Understanding Different Types Of Microphones (And Why They Each Have Their Place)

2015 Jun 08, 2015

Great recordings start with the right microphone choice, at least when it comes to gear.

But so many of us are choosing the wrong type of microphone for the job.

So today I want to address some fundamentals of microphone types – because without them, you could very easily waste time, money, and energy trying to get the right sound.


Via Warren Rachele Flickr

Dynamics, Condensers, And Ribbons “Oh My!”

When choosing a microphone for a given recording task, I first like to consider whether I will use a dynamic, condenser, or even ribbon microphone.

They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and are built in completely different ways. But once you understand their  unique features, you’ll better understand how one could serve your recording better than another in a given situation.

And for now – if you don’t own but one type of microphone, don’t fret. Today I just want to educate you on the different types. In a future post I will share some great (and affordable) options for your mic locker, no matter how big or small it is.

The First Mic I Ever Met

Dynamic microphones were the first type of microphone I was introduced to – because you find them a lot on stage for live sound.

Grabbing something like a Shure SM58 to sing into or an SM57 in front of my guitar amp was pretty typical for me in my high school and college band days. And if you’ve ever gigged out with a band or as a solo artist, you too have been around many kinds of dynamic microphones.

What’s great about dynamic microphones is that they are very durable. They use a magnetized moving coil to capture sound waves, but the design is such that it takes a lot of air pressure to move the coil and thus they can handle loud signals like snare drums and Marshall half stacks.

Couple that with the fact that their innards are pretty durable, you can see why they are a go-to choice for live sound, although they play a critical part in the recording studio as well.

Studio Ready, And For Good Reason

Condenser microphones on the other hand are the sensitive cousin to the dynamic mic. They use a electrically charged capsule that is far more sensitive than the rugged moving coil design of the dynamic mic.

Because of the fact that these capsules can move so effortlessly, they can capture a much more detailed and nuanced sound – which we typically associate with “air” and “presence” in the top end.

These are typically the mics you see in recording studios for things like vocals, drum overheads, and acoustic guitars.

Their sensitivity is also why condensers can overload much easier than dynamics, again making them a better choice for studio applications where detail and fidelity are paramount, and sound levels are a bit more controlled.

A Valuable Part Of The Microphone Puzzle

And finally we have ribbon mics – the least popular among recording enthusiasts if measured by sheer number count in mic lockers.

But just because they are in the minority doesn’t mean they aren’t being used all the time. Ribbon mics use (you guessed it) a ribbon that vibrates when air pushes it.

The beauty of ribbons, however, is that they tend to reproduce high frequencies with a much more flat (and pleasing) response than say a typical condenser. Thus, you can get a smoother sound on sources that might otherwise sound a bit aggressive in the highs.

This is why they are a popular choice for guitar amps and drum overheads.

Making The Choice (And Why Knowledge Is Power)

So when it comes time to record a source (instrument, voice, etc) having some working knowledge of these three types of microphones can be invaluable.

For the recording studio I tend to think of the condenser microphone as a starting point. It is built to capture most sounds with excellent detail and transparency. In most cases this type of mic will work well.

If you find that the signal you are recording is super loud (say a rocking amp or kick drum), it might make more sense to use a dynamic microphone as it can handle the higher SPL levels and still give you a great sound.

Also, if you are tracking an aggressive rock vocalist that involves a lot of screaming (ahem..I mean loud singing) then a dynamic mic would be a great choice as well. It will capture plenty of detail and punch, without overloading.

And in a situation where clarity and detail is important, but your condenser is just sounding a bit too brittle or harsh, a simple ribbon mic could do the trick – giving you a smoother representation of what the condenser was hearing.

The beauty in thinking like this (choosing the right type of mic for the job) is that you are in essence EQing before you EQ. You are getting the right sound on the “way in”. Just like with mic placement, mic choice gives you an edge on recording day so that mixing goes much faster.

Grab One Of Each

The typical home studio only has but so much money to spend on microphones – but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a versatile and complete mic locker!

These days good microphones can be had for super low prices – so I recommend you eventually grab at least one of each type of mic. If you have your standard large diaphragm condenser mic like I recommend all the time, then consider complimenting it with a simple dynamic and ribbon mic.

These little investments are way more worth it than a plugin bundle or a DAW upgrade.

Soon you’ll have more (and different sounding) tools at your disposal so you can better capture any recording and set yourself up for sonic success!

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