So you’ve decided you want to make music at home - great! Making music can be a lot of fun, especially when you’re experimenting with sounds yourself and the journey can be more fulfilling than the destination. One challenge a lot of new producers and engineers face, however, if that they’re not sure what tools are best for the sound they want to create. Maybe you’ve been inspired by someone else’s sound, or maybe you’ve got an idea in your head but you’re not sure how to create that sound. Generally when we’re making and creating sounds, we need a microphone to capture those sounds and different types of microphones
can do very different jobs of capturing or colouring a source.
With a little know-how and this handy guide, we’re going to run through the three most popular types of microphones (condenser, dynamic and ribbon) and their uses to make sure you can find the right microphone to capture the right sounds for your music! First off, let’s clarify some handy terminology around microphones
A pre-amplifier or pre-amp is part of your signal chain, and acts as some Gain control before the Mic Level signal is amplified to Line Level for recording. Most Audio Interfaces
feature a few pre-amps on board to allow you to control and tame signal for healthy recording, send the microphone Phantom Power (which we’ll discuss in a moment) if required or toggle the Phase of the signal.
Phantom Power refers to a little electric charge that some microphones require to operate. Care must be taken when using Phantom power as the little 48V charge can give a shock and will absolutely do some damage to yourself or your gear. Always make sure cables are ready and plugged in before turning the Phantom Power on or off, and ensure your speakers or headphones are muted as the power will create a ‘pop’ that can do more damage. Condenser mics always require phantom, and some manufacturers are now producing ‘Active’ Ribbon mics that require Phantom as well. Condensor mics often have extra option on board to change the polar pattern, EQ or gain of a mic and these options require power.
Most mics of quality will have an XLR output, and this just refers to the three-pin cable that connects microphones to your pre-amps or other bits of gear. Some microphones are available with USB or 1/4” jack outputs, but these are less common.
A mic cradle refers to a microphone holder that stops the microphone from moving around if bumped. This is especially helpful when a singer may be moving around and the vibrations won’t be heard in the recording. Cradles are made from plastic or metal and long strips of elastic to isolate the mic from the stand itself.
A pop filter helps remove ‘plosives’ and acts a second windshield to protect the diaphragm of the microphone from being shaken around by wind, speech or high impact sounds such as drums. These can rock the mic and create unpleasant sounds, particularly plosive sounds such as hard Ps, Ts, Ds or other harder sounds of speech.
- Polar Patterns -
Microphones record signal based on their polar pattern. The polar pattern is the shape that the microphone picks up sound around its diaphragm (that’s the bit that moves to create and then record an analogue signal). There’s three main shapes and some variations, but usually microphones will pick-up in either a Figure-8, Omni or Cardioid pattern. The Cardioid pattern is the most commonly used, as both dynamic and condenser microphones are capable of them, and looks something like a mushroom. The microphones picks up most of its signal in front of the mic and a little to the sides, making it a very ‘directional’ pattern (e.g. it mostly just hears the source it is pointed at). Cardioid can be exaggerated to either a Super-Cardioid or Hyper-Cardioid that are progressively extreme versions of the Cardioid pattern, able to pick up a little sound behind the mic.
Super Cardioid Pattern:
Hyper Cardioid Pattern:
Omni is the second polar pattern we’ll be discussing, and this refers to microphones that ‘hear’ in a full 360 degrees around the mic - i.e. they pick up signal from every direction. They can be great for a sound source as well as some ambience or as a ‘room’ mic (e.g. a microphone set up specifically to capture the room sound and reflections from walls etc.). Alternatively they can be a great one-mic solution to podcasting with a few guests sat around the mic.
Finally, Figure-8 is a polar pattern picks up sound equally from the front and back of the microphone, but rejects the sides, resulting in two bubbles that resemble an ‘8’. Figure 8 is very directional but care needs to be taking as you may capture more ambience than intended because of the polar pattern. Ribbon mics exclusively have a Figure-8 pattern.
Figure 8 Pattern:
- Microphone Types -
Dynamic microphones are some of the most widely used microphones for live shows, as well as for ’spot’ mics, or mics positioned very close to a sound source. They pick up sound very directionally, without much ambience, and often provide a fairly uncoloured signal that is very true to the source. They capture a fairly balanced signal but don’t always capture low frequencies due to their small size - the diaphragms simply can’t move enough to reproduce low frequencies. Due to their directional nature, their position in relation to a source can greatly impact the sound they capture - so experiment a lot!
Condensor mics are really hi-fidelity and generally capture a lot of detail - for better or worse. They can capture subtle nuance in a vocal or strings but can equally capture unpleasant sound such as air conditioner hum, footsteps or breathing. Their polar pattern is often switchable and commonly condenser mics include some extra options for gain and EQ even before the signal has hit your pre-amp. They capture high and low frequencies equally well, and some more expensive condensers are powered by tubes to provide warmth and colour from the mic itself. Some of the most famous, desirable and expensive mics of all time are condensers.
Ribbon microphones capture signal via an ultra-thin ribbon of aluminium that vibrates to create an electric charge and therefore analogue signal. Because of the super fragile nature of the ribbon, they can easily break with too much sound pressure or input, such as super loud guitar amplifiers or drums. The ribbon will also break instantly if fed Phantom Power, and because of the delicate nature of the ribbon itself and structure of the microphone, Ribbon mics are often expensive to buy and more expensive to fix. The trade off is a particularly dark and mid-focused sound that makes it perfect for record-ready room ambience, mid-focused instruments such as guitars and string sections.
There’s a few other types of mics such as Shotgun mics, often used for film and TV because of their directional nature. There’s Electret mics which are used in smartphones or intercoms but can create some really interesting, filtered sounds when used creatively. There’s also contact microphones that pick up sounds based on vibrations on a surface, and this is how drum triggers work!
So there you have it! A pretty comprehensive starting guide for microphones, but as always there’s a few leads to assist you in doing your own research. There’s as many mic recommendations as there are creative ways to use each type of mic. Some crafty use of non-conventional mics can create entirely new sounds, or assist you in nailing a recording that doesn’t need much treatment 'in the mix'.