The Different Types of Microphones
There’s so many types of microphones out there, it can be daunting when you’re starting out.
I’ll show you how to choose the perfect mic.
Every type of microphone has two characteristics.
- It is one of three types of microphones: dynamic, condenser, or ribbon
- It has a polar pattern, which determines where it picks up sound
Imagine you were in your living room, trying to record a vocalist.
There’s roadworks outside, and a crying baby next door.
You’ll need a mic with the right polar pattern to record the singer and leave out everything else.
There’s 6 patterns to choose from:
You can see from the chart that a cardiod or supercardiod pattern would work well for a singer. You simply point the microphone directly at them.
An omnidirectonal mic would be unsuitable, as it would pick up all that traffic noise too.
Front address vs Side address
So far we’ve looked at microphones that pick up sound from the front (called front address). There’s also mics which pick up sound from one side (called side address).
It’s important to know which type you’re using to know where to place it.
Let’s take a closer look at those polar patterns.
This is the heart shaped pattern you’ll find on most microphones. It’s very intuitive – you point the mic towards the sound you want to record.
A cardiod mic only records what it’s pointing at, excluding sound from the sides and the back.
This makes it suitable for:
- Recording in a noisy environment, fan noise, traffic noise
- Recording in a room without acoustic treatment
- Isolating from other instruments while recording live
- Reducing feedback from stage monitors during performance
The supercardiod is a more focused version of the cardiod.
It rejects even more of the sides, leaving a narrower recording area at the front. But it also picks up a tiny amount from behind the mic.
Use this pattern when you need to exclude more of the room. Or to help reduce feedback in a live setting.
The bidirectional polar pattern is the shape of a ‘figure of 8’.
It records sound equally from the front and back of the microphone, and rejects sound from the sides.
The bidirectional pattern is suitable for:
- 2 backing singers
- Recording a vocalist with their own acoustic guitar
- Combining with other mics for stereo recording
The hyercardiod lies somewhere in between the cardiod and the bidirectional polar patterns.
It picks up sound mostly from the front, but also has a sizeable pick up area at the back.
The lobar/shotgun is suitable for:
- Recording in a noisy, crowded environment
- Recording dialogue for film and TV
With a highly directional pattern, make sure to point the mic exactly at the sound source.
If it is off axis, the sound quality will be noticeably quieter and of poorer quality.
An omnidirectional pattern receives sound from all directions. This means you can put it in the centre of a room to record everything.
It produces an open, natural sound.
An omni will also pick up the acoustics of the room. Which can be an advantage if you’re recording in a beautiful old church.
But problematic if you’re in an untreated box room.
It’s not generally used in live performance because it’s impossible to isolate individual instruments. Omnidirectional’s are also prone to feedback from stage monitors.
Different Types of Microphones
Now you’re familiar with the polar patterns, we can look at the 3 types of microphones for the recording studio:
But first, let’s have a quick lesson on how mics work.
Microphones respond to sound waves.
They convert them into electrical signals.
But what actually happens inside the microphone?
Inside every type of microphone is a thin, flexible plate, called a diaphragm. Sound waves from the air cause the diaphragm to vibrate.
This movement is translated into an audio signal and passed through the cable.
There’s a few ways to make this happen. And each of 3 types of microphones haas its own process.
Let’s start with the simplest design…
Dynamic mics are the slightly rough, but rugged sibling of the microphone family. The characterful workhorse of the studio.
Dynamic mics are simple and effective. They stand up well to the rigours of live performance.
How dynamic microphones work
Dynamic mics have small diaphragms made from a type of polyester (called BoPET).
A copper coil is attached to the diaphragm, and inside that coil is a stationary magnet.
When the diaphragm vibrates in response to a sound wave, it causes the coil to move. That’s why it’s also sometimes referred to as a ‘moving coil’ microphone.
And as the coil moves back and forth (oscillates) across the magnet, it builds up an electrical charge. This charge gets sent via the cable, to the audio interface for amplification.
Interesting fact: It works like a speaker in reverse. You can actually use a speaker as a microphone!
When to use dynamic mics
Dynamic mics are the least sensitive of the 3 types of microphones.
For loud sounds
They respond well to a reasonably loud and close sound source. In fact recording loud instruments are one of its strengths.
Use a dynamic microphone for high SPL (sound pressure level) instruments such as:
- guitar amps
- brass instruments
They’re versatile microphones, favoured by many vocalists for performing live. And their low sensitivity means less feedback on stage, and they can be handheld too.
Some singers, particularly from rock and pop, love these microphones in the studio too. They impart a dark gritty character which you can only get from a dynamic mic.
The frequency range of dynamic mics is well suited to instruments with a strong low to mid presence. They’re not so good for trying to capture a delicate top end.
But very bright instruments can respond well to them, as they’re good at toning down any harshness.
Dynamic mics are perfect for recording in a room with sub-optimal acoustics. This is because of their low sensitivity, and cardiod polar pattern.
It’s less likely to pick up the sound of the room, than a condenser mic, which is much more sensitive.
Dynamic mics also the best type of microphone for a room with background noise, like the hum of traffic, or an AC unit.
Which one should you buy?
Dynamic mics are significantly cheaper than condensers or ribbons. This is due to their simple design. They’re the little sturdy workhorses of the studio.
If you’re considering your first dynamic mic, take a look at the Shure SM57 or SM58, which are nearly identical.
The SM58 is popular for live vocals, and the SM57 for instruments.
If you have the budget, go for the legendary Shure SM7B. You have the option of rolling off the bass, and boosting the midrange. They’ve become the mic of choice for podcasters and YouTubers.
If you need to record low sounds, like a kick drum or tuba, you’ll need a bass mic. The AKG D112 is designed to capture the lowest frequencies.
The condenser microphone is the sensitive, aristocratic cousin of the microphone family. With an eye for detail and a penchant for speaking the truth.
Condenser mics are great at capturing the full frequency of every sound with nuance.
How Condenser Microphones Work
Similar to dynamic mics, the diaphragm of most condenser mics are made from the polyester (called BoPET). But in condenser mics, they’re lighter, and coated with gold.
Next to the diaphragm is an electrically charged metal plate. Together, they form a ‘capacitor’. That’s why these mics are sometimes called capacitor mics.
The sound waves cause the diaphragm to vibrate. And the vibration makes it moves back and forth from the stationary plate. This creates an electric charge called a ‘capacitance’.
The charge enters some circuitry before exiting as an audio signal. This stage requires 48v power, called ‘phantom power’. It’s normally delivered through the cable, from the audio interface.
When to use a condenser microphone
Condenser mics are the natural choice for home recording studios.
They have very light diaphragms, and respond to the pressure of sound waves with sensitivity and precision. A condenser mic can capture everything across the frequency spectrum, including the subtlest details.
This makes them ideal for vocals, acoustic guitar and any instrument with detail in the high end. Recordings with a condenser microphone have a sense of air and transparency.
The condenser mic picks up every detail, including the size and shape of the room. This could pose a problem if your room hasn’t been acoustically treated.
If this is the case, it might be better to go for a high quality dynamic mic instead. A dynamic mic is less sensitive. It’s also less likely to pick up any extraneous noises.
Many modern USB mics are actually condensers. They receive their power through the USB port of the computer.
A really popular USB mic is the Blue Yeti. Its an all-in-one solution, with both microphone and preamp combined. It’s sensitive enough to pick up the nuances of the spoken voice, and is well suited for podcasts and YouTube.
But I wouldn’t recommend a USB mic for recording a singer, if you’re looking for broadcast quality.
Condenser mics are divided into two categories: large diaphragm and small diaphragm.
Large diaphragm condenser microphones
These are the classic looking mics you see in front of singers. They give vocals a full sound, and add subtle warmth and sparkle.
Large diaphragm condensers are also popular for most instruments. And they really shine on acoustic guitar and piano.
The large diaphragm means more detail can be picked up from the sound source. They’re highly sensitive and work well with quiet sound sources.
Condensers are more fragile and expensive than dynamics. But if you can only budget for one mic, it should be a large diaphragm condenser.
The Rode NT1 is a fantastic budget offering. My current go to condenser is an AKG C414, which I use for almost everything. You’ll need a mic stand, and a shock mount to protect it from low frequency vibrations.
If you’re feeling flush, take a look at the legendary Neumann U87. It’s made by Georg Neumann, inventor of the condenser microphone.
It sounds fantastic on everything: vocals, piano, guitar and percussion. And you can switch between polar patterns.
Multi polar patterns
Most large diaphragm condensers are cardiod, but some allow you to switch between patterns.
These types of microphones are incredibly versatile, as they can be used in so many situations. They’re expensive, but worth their price for the recording studio.
My AKG C414 is switchable between cardioid, figure of eight, hypercardioid, omnidirectional and wide cardioid. It’s like having 5 microphones to hand.
Choosing a large diaphragm condenser microphone
If I was looking for just one microphone for my studio, I’d recommend a large diaphragm condenser. Ideally with switchable polar patterns.
I use the AKG C414 XLS more than any other mic. Its accurate and warm, and sounds good on just about everything.
I use it in the cardiod pattern mostly, but if I ever need an omnidirectional, or figure of 8, it’s just a flick of a switch away.
The AKG C214 at half the price, is also an option. It’s cardiod only, but has the same classic sound as the C414.
A cheaper alternative which is very popular in both home and commercial studios is the Shure SM7B.
And let’s not forget the budget friendly Rode NT1. It’s also a large condenser microphone, with a fixed cardiod pattern. It has a low level of self noise and comes with an XLR lead and shock mount.
This mic has an extended and neutral frequency response. But some users report problems with sibilance, (loud s’s and t’s) when recording vocals.
Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
These are small thin cardiod mics, sometimes called pencil condensers.
The small light diaphragm is able to respond to high frequencies in minute detail. They’re particularly good at capturing crisp transients (the start of sounds).
This makes them ideal for bright percussion such as cymbals, hi-hat, tambourine and shaker.
Small diaphragm condensers are very effective as overhead stereo pairs. They can reproduce the sound of a room with an accurate stereo image.
You’ll see them set up over a drum kit, or different sections of an orchestra in a classical recording. Recording an acoustic guitar with a close stereo pair can produce a lovely crisp detailed sound.
Should you buy a small diaphragm condenser mic?
You don’t need one of these microphones if you’re just starting out. It would be better to go for a large diaphragm condenser. But if you’re looking to add to your collection, try a pair of Rode NT5’s.
Or perhaps a single Neumann KM184 if you’d prefer one very high quality mic.
The ribbon microphone dates back to the golden age of radio, and can be considered a classic retro mic. I’d describe it as the sensual and sophisticated aunty of the microphone family.
It has a larger than life character, and will add a silky warmth to your recordings.
How ribbon microphones work
The ribbon mic works on the same electromagnetic principle as a dynamic mic. But it uses a very delicate strip of corrugated aluminium (or film), instead of a moving coil.
This ‘ribbon’ is extremely sensitive to the velocity of air particles. Its subtle movements create a minute signal, which is fed to a transformer for bolstering.
The output from ribbon mics is generally very low. But some modern ribbon mics also include a preamp stage to increase the output. They’re called passive ribbon mics.
When to use a ribbon microphone
Ribbon mics are probably the warmest and most natural sounding of all the types of microphones.
They tend to capture instruments close to how you actually hear them. A wide and flat frequency response, starting very low, naturally tapers off in the highs.
Ribbon mics are suited to classical music, and sound great on grand pianos and acoustic guitar. In orchestras, they can really warm up the string and brass sections, which can sound a bit harsh through condenser mics.
Ribbon microphones are also great as overheads on a drum kit. Listen out for this sound on some of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin recordings.
Ribbon mics have a strong proximity effect. This means the nearer they are to the sound source, the more bass they pick up. Radio presenters make use of this by speaking up close to the mic, for a deep and authoritative sound.
Engineers also use the proximity effect when they close mic guitar amps for a powerful sound.
Should you buy a ribbon mic?
You don’t end to see many ribbon microphones in home studios. This is due to the hefty price tag and fear of how fragile they are.
But modern ribbon mics aren’t as delicate as they used to be. You just need to be careful not to subject them to strong gusts of air.
There’s also the effort (and expense) of making sure your ribbon mic is paired with a suitable preamp.
Ribbon mics are typically bidirectional (figure of 8 pattern). Classic models include the Royer R-121, especially for guitar amps.
And the classic Coles 4038, which was designed by the BBC in the 1950s for broadcasting.
Best microphone for recording vocals
Choosing the right mic for your voice is imperative for getting good recordings. There’s three things to consider when choosing a microphone for vocals:
- the sonic characteristics of the voice
- the genre and feel of the music
- the room acoustics
Microphones and vocal characteristics
Every singer or rapper has a unique voice with its own range and style. It’s about matching the vocal characteristics with a microphone that compliments them.
Most vocalists benefit from a large diaphragm condenser for a full bodied, spacious sound.
Go for the best quality you can afford. Both the Shure SM7B, or an AKG C412 will reproduce a professionally clear and detailed sound.
The trick is to experiment, and use what works for you.
If you can, book a studio for an hour and ask the engineer to set up an array of mics. Make sure there’s at least one from each category, the more the better.
Record some solo vocals, and take the recordings home where you can consider what you like and what you don’t.
Vocal microphones for specific genres
There’s some genres which are linked to specific microphone types. Some rock and metal singers like to use dynamic mics in the studio, for a dirty, gritty sound.
And jazz singers sometimes record with ribbon mics to give them the retro sound of a smokey jazz club.
Vocal microphones and room acoustics
When choosing a mic for vocals, you also have to be aware of the room you’re recording in. In many home recording studios, the acoustics are less than ideal.
If you have a small room, with no acoustic treatment, look for a low sensitivity cardiod microphone. A cardiod dynamic mic like the Shure SM58, will only pick up the area in front of it.
It will minimise the sound of the room, and help cut extraneous sounds like distant road traffic.
Sometimes the room you’re recording in will sound great. In an echoey old church, an omnidirectional large diaphragm condenser will capture the full acoustic.
If you’ve treated your recording space with some acoustic panels, use a large diaphragm cardiod condenser like the AKG C412
Best microphone for voice overs
Voice over work can include audiobooks, film narration, video diaries and podcasts. You’ll need a microphone that captures the detail and nuance of the talking voice.
A large diaphragm cardiod condenser, like the Neumann TLM 103 or Rode NT1 will work well in most situations.
What works best with your voice?
If you can, its best to try out a selection of microphones for your voice, as they all have uniques characteristics.
I have a medium deep male voice. I tried recording a voice over with a Coles 4038, known for its warmth and depth. But instead of that smooth ribbon sound, I ended up with a muddy recording, which I had to fix with EQ.
My voice sounds much better with the AKG C414, which is a naturally bright condenser mic. I’ve also used the classic Nuemann U87, which suits it well.
But sometimes you just have to experiment.
Recently I tried using a shotgun mic (Sennheiser MKH 416) at close range. Even though this breaks all the rules, it was perfect for my voice. It captured the depth, while boosting the presence. There was no need for any extra EQ.
This is also a great mic for excluding the sounds of the room you’re recording in.
Microphone for YouTube and podcasts
The speaking voice is one of the easier sound sources to capture without using a high end microphone.
If it’s for zoom, a podcast or a YouTube vlog, a dynamic microphone like the Blue Yeti might be ideal. It’s a condenser microphone, which plugs directly into the computer.
That means no need for a separate audio interface. You can switch between different polar patterns, and it even has an onboard headphone jack.
Best microphone for ASMR
If you’re planning to make ASMR, you’ll need two things from your microphone – high sensitivity and a low noise floor. The same applies if you’re a sound designer and want to record the quietest sounds in detail.
Microphone noise floor
Every microphone has a certain amount of self generated noise. When you’re recording very quiet sounds, they have to be amplified to a level at which you can clearly hear them. But when you raise the volume, the noise of the mic also goes up. This is why its important to have a microphone with a low noise floor
The more sensitive the microphone, the more it can pick up the small details and quietest sounds.
But don’t forget the background sound of the room. Distant sounds you might not even be aware of at the time, can find their way onto your recordings. The solution is to record in a very quiet room. Some ASMR artists only record at night for this reason.
A microphone sensitive enough for AMSR would be a large diaphragm condenser. Look for one with a low noise floor, like the Rode NT1 or the Sennheiser MKH 416.
ASMR camera microphone
If you’re looking for something to plug straight into a camera, you’ll need a battery powered condenser mic.
Take a look at the Sennheiser MKE400 or the Rode NTG VideoMic. Bear in mind that these mics rely on the camera preamps.
The quality won’t be as good as if you were using the preamps in a dedicated audio interface.
Best microphone for acoustic guitar
The acoustic guitar, and classical guitar are relatively quiet instruments. They have a have a lot of subtle detail, much of it in the high frequency range.
Stereo guitar recording
If you’re recording solo guitar, or have a featured guitar part, it’s worth making a stereo recording. It will widen the sound, and give it a ‘larger than life’ depth.
A couple of condensers will work best for this. Use either 2 large diaphragms, 2 small diaphragm, or one of each. A large diaphragm mic is good for capturing the body of the sound, whereas a small diaphragm captures the high frequency range.
For small diaphragm condenser mics, consider a pair of Shure SM 81’s. For large diaphragm condenser mics, I would use the AKG C412’s.
If you’re adding guitar to a busy mix, its probably better to record in mono. It will eliminate any phase problems, and be easier to add to place in a mix.
Use a condenser mic for a delicate or subtle guitar part. Or try a dynamic mic, like the Shure SM 57 for energetic and rhythmic playing.
Best microphone for guitar amp
When recording electric guitar, you can get a great sound by recording the guitar amp. Use a dynamic microphone to ensure a smooth top end. Or try a condenser mic if you need more brightness in the high end.
Whatever mic you use, moving it around will produce very different results. If your amp is open backed, you could even try miking from the back for a warmer sound.
If you’re using an amp stack, try one mic set a few feet back, to capture what the audience hears. Alternatively, use a separate mic pointing at each speaker cone. This will give you the flexibility to blend the tone while mixing.
The Shure SM57 is a good dynamic mic for recording guitar amps. There’s also the Sennheiser e 609 Evolution, a dynamic microphone made specifically for recording amps.
If you want a brighter, more open sound, use a condenser microphone like the Rode NT1 or AKG C412.
If you’d like the dark sound of a ribbon microphone, try the Royer R-121. But remember, the low signal of a ribbon mic will need a suitable preamp. The Royer R-121 pairs well with the Vintech Audio 573.
Best mics for recording drums
There’s many ways to record a drum kit at home. The type of microphones you choose will depend on the miking technique.
It’s important that the room has a reasonable level of acoustic treatment. If that’s not possible, consider recording electronic drums instead. Or head down to a commercial studio, and bring back the audio files to work with at home.
Recording drums with one mic
This is a minimal approach, often used for recording a jazz drum kit. There’s many places you could set up that mic, so it’s worth experimenting until you find a sound you like.
Use a large diaphragm condenser mic, such as the AKG C412. Or for that authentic smooth jazz sound, you could also consider a Coles 4038.
Some microphone placement ideas:
- Overhead, in front of, or behind the drum kit
- Above the snare drum
- Centred above the kit, pointing down
- Behind the drummer’s head
You could also try a dynamic mic like the Shure SM57 for a darker grittier sound. The best single mic for recording drums, in my opinion, would be the AKG C412.
Recording drums with 2 mics
An advantage of using two mics to record drums is that you can make a stereo recording. You’ll be able to capture the natural sound of the drums as you hear them in the room.
Use a pair of large diaphragm condenser mics like the Rode NT1s, and try out different placements, such as:
- One mic over the snare drum, the other on the other side of the kit
- Once mic in front of the drum kit, the other next to the kick
- Both mics together, angled away from each other at 90 degrees, pointing towards the snare and kick
There’s lots of room for experimentation here. You can also try a dynamic mic like the Shure SM57, or a ribbon mic like the Cole 4038 to create a really unique sound.
Recording drums with 3 mics
With 3 microphones, you can make a stereo recording, while adding an extra dynamic mic for the kick or snare. Use a pair of large diaphragm condenser mics as the stereo pair, and a Shure SM57 for the snare.
A great dynamic kick drum mic is the AKG D112, but a Shure SM57 would also work.
Another technique is to have a large diaphragm condenser mic in front of the kit, or overhead. Then use two dynamic mics for emphasising both the snare and the kick.
Try out different combinations, and don’t be afraid to adjust your playing style to get the best results.
Recording drums with 4 mics
This was a technique used by the Beetles in their early days, when they had only 4 tracks to record the drums on. Engineer Geoff Emerick, described using one mic for the snare, one for the kick, one for the hi hat, and one overhead.
A variation on this would be two condenser mics as an overhead stereo pair, and two dynamic mics emphasising the snare and the kick.
Recording drums for pop and rock
Most modern engineers like to use many types of microphones for recording the drum kit. As well as a spot mic for each drum, there’s usually a pair of overheads which add some sound of the room.
This gives the engineer a lot of flexibility to refine the sound in the mix. But it also means a lot of extra work in both recording and mixing. The more mics you use, the more spill and phasing problems to deal with at the mixing stage
Here’s some of the mics typically used to record a full drum kit:
- Kick drum
A dynamic microphone especially designed for low frequencies, such as the AKG D112 or the Sennheiser E602
- Snare drum
A dynamic mic like the Shure SM57. You can also add a second mic to the underside of the snare to capture the buzz of the snare wires.
- Tom toms
A hypercardiod dynamic mic, such as the Audix D2, one for each tom. This will minimise spill from the rest of the kit. Alternatively you could use one microphone in a wide cardiod polar pattern.
- Hi hat
A small diaphragm condenser, such as the AKG C451. This is perfect for capturing the high frequencies and transients of the hi-hats.
- Overhead and cymbal mics
This should be a stereo pair of large diaphragm condenser mics like the Rode NT1’s or the AKG C412s.
Or for more detail on the higher frequencies, use a pair of small diaphragm condensers. Suitable mics are the Rode NT5’s or the Lauten Audio LA120’s.
Remember, these are only my suggestions. Use them as a starting point to find your own sound.
If you want to save yourself the effort of trying out all these mics, you could opt for a microphone set. There’s a microphone pack from AKG, with some classic mics, specifically for recording a drum kit.
Best microphone for piano
Pianos are notoriously hard to mic up. Much of that is down to the sheer volume and bass of such a large instrument. Room size and acoustics also play a large part in getting a good sound. There’s also unexpected squeaks and creaks from the pedals and the piano stool.
Think about recording with a good digital piano instead, or booking a commercial studio for solo piano recordings.
I had a 1906 Steinway piano set up in my studio for many years, and got a great sound with a pair of Neumann U87s. They’re top quality large diaphragm condenser mics with a choice of polar patterns.
There’s other cheaper alternatives, like the AKG C412s, or more affordable still, the small diaphragm NT55’s.
It’s also possible to use a pair of dynamic mics, such as the Shure SM57s, for close miking rock or pop recordings.
Dynamic microphones have limited sensitivity, but could work well for a small piano part within a mix.
Best microphone for violin
For a natural, full violin sound, the acoustics of the room play a large part. Violins sound best with the microphone placed a few feet away. Miking too close will pick up the little clicks and scratches that the audience doesn’t normally hear.
Try a large diaphragm condenser mic like the AKG C414. If you’re in a great room or hall it can be an omnidirectional to capture the acoustics. But if you’re in a smaller recording space, it should be a cardiod.
Use the same mic for recording the viola and cello. As with violins, the sound of the room is as important as the microphone choice.
Best microphone for saxophone
There’s lots of clip on options for recording saxophones which are designed primarily for recording in a live setting. But to capture the full depth of a saxophone requires a microphone set back a couple of feet.
A dynamic mic, such as the Shure SM58 will do a good job recording the saxophone. But if you want to capture the full bright sound, use a large diaphragm condenser mic like the AKG C412.
A ribbon microphone, like the Royer R-121 can sound beautiful on a saxophone. It captures the whole frequency range, and smoothes out any harshness.
Perfect for that warm silky sound.
Ribbon mics were the choice of jazz artists long before there were any alternatives around.
Best microphone for upright bass
Use a combination of 2 mics to get the best recording of an upright bass.
The first microphone should be a large diaphragm condenser mic like the Neumann U47 FET. Aim it at the bridge, between the F holes. This will capture the lower frequencies and main body of the bass.
Use a small diaphragm condenser mic higher up on the bass body. This is for capturing that higher frequency detail.
While mixing, you can adjust the signal of both mics until you get it sounding just right.