Microphones, just like people, are beautifully diverse. Some are long, some are wide. Some are perfect for guitars, some are perfect for vocals. Some should be used during your world tour, some should be used to record the music for your world tour.
It may feel overwhelming to try and break down exactly what you need in a microphone. With so many options readily available, how does one choose the perfect mic? This handy-dandy guide is designed to clear up any confusion or questions you may have. Dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones will be discussed, in addition to polar patterns related to those microphones. Knowing your musical context will be a big point of emphasis; are you on stage or jamming out in a treated sound studio? All of these questions, and many more, will be addressed.
Before you know it, you’ll be blasting off into the sonic stratosphere and mastering your microphone knowledge.
A dynamic microphone will contain a small induction coil attached to a diaphragm in the field of a permanent magnet. As sound enters the microphone, the diaphragm vibrates, moves the coil and converts the sound into an electrical signal. Simple and durable, they’re versatile and serve multiple audio purposes.
Preferred by singers during live performances and audio engineers for micing live instrumentation, a dynamic microphone is able to withstand high sound pressure levels without phantom power. They are also less sensitive than, say, a condenser microphone, so feedback becomes much less of a technical concern. Those in the broadcast industry tend to prefer dynamic microphones for these reasons, as well. There may be instances of a dynamic microphone being used in a studio setting; preventing bleeding from multiple instruments or tracking a louder-than-usual voice are two common applications (cough cough, that screamo singer who keeps pestering you about getting the band in for a session).
Picking out the right dynamic microphone can be a daunting task, but the team at Sam Ash has your back.
Shure SM-57: Whether you’re an acoustic guitarist fingerpicking a beautiful arrangement, a brass section ready to drop some funky fun on the crowd or a bassist looking for a boost, this microphone is one of the top-recommended for live instrumentalists. Great at rejecting background noise, you can use this in a live or recording setting without worrying about feedback.
Electro-Voice RE20: Defined by wide frequency response and excellent transient response, this microphone is perfect for recording and broadcast settings. Outside noise becomes a silly afterthought, and wind filters eliminate excessively harsh consonants in your speech when used.
Sennheiser E835: Strong signal quality and intense tonal response offer a sound ready to boost your performance to a whole new level. Clarity, projection, frequency balance – everything is accounted for with the Sennheiser E835.
Condenser microphones are similar to their dynamic siblings in the sense that sound vibrations need to vibrate the diaphragm. In this case, however, condenser microphones contain a diaphragm bolted up with electricity, eliminating the need for a heavy coil.
Can these puppies be used live? Sure, depending on the context. While a dynamic mic does a wonderful job capturing a live vocal, condenser mics may be better suited for choirs or orchestras. If you know that you’re going into the studio this weekend to lay down those vocals for your next big pop-anthem, you’re almost guaranteed to be singing into a condenser microphone. Because of their sensitivity in a controlled environment, they can pick up all of the little details in your vocal track, acoustic guitar strumming, special guest banjo-fingerpicking solo, etc. While dynamic microphones may pop up every now and then during a studio recording session, you’re more likely to be recording any acoustic instrumentation with a condenser microphone geared to opening your entire sonic spectrum.
No two condenser microphones are created equal. For starters, there are handheld, large-diaphragm, small diaphragm, pencil and tube variations.
Handheld condenser microphones may be what you’re looking for, if you’re set on bringing the condensed approach to a live setting. In a best-of-both-worlds type of fusion, it’s possible to bring that condenser studio sound to the stage with a handheld. Greater frequency AND dynamic range are captured, thanks to studio-style outside power.
One of the more garden variety condenser styles, large-diaphragm microphones are a staple for recording studio vocals and most acoustic instruments. Their natural tendency to add warmth and richness to a recording make them a hit for musicians of all backgrounds. They also capture low end particularly well, while staying true to the whole frequency spectrum.
Another common style with tons of practical application, small-diaphragm microphones are widely versatile and can be used in a myriad of ways. Their design allows them to capture audio without adding any unnecessary color, resulting in a neutral and raw sound. You may see these frequently used with acoustic guitars, pianos and orchestral ensembles.
Not to be confused with the writing utensil, pencil microphones are essentially a slang term for small-diaphragm microphones. Because of their longer, thin build, they often times resemble a pencil-like structure, so that’s where the nickname is derived from.
Tube microphones may be considered fossils in some audio circles, but we’d be foolish to leave them off of the condenser mic list. A literal tube is inside of this microphone, instead of the transistors you’d see in today’s models. Signal needed to be amplified via preamps, and deliver a warm sound with tons of natural compression.
Check out a few of the condenser microphones offered at Sam Ash:
Neumann U87Ai: Most engineers and producers would agree that this mic has become something of a staple in studio settings globally. Smooth, refined tone meets a gorgeous design guaranteed to deliver professional-grade sound.
AKG C 214: Looking to finalize that missing piece in your home recording studios? The AKG C 214 offers tremendous value for independent musicians, while fulfilling its promise of handling high-pressure sound.
Audio Technica AT2020: Other optimal choice for home recording gurus, wide dynamic range gives this mic unmatched versatility to cater to your busy recording schedule. Value meets quality with this impressive model.
Perhaps one of the more obscure microphones in this guide, ribbon microphones take on many of the characteristics of a classic dynamic microphone but with an exotic twist. Instead of a moving coil attached to a diaphragm, these types of mics feature a thin strip of metal suspended in a powerful magnetic field. This “ribbon” becomes both the diaphragm and transducer simultaneously, demonstrating a unique new flavor with dynamic attributes.
Engineers have become infatuated with using ribbon mics for an array of instruments and settings. Electric guitars, for example, respond beautifully. By cutting out some intense midrange and boosting low-mids to a comfortable level, the tone generated from a ribbon mic gives an electric guitar a powerful tone that doesn’t overwhelm the recording space. Classical instruments like clarinets and oboes may benefit from a ribbon microphone’s natural ability to capture sweet tone without mechanical noise from keys and pads. It’s all warmth and beautiful tone when instruments are captured this way, much to the approval of engineers and musicians everywhere.
Why yes, since you were wondering, Sam Ash does carry ribbon microphones. Looking to make the switch? Here are a few options to peruse:
Rupert Neve Designs RNR1 Class A: Ribbon mics are known for their natural sound, and this model fits the bill. Record pianos, orchestral elements or vocals with a surprising degree of intimacy and authenticity.
sE Electronics Voodoo VR2: That classic ribbon design meets modern technology here. The Voodoo VR2 prides itself on open, natural sound for acoustic instruments and guitar cabs. Covering an impressively wide frequency spectrum, this is a must-have if you’re looking to take your sound to a new level.
Golden Age Project R1 MK2: Suitable for live and recording atmospheres, this mic takes that vintage ribbon sound and re-introduces it for a myriad of musical applications. Quality and tone are all but guaranteed.
This is a term you may have seen during your recording experiences, but perhaps you didn’t have a firm understanding of what it actually referred to. The polar pattern or “directionality” of a microphone is the way it “hears” sound relative to the direction or angle from which the sound arrives. Different types of microphones offer different levels of sensitivity, making no two polar patterns the same. The most common types of directionality are cardioid, supercardioid, hypercardiod, omnidirectional and bidirectional.
To get the ball rolling, a cardioid microphone has its highest levels of sensitivity in the front, while being the least sensitive at the back. In a recording or performance atmosphere, this type of directionality is crucial for avoiding feedback and unwanted ambient noise. Because of their highly-sensitive front, these are a staple for loud stages with grand amplification.
Imagine a classic cardioid style, but on steroids. Or from Krypton. The supercardioid microphone offers a narrower pickup and greater rejection of ambient sound to its cardioid sibling. Because of some increased sensitivity at the rear, it’s essential to place monitors in the right place to avoid an abstract soundscape of feedback and mud. Might sound cool for a performance art piece at MOMA, but not for your band’s headlining gig…
If cardioid microphones were a Pokemon evolution, this would be the third and final version. A narrower pickup than the supercardioid and an enhanced rejection of feedback/unwanted noise, hypercardioid microphones are ideal for single sound sources being picked up in a loud setting.
Omnidirectional polar pattern, as you could infer from the name, refers to sound sensitivity from all angles. Sound is picked up evenly with an omnidirectional microphone, meaning that it doesn’t necessarily need to be pointed in one direction or another. While this may be a benefit for recording in a massive space and capturing multiple instruments/vocals at once, proceed with caution during live performances; omni polar patterns can pick up sound and feedback from PA speakers, other mics and any other potentially unwanted sources.
With a unique figure-8 polar pattern, bidirectional microphones pick up sound from the front and rear, but leave the sides unattended to. This style is usually what you’d see from a ribbon microphone, making these an ideal choice for electric guitars and classical instrumentation.
Microphones come in an array of shapes and sizes, to cater to your workflow and demands as an engineer, musician or producer. More questions? Let the team at SamAsh.com lend you a helping hand today.