5 Types Of Microphones & Their Differences
Whether for live performance, recording in the studio, or even live streaming, microphone selection is critical to capturing and delivering audio material.
There are three basic types of microphones available, some with subsets, but without knowing how each of them work and how they differ, you could be left scratching your head wondering which products to purchase for your first (or next) project.
In this guide, we look at several different types of microphones and how they’re different from each other.
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A dynamic microphone is directional by design, and it’s considered one of the toughest, most dependable microphone types available.
Touring, especially as an independent artist, requires that you take gear on the road. For better or for worse, though, gear tends to get beaten up quite quickly on the road, given that load-in and teardown are the primary events that lead to wear and tear, no matter how well protected the gear is.
Even if you’re primarily recording from home, gear can suffer some dings and scrapes. I used to run a hybrid rehearsal / recording studio, and I can tell you from experience that gear can go missing, mics can fall off mic stands, stands can fall over onto amps, and so on.
So, every producer should have a dynamic mic or two in their mic locker. Not that there’s a ton of choice to begin with, but besides being durable and affordable, dynamic mics are also handy for recording and live performance applications alike.
Dynamic mics come with a unidirectional pattern, also known as a cardioid polar pattern. Basically, a dynamic mic has been designed to pick up sound from the direction it’s pointed in, while canceling out background noise and sound coming from other directions.
To an extent, dynamic mics solve a problem many a home recordist has encountered – bleed and background noise. Whether it’s someone talking in the background, a guitarist jamming unplugged in the corner, the furnace turning on at the wrong moments, or otherwise, unwanted noise can easily be captured by more sensitive mics.
This doesn’t mean that these sounds aren’t picked up by dynamic mics at all, but some mics are certainly less sensitive than others. By cutting down on reflections and background noise, you can generally capture a better “dry” performance you can later touch up with post processing and effects.
This depends somewhat how picky you are with individual performances, mind you, because in a noisier mix, no one’s going to be able to make out planes flying overhead or the police siren going off in the distance.
When recording classical, folk, bluegrass, or singer-songwriter material, most producers like to cut down on as much extraneous noise as possible, though by no means is this a requirement, and it isn’t always done with specific mics (rooms play a bigger role in studio and pro quality recordings).
Either way, home, bedroom, basement, and garage producers should all have a few dynamic microphones in their mic locker, at different price points. Sometimes, the cheap ones do an exceptional job. The Shure SM57, for example, always gets a lot of use. More expensive dynamic mics may be used for bass, voice, etc.
Dynamic mics are great for capturing louder sounds given that they are less sensitive than the alternatives. This makes them great for recording snare drums (and drums in general), distorted electric guitars, and more.
In terms of sound quality and characteristics, dynamic mics will tend to have a boosted high-mids sound, along with a bit of a bass roll-off. That generally makes them a little less suitable for recording instruments with emphasized bass frequencies, but there are some good dynamic mics for capturing that heavy bottom end too.
Dynamic mics tend to be a plus for recording electric guitars in general, because most producers are quick to put a high-pass filter on them anyway. A dynamic mic will do at least part of the job on their behalf.
A dynamic mic will generally give you a harsher, more aggressive tone. It has a bit of warmth to it as well, but very different from the warmth you will capture with other microphones. It usually does not boast the level of detail, sensitivity, or sparkly high end that a condenser mic does.
Popular dynamic microphones:
- Shure SM57-LC Cardioid Dynamic Microphone
- Shure SM58-LC Cardioid Dynamic Vocal Microphone
- AKG D5 Vocal Dynamic Microphone
An astute producer or engineer will already know that a broadcast microphone is basically the same thing as a dynamic microphone. It isn’t even necessarily a subset of a dynamic mic, but for all intents and purposes of this guide, it probably is best thought of as a subset.
That said, broadcast microphones are often only used in recording or in-studio situations (and not live stage situations), where some dynamic mics are perfectly suited to both applications.
A Shure SM57, for example, is often used in recording studios and on live stages, to mic up guitar amps. A broadcast microphone would almost never be used in its place.
Broadcast microphones are great (and even essential) for:
- Radio and speech
- Voiceover and narration
- Videos and broadcast
- Live streaming
- And more
Broadcast mics will often have a meatier low end that has become quite synonymous with radio. Processing isn’t required, but it sure can sweeten the deal.
As I’ve proven, broadcast microphones can be used on voice and even acoustic guitar. I would not say they are ideal for these purposes, but they can have certain advantages.
For example, I used both a condenser and dynamic mic on my voice when recording lead vocals on my No Escape EP, and the result is a blend that includes the clear high ends and weightier low ends.
It should also be noted that there are some condenser broadcast mics as well.
Popular broadcast microphones:
- Shure SM7B Vocal Dynamic Microphone
- RODE Procaster
- Electro-Voice RE20 Broadcast Announcer Microphone with Variable-D
- Logitech Blue Sona Active Dynamic XLR Broadcast Microphone
Dynamic microphones represent one pillar holding up the entire recording and live stage infrastructure. Condenser mics represent another key pillar.
Most consider mics feature a more sophisticated design, are more sensitive and accurate, offer a more detailed sound, are often more expensive (although there are plenty of expensive dynamic mics too), and tend to be a little more fragile.
For this reason, condenser mics should be handled with care. They don’t hold up very well to dropping, bumping, or scraping, though they might be able to survive slight damage. Overall, the less impact you subject them to, the better.
Compared to dynamic mics, condenser mics are more accurate. They capture a more detailed, balanced, warmer sound overall.
But most condensers aren’t great for capturing louder, more dynamic material. Of course, that means they are great for softer, less dynamic sources.
Where a condenser mic may not be as versatile as a dynamic mic, it can give you a higher quality result on key tracks. That makes them great for vocals (but not necessarily for aggressive rap or screamed metal vocals), as an example.
Condenser mics often come with a brighter high end and added clarity. Anything recorded with a condenser mic will tend to have a more natural sound, with less muffle.
Many condensers come with multiple poplar patterns, and sometimes switches that give you control over the pattern you want to use for a specific recording scenario.
Bidirectional patterns will let you pick up the sound from the front and the back while canceling out the side, while omnidirectional patterns will pick up sound from every direction, canceling out none.
Condenser microphones need 48 V phantom power to work. Most audio interfaces come with a switch, but it would be wise to check your setup before purchasing a condenser mic.
For the most part, condenser microphones are used in studios, specifically for recording. A big reason for this is the potential feedback that can result from a condenser mic being overwhelmed by too many sound sources and reflections.
But live use of condenser microphones is gradually increasing.
For home recording, condenser mics are also essential. It may not appear that way, at first, because condenser mics can easily pick up unwanted background noise.
But depending on the source you’re recording, a richer, deeper, more detailed sound is desired. Vocals, acoustic guitars, and stringed instruments, to name a few.
So, don’t write off condenser mics, even if you’re recording in less than desirable environments. The RODE NT1-A is an excellent choice for beginners and intermediates alike. Using this mic will teach you the ins and outs of condenser mics, for a nominal fee, while preparing you for more expense ones.
Condenser mics come in two major varieties:
Large diaphragm condensers are considered ideal for sources where you need to pick up more of the low and low-mid frequencies while de-emphasizing higher frequencies.
Just as the name would suggest, large diaphragm condenser mics are generally bigger than their small diaphragm counterparts.
Popular large diaphragm condenser microphones:
- RODE NT1
- Lewitt LCT 940
- Aston Microphones Spirit
- Neumann TLM 103
- Audio-Technica AT5040
Small diaphragm condenser mics offer enhanced clarity and high end, while giving you less low and low-mid frequencies.
Just as the name would suggest, small diaphragm microphones are generally smaller in appearance compared to large diaphragm microphones.
Popular small diaphragm condenser microphones:
- Neumann KM 184
- Shure KSM137
- RODE NT5-S
- AKG P170
- Telefunken M62 FET Hypercardioid
The final pillar of the microphone infrastructure is represented by this – ribbon microphones. While they are lesser known compared to dynamic or condenser microphones, they did pave the way for modern recording.
Ribbon microphones are perhaps the most polarizing of all microphones. They offer incredible warmth and a vintage sound, but they’re notoriously finicky. They are the most fragile of all microphone types, the most sensitive, and to top it all off, usually the most expensive.
Even lightly bumping or clipping a ribbon mic can sometimes ruin it for good. You’ve got to start at lower gain levels and gradually adjust. It’s a tough mic type to work with on more dynamic sounds. It’s a tough mic type to work with on any sound period.
Vintage equipment is almost always like that, though, and in that sense, ribbon mics do not disappoint. In the 50s and 60s, ribbon mics were used very heavily on a variety of projects.
Today, they are often used to recapture the glory years of music, but there’s always that odd guitarist or vocalist who says, “ribbon mics are what I use, man.”
In decades past, ribbon mics were generally used on vocals and stringed instruments.
Ribbon mics are bidirectional, which makes them less practical for home recording. Of course, they still make for great companions in acoustically treated rooms.
There’s something about ribbon mics and their sound that defies explanation. They have a quality and character that needs to be experienced to be understood.
That said, if you go back and listen to records from the 50s and 60s, there’s a certain warm, vintage vibe you’ll notice, and it’s almost always the work of a ribbon mic.
If you’re recording from home or in untreated environments, there’s really no reason to rush out and buy a ribbon mic. You’d be better off learning the proper use, care, and maintenance of said mic type first anyway. If you’ve got money to spend, go right ahead, but otherwise, leave ribbon mics for later.
Gain some experience with recording first, then begin looking at additional gear to round out your selection.
Popular ribbon microphones:
- Royer R-121
- Beyerdynamic M 160
- sE Electronics Voodoo VR1
- Ocean Way Audio RM1-B
- Shure KSM313/NE
Fundamentally, a USB microphone is not a different type of microphone at all. Most USB mics, you’ll find, are condenser mics (but there are some dynamic mics too – either way, they’re just a variation on the same thing!).
What’s different is the method of connection. Most microphones connect to audio interfaces using XLR, some using USB, and some are equipped for both.
USB mics are primarily appealing to crowd that want to use microphones with their computers. A USB connection cuts down on the need for a dedicated audio interface and XLR cable, so it’s considered more “direct,” less hassle, and usually less expensive overall.
USB mics are usually optimized for:
- Online meetings
- Live streaming
- Studio and recording (to a lesser degree)
Though not universally true, many USB mics also have a lower quality sound compared to pro level condenser mics. But they are getting better and better these days.
Does someone recording from home require a USB mic? That depends.
For recording music, it’s recommended that you get a good selection of dynamic and condenser mics first, at least one of each.
By the time you’ve learned how to use a dynamic and condenser mic, you might not even think about buying a USB mic, even if it’s for podcast interviews or online meetings.
That said, if you travel frequently, like me, and want to quickly capture musical or content ideas before they’re gone, USB mics are often lightweight, durable, affordable, and easy to use. So, they do have merit in that regard.
Popular USB microphones:
- RODE Podcaster
- Blue Yeti
- HyperX QuadCast S
As with USB mics, wireless mics aren’t necessarily microphones in their own category. You can find both dynamic and condenser wireless microphones that have been designed with different uses in mind.
Besides a handheld dynamic mic, a type of mic you will often see used at theaters – be it small or large venues – there are also lapel mics, typically used for speeches and presentations, but sometimes for vocals as well.
Wireless mics do have certain advantages when it comes to live performance. Since there are no cables, a vocalist can move around more freely on stage, and reduce or eliminate the risk of anyone tripping on their mic cable.
As with anything wireless, it’s not a perfect technology. Some wireless mics will pick up nearby signals (although this is easy to fix and is usually automatic), and you do lose a little bit of signal quality / tonality. But it’s generally a small sacrifice, and not something to obsess over, especially in live situations.
For this reason, though, wireless technology in the studio makes zero sense. A wired connection ensures you’re getting the best sound quality possible without interference.
Popular wireless microphones:
- Shure PGXD24 / BETA58
- Samson Go HXD2
- Sennheiser EW 135P G4
- Audio Technica ATW-T1002
What Microphone Types Do I Need For Home Recording? Final Thoughts
Here’s a brief overview of the microphones you’ll need for recording at home, in your bedroom, basement, garage, or otherwise:
- Dynamic. Essential. They’re robust, cancel out background noise (to varying degrees), and are affordable to boot.
- Condenser. Essential. They may be more sensitive and prone to picking up background noise than dynamic mics, but they’re still indispensable for certain sources – vocals, acoustic guitar, strings, and so on.
- Ribbon. Optional. It’s an advanced mic and you will not benefit from it until you’ve gained experience. A beginner will not know the difference between a Squier Stratocaster and a souped-up, custom US Fender Stratocaster.
- USB. Optional. If you’re creating podcast, video, or live streaming content in addition to recording at home, it may be worthwhile to pick up a USB mic. It’s also handy for travel and recording quick and dirty from the road.
- Wireless. Nonessential. Wireless mics are great for live performance. Depending on the venues you’re planning to visit or play at, they may already have their own. For recording, stick to wired mics. They should offer better quality overall.
Thanks for reading!
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