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Types of microphones and what they’re used for

Types of microphones and what they’re used for

There are various types of microphones on the market nowadays, so picking the right mics for your specific needs can be downright daunting. Every type of microphone has its own advantages and downsides, and you need to consider different factors depending on how you want to use your mics. 

Do you need mics to record different instruments, or to record vocals, studio work, or live performances? Are you a musician or a producer? What’s your budget? These are just some of the things you need to take into consideration when looking to buy new microphones. Luckily, we’ve got answers to your most burning questions, so keep reading to learn everything you need to know about microphones. 

What are microphones used for?

Microphones come in handy in a variety of situations, whether you’re recording or producing music. In the studio, microphones are used to record instruments and vocals at high quality, reproducing the sound as best as possible on a recording. Different mics are used to record different things, like drums, guitars, vocals, backing vocals, pianos, and other different instruments. 

Depending on the type of microphone and how it’s placed related to the instrument, you can get a different result, so experimenting with different setups can lead to unexpected and exciting results. Condenser microphones, for instance, are used to capture delicate vocals or acoustic guitars, because of their detailed reproduction capabilities. For louder sounds or live performances, dynamic microphones are usually preferred. So, the type of mic you use depends on what you’re trying to record, what the environment is, and what sound you’re trying to achieve. 

How many types of microphones are there? 

While there are several types of microphones currently available on the market, all presenting with different advantages and advantages, there are three main types of microphones sought after by musicians and producers. That includes condenser microphones, dynamic microphones, and ribbon microphones. We’re going to go through each of these to get a better idea of what they bring to the table. 

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What is a dynamic microphone?

Dynamic microphones are durable, versatile, and your best choice when it comes to live performances or recording loud instruments like drums or electric guitars. They convert the musical sound waves into electrical soundwaves using coils, magnets, and diaphragms. When a sound wave hits the dynamic diaphragm, it vibrates, causing the coil to move within a magnetic field, thus creating an electrical current that then reproduces the sound for the audience to hear. These types of microphones can handle high sound pressure and volume without distortion or dissonance, which is why they’re the go-to choice for live vocal performances or any performances in a loud environment. They’re a popular choice, and they can also be used in the studio without any problems, as they’re so versatile. Some solid options in this category include the AKG D5, the super-popular Shure SM58, or the Sennheiser e835. 

What is a condenser microphone?

Condenser microphones have high sensitivity to sound, and they are able to reproduce vocals or instruments in fine detail and high audio quality. They use thin diaphragms and backplate capacitors to turn soundwaves into electrical signals. They can pick up extremely small details, so they’re a common option when it comes to studio recordings and vocals. In this category you can find both large-diaphragm mics, which pick up wide frequency ranges and are great for recording vocals, and small-diaphragm mics, which can reproduce the pristine, clear sounds of acoustic guitars or violins. Examples here include the Rode NT1, the AKG C414, or the Neumann U87, to name a few.

What is a ribbon microphone?

Ribbon microphones generate sound through the use of thin metal ribbons in magnetic fields, and they work great for recording both instruments and vocals. They’re incredibly versatile, but the downside is that they’re not as sturdy as dynamic or condenser mics, making them more fragile and difficult to handle. They’re much better used in a studio setting than on the road or live performances. They do bring a crisp, vintage sound to the table, and they can be used to record multiple vocals or instruments at the same time without any issues. Popular examples here include the Beyerdynamic M160 or the MXL R144. 

How to choose the best type of microphone for you

Choosing the right microphone to suit your specific needs can be tricky, because your project might include both vocal tracks and different types of instruments. You might want a microphone to be able to record delicate vocals and acoustic instruments, but also work for drums or live performances - and all-rounder. Or you might want to pick a good microphone for recording vocals, another one for your touring needs and live performances, and a bunch of other microphones for all your different instruments. Here’s what you need to consider when making a choice. 

  • Your sound source: first things first, you need to figure out what you want to record with your new microphone(s). Are you looking to record vocals in a studio? Live performances? Acoustic instruments? Electric guitar or drums? The type of sound you want to record will guide the type of microphone you’re going to buy. For vocals, condenser microphones are your best bet, while for loud instruments like drums or heavy guitars, dynamic microphones will be your best friends. If you’re looking for a classic, vintage-vibe sound, a ribbon microphone might be a nice addition to your musician toolkit. Figure out what sounds you want to record, and start from there. 
  • Your environment: next up, you need to think about where you are going to record your instruments or vocals. Are you going to be using your microphone exclusively for studio work? Then ribbon microphones might work, because they are rather fragile and delicate and not suited for traveling from place to place. For live performances, dynamic mics are the top choice, because they are incredibly sturdy and can handle loud sounds and volumes without distortion. 
  • Your desired sound: while it’s important to consider the sound you’re trying to record, you also need to think about the sound you’re trying to reproduce. Condenser mics are great at picking up details, so they work great for recording vocals and acoustic instruments like guitars or violins. Dynamic mics are better suited to record amplified instruments and loud sounds, while ribbon mics offer a warm, vintage, classic sound that works great for both vocals and instruments. 
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common type of microphone?

The most common type of microphone is the dynamic microphone. Renowned for its durability, versatility, and ability to handle high sound pressure levels, it is widely used in live performances, public speaking, and recording louder sound sources like drums and electric guitars. Dynamic microphones operate on the principle of electromagnetic induction and are favored for their robust construction, making them reliable in various environments, including both indoor and outdoor settings. Their affordability and resistance to moisture also contribute to their widespread popularity across different audio applications.

What type of microphone is best for vocals?

For vocals, condenser microphones are generally considered the best choice due to their high sensitivity and wide frequency response, which allows them to capture the detailed nuances and subtleties of the human voice. They provide a clear, accurate, and natural sound, making them ideal for studio recordings where capturing the finest details is crucial. Condenser microphones often require an external power source, such as phantom power, but their ability to deliver pristine audio quality makes them the preferred option for vocal recording in professional and home studios alike.

How to choose a microphone?

Choosing a microphone involves considering the specific application, the environment in which it will be used, and the desired sound quality. Start by identifying whether you need the microphone for studio recording, live performances, broadcasting, or other purposes. For studio recordings, condenser microphones are preferred for their sensitivity and clarity, while dynamic microphones are ideal for live performances due to their durability and ability to handle high sound pressure levels. Consider the environment; for instance, a cardioid pattern is useful in noisy settings to minimize background noise. Additionally, think about the sound characteristics you want to capture—condenser mics provide detailed and accurate sound, dynamic mics offer robustness and warmth, and ribbon mics deliver smooth, natural tones. Budget and compatibility with existing equipment should also be taken into account to ensure the best match for your needs.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gregory Walfish
Co-founder of Xposure Music, Gregory Walfish stands at the intersection of music, tech, and culture. With a software engineering background, he's passionate about artist development and technology.

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