suspended between two magnets. When the diaphragm moves the coil also moves up and down producing a small AC current, mimicking that of the sound wave.
To try and make this easier to understand, imagine the sound wave being like a wave on the water that you create by splashing, and then imagine the metal coil as a cork bobbing up and down on the surface as each wave passes it……I hope that makes sense.
Dynamic microphones are capable of withstanding high sound pressure levels. This makes them ideal for recording loud sounds or for use in a live setting. They are also extremely reasonably priced due to their fairly rudimentary design and they can withstand a lot of wear and tear. This is one of the reasons they are the most frequently used microphone for live performances.
This durability becomes a limitation of dynamic microphones in some situations.
The coil has a certain weight to it and therefore if you make a quiet sound or perhaps a sound of particularly high or low frequency, the coil will not vibrate sufficiently to produce an accurate representation of the sound.
So in a studio, where you aren’t worried about sounds being particularly loud, and where you want to record the intricacies of your vocals. A dynamic microphone may not be the best fit.
And that is when you may need…….a condenser microphone
What is a condenser microphone?
Used for: quieter more complex sounds with a greater range of frequencies
Pros: sensitive, accurate
Cons: more expensive, more delicate, don’t deal well with very loud sounds
Unlike dynamic microphones, condenser microphones are capable of capturing those much quieter sounds with a high degree of accuracy.
A condenser microphone also contains a diaphragm, which is usually made of very thin metal and another piece of metal called a backplate. Electricity is applied to both of these creating a static charge between them.
Once a soundwave hits the diaphragm it vibrates and produces a small electrical current.
As you may have noticed I said that electricity is applied to the diaphragm and backplate. So this means that you need electricity for a condenser microphone to work, whereas you don’t for a dynamic one.
The amount of electricity required ranges from between 9 and 48 volts. For this, you will either need batteries in the microphone itself or something known as PHANTOM POWER!
What the hell is PHANTOM POWER?
No, phantom power isn’t some kind of mysterious force produced by ghosts floating around in your home studio. It simply refers to the tiny amount of power needed to make the diaphragm move. This power usually comes from your audio interface or pre-amp. You will usually find a phantom power switch on them like the one below.
If you want to understand more about why dynamic microphones don’t need phantom power check out this article I wrote on the subject.
What other kinds of microphone are available?
Of course, the makers of musical equipment wouldn’t make it that easy for you to chose and there are a few other, slightly less common, types of microphone you may come across these include:
A boundary microphone is basically a condenser microphone in a special housing which is shaped to pick up sounds reflected off a surface such as a wall.
These are used when people want to catch the sounds produced in a particular type of room or where multiple instruments are being recorded at the same time.
These also require phantom power to work.
A ribbon microphone shares I mean emore similarities with a dynamic microphone. It differs in the fact that is has a thin ribbon (hence the name) of aluminum, rather than plastic as the diaphragm.
Ribbon microphones are not very common these days. They are expensive and are extremely fragile. Even a light breeze could break one.
What is the difference between small and large diaphragms?
As I explained above the diaphragm is used in the microphone to vibrate when sound waves hit it.
In condenser microphones, you will often see a choice between having a small diaphragm or a large diaphragm. But what difference does it make?
All you really need to know is that large diaphragms, due to their size, are better at picking up lower frequencies. Whereas smaller diaphragms can more accurately capture higher frequencies.
So decide on what you are trying to record before choosing. If you mainly want to record vocals or more bassy sounds then a large diaphragm is usually best. But if you want to capture a high pitched flute or violin then a small diaphragm may be what you want.
Omnidirectional vs Cardioid
This is why I wanted to write this article. The amount of confusing words that you see when shopping for one is quite overwhelming.
Another pair of words you may see are ‘omnidirectional’ and ‘cardioid’.
It is actually quite simple though, omnidirectional means the microphone captures sounds from all around it and cardioid only captures sound directly in front of it.
Omnidirectional mics are great when you are looking to get the sound of the instrument/ voice but also the sounds of the room too. If you are recording in a church, for example, you may want the echoey sound of the hall and therefore you will want to capture sound waves coming from all angles.
In contrast, a cardioid microphone is used when you only want to record the direct sound of your voice or instrument. This is why you will often see them on a snare drum for example. You just want to capture the sound of the snare and not the sound of all the cymbals and other drum pieces crashing around it.
Which microphone is best for vocals?
So now hopefully you have a better idea of why there are so many types of microphone available. It is not a case of one type being better than the other, it is just that different situations call for different strategies.
So which do I recommend for vocals then?
Well it will be down to personal preference. Some people prefer a nice warm tone to the vocal whereas others prefer a less muddy more accurate tone. It also depends on your singing style, are you a soprano, an opera singer or maybe even in a screamo metal band?
In most cases, your best bet is to go for a condenser microphone. Large or small diaphragm will both do a great job but if you have the option large diaphragm over small diaphragm because you probably want to capture a decent range of frequencies.
One of the best and most reasonably priced options I have come across is the Audio-Technica AT2020
Which microphone is best for electric guitar?
I personally use dynamic microphones for recording guitar from an amp.
This is for a few reasons. Mainly though it is because it can handle loud sounds and is robust and cheap. I’ve never had a problem doing it this way and it always sounds great.
If you are worried you might not capture all the frequencies or if you are doing more intricate lead parts. Then you may well want to consider a large-diaphragm condenser for this as well as your vocals.
The industry standard for decades has been the Shure SM57 and it is still a favorite of many and available at a very reasonable price.
Which microphone is best for acoustic guitar?
In the article, I explained that I am a big fan of using a small diaphragm condenser microphone for acoustic guitar. As I don’t like too much low end, which can be caused by using a large-diaphragm condenser.
Again stay clear of dynamic microphones for acoustic guitar as it just doesn’t sound that good (in my opinion).
Behringer do a great little pair of small-diaphragm condenser mics for a very reasonable price allowing you to record your acoustic guitar in stereo, a nice added bonus.
Which microphone is best for drums?
I really do advise against recording live drums in a small home studio, which I will dedicate an article to soon I promise. I don’t do it as I feel it is just too much like hard work……and I also can’t play drums. I also feel like these days you can get a great sound using sampled drums.
So for these reasons please take this advice with a great deal of caution and maybe consult a drum expert first as well.
If you really want to use live drums then you will probably need a variety of different microphones in order to record them.
Dynamic microphones are perfect for a drum kit as they can take a loud sound and therefore you can place them right next to the desired drum. Dynamic mics should be used on the snare, bass drum and toms.
The Shure SM57 has been a studio standard for decades and is still one of the best:
Condenser microphones are probably a better fit for the cymbals. Higher frequencies are much more important than they are for the drums and these may not be captured by dynamic mics.
USB vs XLR Microphone?
The vast majority of microphones you will come across are traditional XLR microphones. Because these use an XLR cable you will need an audio interface to connect it to a computer.
Now you may see a USB microphone and think, great! This cuts out the middleman. No need for a chunky box to plug my microphone into, I can just plug it straight into the computer and record away.
Well, you can do this, but I would strongly recommend against it in a home music studio.
The problem is that for it to plug straight in the signal must be converted from analog to digital. With no audio interface to do this, it is carried out in the microphone itself. Audio interfaces are much better at doing this (it is what they were designed for) than USB microphones which are often quite cheaply made.
Secondly, it is hard to know where in the dynamic range your levels are set and therefore you will find it very hard to get the right levels with a USB mic. You will find yourself moving towards and away from the microphone or getting distortion in the middle of a track.
Looking after your microphones
Once you have invested in some microphones you will want to take good care of them as they will become a major part of your recording process.
Microphones vary in build quality and susceptibility to damage. But many of the parts are quite sensitive and therefore can get damaged fairly easily if you are not careful.
I’ve only ever bought one set of microphones and many people I know have ones that have lasted them a lifetime.
Here are a few quick tips to keep them in good condition:
1) Handle them as little as possible
If your equipment is primarily for studio use and is not getting used for gigging (which I would advise), then you are best leaving the microphones where they are and handling them as infrequently as possible.
Handling can lead to accidentally dropping etc which could be very bad for the microphone.
I personally keep my microphones out on their stands at all times so they are ready to go. This saves me time, effort (yes I’m very lazy) and the worry that I may drop it.
2) Prevent dust damage
Recording studios, like any room, can get very dusty, very quickly.
It is a good idea to keep this dust from entering your microphone. It can settle on the diaphragm and cause the microphone to lose sensitivity or alter the frequency response.
I simply cover my mics with plastic bags (very scientific I know) when I leave the studio to prevent any dust entering them.
3) Watch out for humidity
I would, however, advise against the above method if you live in an area of high humidity.
I live in quite a cold climate and high humidity is the least of my concerns. However, if you a blessed with living somewhere warm and humid then putting a plastic bag over the microphone would be like creating a mini sauna for it.
Instead in this situation, I would advise to store the mics away in a padded storage container or locker and throw in a few packs of silica gel. These will absorb any excess moisture that is floating around in the air and keep the microphones bone dry.