When it comes to audio recording, the debate between dynamic vs. condenser microphones is as old as the hills. Both have their champions and detractors, and both have their specific strengths and weaknesses. But which one is right for you?
Whether you’re a budding podcaster, a seasoned musician, or someone diving into the world of professional audio recording, understanding the nuances of dynamic and condenser microphones is crucial.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve deep into condenser and dynamic microphones, breaking down their differences and helping you make an informed decision.
|Change in capacitance
|Active vs Passive
|Colored with roll-offs
|Flat and extended
|Not as consistent
|Mostly cardioid but possible for multiple patterns
|Background Noise Rejection
|Depends on external preamp
|Depends on microphone electronics
|Too high to measure
|Podcasting, streaming, recording loud sounds, and when sound isolation is needed
|For high accuracy studio recording of vocals and instruments
|Cheap to moderately expensive
|Cheap to extremely expensive
1. Transducer Principle
Microphones are transducers that convert sound waves into electricity. This process is determined by the type of transducer used by condenser and dynamic microphones, which determines their operating principle.
A dynamic microphone operates on the principle of electromagnetic induction, while condenser microphones operate by change in capacitance.
A dynamic microphone works on electromagnetic induction
There are two types of dynamic microphones – the more common one is the moving-coil dynamic microphone, while ribbon mics are less well-known. However, both work on the same principle of electromagnetic induction to convert sound into an electrical signal.
Moving coil dynamic microphones
The main component of a moving coil dynamic microphone is the mic capsule, which behaves like a small electromagnetic generator. It consists of a diaphragm with a copper voice coil attached to its rear, positioned inside a magnetic core.
When sound waves hit the diaphragm, the attached voice coil oscillates within the magnetic field. This movement produces an electrical current that is then transformed into an audio signal through a step-up transformer.
Ribbon microphones utilize a thin metal strip (ribbon), typically a piece of corrugated aluminum that’s no more than a few microns thick. This ribbon is connected by electrical leads and is suspended between two poles of a magnet.
Much like a moving coil dynamic microphone, sound waves cause the ribbon element to vibrate within the magnetic field. This movement generates an electrical current that is then transformed into an audio signal.
Ribbon mics are known for their warm and vintage sound, making them excellent for recording electric guitar amps and drums. However, they are more delicate than moving coil mics and can be easily damaged by a strong blast of air or if phantom power is accidentally applied.
Condenser microphones use changes in capacitance
A condenser microphone consists of an electrically charged diaphragm and a fixed, electrically charged backplate, together forming a conductive parallel-plate capacitor. The fixed electrical charge is typically supplied by phantom power from a preamp, batteries, or an external power supply in the case of a tube mic.
The capacitance of the condenser mic is influenced by the distance between the two charged plates, with capacitance increasing as the distance decreases.
When incoming sound waves hit the diaphragm and cause it to vibrate, the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate varies. This change produces an AC voltage that is inversely proportional to the capacitance.
2. Active vs Passive
Active microphones have internal electronics that require some form of electrical power to operate, whereas passive microphones do not require any power.
All condenser microphones are active
Condenser microphones have built-in electronics that require electrical power to operate. At a minimum, true condenser microphones (as opposed to more affordable electret condenser mics) need 48V phantom power to maintain a charge between their diaphragm and backplate.
While electret condenser mics don’t require phantom power to charge their diaphragm—since they use a dielectric material to achieve a near-permanent charge—both they and true condenser microphones have impedance converters that also require power to function.
Even tube microphones, a type of large diaphragm condenser mic, require a relatively high amount of external power to heat up the vacuum tube and generate an electric current.
Most dynamic microphones are passive
Unlike condenser mics, most traditional dynamic microphones are passive and don’t require an external power source. This is because the electrical signal is generated by electromagnetic induction, which is induced by the mechanical vibration of the diaphragm.
The step-up transformer inside a dynamic microphone used for boosting the audio signal also does not require power.
However, modern USB dynamic microphones like the Shure MV7 and Rode X XDM-100 are active dynamic microphones with internal preamps and analog-to-digital converters that require external power from a laptop or smart device.
3. Frequency Response
A microphone’s frequency response refers to the range of frequencies, from the lowest to the highest, that a microphone can pick up and reproduce with accuracy. It’s a measure of how well a microphone captures and transmits different sound frequencies.
The frequency response of dynamic and condenser microphones is typically represented as a graph, with frequency on the x-axis and amplitude (or level) on the y-axis.
Condenser microphones have a flat-frequency response
Condenser microphones are known for their flat frequency response, especially in the midrange, which gives them a very neutral and accurate sound quality.
The diaphragm of condenser mics has a low mass, making them highly sensitive to sound. This sensitivity provides them with extended bass and treble responses, allowing for a wide frequency response ranging from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. This characteristic enables condenser microphones to capture subtle details in both bass and treble frequencies.
Although large diaphragm condenser microphones (greater than 1/2″) are more commonly used, they often have a slight boost in the treble and air frequencies. This can make them sound bright and occasionally harsh, especially in more budget-friendly condenser microphones like the Audio Technica AT2020.
Small diaphragm condenser mics, such as shotgun microphones, typically have more rigid diaphragms. This rigidity results in a flatter frequency response, as the diaphragm doesn’t wobble as much as larger diaphragms do. Consequently, they sound less colored in both the lower and higher frequencies.
Dynamic microphones have a more colored frequency response
Dynamic microphones tend not to sound as natural as condenser microphones due to their colored frequency response. Different dynamic mics exhibit boost levels at varying points across their frequency response curve, depending on the construction of the capsule.
Additionally, because of the diaphragm’s weight, a dynamic microphone frequently struggles to capture high and low frequencies. Their lower end often starts to diminish around 100Hz, while the higher end typically begins to roll off at 10,000Hz. As a result, they commonly have a frequency response ranging from 40Hz to 16,000Hz.
4. Off-Axis Response
Off-axis response refers to a microphone’s sensitivity and fidelity to sounds coming from directions other than directly in front of it (or its primary direction of sensitivity). It describes how well a microphone captures sound from angles that are not aligned with its main axis.
A consistent off-axis response ensures that sounds from the sides or rear are captured accurately without significant coloration or distortion.
Condenser mics have a more consistent off-axis response
Condenser mics have a more accurate off-axis response than dynamic mics due to their more neutral frequency response.
However, not all condenser microphones are made equal. Generally, condenser mics with smaller diaphragms tend to have a better off-axis response than those with larger diaphragms.
This is because, as a diaphragm increases in size, it becomes more directional at higher frequencies. This results in the microphone not capturing high-frequency sounds as effectively when they come from off-axis sources.
Dynamic microphones have a more colored off-axis response
If a dynamic microphone already sounds colored on-axis, you can be certain it won’t sound any better off-axis.
However, there are exceptions to the norm, such as the Shure KSM8. This microphone employs a proprietary dual-diaphragm capsule that aids in controlling the proximity effect and ensures a remarkably consistent and neutral off-axis sound, which makes it a great vocal mic for live performances.
5. Polar Patterns
A polar pattern describes the sensitivity of a microphone to sound coming from different directions or angles. It indicates how well the microphone “hears” sound from various directions, whether from the front, sides, or rear.
The most common pickup pattern for dynamic and condenser mics is the cardioid polar pattern, which picks up sound primarily from the front.
Other common patterns include omnidirectional, which captures sound from all directions, and bidirectional, which registers sound from both the front and back of the mic.
Condenser mics have more versatility with polar patterns
A condenser microphone’s thin capsule enables manufacturers to produce microphones with dual-diaphragm capsules, such as the Neumann U87 Ai and Austrian Audio OC818.
By adjusting the polarizing voltage to the rear diaphragm using a switch, while maintaining a fixed charge on the front diaphragm and subsequently combining the electrical outputs, microphones like the Neumann U87 Ai can offer switchable polar patterns.
A small diaphragm condenser microphone, such as a shotgun mic, utilizes a long interference tube with slits. These slits eliminate out-of-phase sounds coming from the sides, enabling the microphone to achieve a super-cardioid polar pattern.
Dynamic mics have more limitations with polar patterns
Dynamic microphones typically don’t feature switchable polar patterns because they process sound waves mechanically through electromagnetic induction. In contrast, dual-capsule condenser mics can adjust the voltage of their front and rear diaphragms to modify their polar pattern.
The only dynamic microphone I’m aware of that features a dual-diaphragm capsule is the Shure KSM8. However, it incorporates two diaphragms within a single capsule using Shure’s proprietary technology, rather than using two separate capsules. Furthermore, the primary purpose of its dual-diaphragm design is not to achieve multiple polar patterns but to control the proximity effect.
Ribbon microphones, in contrast, have a bi-directional (figure-8) polar pattern because their ribbon element is exposed to sound from both the front and rear.
Microphone sensitivity refers to how well a microphone converts acoustic pressure (sound) into an electrical voltage.
It’s typically measured in millivolts per pascal (mV/Pa) or in decibels below 1 volt per pascal (dbV/Pa), which indicates the strength of the output signal a microphone produces for a given sound pressure level.
A higher sensitivity means the microphone can produce a stronger output signal with less acoustic input. When it comes to condenser vs. dynamic microphones, a condenser microphone typically has higher sensitivity than a dynamic mic.
Condenser microphones have higher sensitivity
Since condenser microphones have a lightweight diaphragm and active electronics to amplify the mic signal, they are generally more sensitive than their dynamic counterparts.
Consider the widely recognized budget condenser microphone, the Audio Technica AT2020. It has a sensitivity of -37 dBV/Pa (a more negative number indicates less sensitivity) or 14.1 mV/Pa (a higher number indicates greater sensitivity), measured at a frequency of 1kHz.
This means that at 1 Pascal, equivalent to a sound pressure level of 94dB (1 Pa = 94dB SPL), the Audio Technica AT2020 produces an output of 14.1 mV. We’ll compare this value later with the iconic dynamic handheld microphone, the Shure SM58.
While having a higher sensitivity might seem advantageous, it also implies that the microphone is more prone to picking up subtle background noises, such as the hum of a fan or the low rumble of air conditioning.
It is also possible to determine a condenser microphone’s maximum output level in dBu for comparing the max input level of different preamps.
Locate your microphone’s sensitivity rating on the left side of the table above. Then, move horizontally to the column directly under your microphone’s maximum SPL rating.
For instance, if a microphone has a sensitivity of 20 mV/Pa and a max SPL of 130 dB, Table 1 indicates that its maximum output voltage is +4 dBu. The red area just highlights the output levels that could overload the Rane MS1S Mic preamp.
Dynamic microphones are less sensitive
Dynamic microphones are less sensitive than condenser microphones. This is because the movable parts of their capsule, namely the diaphragm and voice coil, are considerably heavier than those of a condenser diaphragm.
Moreover, the voltage produced by the electromagnetic induction of the moving coil is minimal since there are no external sources like phantom power to amplify the signal.
As previously mentioned, let’s consider the Shure SM58, which has a sensitivity of -54.5 dBV/Pa or 1.85 mV/Pa at 1kHz. This means that at the same sound pressure level of 94 dB, the Shure SM58 produces only 1.85 mV, in contrast to the Audio Technica AT2020’s 14.1 mV.
Due to their lower sensitivity compared to condenser microphones, you’d need to increase the gain on a preamp or audio interface for a dynamic microphone to match the output level of a condenser microphone.
Certain dynamic microphones, like the Shure SM7B, are known for their notably low sensitivity, registering at just 1.12 mV/Pa. Users often resort to devices like the CloudLifter to amplify the signal to discernible levels.
7. Background Noise Rejection
This refers to a microphone’s ability to minimize or eliminate unwanted ambient sounds, focusing primarily on the intended audio source. This characteristic ensures that the main audio signal is captured clearly without interference from surrounding noises.
Condenser mics are susceptible to picking up background noise
Condenser mics aren’t always the best at rejecting ambient room noise. While a cardioid pickup pattern can help isolate the primary sound source and reject sounds from the sides and rear, the high sensitivity of many condenser mics means they can pick up even the faintest sounds, such as low-frequency rumbles from air-conditioning and fans.
For this reason, it’s better to use a condenser microphone in a well-treated studio where reverberations are kept to a minimum. Audio can sound muddy if recorded in a poorly treated recording environment with numerous hard surfaces.
Many condenser mics come with a built-in high-pass filter switch, typically ranging from 40-150Hz, to help reduce this background noise. However, using this filter might also remove some of the low-end details from the recorded audio.
Dynamic mics are better at rejecting background noise
Sometimes, a weakness can also be a strength, and that’s true for dynamic microphones. Their lower sensitivity, which leads to natural roll-offs in the high and low frequencies, means they can’t easily capture faint background noise.
This characteristic of a dynamic mic makes it highly desirable for use in untreated spaces, and it is an especially popular mic in podcasting and streaming setups.
8. Transient Response
The transient response of a microphone is its ability to accurately reproduce rapid changes in sound levels, such as sudden starts and stops.
It indicates how quickly the microphone can respond to these fast changes in the audio signal, ensuring that sharp sounds, like drum hits or plucked strings, are captured with clarity and precision.
Condenser mics have a fast transient response
As mentioned before, the thin and lightweight diaphragm of a condenser mic makes it very sensitive to sound waves, resulting in a fast and accurate transient response.
It is also worth noting that the transient response of a condenser microphone improves with a smaller diaphragm, which makes sense due to its lighter weight.
Dynamic mics have a slower transient response
Dynamic mics have a heavier capsule than condenser mics due to the added weight of the voice coil. This extra weight causes the diaphragm of a dynamic mic to respond more slowly to transient sounds.
Not only does the diaphragm of a dynamic mic respond more slowly to transients, but it also has greater inertia and takes longer to come to a stop, resulting in a sound that isn’t as crisp and tight.
However, not all dynamic mics exhibit a slow transient response. The Shure SM57 dynamic mic, for instance, boasts a relatively quick transient response and is a popular choice for recording instruments with rapid transients, such as snares and kick drums.
The self-noise of a microphone, usually measured in decibels (dB), refers to the inherent electronic noise produced by the microphone itself, even in the absence of sound. A mic with lower self-noise would have a higher signal-to-noise ratio.
Lower self-noise values indicate a quieter microphone, which is especially important for capturing subtle or quiet sounds.
Condenser mics have self-noise
Condenser mics contain active electronics that contribute to their self-noise. Consequently, the noise from the preamp has a minimal impact on the overall noise produced by a condenser microphone, as the mic’s self-noise tends to drown out the preamp noise.
The self-noise of condenser mics is measured in A-weighted decibels, with a lower number indicating less self-noise.
A condenser mic with low self-noise will deliver exceptionally clean audio. Whether you increase the gain, record a whisper, boost the levels, or add compression in post-production, you’ll encounter minimal buzzing and hissing sounds.
Dynamic mics do not have ratings for self-noise
Dynamic mics produce such negligible self-noise that they typically aren’t assigned self-noise ratings. As a result, when evaluating dynamic mics, we often consider the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) level of the preamp or audio interface to which they’re connected. This is expressed in dBu and presented as a negative number, with a more negative value indicating a quieter preamp.
However, just because dynamic microphones have almost no discernible self-noise doesn’t guarantee a cleaner output. When comparing dynamic mics to condenser mics, you might need to apply more gain to achieve the same output level as a condenser microphone. This can lead to increased noise from the preamp and, subsequently, a noisier output compared to a condenser mic.
This is why it is important to use good audio interfaces with low preamp noise when connecting it with a dynamic XLR microphone.
10. Max Sound Pressure Level
There’s a common misconception that max SPL represents the point at which the microphone would sustain damage, but this is incorrect. Instead, the max sound pressure level (SPL) of a microphone refers to the loudest sound a microphone can handle before it starts to distort or clip.
It’s measured in decibels (dB) and indicates the microphone’s threshold for accurately capturing very loud sounds without compromising audio quality.
Condenser mics have a high max SPL
The max SPL of a condenser microphone (or an active ribbon mic) represents the point at which its internal electronics become overloaded, leading to clipped audio. Thus, it’s the electronics inside the condenser mic that determine the max SPL, not the diaphragm or capsule.
Many condenser microphones boast a remarkably high max SPL, ranging from 130dB to 160dB. To put this into perspective, a sound pressure level of 130dB is akin to recording a jet plane taking off from a mere 100 feet away. So, unless you’re planning to record at an airfield, it’s unlikely that your condenser microphone will encounter such intense sound pressure levels.
This brings us to a common point of confusion: “If my condenser mic can withstand such high SPLs, why does my audio clip so easily?” The answer often lies in having set the gain too high or recording sound too close to the source. Either scenario can cause your preamp or analog-to-digital converter to clip, resulting in distorted audio.
Dynamic mics do not have a max SPL rating
Dynamic mics neither have self-noise ratings nor max SPL ratings. At this point, you might be wondering, “What else don’t dynamic mics have? For all I know, they might not even record sound!” (That’s a joke, by the way, just in case you’re taking my words too seriously.)
The passive circuitry within dynamic mics ensures they don’t easily distort, at least not under typical circumstances. This resilience is precisely why dynamic mics are often the go-to choice for live performances with booming music or for recording robust instruments like a drum kit and electric guitar amplifiers.
There are various applications for both condenser and dynamic mics. It’s not about which is superior, but rather which is the right microphone for the specific use you have in mind.
Condenser mics are ideal for high accuracy and neutrality
Condenser microphones, with their flat and neutral frequency response combined with sensitivity, can capture delicate sounds that remain true to the original sound source in exquisite detail.
These characteristics make condenser microphones ideal for recording vocals in a well-treated studio, as well as for capturing a variety of individual instruments, from acoustic guitar recording to electric guitar amps, pianos, and even brass instruments. The nuances of your instrument will be recorded with remarkable fidelity.
However, they might fall short in untreated spaces or when attempting to record a band using multiple condenser mics in close quarters, as this can lead to significant mic bleed.
Dynamic mics are ideal for sound isolation
A dynamic mic is an excellent choice when isolating a sound source to achieve clean audio. Its superior off-axis rejection and natural roll-offs in the bass and treble frequencies make it ideal for applications like podcasting and streaming, where capturing clear voice without background interference is crucial.
Their sound isolation capability also renders dynamic microphones perfect for live performances and recording bands in tight spaces, as mic bleed becomes less problematic.
Furthermore, given their capacity to handle exceptionally high sound pressure levels, dynamic mics excel at recording intensely loud instruments like electric guitar amps, drums, and loud vocals.
The prices of condenser and dynamic mics can differ significantly. Often, as the price increases, the improvement in quality sees diminishing returns. Occasionally, you might discover an affordable mic that performs as well as more expensive ones.
Condenser mics can range from affordable to extremely expensive
The price range for condenser mics can vary significantly. You can find a decent budget condenser mic for as low as $50, and the price can soar to 10 grand for a tube condenser mic, such as the Sony C-800G.
However, if you’re seeking a condenser mic that offers the best value for your money in terms of audio quality and features, you should consider condenser mics in the $200-$300 range, such as the Rode NT1 5th Gen.
Dynamic mics range from cheap to moderately expensive
The price range for dynamic mics isn’t as extreme as that of condenser microphones. The most affordable dynamic mic starts as low as $25, while the priciest ones tend to be vintage ribbon mics, like the Royer R-121, which can cost around $1,500.
However, many individuals gravitate towards the Shure SM57 and SM58, both priced around $100, for music recording.