The world of microphones is a tricky one to dive into, but for those of you who are serious about educating yourselves, you’ve come to the right place.
As a musician and teacher for over 20 years, I can help guide you through the tricky world of microphones. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover different types of microphones, their applications, and their characteristics.
Need to know how the type of microphone affects how you use it?
Want to know which microphone types are better for a specific usage?
Interested in learning about the specifications of microphones and what to look for?
This article is your one-stop-shop for everything you need to know.
Overview Of The Different Types Of Microphones
First, we need to dive into the different types of microphones.
This table provides a snapshot comparison of the different microphone types. Read on for a breakdown of each microphone type and examples.
|Best Used For
|● Clear sound
● No power required
|● Crystal clear sound
● No or little power required
|Live or studio performances (advanced dynamic mic)
|● Great frequency response
● Great sound quality
● Works well with sound engineering electronics
|All studio settings, indoor recording
|Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics
|● Handles loud sounds well
● Clear sound
|Podcasting, recording voices
|Small Diaphragm Condenser Mics
|● Great sound quality
● Picks up all kinds of instruments and sounds
|Studio recording all, but especially instruments
|● Focused on picking up low sounds
|Use with electric bass, string bass, and other low-pitched instruments
|● Options for picking up sounds in different ways
|Studio/indoor settings, more versatile microphone
|● Connects easily with computers for easy recording
|Amateur sound needs, portable microphone
|● Picks up the live sound an entire room
|Recording live music when the goal is to get the real sound of a performance
|● Picks up sound from only in front of the microphone
● Can pick up sound from a distance
Read on for a quick overview of each microphone type. The following section goes into more detail.
These microphones convert sound into an electric signal through electromagnetic. This is done either by a metal coil or ribbon.
Dynamic mics often refer to the coil type of dynamic microphones while ribbon microphones are considered separate despite being a subset of the same type.
Dynamic microphones are often preferred for live performances due to their ability to handle loud sounds well and amplify with little effort.
The Sennheiser E935 is an example of this microphone type. It works perfectly with live performance and is easy to handle.
The XLR pin system works great for communicating a sound in a pure, clear form. Higher Max SPL means that it can handle louder sounds well.
The E935 is a prime example of what a dynamic microphone can do.
A type of dynamic microphones, the ribbon mic converts sound to electric signal through the electromagnetism of a thin piece of metal (often aluminum) near the diaphragm.
This thin strip of metal is where the ribbon comes in.
Ribbon microphones are considered to be better than standard coil dynamic microphones as they are more sensitive to lower frequencies which means they catch better sounds.
These are more fragile, but useful for live performances and studio recordings.
This one may be a little more fragile, but the ribbon design means that it can pick up sounds even clearer than a standard dynamic mic. Its hypercardioid polar pattern (a more front-focused supercardioid) also means it picks up sounds directly in front of it.
This mic is great for live and studio use but excels when picking up one specific instrument or voice in a crowded stage.
Condenser microphones are considered most useful in studio settings (not live) due to their sensitive electronic systems.
Condenser microphones convert sound into a signal through a process of compression using two charged metal plates. Sound waves hit the diaphragm between these plates creating the charge converting the sound.
The AT4040 is a great example of the condenser type of microphone. The sound quality is professional-grade in studio settings, and the frequency response really picks up the true sound of the voice or instrument.
This bundle comes with a shock mount (great for overcoming the more fragile nature), case, pop filter, and two cables.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics
In general, if the diaphragm (the part which vibrates with sound waves) is larger than 1 inch, the condenser microphone is considered a “large diaphragm.”
Larger diaphragms came first and are less sensitive to wider frequencies making them generally inferior to record highs and lows as with instruments. However, for the voice, large diaphragms may be better although it largely depends on the specific mic.
The AKG P220 is a large-diaphragm condenser mic. This microphone excels at picking up the voice due to its quieter running, but won’t pick up lows and highs as well as the small diaphragm variety.
But the inclusion of a solid shock mount makes it awesome for those recording in a busy area such as those broadcasters have (read more about microphones for a job below).
Small Diaphragm Condenser Mics
Generally considered less than 1 inch, small diaphragm condenser mics are superior is almost every way to large diaphragms except when handling loud sounds (though this depends on the specific microphone).
This Blue Condenser microphone is also a small diaphragm condenser mic. Most condenser mics without specifically saying it are small diaphragms.
Honestly, the difference between large and small is minimal. More important is the quality of the microphone.
With the Blue one above, you can trust its quality because of the company’s rock-solid reputation.
The low frequencies played by bass instruments such as the electric bass or the string bass (also called double bass) aren’t picked up well by most microphones.
Bass microphones are microphones (often dynamic mics) designed with low-frequency sensitivity. They shouldn’t be used as just a standard microphone as they won’t pick up other sounds as effectively.
The AKG P2 is an example of a bass mic. As a dynamic microphone, it can handle louder sounds, and the frequency range is lower overall than a standard microphone.
This is perfect for use with bass (low) instruments.
Multi-pattern microphones refer more to microphones (usually condenser microphones) which have the choice to capture sound through different polar patterns. This allows you to change your microphone depending on the specific recording situation you need.
Read more on polar patterns in the specifications section below.
The Blue Yeti is an example of a multi-pattern microphone. This is why the Yeti is considered one of the best value mics to buy.
It works for a variety of purposes, has a clear sound, and is in an affordable price range.
USB microphones are typically condenser microphones that connect to computers directly through the USB connection. In general, these are easiest to use, but they don’t capture professional-level sound quality (although some models get close).
For easy use, the USB Blue Snowball is one of the easiest microphones to use. USB microphones are almost exclusively condenser mics such as this one.
Boundary microphones are condenser microphones placed flush against a wall to pick up the sound. This microphone works best for capturing the live sound of a room including ambient and reflected sounds.
Ideal for recording a live performance in a music hall or capturing the sound of an audience at an event.
The AT Pro44 is a great example of a boundary mic. You can place this flush against a wall, floor, or ceiling and capture the real sound of the room.
This microphone gets its name from the barrel-like shape. Shotgun microphones pick up sound only from the front of the mic and work well at a distance.
This microphone is extremely focused on only picking up what’s in front of it. It works best when used a microphone for speakers or presentations when the speaker doesn’t want to hold the microphone or walks some distance away but still in front of the mic.
The AT875R Shotgun Microphone is an excellent example of this. It picks up sound only from the front and from a distance.
This microphone is ideal for use with video or with presentations.
Which Microphone Is Best For A Specific Purpose?
In this section, we’ll offer specific microphone type recommendations for different purposes. So if you want to know which mic is best for specific usage, this section is for you.
Types Of Microphones Used In Broadcasting
For those looking to record a broadcast or announce at an event, picking up the sound of your voice and only your voice is key for a good listener experience.
To this end, it’s not always about the type of microphone you use, but the polar pattern involved and the accessories you have that go with it.
Because voices are within a smaller frequency range, you’re not going to need as wide of one as, say, a band. The Max SPL (volume range) isn’t going to be a big concern.
But you are going to want a microphone (condenser or dynamic) that has a cardioid or supercardioid pattern (see polar patterns in the section below).
This pattern only picks up the sound in front of it which is perfect for broadcasting and announcing. You don’t want to pick up the sounds of those next to and around you.
You’ll also want some type of shock-mounted capsule/base/attachment. This will limit sound if you or someone else bumps your table while you’re speaking live.
A good pop filter over the microphone is also key. This will eliminate much of the “mouth sounds” coming from your voice.
The RODE Broadcaster microphone is a top-end model built for exactly this purpose. The large-diaphragm condenser works great for voices, and it features a built-in pop filter.
It even has an “on-air” light to warn others you’re broadcasting.
Types Of Microphones Used In Video
Using microphones with video is a rabbit hole to dive into, but let’s break it down:
First, you need to ask yourself: What audio am I looking to record?
If you want to record audio as the video is recording, you have to go with a unidirectional mic such as the shotgun microphone.
This microphone will pick up only what you’re pointing at, so all of the extra sounds will be ignored. This lets you record audio as it happens.
A premium option is the Sennheiser camera mounted shotgun microphone. It attaches to the camera and features a pop filter and shock mount. On top of this, the sound is crystal clear.
However, this Pixel Universal Mic will do a good job for amateur video makers.
If you want to record audio in a studio and place it over the video, you may want to use a condenser microphone with multiple polar patterns. These let you simulate the audio to layer over the video itself.
For example, to capture the sound like two people talking, use a bi-directional pattern.
Types Of Microphones Used In Studio
When studio recording, the type of microphone you want to use is largely a condenser microphone. They’re more sensitive to sounds, capture a wider frequency response, have more options, and have better sound quality.
However, the AT2035 is a much more affordable option for those not looking to drop a large amount. Its quality is wonderful, though it doesn’t have the options of the Shure.
Read more at our AT4040 vs. AT2035 in-depth comparison, here.
However, you may want to use a dynamic microphone when recording louder sounds such as drums or loud electric guitars. These can handle loud sounds better without getting damaged.
The Sennheiser E945 is a great dynamic microphone for recording loud sounds. It also uses the supercardioid pattern which is considered more effective at capturing sound in front without raising the gain.
Check out the Sennheiser E935 E945 comparison for more info.
Types Of Microphones Used For Live Performance
Live performance microphones have to be able to meet the demand for these specifications:
- Handle loud sounds
- Easy to use
- Pick up only sounds in front of it
- Instantly amplify with minimal background noise
When comparing the two main types of microphones, the clear winner in this category is dynamic microphones. They meet all the qualifications.
Condenser microphones could be used for live performances, and they may end up with better sound quality. But they also are more fragile due to their smaller diaphragms and the need for power.
Standard coil dynamic microphones are the most used for live performances, but the higher-quality ribbon microphones are also becoming more common (especially at levels where sound quality is essential).
The Sennheiser E945 is a great option (see link above) for live performances. But for those looking for a top-tier professional-grade Rode NTR Premium is fantastic.
The sound quality is almost unmatched, and this microphone has the power and range to meet needs in the studio and live stage.
Types of Microphones Used For Podcasting
Podcasting is similar in requirements to broadcasting. Generally, with podcasting, all you’ll need is a good condenser microphone that can record voice well.
You want one that’s true to the sound of your voice. Condenser microphones are often the best option.
With podcasting, you may not want to mess around with different cables and soundboards. A good USB microphone will work just fine for most people.
If you do want more quality in sound, check out the AT2020. It costs a little more than the next option, but the sound is better.
But if you’re looking for ease of use and pattern options, you will be more than happy with the Blue Yeti. It has good quality, and it’s a USB condenser microphone.
All you need to do is plug it in and you’ll be good to go!
Read more at our Blue Yeti vs. Blue Snowball in-depth comparison here.
Microphone Specifications Broken Down
Microphones are complicated pieces of machinery with many specifications to consider. These can be confusing, but if you’d like to learn a little more about microphone characteristics in more easily understood language, this is for you.
The polar pattern refers to how the microphone collects sound. Most microphones don’t gather sound from all directions, but they choose to get sound in a specific way.
Each polar pattern has its own pros and cons and fits a specific purpose as well. These are the common types of polar patterns:
- Uni-directional (Shotgun)
Cardioid – This is the standard polar pattern. It picks up sound from in front of the microphone with very little picked up from the sides.
This pattern is flexible for many different types of recording and captures just enough ambient sound to get the live feeling.
Subcardioid – This pattern is also called wide-cardioid. It picks up more sound from the sides than cardioid does, but it’s still focused on the front unlike omnidirectional.
This pattern works well for smaller acoustic performances where the ambient sound isn’t a worry. This pattern is more likely to give feedback.
Supercardioid – On the opposite end, supercardioid is focused even more on the front only. It useful for picking out a lead vocalist away from ambient band sounds.
You need to be careful where you place this microphone. If the performer walks too far away, then you may lose their sound entirely.
Think of supercardioid as the bridge between cardioid and shotgun.
Omnidirectional – As the name suggests, omnidirectional patterns pick up sound from all directions equally. This microphone isn’t ideal for loud performances and sounds as feedback will almost certainly occur.
But for those looking to have a round-table discussion or podcast recorded, this may be ideal. It can also fit for those wanting to capture every sound in a room.
Bi-directional – This polar pattern captures sounds from two different directions. This may seem like an odd choice, but many live performers and studio recordings use this.
Place the bidirectional mic between two performers and allow them the natural live performance or discussion while hearing them both equally. This will then also reduce ambient sound from outside these two areas.
Great for podcasting, broadcasting, or recording a duet between two people.
Uni-directional (Shotgun) – With this pattern, you travel even farther down the path than supercardioid. This microphone pattern will only pick up sounds from exactly in front of the microphone and at a distance.
This is great for public speaking or lecturing and in use for picking up only dialogue while filming.
The frequency response is the range the microphone picks up. The wider and more flat the frequency response is, the better the overall performance and quality of sound will be.
Don’t forget that flatness is also important. A frequency response that is not flat, will selectively emphasize one frequency over another and this reduces the sound quality of a microphone.
In general, condenser microphones have wider frequency responses than dynamic microphones.
You’ll often find the microphone specifications listed for the dimensions of a microphone. This may not be an important feature to you, but you may want to consider it as you shop around.
A larger microphone is considered easier to handle and more durable, but smaller ones are often more portable. Quality isn’t related to microphone size as both large and small mics can be good or bad in different situations.
Similar to dimensions, the weight of the microphone may affect your use of the product. Heavier microphones are usually more durable while lighter ones are more portable.
Honestly, the weight won’t be much of a factor unless you’re stuck between two microphones you can’t decide on. (This is why we have articles like the Blue Snowball vs. ICE comparisons).
Microphone materials come in three basic varieties:
Plastic – These microphones are cheaper by far, but this makes them more breakable. The plastic material can also affect the sound quality if the microphone is of poor quality.
However, there are great plastic mics out there. Just be careful as you shop.
Metal – Microphones housed in metal are generally considered better than plastic. They are more durable, have better sound quality, and still look sleek.
Their main downsides are their heavier weight and higher cost.
Not all metals are created equal. Compare the specific metals with each other as you shop, and you’ll find that not every metal weighs and sounds the same.
Hybrid – Hybrid material microphones often as a metal skeleton for durability and sound with plastic additions to lighten the microphone and add more sophisticated machinery options.
Even this type is considered inferior to many all-metal ones though as a good soundboard can reduce the need for these selectors.
The cost of a microphone is important. While you can expect to pay more for a quality mic, this isn’t always the case.
You also need to balance your overall needs as well. If you need multiple microphones as with videos or studio band recordings, you may not want to spend all your money at one time.
On the other hand, if you only need one microphone, you may want to drop a little more for better quality.
I recommend picking a microphone and then searching for a bundle. These bundles will often save you money by helping you get other accessories for cheaper.
These accessories can include:
- Shock mounts
The connector of a microphone refers to how the electric signal created from the sound is sent to the soundboard, amplifier, or computer.
Most microphones nowadays use the XLR 3-pin system. The top two pins send the signal while the bottom one is the ground.
This connector is considered to be the best currently as it doesn’t lose any of the sound quality. However, you will need a soundboard or adapter to connect these microphones to a computer.
Mics with the XLR are considered more professional and used by most recording systems.
The other main option is the USB microphone. This connector works instantly and easily with computers and soundboards.
The downside of these microphones is that sometimes they lose some sound quality through the connection.
The USB connector is exclusive to certain condenser microphones. This type is a favorite of podcasters and YouTubers.
Microphone sensitivity is one of the most important characteristics of microphones, especially dynamic microphones. In a studio setting, condenser microphones don’t need to worry about this as much because you control the environment more.
There are two main elements with regard to sensitivity:
- How loud a sound needs to be picked up in the “bubble”
- The volume that causes peaking
A more sensitive microphone picks up more sounds and projects them into a louder sound from the smaller sound. In simple terms, more sensitive microphones are more efficient.
Less sensitive microphones need to have the gain turned up higher to make quieter sounds louder when compared to more sensitive microphones.
The danger in turning up the gain is that it increases the chance of the microphone picking up extra sounds and making them louder too. It also greatly increases the chances of creating an undesired feedback loop.
Most microphones that are more sensitive also have a higher Max SPL (read below). This means they won’t distort at louder sounds.
In general, you want more sensitivity in your microphones when using them for live performances.
Here’s a good video showing the connection between sensitivity and feedback.
Impedance is a complicated microphone concept. In simple language, it refers to the voltage and power of the signal put out by the microphone.
Higher impedance results in a stronger signal. Lower impedance results in a weaker signal.
It sounds like high impedance is a good thing, and it is, generally. But cables and amps also affect the impedance too.
Too much impedance creates a strong sound, but you may not have control over it. It could get distorted easier if the other parts also have a high impedance.
However, if the impedance is too low, the sound won’t be projected well. Condenser microphones in studio settings may be just fine with a low impedance as the signal strength isn’t as important.
For more information about impedance, read this WhirlwindUSA article if you’re interested.
When experts talk about noise, they’re referring to how much sound the microphone causes as it runs. This is also called “white noise.”
Budget and poor-quality microphones cause more white noise in general. This results in a fuzzy you sound you may remember from the portable tape recorders from back in the day.
A good rule of thumb is the lower the noise, the better.
Most microphones today have low noise volumes, but when shopping for a mic, check the specs for noise or white noise.
A lower noise also leaves you with a better dynamic range as well (see below).
The dynamic range of the microphone is the effective ability to handle loud and soft sounds. It tells you how much decibel range can be picked up by the mic.
A larger range means the microphone can handle loud and soft better. This is a key microphone characteristic when recording or amplifying drums and other louder sounds.
To figure out the dynamic range, you find the difference between the Max SPL and the noise.
For example, the AT2035 has a max SPL of 148db and noise of 12db. Subtract the two, and you get a dynamic range of 136db.
Note: This is the range (loud and soft) of the music. Louder songs still need a mic with more max SPL.
The Max SPL (sound pressure level) is the maximum volume a microphone can handle. It’s essential to look at this microphone specification.
Not only with a microphone recording sounds louder than it can handle cause distortion and peaking, but it could also be damaged.
Condenser microphones tend to have lower max SPLs because their diaphragms are smaller and more fragile. Louder sounds (as from drums) could break them causing the microphone to record poorly forever.
Dynamic microphones tend to be better in this category, but you’ll still want to check this spec. Consider what you’re planning on using the mic with and how loud you’ll need it to be.
I hope you found this guide on the different types of microphones, their applications, and their characteristics helpful. The world of sound can be scary, but this guide gives you a great place to start.
Just by finishing the article, you’re already better educated than 99% of people out there. If you’re still unconvinced of which specific microphone to buy, be sure to check out our reviews and in-depth comparisons of specific microphones.
Have fun recording!
Also, don’t forget checking our the following articles for some detailed comparisons of various types of mics: