Picking A Microphone For Recording (What to know)

Picking a microphone for recording or any live sound application can be daunting if you are new to the world of microphones. There are different microphone types, designed for different live sound and recording situations, and it is important to understand some basics in order to pick the right microphone for your situation.

When choosing a microphone for recording audio, there are three key factors you should consider: What sounds will you be recording? Where will you be recording? Where will you position the microphone?   

Considering these three points will really help you narrow your microphone options and help you pick the right microphone for your recording or application.

Besides the above, it is important to consider the sound quality, frequency response, and polar pattern of the microphone itself, which you can find in the microphone manual or technical specifications.

In this article, I will share my experience of how to pick a microphone and ensure it is the right choice for your application, covering:

  • How do I pick a microphone for recording?
  • What is the best microphone placement for recording?
  • What is the best type of microphone for recording?

How Do I Pick A Microphone For Recording?

Picking a microphone is a tricky task for those who are new to the world of microphones. Many people may not realise that there are many microphone types (3 main microphone types) and different microphones will suit certain recording applications.

From my experience, I have found that it helps to ask yourself the following questions when picking a microphone for your application:

  1. What sounds will you be recording? 
  2. Where will you be recording?  
  3. Where will you place the microphone?   

To pick the right microphone, it is important to appreciate the sounds you are recording and the environment in which you will be recording.

What Sounds Will You Be Recording?

Different microphone types have strengths and weaknesses depending on what sounds you will be recording.

For example, if you are recording speech, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone is the best choice.

If you are recording low and powerful musical instruments, such as drum and bass, a dynamic microphone is the best choice. 

As a general rule, there are three main microphone types: a condenser microphone, a dynamic microphone and a ribbon microphone. There are more types of microphones but the vast majority of microphones on the market will fall into one of these three microphone types.

These microphone types differ in how they pick up sound.

Matching what you will record with the right microphone type is really important. 

Below is a quick reference guide that will help match microphone types with the recording situations.

ApplicationMicrophone TypeComments
PodcastingCondenser (Large Diaphragm) or DynamicLarge-diaphragm condenser microphones are great for vocal recordings, both singing and speech. The large-diaphragm design picks up wonderful detail and produces a recording with great clarity and brightness. These are audio qualities that are very desirable for vocal recordings. If you are producing a podcast in a noisy studio or “round table” setting, it may be worth exploring some of the dynamic microphones on the market that are designed for podcasting. Dynamic microphones are less sensitive than condenser microphones and therefore will pick up less noise. This can be a good thing if you have a studio full of people, drinking tea and shuffling papers.
Audio BooksCondenser (Large Diaphragm)To get clear speech recordings, a large condenser microphone is always a great option.
Game StreamingDynamic or CondenserIn a game streaming situation, either a dynamic or condenser microphone will work well. Dynamic microphones can be a better choice for some game streamers as they will pick up less room noise, such as clicks from your game controller or movement. You still want to capture clear vocals, so if you select a dynamic microphone as a game streamer, ensure it is recommended for vocals and check the specifications.
Musical Instrument Live PerformanceDynamic All live performances are recorded on dynamic microphones as they pick up less environmental noise compared to a condenser microphone. 
Vocal Recording [Studio]CondenserFor studio-based vocal or speech recordings, condenser microphones are always a great choice. With this microphone type, you will get brightness and clarity in your vocal or speech recording. 

To learn more about the three main microphone types, namely condenser, dynamic and ribbon microphone and explore in more detail why different types have different recording properties, I have covered this in greater detail in this article, “What Are The 3 Types Of Mic? (Microphone types explained)”

Where Will You Be Recording?

Considering your recording environment before investing in a microphone can dramatically improve your recording quality and experience.

I know it can be really tempting to be seduced by online user reviews and beautifully designed microphones but it is important to remember that every microphone has strengths and weaknesses in certain recording environments.

The right microphone matched to the right recording environment will give you the best recording with minimal interference and external noise.

How To Evaluate Your Environment Before Picking A Microphone

The three key areas to consider in your recording setup when choosing a microphone are: 

  1. Identify Potential Noise Sources
  2. Evaluate Room Acoustics
  3. Consider Location Recording

1. Identify Potential Noise Sources

The golden rule when recording audio is to avoid noise at all costs. Once you get “noise” on a recording or vocal take, it can be really difficult to remove it. 

As many content creators, from podcasters to YouTubers, use their homes as their studios, noise could be everyday sounds that you just don’t hear, as they are always present.

For example, potential noise sources in your home recording studio could be the low hum of your central heating or the high frequency of a neighbour drilling in their garden shed or just the consistent fan noise from your PC. There is noise everywhere. 

By listening to your environment and considering what noise you need to filter out, you can pick a well-suited microphone for your needs. 

For many engineers, recording vocals is their main focus.

Typically, large-diaphragm condenser microphones are the best for recording vocals, speech or singing, as they produce wonderful clarity in vocal recording.

A microphone in the £100 to £200 price range is great for home DIY content creation in untreated recording studios.

So many sound engineers and musicians equate the cost of a microphone with quality. Of course, you often get what you pay for, but with microphones, more expensive does not mean better.

Here is an example from my experience of how a really expensive microphone was the wrong pick for my recording environment.

During the pandemic, when most of the world was working from home and in “lockdown”, I used a Neumann U-87 in my home recording studio for a vocal recording.

The Neumann U-87 is one of the best microphones in the world for vocal recording and is found in all the top studios across the world. It costs around £2000.

This amazing microphone picked up every hum and buzz in my untreated home studio.

I would have had a better day recording if I had chosen one of the cheaper microphones that were less sensitive. (With microphones, the sensitivity means how well they pick up sound)

Such high-end microphones are best suited to quiet recording studio environments as they are often too sensitive to use efficiently outside of a professional quiet studio.

In this example, picking a cheaper and less sensitive microphone would have produced a much better result.

It is important to identify all sources of noise in your recording environment and ensure that your microphone will handle noise well.

2. Evaluate Room Acoustics

Evaluating the acoustic ambience of your recording environment can help you get a better recording.

If you are recording indoors, there is a lot of basic acoustic treatment you can use to help improve the quality of your recordings. 

Some tools you can use are vocal shields, pop shields and acoustic foam to help improve the quality of your recording, therefore, it may be worth factoring the cost of these extras into your microphone purchase.

There is still a lot of debate among us technical acoustic folk as to how effective vocal shields and acoustic foam are in helping the home studio recording engineer. However, if used correctly, you can make an improvement.

It is all about using the right tool for the job. 

3. Consider Location Recording (Outdoor Recording)

So much recording is done outside because of the massive surge in content creators on location. This introduces a new level of technicality to your recording.

If you are outdoor recording, you need to purchase a microphone suited to an outdoor windy environment and factor microphone windshield accessory costs into your price.

A directional or shotgun microphone often works best in outdoor situations as you point the microphone at the sound source and most of the surrounding noise is ignored or reduced. 

What Is The Best Microphone Placement For Recording?

Every microphone has an optimum position for recording. If placed in the optimum position, a microphone will pick up the most sound. 

Every well-manufactured microphone will come with a “polar pattern” diagram. 

A microphone polar pattern shows you the optimum recording position for your microphone, i.e. how to position the microphone so that it will pick up the most sound.

When you shop for a microphone, look out for this pattern. It will be written on the microphone box or in the technical manual of the microphone.

Here are some examples of polar patterns and their corresponding names.

Image Via Shure Microphones

The black solid line on the image above shows the region within which your microphone will pick up the most sound.

You can find out the polar pattern for your microphone by looking at its datasheet.

Let me explain via an example:

Let’s assume you are recording an around-the-table podcast. In this situation, you would place your microphone in the middle of a table and everyone would sit around in a circle.

Image Via Intricon Pte Ltd.

In this situation, you need a microphone with an omnidirectional polar pattern, as it can pick up sound sources from all around the microphone. Some microphones have more than one pattern.

Always ensure you physically look at the microphone, as some microphones are capable of multiple recording positions and have switches to switch between patterns for optimum recording positioning. 

What Is The Best Type Of Microphone For Recording?

The best type of microphone for recording depends on what kind of project you’re working on. If you’re recording vocals or acoustic instruments in a studio setting, then a condenser mic is your best bet. On the other hand, if you’re looking to record drums in a live setting, then a dynamic mic might be more appropriate.

As a general rule of thumb, condenser microphones are best for vocals and high-frequency musical instruments and dynamic microphones are best suited for loud instruments and live recording environments with lots of noise.

Final Thoughts

When choosing a microphone for your content recording, it will help to consider,

  1. What you will record
  2. Where you will record  
  3. Where you will place the microphone

When choosing your microphone, always consider your recording environment and application.

Consider any external noise that you need to filter out. For example, the sound of your PC fan in the studio or wind noise when recording outdoors.

Picking your microphone for your recording environment will really help you create better-quality recordings.

When buying a microphone, be sure to check out the datasheet and look out for the “polar pattern” to ensure you position your microphone correctly for optimum sound recording quality.

The polar pattern tells you the optimum position from which your microphone will pick up the most sound. 

Happy recording!

Engineer Your Sound

We love all things audio, from speaker design, acoustics to digital signal processing. If it makes noise, we are passionate about it.

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