In this article, we discuss the 3 most popular microphone types. We examine their strengths, weaknesses, and most common applications.
Different microphone types
A microphone converts sound waves to electrical energy, however, different types of microphones accomplish this feat through varying physical means.
Dynamic microphones are the most robust of the bunch. They handle high sound pressure levels with ease and are physically durable. Dynamics have a short reach and quick decay. This makes them useful in close micing situations. Additionally, their low sensitivity rejects background information making them great for live applications where isolation is key.
Condenser microphones are more detailed than dynamics and require external power to function. As a result, a standard feature of most mic preamps is a switch for “phantom power”. Condensers are very sensitive and pick up not only close sources but room sound and background information as well. This makes them difficult to use in live situations, but excellent studio choices (read: How to Choose Your First Studio Microphone).
One of the oldest microphones types commonly used is the ribbon microphone. Ribbon microphones sound vintage and warm. While not as crystal clear as other microphone options, they do have a lot of character. Use ribbons to add depth and color to otherwise sterile sources.
Dynamic microphones employ a coil of wire, magnet, and a thin diaphragm. The diaphragm attaches to the coil and moves the coil in relation to the magnet. This is a very durable design. Consequently, a trade-off of this strength is a loss in clarity. Additionally, they may not have the character that ribbons offer. Dynamics are typically cardioid microphones and capture sound from the front. Place them in front of loud sources, and percussive elements. Most close drum microphones are dynamics. You will also find them in front of guitar and bass cabinets as well.
Condensers suspend a very thin material or diaphragm in two plates. Sound waves excite the plates, changing the distance between them. Altering this distance affects the voltage or signal carried to your preamp. This design creates a microphone that is extremely detailed and clear. So much so that some use tube power circuits, in place of phantom power to add missing character and warmth. Others forego tubes, and transformers further pushing the clarity envelope.
Condensers are used on any source needing pristine focus, and accurate representation. The diaphragm itself comes in different sizes. Small diaphragm condensers have a frequency response focusing on upper midrange and trebles. Large diaphragm condensers are considered full range, use them to capture sources spanning the entire frequency spectrum. Condensers come in a vast array of polar patterns. Furthermore, some are switchable from cardioid to figure 8 to Omni. Vocals, guitars, strings, and pianos, all benefit from the clarity condensers provide.
Ribbon microphones suspend a conductive “ribbon” element between two magnetic poles. As the ribbon moves a voltage is created in the magnetic field. This voltage is sent to your microphone preamp. Their warm nature is useful in taming shrill, overly harsh sounds. It’s important to note, the ribbon element is very fragile, and should not be subjected to high sound pressure levels. Also, ribbons have the weakest output of the three types and require more gain from the preamp to get to nominal levels. Ribbons pick up sound in a figure 8 pattern, from the front, and from the rear. They work wonderfully on acoustic guitars, stringed instruments, brass, and some vocal applications.
Armed with this knowledge, approach each source with thoughts on how it will sit in your final mix. Different microphone types will suit different purposes. For high volume applications, grab the dynamics. For absolute clarity, use the condenser that meets the frequency needs of the source. Finally, reach for your ribbons to create density and weight.