There are different types of microphones, and they’re designed for different applications. If you’re an audio or video professional or simply looking to upgrade your studio or home studio gear, we’ve got you covered in our complete guide to microphones. From condenser mics that record live performances to dynamic mics that work best with certain instruments and voices, this guide covers each type of microphone you’ll encounter on a regular basis.
How a Microphone Works
A microphone is an electronic device designed to capture and transmit sound waves to either an audio device or a recording device. Sound waves are sent through a microphone’s diaphragm (a thin membrane), which converts the sound wave into the electrical signal that is sent to the recording device (usually via a mixer or audio interface), or to a speaker.
You can find microphones for a wide variety of applications, from recording vocals to capturing audio for a podcast.
Different types of microphones use different ways to capture sound.
- Condenser Microphones pick up sound waves with the diaphragm of the microphone and then convert them to an electrical signal by varying the resistance to a charged capsule.
- Dynamic Microphones use air pressure to convert sound waves into electrical signals by moving a coil inside a magnetic field.
- Ribbon microphones use a thin strip of metal to capture sound waves.
How the Three Main Types of Microphone Vary
An artist or engineer will choose a type of microphone according to the specific use case. There are also crossover use cases for condenser and dynamic microphones, so it is worth knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each type:
Dynamic Microphones are typically used when the sound source is quite loud, for example in a live performance, or when it is important to severely reduce ambient noise or loud sounds from the sound that you wish to capture or record. This is why you’ll often find them on music stages, in radio studios, or podcasting or live streaming setups.
They generally need to be placed quite close to the sound source but have the advantage that they do not usually require external power.
Dynamic microphones have a strong proximity effect (see below), meaning that a voice will have a lot of amplitude and presence when close to the microphone. Making them an ideal vocal microphone.
However, they are less prone to distort and overload, compared to condenser microphones. They also can be hand-held, without undue noise.
They tend to produce a more artificial tone with the human voice, compared to condenser or ribbon microphones, but have the advantage of being strong and durable.
They also tend to be cheaper compared to condenser microphones, for equivalent sound quality. For example, the excellent dynamic microphone I use in my home studio, the Zoom ZDM-1, costs less than $100. The popular dynamic instrument microphone the Shure SM57 is in the same price range.
Top-end dynamic microphones like the Shure SM7 or the Electrovoice RE20 run into hundreds of dollars.
Condenser microphones are the microphone of choice for voiceover artists and in many filming conditions. They usually require external power, and microphone placement is critical to a good result. The main advantage they have over dynamic microphones is their sensitivity to tone and amplitude, resulting in a more faithful rendering of the voice. Or an acoustic guitar, for example.
This is why audiobook narrators, for example, who need to portray different characters in a work of fiction choose a large diaphragm condenser microphone rather than dynamic microphones. I have narrated almost 30 fiction audiobooks using the Rode NT2A, which costs around $300. But top-level narrators and studios spend thousands of dollars on high-grade large-diaphragm condenser microphones, like the Neumann U87.
This sensitivity has the drawback that condenser microphones are usually very susceptible to feedback, and mic rumble and bumps, making them less than ideal for live sound environments. They usually need to be mounted inside shock mounts – a kind of cage of rubber bands – to reduce bumps and knocks, and normally must be operated in a quiet environment in order to avoid capturing even low volume extraneous noise.
Related: How to Become an Audiobook Narrator
Filmmakers use special condenser microphones called shotgun microphones, which usually have a highly directional polar pattern (see below) in order to capture sound immediately in front of the microphone while reducing sounds to the side or behind it.
A ribbon microphone is quite rare outside of a professional audio studio setup.
A high-quality ribbon mic can capture the most faithful representation of sounds – for example, voices and instruments – but their delicacy and need to be perfectly positioned means that ribbon mics are not suited to live or recording environments where they could be knocked and the ribbon damaged.
Which Types of Microphones Are Used in Filmmaking?
The three main types of microphone used in filmmaking are:
A shotgun mic is an elongated small diaphragm condenser microphone that is usually mounted either on the camera or held close to the audio source using a boom pole or microphone stand.
They have a lobar pattern of sound pickup – meaning that their reach extends in front of the microphone in a kind of oval shape while extruding sound to the sides and rear.
They are the main cardioid microphone used by film crews because of their versatility – being able to capture everything from an interview to the noise of a crowd, or the ambiance of a forest for example. Shotgun microphones are designed to be robust and durable, also to be weatherproof.
To prevent wind from causing significant amounts of noise on the microphone, a shotgun mic is usually baffled using a basked and hairy cover (nicknamed a Dougal by some crews) when operating outdoors.
Shotgun microphones require phantom power, usually, 48V, supplied either direct from the camera via a professional 3-pin XLR cable, or by being cabled to a portable field mixer. One very useful option is to use a wireless transmitter block attached to the shotgun microphone, to enable it to be used wirelessly – on a book pole, for example.
Good examples of professional-quality shotgun microphones are the Sennheiser 416 and its successor the MKH-60 (I am lucky enough to own two of these), costing upwards of $1000. There are prosumer shotgun microphones on the market such as the Rode Videomic that can improve what would otherwise be recorded by onboard camera internal microphones – which are almost never used for filmmaking.
Wireless microphones (sometimes called radio microphones) are extremely useful in situations where the subject is moving a lot, or the camera needs to vary its position relative to the subject. The lack of wires means that it is much safer to operate.
Typically, wireless microphones use small lavalier microphones that are clipped or stuck using double-sided tape to a subject or interviewee. To avoid wind noise, and reduce their visibility, they are sometimes placed inside clothing or have small wind covers attached.
The main downsides of wireless microphones are interference – especially in cities – and clothing rustle against the lavalier microphone. Good quality wireless kits are not cheap – running into thousands of dollars for professional setups.
Lavalier microphones can be used when directly attached to a mixer or camera. Usually, a long extension lead helps to enable some distance between the camera and the subject.
Lavaliers can be especially useful when you need to quickly rig a microphone to someone for an interview, or rig a microphone to yourself for a selfie-style statement or presentation. For several years, I personally have used a $50 Rode SmartLav Plus lavalier attached to an iPhone or iPad with great success.
Podcasting and Live Streaming Microphones
The explosion in podcasting and live streaming, plus also the huge growth in YouTube channels, means that a large range of USB microphones are now available to serve this market.
Examples of USB mics are the Rode NT-USB condenser USB microphone (the one I personally use), the Audio Technica AT2020, and the t.bone range.
You can also find dynamic USB microphones, like the Shure MV7.
What Are the Types of Microphone Polar Patterns
One of the main things to think about when selecting a microphone for a particular use case is its polar pattern. This is the pattern in which the microphone picks up sound.
A cardioid pattern, which is the most common pattern, picks up sound from the front of the mic. This unidirectional sound pickup makes it especially useful when recording a single sound source – for example, an interviewee or an animal.
Cardioid mics include hypercardioid and supercardioid microphones, that have narrower patterns of unidirectional pickup, and lobar shotgun microphones designed to isolate a single sound source.
This pattern is relatively unusual (though is sometimes found in the filming world) because it is designed to pickup up sound from the left and right sides of a microphone, but not from the front or rear.
A bi-directional microphone is used in scenarios where you want to mix a comprehensive sound picture, in tandem with a cardio mic. Or when you need to position a mic in front of a sound source, but only record or capture something to its side. For example, a singer near an instrument.
As the name suggests, an omnidirectional microphone captures the sound equally from all directions.
Classic uses for this kind of microphone are to capture a musical ensemble – you’ll sometimes see this type of microphone suspended above an orchestra, for example. Or when recording a radio play, where several actors might be gathered around one microphone, and you need to capture each of them equally.
What Is a Mic Preamp?
A microphone preamp takes the low output from a microphone and boosts its ‘line level’ signal. Digital audio interfaces are one way to do this.
A Microphone Can Be For Life – Choose Carefully
The great thing about investing in audio gear, including microphones, is that they will last a long time if treated correctly and stored well. This means that, even after decades, your microphone will still work. I’ve had microphones that still serve me well after 20 years of service.
My advice is to consider the microphone type based on your main use case, and get the best quality microphone you can afford because you are not only investing in a long-term tool – the quality of your work or art will directly relate to the quality of the equipment you are using to capture or transmit it.
Do different microphones sound different
In a word, yes. The sound you get out of a microphone will be a factor of the microphone type (dynamic or condenser), its quality (and the quality of the rest of the audio chain), and its placement.
Which type of mic is best for vocals
For sung vocals, dynamic cardioid microphones are usually best.
What’s the proximity effect?
The proximity effect is when there is a significant increase in low frequencies as the mic gets closer to the sound source. This is used by voice actors and others to thicken the voice and make it more authoritative. Overdone, it can sound ridiculous, and you need to watch out for plosives (microphone popping).
How to pick from the types of microphones
Be clear about the most important use case. If doing voiceover work, a large diaphragm condenser mic is probably best. If podcasting or live streaming, a dynamic mic might be the best microphone for you – especially if in a noisy or city environment.
Do microphones need power to function properly?
Condenser microphones need power as a rule; this is supplied via XLR cables or ports for professional mics, and USB for home studio condenser mics. Dynamic mics don’t need power but do sometimes need devices to boost them.