When it comes to sound engineering, there are three main types of microphones that engineers will use.
While each type of microphone has its own benefits and drawbacks, they all have the same fundamental purpose, and that is to capture audio signals accurately.
The three most popular types of microphones are dynamic microphones, condenser microphones, and ribbon microphones. These three types differ in internal design, therefore will produce different recording results.
If working with live sound or recording, it is essential to know the difference between different microphone types and which microphone type to choose for your application.
Of course, there are more than three microphone types, but 90% of microphones on the market will generally fall under one of these three microphone types, therefore knowing about these three types of microphones alone will cover the vast majority of your sound engineering or recording applications.
In this article, I will cover the fundamentals of microphone types for sound engineers, covering:
- How does a microphone work?
- What are the 3 types of mic?
- What are the different microphones used for?
How Does A Microphone Work?
The operation of a microphone is surprisingly simple in design.
As the different microphone types differ in design and internal construction, it can help to have a basic idea of how a microphone works
A really thin piece of material called a diaphragm is suspended inside the microphone. The diaphragm vibrates when you project sound at it.
This diaphragm component is connected to a copper coil in a magnetic field.
When sound hits the diaphragm, the copper coil in the magnetic field moves, which induces a signal.
The vibration of the diaphragm is effectively converted to a signal by this copper coil and magnetic field combination, which can be amplified.
What Are The 3 Types Of Microphones?
The three types of microphones are the following:
- Dynamic Microphone
- Condenser Microphone
- Ribbon Microphone
There are other types of microphones, but these are the most popular and typically, the vast majority of microphones on the market will fall into one of these three categories.
The different microphone types have different audio qualities and therefore, each type will bring a different audio aesthetic to your recording and content production.
The major difference between these microphone types is that they differ in how they are designed and operate internally. This difference in physical design and construction adds different audio properties while recording.
1. Dynamic Microphone
With so many new designs and shapes of microphones these days, it’s difficult to identify a dynamic microphone without checking the manufacturer’s specifications.
There are some telltale signs, however.
First, they do not require an external power source to work. A dynamic microphone is plug-and-play.
Second, they can be quite heavy. I appreciate it is impossible to define “heavy”, however, because of the internal design of dynamic microphones, even the cheaper microphones will feel heavy compared to other types of microphones.
Third, they are typically cheap. Again, it is hard to define “cheap”, but you can buy a very good dynamic microphone for between $60-$100.
Dynamic Microphone Features
- The dynamic type is the least sensitive of the three main types of microphones. (Least sensitive in sound design terms means they won’t pick up every sound in the environment.)
- Often, dynamic microphones can be significantly cheaper because their internal mechanics & circuitry is less complicated. Don’t mistake their cheaper price for a lack of performance, however.
- Of all the microphone types, dynamic microphones are the most durable and robust. They usually use dynamic microphones in live stage performances, most often because of the amount of abuse they can take without breaking.
- We use dynamic microphones in the music world for loud instruments, like drum kits, as they can absorb the louder sound without causing internal damage.
2. Condenser Microphones
With so many new shapes and designs, again, it’s difficult to identify a condenser microphone immediately, and it is best to check the manufacturer’s specifications to ensure you are using a condenser microphone.
That said, there are some telltale signs which will quickly let you know you are working with a condenser microphone.
First, condenser microphones need an external power supply to operate.
Therefore, if you are purchasing or using a condenser microphone, you need to ensure that you have an external power source.
Most USB condenser microphones will take their operating power from the USB connection, however, condenser microphones with standard XLR connections will need a power supply.
If you use are using an audio interface or mixing desk with a condenser microphone, check that it has a “phantom power supply” on board. You may see a button with 48V next to it.
If you see “48V” on your audio interface or mixing desk, this means that the audio interface or mixing desk will supply power to the condenser microphone so it will operate.
If you don’t have a power supply option, you can buy an external power supply.
Finally, the most common way to identify condenser microphones is to look at the head.
With large diaphragm condenser microphones, it is sometimes possible to see the large diaphragm disc inside the housing. If you see a large disc inside the housing, you have a condenser microphone.
In the past, dynamic microphones were the cheaper option and condenser microphones were a more expensive choice, but this is no longer the case.
I think most professionals will agree that, on average, it is more difficult to get a great condenser for less than $130.
However, once you go above the $130 price range, the waters become muddy and using the price to identify a condenser microphone from a dynamic microphone is not useful.
Condenser Microphone Features
- The condenser type is most commonly used in the recording studio for higher-frequency instruments and vocal recording.
- Condenser microphones are superb for achieving clean vocal recording and are the go-to choice for recording professionals when recording vocals.
- Be aware that the large diaphragm condenser microphones, because of their excellent sensitivity, will pick up noise in the environment, therefore ensure you use high-end condenser microphones in a studio or quiet environment.
- Condenser microphones are wonderful at picking up detail and clarity in a recording.
- We should use condenser microphones with a shock mount as they are more sensitive to picking up sound. This is a suspension system within which the microphone is mounted to protect it from noise and vibration.
- Condenser microphones are comparatively more expensive than dynamic microphones and need more care when handling them, as they are less robust. If you drop one of these or put it in front of a loud sound, you will probably damage the internal mechanism.
- Condenser microphones, because of the internal circuitry, need external power from another source. This is called a phantom power and is typically 48V. Your audio card or audio interface will need to provide a 48V supply to your condenser microphone in order for it to work. You can buy an external 48V phantom power supply if needed.
- Many of the newer USB-powered condenser microphones will use USB power so there is no need for an independent power supply, but it is worth double-checking this to be 100% sure as models vary.
3. Ribbon Microphones
It can be very difficult to identify a ribbon microphone without checking the manufacturer’s specifications.
One key telltale sign of a ribbon microphone is that it is passive, in other words, it does not require an external power source to operate.
Ribbon Microphone Features
- The ribbon microphone is similar in operation to the dynamic microphone but has a very thin metal ribbon as part of the internal mechanical design, hence the name. Technically, they are a sub-division of the dynamic microphone.
- Of all the microphone types, ribbons are one of the most sensitive to sound.
- Being the most sensitive, ribbon microphones should be used for very quiet and controlled recording environments.
- Ribbon microphones are very fragile. They need to be handled with care, as the metal ribbon can be easily damaged.
- Ribbon microphones are recommended only for controlled studio environments or very controlled sound conditions.
What Are The Different Types Of Microphones Used For?
To get the most out of a microphone and pick the best one for your recording setup, live sound or content production, it helps to know what each microphone type is best suited for
The following table details a typical recording scenario and the most appropriate microphone type for the application.
|Live Sound||Dynamic Microphone|
Dynamic microphones are typically used for live performances as they will pick up the instrument and less background noise. They are also more durable, so can be thrown around a stage and still survive.
|Music Studio Performance||Dynamic Or Condenser Microphone||For studio musical instrument recording, the microphone type you use depends on the instruments and what you are trying to achieve. Dynamic or condenser microphones are good for guitars and higher-sounding instruments. For lower frequency instruments such as drums or bass, or powerful sounds, like a strong electric guitar, use a dynamic microphone, as they are more robust. Most condenser microphones will be easily damaged by the large volumes of air moved by drum and bass instruments. The internal structure is delicate and can break.|
|Vocal Recording (Studio)||Condenser Microphone||Condenser microphones are the natural choice for vocal recording because of the clarity they produce. For studio recording of vocals, this is always a great choice.|
|Drum Or Bass||Dynamic Microphone||To avoid breakage, use a dynamic microphone, as they are more durable. The internal design of a condenser microphone is delicate. The large volumes of air coming from the bass and drums will easily damage the internal structure of a condenser microphone.|
|Game Streaming||Dynamic Or Condenser Microphone||Although condenser microphones are great for clear vocal and speech recording, they can be very sensitive and pick up a lot of environmental and background noise. In a streamer environment where you are both narrating your game streams, but also making noise because of movement and controller sounds, a good quality dynamic microphone could be a better choice. You could get the clarity of vocals but less background environmental noise.|
|Audio Book Recording||Condenser Microphone||Speech clarity is fundamental in audiobook recording, therefore, using a large diaphragm condenser microphone will give you excellent results.|
|Podcast||Condenser Microphone||Condenser microphones are great for vocal recording. By design, they are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, therefore you can get greater clarity in the recording which is perfect for speech recording. Before committing to a large diaphragm condenser, ensure your recording environment is quiet, as the sensitivity of condenser mics, particularly the very expensive ones, will pick up a lot of environmental noise.|
There are three main microphone types: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon.
There are other types, but these are the most popular, and the vast majority of microphones on the market will fall into one of these three categories.
These three microphones differ mechanically in how they pick up sound. As a result, each type has advantages and disadvantages when applied to different recording or live sound scenarios.
Large diaphragm condenser microphones are very sensitive and are more prone to picking up the external background noise. Therefore, this microphone type is best suited to recording in a quiet room or studio environment.
Dynamic type microphones are more robust and durable than the condenser type and won’t pick up every detail or noise in the environment, hence why they are used for live performances or live sound applications.
When it comes to live sound, dynamic microphones are your friend it is great practice as a live sound engineer to get familiar with some of the most common dynamic microphones on the market, in particular the Sure SM58 or other microphones in the Shure range.
Once you understand how different microphone types work, you will appreciate which application they are best suited to, making you a great sound engineer.