Coming into the studio for the first time? Been in the studio before, but you’re not sure what the engineer is up to? Starting to record stuff independently and need help with microphones? Look no further! This is all you need to know about different microphones and their different uses.
There are more microphones than just your average SM58 that you see vocalists use to scream into onstage at a gig down your local. There are three main types of microphones: Ribbon, Dynamic, Condenser. These all split into different polar patterns: Cardioid, Super-Cardioid, Omni-Directional and Figure 8. Each of these mics split into hundreds of different models, and created by many different companies, some familiar such as Sennheiser and AKG.
The microphone places a crucial part in capturing real-time sound waves as it is the first element in the signal part. All good recording engineers will understand characteristics of the different types of microphones and how each one works, and what is better for particular purposes.
What is a Dynamic Mic?
A dynamic microphone is the most commonly used microphone as they can have use for many things. They have a simple operation and the use of dynamic mics are popular in the studio. They are cheap compared to capacitor mics, and you often can get more use out of them for more than one instrument. For example, an SM57 will work great whilst on guitar cabs, and it will also work just as well on a snare drum on the drum kit.
It has a cardioid polar pattern, meaning that it is best picking up sounds from a specific sound source. They typically don’t pick up frequencies just under 20kHz, meaning that they can’t pick up specific higher harmonics of an acoustic guitar, for example. Which of course, this doesn’t always matter for a typical recording. However, you may want to use a different type if you’re looking to capture everything.
Dynamic mics are your trustworthy friend. You can take them anywhere and they will get you through hard days. Always there, always loyal, always durable.
What is a Condenser/Capacitor Mic?
Condenser microphones have a high frequency and transient response, making them very capable at capturing and reproducing the speed of an instrument or a voice. This would make the resultant audio signal better than that of a dynamic mic. They work by using a capacitor to convert acoustical energy
into electrical energy. That’s why they are sometimes known as capacitor mics. They require phantom power to operate.
They are very light in weight, making them more able to allow the sound waves to travel with little resistance. They are extremely sensitive and pick up a wide range of frequencies. They also have a great transient response, making them capable of picking up all bursts of noise. They can be used on anything, however are extremely expensive and all “cheap” condenser mics will leave your recording with unwanted noise and offer a lower sound quality.
The condenser microphone is like the dynamic microphones richer, fancier, cooler older sibling that has a good job and a nice house with a Ferrari sitting outside.
What is a Ribbon Mic?
A ribbon microphone is a type of pressure gradient microphone and was initially an industry standard for recording and broadcast from 1920 – 1950s and are a defining factor in the recordings from that era of music. Therefore, if you desire a more “retro” sound then the producer will tend to use these for a more “coloured” sound. They emphasise the warm low-mid frequencies and gradually roll off at the top end frequencies. This is what gives them a “dull” sound when compared to capacitor microphones. The frequency response tends to be flat in the lower midrange because of the lack of resonances in the elements within the microphone.
They are bi-directional, giving them a “figure 8” pattern. Used in radio interviews as they could pick up both sides of the conversation and the side of the mic was used to block out unwanted noise from surroundings. They are also perfect in mic'ing guitar cabs. Combing a ribbon with a generic SM57 on your guitar amp helps to provide a richer sound and will enhance the sonic image of your guitar amp, thus improving your guitar sound in the recording. Your ribbon mic will pick up your low frequencies, whilst the 57 will deal with the highs. A ribbon will also work well on your acoustic guitar. If you aim it at your fret board on the 12th about 6 inches away, and use another one for the body, your guitar will sound great!
Ribbon mics are said to “hear like your ears”, which isn’t entirely true however these are used if you want your recording to sound entirely natural, as you would hear it in real life.