Most people will only deal with three types microphones. These are the most common choices in broadcasting and recording situations.
Their main differences are in their diaphragms. This is the mechanism that responds to sound and converts it into an electrical signal. It can then be sent from a speaker, recorded on magnetic tape, or stored in a computer’s storage.
Each of these main types of diaphragm has a different level of sensitivity and tonal characteristics due to variations in their construction. Below I will explain how each performs. These three types of mics will help you make the best decisions for your specific needs.
You may also see or hear of other types of microphones, but you might never need them. They’re just sub-types with different pickup patterns so they won’t confuse you.
The 8 Types of Microphones
These are the three most important mic categories to remember and think about:
- Condenser Mics
- Dynamic Mics
- Ribbon Mics
These three categories are based on the type diaphragm that is used. They cover all sub-categories. While these are the main types, it is useful to include other types with unique applications. These are:
- Multi-Pattern Mics
- Bass Mics
- Shotgun Mics
- Boundary Mics
- USB Mics
You’ll also encounter lapel mics, which are similar to TV hosts who wear them clipped to their jackets. However, the majority of the types you’ll hear are the ones listed above. They can be further broken down and edge cases are also available. This is not enough.
The Three Main Types of Microphones
This article will help you to recall any information you have learned. You should remember dynamic, condenser and ribbon .
Let’s take a look at each one individually to understand why and when they are best.
Use when: recording vocals in a studio with low noise.
There are two types of condenser microphones: large diaphragm condenser microphones and small diaphragm mics. Based on their names, it’s easy to see the differences. Each shines in a unique application, which I’ll discuss below.
When recording in studio, condenser microphones are best suited for the job. This is because sound will not bounce off the walls and back into mics.
They are chosen because they can pick up more detail than other types and they are extremely sensitive. You should not have an ideal acoustic environment as they will record any unwanted noises.
They are also used for vocals, instruments such as acoustic guitar and violin, and any other signal that isn’t too loud or has subtleties that must be captured. If you expose them to excessive sound pressure levels (SPL), it can cause damage.
For vocals, large diaphragm microphones are best. Smaller diaphragm microphones (often called pencil mics because of their shape) are perfect for instruments that have a lot detail at the high frequencies like the guitar and violin.
You can limit your choice to large diaphragms and still do fine. However, this is what I do to keep my mic cabinet small and organized. If you’re looking for inspiration, we’ve already covered the top condenser microphones within a range of budgets.
Condenser microphones have two other interesting features. They contain vacuum tubes that can switch out to provide different amounts of warmth or saturation. To power their active electronics, they need 48 volts Phantom power. If you are interested, our article What Is Phantom Power? will explain more.
Some microphones can be powered by a battery, while others require a power supply. However, most microphone preamplifiers (which must be coupled with all microphones) are capable of sending phantom power up to the microphone cable.
When: On stage or in any noisy or live situation, recording guitar amplifiers and loud sound signals.
A dynamic microphone is best for recording vocals or instruments with a greater volume or amplitude. They can handle higher SPL without damaging or causing internal distortion.
They are less sensitive and therefore better suited for live situations such as a press conference or music concert. They will pick up less unwanted ambient noise.
These are great for recording loud vocals such as those of a rock or heavy metal singer or guitarist. A lot of rappers use dynamics to record their proximity effect, which gives a boost to bass when the mic is close to the instrument.
If you are interested in a wider range of options, we have previously reviewed our top picks for the most dynamic microphones within various budget ranges. Condensers and these are essential for every music studio.
The passive electronics of dynamic mics don’t need phantom power and are therefore non-reliant on phantom electricity. As you will often hear, they won’t be hurt if you accidentally feed them this power. However, you can certainly hurt the next type of animal if you do this.
When: when you are looking for a warm, vintage sound. These mics are fragile and costly, so they are very rare. Instead, opt for a condenser microphone.
Ribbon mic is the last of the three main types. The ribbon mic, unlike all other types of mics, is either dynamic or condenser. However, it’s a distinct category due to its unique diaphragm. It’s shaped like a long, thin ribbon, which I think you will be amazed at.
These mics were among the first available, and they are still very rare. They were loved for their ability to provide more detail than condenser microphones. However, they were fragile. They would be destroyed if the fragile ribbon was damaged.
Even today, an error like running 48v of Phantom Power to them could cause damage to the ribbon. They can be broken if dropped. These are not as durable and good as the alternatives.
The 5 Other Types Of Mics
These are either dynamic or condenser mics. However, they each get their own category due to their specific design. Although they are considered sub-categories, because they are designed for a specific purpose, it is not entirely accurate.
When: to record ambient sounds, bluegrass groups, vocal duets, or harmonies. A condenser or cardioid pickup pattern is better than a condenser.
Although you may not be aware of it, almost all microphones use the cardioid pickup (sometimes known as directionality). The cardioid pattern records all sound from the sides and front while rejecting any sound from behind.
This is obviously the best pickup pattern. We tend to record everything on its own track for later mixing purposes. There are other patterns you might want to use and multi-pattern microphones can help.
These can be switched to allow you to choose different patterns of pickup. These patterns include supercardioid and hypercardioid as well as figure-8, shotgun and omnidirectional. They allow you to choose whether you want to record in front or behind, in 360°, all around, or in a narrow laser focus pattern.
These will not be used for the majority of the time. Shotgun mics can be used to record voices of people, while Omnidirectional can be used for recording ambient sounds for television and film.
Although figure-8 patterns are sometimes suitable for stereo recording, I cannot imagine a situation where I would not prefer two mono tracks. They are not able to be aimed. Two sides are all you get, which is much less useful than two separate cardioid patterns mics.
Use: recording kickdrum, bass guitar cabinets and cello or any other deep frequency sounds or musical instrument. This is not for bass vocals.
Bass mics were designed to record instruments with extremely high frequencies. This could include a cello, kick drum, bass guitar, and so on. They are often called kick drum microphones but this is only one use.
Their frequency response is what makes them stand out. They are designed to capture nuance in the bass area but also have a low boost and a scoop in mids. Because bass instruments can sound boomy or muddy in small spaces, this scoop in the middle frequencies is important.
Use when: filming actors on sets for television or film, recording sound effects in field, and trying to capture any source from afar.
Two key features are found in shotgun mics. These mics are small diaphragm condensers with the shotgun pickup pattern. They reject sound from all directions, except for the narrowly focused area they are aiming at.
They also have an interference tube at their front which filters out more sound from the sides. They resemble shotgun barrels, which is how they got their names. This tube is still available because it accepts sound noises from the sides.
The best thing we can do is to hide the diaphragm behind the acoustic shield tub. It’s amazing and you can hear the vocal recordings on almost all TV and movie shows. These mics are long and fuzzy, so you’ll probably have seen them on set at one point.
Use when: Recording entire rooms such as a conference room or theater performance, a church choir, or a room microphone in the studio.
Boundary microphones are an anomaly. They exist for two reasons. Boundary mics don’t suffer from comb filters because they are right up against walls that reflect sound and cause comb filtering. Another reason is to record sounds in a whole room for convenience.
These are usually found in business conference rooms, at the centre of which everyone sits. Sometimes they can be found in theater auditoriums at the front of the stage for recording performances. You might also find them in studios as room mics, which can be used to provide more options for mixing.
Use When Recording Hobbyist Levels of Music, Podcasts, Audiobooks, YouTube Videos, etc. It is useful to quickly record music demos and ideas at home. Don’t expect superb quality.
The USB microphone is the last of all the types of microphones. Everyone laughed at these microphones when they first appeared in the middle of 2000. They were awful, but they were cheaply made to see if anyone wanted them. They turned out to be very useful and have improved in quality.
These are only for hobbyists who want to record music, podcast, or narrate audiobooks. These devices contain small preamplifiers and analogue-to-digital convertors. The USB cable then sends the digital signal to your computer so it can record the recording.
Although it’s a cheap way to record, you won’t be able to achieve the same quality as professional recording. You can skip the need to buy separate mic preamps and audio interfaces, which would have been much more expensive. It may not be the best choice for you, but it might be a good compromise between convenience and quality.
I felt I had to mention microphone preamplifiers. All mics require them, except for USB mics which do not need them, but contain one. The microphone audio signals are very low in amplitude so they need to be amplified.
You’ll also be generating a lot of background noise if you do this using the volume knob. Preamps can boost the signal but not increase the noise floor. Preamps are essential if you want professional quality recordings.
These are the 8 types of Mics!
Recall that if you only remember condenser microphones and dynamic microphones and their purpose, then you are well-equipped to make informed decisions about when and how to use them. Ribbon mics, which are the third most common type, are so rare you might forget about them.
Other types of microphones can be sub-categories, but they are discussed separately because they are created for specific purposes. You can easily identify them by their names so don’t worry about it. When you hear their names, you’ll be able to remember where they are. Have fun and enjoy recording!