You may not think about different types of microphones much, but they are everywhere, from the local karaoke night to the Oscars. Whether you’re a seasoned singer or just someone who likes to talk, there’s a microphone for you.
But, with so many types of microphones, how do you know which one to choose? In this article, we’ll explore the different types of microphones according to their working principle, connectivity, polar pattern, and purpose.
By the end of this, you’ll be ready to pick the right mic for your next performance, podcast, video production, or live stream.
1. Types of Microphones According to their Working Principle
Different types of microphones are not created equal, and the differences start with their transducer technology, which determines how they work.
The transducer is the part of the microphone that converts sound waves into electrical signals. There are three main types of transducers: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon.
Condenser Microphones: The Electric Diplomats
Condenser microphones, also known as capacitor microphones, work using an electrically conductive gold-sputtered diaphragm placed close to a fixed metal plate, usually made of solid brass. When sound waves hit the diaphragm, it moves relative to the metal plate, changing the capacitance and generating an electrical signal.
One thing to remember with condenser microphones is that they require phantom power of 48V DC to operate, so make sure you have an audio interface with phantom power.
Condenser microphones have a low-mass diaphragm that can respond lightning-fast to changes in sound pressure. This allows the condenser mic to capture subtle nuances in sound that other microphones, like dynamic microphones, might miss.
A condenser mic also has a wide frequency response range and good sensitivity. This allows the condenser microphone to detect low-level sounds in quiet places and frequencies from low-frequency bass to high-frequency treble sounds.
These characteristics make condenser mics ideal for capturing delicate and nuanced sounds, such as a solo singer’s voice, a string quartet, or even subtle sounds associated with ASMR, like whispers and crinkles.
And because of their high sensitivity, they can be placed further away from a sound source and still get clear audio which is ideal for recording a video with the microphone boomed out of frame.
Also, when it comes to condenser microphones, the size of the diaphragm is a defining factor. Large diaphragms are typically larger than 19mm, and small diaphragms generally are smaller than 15mm (1).
Large-diaphragm condenser microphones have a warm, smooth, well-rounded, and rich sound, especially when recording vocals. Large-diaphragm mics are often used to capture the essence of an instrument or voice.
Small diaphragm condenser microphones have diaphragms that can capture fast transients and fine details, making them ideal for recording percussive and stringed instruments, and for use as room mics in recording studios.
If you need more information on how to set up your home studio and the essential studio equipment required, check out our article on setting up a home recording studio!
Dynamic Microphones: The Heavy Hitters
Dynamic microphones are built to take a beating, both figuratively and literally. They work by using a coil of wire attached to a diaphragm that surrounds a magnet. When sound waves vibrate the diaphragm, it moves the coil surrounding the magnet, generating a voltage.
Dynamic mics are the go-to choice for many musicians, especially those in aggressive genres like rock and metal. The high-mass diaphragm and sturdy build make dynamic mics ideal for handling loud sounds and distortion; however, this also means it is less sensitive due to their heavier mass.
Most dynamic mics have high directionality and stand out for their ability to reject sounds from the sides and back. This makes them great for capturing specific sounds from noisy environments, like a vocalist near a drum set or a podcast guest in a noisy room.
However, dynamic mics need to be close to the sound source to get a good audible sound, which is why we often see dynamic mics within the video frame close to the speaker’s mouth in podcasts and shows.
Dynamic mics also shine in sound reinforcement systems, preventing feedback loops by providing more gain before feeding back through speakers. Ideal for live sound!
So, if you’re looking for microphone types that can stand up to the challenge of a live performance, look no further than a dynamic microphone.
Ribbon Microphones: The Old-Schoolers
The ribbon is a thin, low-mass corrugated aluminum strip suspended between two permanent magnets. When sound waves move the ribbon, it generates a voltage.
Audiophiles favor ribbon mics for their rich, warm, and natural sound, almost like having a soft blanket for sound. They’re ideal for classic and vintage vocals, like jazz, blues, and classical singing.
Ribbon mics have a smooth frequency response that usually rolls off slightly in the high frequencies, making them perfect for warm vocals or smoothing out harsh sources like electric guitars. They are often able to reproduce audio almost exactly the way the acoustics sound in real-life, making listeners feel as if they are actually listening to the amplifiers or instruments in a room.
A ribbon mic is bidirectional, meaning it picks up sound from both sides but rejects sound from the sides, making it great for stereo recording or capturing both the source and room sound.
Ribbon microphones also have an excellent off-axis response, so any leakage from other sources won’t sound bad and will enhance the overall sound. This makes it ideal for use in a stereo recording.
Overall, a ribbon microphone is perfect for those who want a silky, natural sound.
It is also important to note that you should TURN OFF phantom power for vintage ribbon microphones, as leaving phantom power turned on can completely blow or stretch the ribbon.
2. Types of Microphones According to their Polar Pattern
Different types of microphones have different polar patterns, which is how they pick up sound from different directions. It’s like the microphone’s “field of view.” There are several different polar patterns to choose from, each with its strengths and weaknesses.
Cardioid: The One-Trick Pony
The cardioid polar pattern is the most common and most straightforward. It’s shaped like a heart, and “cardioid” literally means “heart-shaped.”
Cardioid microphones have a unidirectional pattern that only picks up sound from the front of the microphone and rejects sound from the sides and rear. This makes cardioid microphones ideal for isolating a single sound source in a noisy environment.
However, cardioid mics have limited directional capability, which can also be a disadvantage when you need to capture sound from multiple sources. For example, a cardioid mic may not pick up the entire band in a live performance setting, especially if some members are positioned off to the side.
Hypercardioid: The Next Step Up
The hypercardioid polar pattern is similar to a cardioid but with a tighter, more directional pickup area. It offers better isolation and rejection of sound from the sides (but less from the rear), making it ideal for live performance and recording applications where you need to capture sound from a specific source while minimizing ambient noise.
Hypercardioid microphone types are often used for podcasting, voice-over work, and other applications where clear, focused sound is essential.
Additionally, they can be less forgiving of room acoustics because they can pick up some sounds from the back, highlighting any imperfections in the recording environment. This is why it is important to apply acoustic treatment for the recording environment to minimize those reflections and reverberations.
Supercardioid: The Tightrope Walker
The supercardioid polar pattern is even more directional than a hypercardioid, offering even greater isolation and rejection of sound from the sides and rear. This makes it ideal for live performance and recording applications where sound clarity and separation are of the utmost importance, such as in recording music concerts or capturing sound effects for film and video.
Another characteristic is that supercardioid microphones have a slightly more relaxed directional pattern than hypercardioid microphones. This results in a lower proximity effect, as the microphone picks up less sound from the sides, reducing the build-up of low frequencies when close-miking a source.
This makes supercardioid microphones more versatile for close miking. They provide a more balanced and natural sound, especially for sources with prominent low frequencies, such as bass instruments or low-pitched vocals.
Omnidirectional: The All-Arounder
As the name implies, an omnidirectional microphone picks up sound equally from all directions. It’s the most versatile and ideal for capturing the ambient sound of a room or recording a group of people talking.
Omnidirectional microphones are often used in documentary filmmaking, field recording, and other applications where you need to capture the full soundscape of a location.
However, they’re not ideal for live performance or recording in a noisy environment as they’ll pick up unwanted ambient noise along with the desired sound.
Bidirectional: The Interviewer’s Best Friend
The bidirectional polar pattern, also known as a figure-8 pattern, picks up sound from the front and rear of the microphone while rejecting sound from the sides. This makes it ideal for recording two people facing each other, such as in an interview scenario.
Bidirectional types of microphones are also useful in live performance settings where you need to capture sound from two sources positioned on opposite sides of the microphone.
Lobar: The Shotgun Shooter
The lobar or shotgun polar pattern is the most directional compared to the other polar patterns, designed to capture sound from a specific direction while rejecting all other sounds.
The polar pattern of a shotgun mic is shaped like a cylinder and is often used in film and television production, as well as for recording interviews in noisy environments. Small diaphragm condenser microphones usually have a shotgun pattern.
A shotgun mic is often mounted on a boom pole and aimed directly at the sound source, allowing it to pick up the desired sound while rejecting ambient noise and other distractions. This makes it ideal for recording dialogue in a noisy environment, such as a busy street or a crowded room.
However, the tight directional pickup of a shotgun microphone means it’s not suitable for capturing ambient sound or recording a group of people speaking.
Additionally, its highly directional nature can result in unwanted sounds if the microphone is moved or bumped, so it requires a steady hand and careful positioning to get the best results.
If you’re looking for a high-quality shotgun microphone for filmmaking or interviews, check out our article for some of our best recommendations, from beginner-friendly models to industry-standard professional models.
3. Types of Microphones According to their Connectivity
Get ready to learn about the different types of microphones according to their connectivity!
Analog microphones are the OG’s of the microphone world. These mics deliver their electrical signals via good old-fashioned cables, like XLR or TRS connectors.
You may recognize analog types of microphones as those with a charming retro vibe, but don’t be fooled by their vintage look – they still have a place in today’s world of recording and broadcasting.
If you’re looking for convenience and ease of use, then USB microphones are the way to go.
These types of microphones are perfect for live streams and podcasts because they don’t require phantom power, an audio interface, or a mic preamp. Just plug and play into your computer. No fuss, no muss!
And the best part? There are no dangling XLR cables to trip over in the middle of a live stream.
Not only are USB mics great for convenience, they often have propriety software applications that allow for real-time audio processing and vocal effects such as compression, equalization, and limiters. One such application is the Blue VO!CE for the Blue Yeti series USB microphones.
Wireless microphones are the wild child amongst the family of different types of microphones. They come with a transmitter and require a receiver to pick up and process the audio signal, and they’re usually handheld or lavalier mics.
The Rode Wireless Go II is an excellent example of a wireless lavalier microphone. It not only has an inbuilt microphone but any microphone with a 3.5mm jack can also be connected to its transmitter to be used.
With wireless microphones, you have the freedom to move around and engage with your audience without being tethered to your setup. Just make sure the battery is charged, and you’re good to go!
4. Types of Microphones According to Purpose
Let’s dive into the different types of microphones suited for specific purposes.
Mics for ASMR
The most ideal microphones for ASMR are those with a low-frequency response range, high sensitivity, and fast transient response, such as small diaphragm condenser microphones.
Since ASMR sounds are subtle and low-pitched, like taps, whispers, whistles, crinkles, lip smacks, rumbling of water bottles, etc, they require a microphone with a high sensitivity to record these low sound levels at low frequencies.
Also, the sound source has to be very close to the microphone, usually a few inches away, to record the nuances that can trigger ASMR feelings.
Mics for Recording Vocals
When it comes to recording vocals, you’ve got options. All three microphone types – condenser mics, dynamic mics, and ribbon mics – can be suitable. Also, cardioid mics are usually your best bet. These mics are all great for recording covers of your favorite songs.
If you’re recording pop vocals, a condenser mic is the way to go, something like the Audio Technica AT2020 would be a great and affordable choice for beginners.
A dynamic mic is your friend for those aggressive rock and metal genres. And if you’re after a classic or vintage sound, a ribbon microphone will give you just that. But don’t forget about shotgun mics and omnidirectional mics for capturing choirs and singing groups!
Check out our article about the Best Vocal Mics that will make you sound like a pro, from professional studio mics to great stage mics and even budget options!
Mics for Recording Podcasts and Live Streams
Podcasts and live streams can be recorded with either a condenser microphone or a dynamic microphone.
If you’re the sole speaker, a cardioid microphone is a solid choice. But when you’ve got live guests involved, it’s best to use a bidirectional polar pattern microphone to capture both voices.
And for all you podcasters and live streamers out there, let me tell you – get a USB microphone! No need to deal with all those pesky XLR cables!
Also, you need more than just a USB microphone for a professional live stream! Check out this article on other essential equipment for setting up a professional live stream!
Hands-Free Mics (Lavalier Microphones)
When you need your hands free to do other things (like gesturing dramatically while you talk), lavalier microphone types are the way to go.
Perfect for presentations, interviews, and theater performances, these tiny mics clip onto your clothing and allow you to move freely. However, they often sacrifice good sound quality for portability.
Just be careful not to forget where you clipped it, or you’ll have a hard time finding it when it’s time to wrap up.
Mics for Recording Piano
Piano recordings are a beautiful thing, but they can be a bit tricky to get just right. Pianos are often loud and require different types of microphones that can capture the nuances and subtleties of the instrument.
If you’re looking to record an upright piano, a cardioid condenser mic or a ribbon microphone will do the trick. A condenser microphone has a wide frequency response which can capture the piano’s high and low notes and ringing overtones, making it perfect for capturing a rich and full sound.
A ribbon microphone, on the other hand, can filter out transient sounds and create a warmer sound.
But if you’re recording a grand piano, things get a bit more complicated. It can be tough to find the sweet spot for the microphone to capture a balanced sound between the treble bridge and the bass bridge.
Mics for Recording Drums
Drums are loud. Like, really loud. So when you’re recording them, you need a microphone that can handle a high SPL (sound pressure level).
Since you need one mic per drum, drum recording can get pretty expensive quickly. But it’s worth it because a well-recorded drum kit is the foundation of many great tracks.
If you’re recording a standard drum kit, you’ll probably need a dynamic shotgun microphone like the Shure SM57 for the snare and toms, a low-end dynamic microphone for the kick drum, and a small-diaphragm condenser microphone for the hi-hat.
For drum overheads, you can use a pair of large diaphragm condenser microphones or ribbon microphones and use a spaced pair, XY, or ORTF mic placement configuration.
Remember that if you use the spaced pair configuration for drum overheads, the pair of condenser mics should have an equal distance from the snare drum (the loudest drum in the kit) to prevent phasing issues.
Mics for Recording Acoustic Guitar
A large-diaphragm condenser microphone is an ideal choice for recording acoustic guitars because they capture bass frequencies very well, allowing them to capture the warm resonance from your acoustic guitar body while maintaining clarity in higher frequencies.
You can also opt for a small-diaphragm condenser microphone that captures tight playing like finger plucking and solo riffs due to its fast transient response.
Check out our detailed article for many great tips on How to Record Acoustic Guitars.
Mics for Recording Instruments through Amplifiers
If you’re recording electric instruments like electric guitar or bass, you need a microphone that can handle a high SPL (sound pressure level) because guitar amps can get pretty loud.
The best option would be to use a dynamic microphone close-miked to the amplifier. You don’t want to end up with a distorted recording because your microphone couldn’t handle the volume.
Mics for Recording Strings
String instruments like violin, viola, and cello are delicate and nuanced; hence you need a microphone to capture that. A large-diaphragm condenser microphone or a ribbon microphone would be a great choice because they have good sensitivity, allowing you to pick up all the little details in the sound.
For solo recordings, it’s best to position the microphone close to the instrument, about 6 to 12 inches away, to capture the natural sound of the instrument. For ensemble recordings, it’s best to use a mixture of cardioid and omnidirectional condenser microphones to capture the group’s sound.
Mics for Recording Woodwind Instruments
Woodwind instruments like trumpets, horns, or saxophones also require a microphone with good sensitivity to capture the nuances of the sound.
A large-diaphragm condenser microphone or a ribbon microphone would be a great choice because of their fast transient response and wide frequency range. Just be careful not to position the microphone too close to the instrument, as it can pick up unwanted noise from the player’s breath.
For saxophone and brass instruments, it’s best to position the microphone about 6 to 12 inches away from the bell of the instrument. If you’re recording a group of brass instruments, it’s important to use a directional microphone to capture the sound from each instrument separately. This will help to avoid picking up sounds from other instruments that might be playing at the same time.
For woodwind instruments like the flute or clarinet, it’s best to position the microphone close to the sound hole or the mouthpiece. This will help to capture the natural sound of the instrument without picking up unwanted noise from the player’s breath.
In conclusion, the world of microphones is an enchanting one that offers a bounty of options for capturing sound. From the transducer magic of condenser microphones, dynamic microphones, and ribbon microphones, to the polar patterns that range from cardioid to omnidirectional, to the connectivity choices of analog, USB, and wireless, the decision-making process can be both overwhelming and exciting. Fear not, for whether you’re a seasoned sound wizard, a hopeful podcaster, or just looking to preserve your beautiful voice, there’s a microphone out there destined to be yours.
- Fernando, M. C. (2020, October 23). Condenser Microphones Categorized by Diaphragm Size. LinkedIn. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/condenser-microphones-categorized-diaphragm-size-fernando-1c
- Radio Corporation of America (n.d.). Instructions for Velocity Microphone Type 44-BX. World Radio History. https://worldradiohistory.com/Archive-Catalogs/RCA/Mics/RCA-44-BX-MI-1956.pdf