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In the world of microphones, there are two major types: dynamic and condenser.
Each type is favored for different applications in studio and live settings.
Find out the uses and drawbacks of condenser and dynamic microphones.
Every musician, engineer, producer, or drunken karaoke singer has come into contact with a microphone at some time in their life. But not all microphones are created equally. Not only are there different models of microphones, but also different construction designs that can use very different operation methods to amplify and capture a sound source.
Dynamic vs Condenser: The Differences
The primary differences between dynamic and condenser microphones are as follows:
Construction: Dynamic microphones use magnets and coils to convert sound waves into electrical current, while condenser microphones use an electrically-charged backplate assembly.
Application: Dynamic microphones are better at capturing loud sounds and strong signals, and do a far better job in live applications due to their lower sensitivity. Condenser microphones, on the other hand, excel in the studio for their increased detail, accuracy, and sensitivity.
Power: Due to their unique design, condenser microphones require phantom power to operate. This means that to use a condenser mic, your mixer, interface, or preamp will need a phantom power switch. Alternatively, some condenser microphones also let you use batteries to provide the required amount of power.
That’s it in a nutshell, but if you’d like to dive deeper into the nitty-gritty, read on…
What Is A Microphone?
What exactly does a microphone even do? We all know that a microphone is what you use to amplify your voice or record your favorite demo, but how does that actually work?
By definition, a microphone is a transducer that converts a sound wave into an electrical signal.
A guitar pickup also does this, and in a way, a guitar pickup is very similar to a microphone (though they certainly don’t look similar).
Both of these devices are transducers, which is a device that converts one form of energy to another form of energy. The history of microphones dates back to the late 19th century, with some fierce competition between Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and David Edward Hughes. But microphones as we know it didn’t really come about until the 1920s and weren’t really even similar to what we use today until the 1960s.
But history aside, a microphone is a common device you use to capture a sound source and convert it into electrical energy. This electrical energy is then used by your PA system, recording console, or audio interface to reproduce the initial sound signal through your speakers, headphones, or computer itself.
As mentioned, different types of microphones have different methods for converting sound waves into electrical energy. The two main methods of capturing a signal are what make up the two main categories of microphones: dynamic, and condenser.
Dynamic microphones convert sound waves to electrical signals by using electromagnetic induction. Sounds complicated, right? Well, to put it simply, a dynamic microphone essentially works like a loudspeaker, but in reverse.
In a loudspeaker, you send an electrical signal through the voice coil, which is attached to a magnet. The electrical current causes the voice coil to rapidly move back and forth through the magnetic field, which causes the speaker’s diaphragm to vibrate, producing sound. A dynamic microphone features all of the same components of a loudspeaker: a diaphragm, a voice coil, and a magnet.
Operationally, a dynamic mic will pick up a sound signal by allowing the diaphragm to vibrate. This will cause the voice coil to move, which results in an electrical signal to be generated within the magnetic field. This signal is then sent to your mixer, interface, etc. Same as a speaker, but in reverse!
Dynamic Microphones: What Do They Sound Like?
Now that we’ve gotten through all of that technical science-y mumbo jumbo, what are the real practical applications of dynamic mics? Well, by the nature of their design, they are really sturdy and relatively weather resistant. This is why dynamic microphones are typically used in live sound settings.
Their method of induction also allows for a very high level of gain to be added to them before causing feedback, which is a bonus for live sound. This also means that they can handle higher sound pressure levels without distorting. Sounds like the perfect design for a microphone, right?
While dynamic microphones are certainly useful, they aren’t necessarily the most accurate at capturing and reproducing the full spectrum of audible sound. They are by no means inaccurate (obviously a person’s voice through a dynamic microphone still sounds like their voice), but dynamic microphones can have a hard time reproducing high frequencies as accurately as other microphone types.
While dynamic microphones might not always be the perfect sounding mic for really intense applications, they are excellent for live sound and reinforcement in multi-mic arrays. You can’t really go wrong with them thanks to their ease of use and rugged design.
Dynamic microphones are typically used in any sort of application where the functionality of amplifying the sound is most important. Typically, loud sources, like drums, guitar cabinets, and brass instruments will all be mic’d up with a dynamic microphone, because their robust pickup nature is able to handle the higher sound pressure levels of these louder sources.
Due to their reduced high-frequency response, it actually makes sense to use them on bright sources like brass instruments to help reduce harshness. All in all, dynamic microphones are well-rounded “workhorse” microphones that can work well in almost any application, especially if you have a good understanding of how a particular model responds.
There’s a reason the Shure SM57 dynamic microphone is everyone’s “first” good mic, because once you have one you’ll never run out of uses for it.
Dynamic Microphone Polar Patterns
One very important key to understanding particular microphones is to become familiar with their polar patterns.
A polar pattern will tell us how a microphone responds as sound hits it from different angles. Every microphone has sweet spots where the sound is heard clearly. This is usually at the top of the microphone for “end-address” mics, especially for dynamic mics designed for live usage. But larger studio condenser mics are most often “side-address” mics.
So if you speak into the side of an SM58, the sound won’t be as clear as when you speak into the top. Even then, if the mic is far enough away from your mouth, you’re not going to get the best possible sound in the first place.
Understanding any microphone’s polar pattern will help us to get the best possible sound, and also allow us to take advantage of “blind spots” when placing speakers and foldback monitors.
There are 3 major types of polar patterns: omnidirectional, cardioid, and figure-eight. Almost every dynamic microphone has a cardioid pattern due to the nature of their design. There are also two extra variants of cardioid: supercardioid and hypercardioid.
So what does a cardioid polar pattern look like for most microphones? It’s essentially shaped like a heart around the pickup area of the mic, which is where the name cardioid comes from (cardio is Greek for heart).
So if your mic has a cardioid polar pattern, you will have the greatest sound quality in the general area in front of the microphone, and virtually no pickup from behind it. This is very beneficial in a live sound setting, because it means you can place a monitor speaker behind a microphone and the microphone won’t pick up the sound.
Supercardioid and Hypercardioid
Supercardioid microphones are similar to cardioid, in that they still feature the “heart” shaped pickup in front of the microphone. But in a supercardioid mic the response is comparatively more narrow. This means sounds to the side of the microphone are rejected more easily than a standard dynamic mic.
Sounds great for a live setting right? Well there is a trade-off. By narrowing the pickup in front of the mic, a rear pickup lobe is created. So you have to be careful, because supercardioid mics will pick up some sound from behind, though still not nearly as much as from in front. This can become problematic when placing the mic close to a monitor and can cause more feedback than a regular cardioid.
Typical applications of supercardioid pattern microphones are in film and broadcast, using a special type of supercardioid mic called a shotgun mic. These mics use the principle of a supercardioid’s directional pattern and extend it so that you can pick up sounds from further away without excess noise.
However, it’s worth noting that shotgun microphones are almost always condenser mics.
Hypercardioid microphones are another variant on supercardioid, and they function in practically the same way, except that they feature an even narrower response to the front. This makes hypercardioid more beneficial in a live sound setting, but again, it’s important to be aware of the rear pickup point, which tends to be more accentuated than a supercardioid.
Ultimately, for dynamic microphones, cardioid is by far the most common polar pattern, and is typically what most people reach for either consciously or not. It’s easy to picture the polar pattern and how it can be applied in any recording situation.
Popular Dynamic Microphones
Here are some common dynamic microphones along with some of their common applications and polar patterns:
Shure SM58 (cardioid): Voice, and pretty much anything in a live setting.
Shure SM57 (cardioid): Acoustic guitars, drums, amps, brass. (The SM57 is essentially just an SM58 without the grille.)
Condenser microphones operate in a somewhat more complicated manner than their dynamic counterparts. A condenser is another (and much older) term for a capacitor, which is a device that stores energy in an electromagnetic field, usually made by two metal plates.
A condenser microphone essentially acts as a giant capacitor, with the diaphragm of the microphone being one of the metal plates of the capacitor. When sound waves hit the diaphragm, it causes a change in the overall capacitance of the microphone’s circuit. This change in capacitance creates the microphone’s output signal.
Condenser microphones are generally regarded as “higher quality” and provide a much more detailed sound than their dynamic counterparts.
This is due to a couple of reasons: the vibration of a signal against a condenser microphone’s diaphragm has much less mass than a dynamic mic.
This allows the signal to be much more detailed and true to the sound source. Condenser mic designs also allow for a much higher output level relative to noise than a dynamic microphone. Condenser microphones also have a better transient response, being able to more accurately pick up the sounds of a drum beat, or a guitar string pluck.
So if condenser mics seem to be far superior to dynamics in terms of sound quality, why is their most common use in a studio recording setting instead of on stages? The answer lies in their durability, polar patterns, and overall cost.
While condenser microphones are generally superior in terms of sound quality, they are much more fragile and are more susceptible to the rigors of live use.
It’s also important to note that the “hi-fi” sound pickup quality of a condenser mic can actually become a disadvantage in a live situation, as these mics will make wind noise, people walking by, and other “background sounds” much more noticeable than a dynamic mic.
With that being said, there are plenty of “live” condenser mics that are designed to stand up to the rigors of touring and provide the detailed sound of condensers, but they are still more costly.
Condenser Microphones: Small or Large Diaphragm?
As mentioned above, condenser microphones are known for sounding detailed and brighter than dynamic microphones. They are also able to capture a wider range of frequencies than dynamic microphones. Condenser mics are typically described as “airy” and detailed, and are usually used for instruments like strings, cymbals, voice, and horns.
One thing that factors into a condenser microphone’s overall sound is the size of its diaphragm. Condenser mics generally have either a “large diaphragm” design, or a “small diaphragm” design.
Small diaphragm condenser mics are able to pick up higher frequencies in a very detailed manner, while large diaphragm mics have a more even response. Small diaphragm condensers typically get used on toms, cymbals, violins, and acoustic guitars.
Some smaller diaphragm condenser mics can sound “harsh” or simply too bright, so it’s important to take note of that before using them on particularly bright sources like brass instruments.
There is one very important element to the design of condenser microphones that plays into their tendency to be used in the studio but not on stage, and that is the role of powering them up. By design, condenser mics require power for their internal circuitry. In the early days, this was achieved by an external power supply, but these were bulky and inconvenient for sessions where lots of mics were used.
In the 1960s, Neumann (being the crafty German audio geeks they are) found a way to power mics by transferring current through the mic’s cable straight from the mixing desk.
The name phantom power is derived from the fact that the 48v power signal is essentially “invisible” to standard dynamic microphones that don’t require extra power.
It’s very important to switch phantom power on only after plugging in your microphones, and before unplugging them. Though most modern designs are relatively fool-proof, plugging or unplugging mics with phantom power engaged can damage preamps and microphones.
Thanks to phantom power, it’s easy for us to use condenser mics without any special boxes or cables. All you need is a mixer, preamp, or interface that can provide phantom power (and most do). Phantom power has gone on to have applications for other audio equipment like active direct boxes, and even some compact microphone or instrument preamps for live use.
Condenser Microphone Polar Patterns
While the vast majority of dynamic microphones are cardioid mics, the nuanced designs of condenser microphones allow for both a wider variety of polar patterns, but also in some cases, multiple patterns for any one microphone.
While most lower cost condenser microphones typically feature one polar pattern (usually cardioid), higher-end large diaphragm models typically allow you to switch between at least 3, or sometimes 5 or more different polar patterns.
With these mics, most feature the option to be cardioid, omnidirectional, or figure-8. Omnidirectional patterns are mainly used for room mics, or other situations where you are not pointing the microphone directly at a single source.
This also makes it easier to experiment with the responses of different polar patterns in real-time. You can simply flick a switch to change the mic’s response instead of setting up a totally separate microphone.
Most small diaphragm microphones are too small to have a pattern switch built into them. But many feature a removable capsule design that allows you to switch out different capsules and thus get different polar patterns.
So while it may seem like condenser mics become cost prohibitive very quickly, you can get a lot of flexibility with just one pair of small diaphragm condenser microphones with changeable capsules.
Some other microphones, like the AKG 414, feature a polar pattern known as “wide cardioid.” This is essentially a response somewhere between omnidirectional and cardioid, and has its uses in certain applications. For example, in classical or orchestral music where you don’t want to make any single source sound too “up front” but you still need to use multiple microphones and want to avoid spillover in a large ensemble.
As mentioned earlier, condenser microphones are generally favored for studio use over live use due to their higher cost and less rugged design. Their detailed sound can also become less advantageous than desired on a loud and busy stage, as they can pick up more background sounds or annoying details inherent in a given performance.
There is a wide variety of types and styles of condenser mics that work best for different instrument sources, but generally, condenser mics can sound good on just about anything as long as you use proper placement and gain staging.
While this can make choosing the right condenser microphone for the job an easy task, there are still a variety of popular brands and designs that are favored for different uses.
For example, large diaphragm condensers are frequently chosen for vocals, but also find use on guitar amps, drum overheads, and acoustic instruments. They are also frequently chosen for bluegrass or folk groups who want to gather around a single microphone for an authentic “live” feel.
Small diaphragm condensers typically find their use on single sources, especially sources that require a detailed sound without too much low end, like drum overheads, acoustic guitars, strings, and piano.
Popular Condenser Microphones
Some famous and common condenser microphones include:
Neumann U87 (large diaphragm): Vocals, general instruments, drum overheads.
There is one more microphone type that you can find plenty of uses for, the ribbon microphone. However, while ribbon mics are definitely in a sonic category all their own, from an engineering perspective they are actually quite similar to dynamic microphones.
Ribbon microphones are among the earliest designs, and they differ from dynamic microphones in how they achieve electromagnetic induction. While dynamic mics use a moving coil, a ribbon mic uses a thin metal ribbon suspended between two magnets. As sound passes over the ribbon, it vibrates, creating an electrical current.
Ribbon mics are generally described as sounding “warm,” “dark,” and with a real “vintage character.” Think Frank Sinatra’s vocal style (he was typically recorded using a ribbon microphone).
While there are about as many ribbon mic styles and details to cover another whole article, the biggest thing to remember about ribbon mics is that they cannot be supplied with phantom power, unlike their dynamic counterparts.
Phantom power can cause the ribbon element to stretch, or even destroy the element completely, costing you dearly for repairs.
With that being said, many modern ribbon microphone manufacturers have taken steps to avoid this problem. So if you do accidentally supply phantom power to a modern ribbon microphone you probably won’t have any problems (but it’s better to be safe than sorry).
Ribbon microphones almost always have a figure-eight polar pattern, due to the nature of the ribbon element design.
After being introduced to the world of microphones, it’s pretty clear that it’s not about which type is the absolute best.
Really it all comes down to what makes the most sense for your current application and budget. Dynamic microphones work great for almost anything, so it’s always a good idea to have a healthy supply around. They can also take a serious beating (Shure even posted a video of them dropping an SM58 off the roof of their office and it still worked fine).
While condensers are generally regarded as the “first choice” of studios everywhere, don’t be afraid to experiment with different microphones for different sources and applications. As with all things in music, there aren’t any true “rules,” just tried and true suggestions that can act as starting points for your own creative experiences.