What are Microphone Pickup Patterns? Understanding Directionality

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Written By Tanya

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Imagine the following scenario: A bluegrass band has four members. They want to record live with each member. You ask them to stand on the four corners of a square, facing each other, so that they can tap into each other’s energy.

To isolate each member of the band’s sound as best possible for mixing purposes, you should do close miking. They did it with a bang! The tracks are now available for solo play at the computer.

The switches on your mandolin microphone are now clicked to supercardioid. You must now admit to your error and ask the band to repeat it, but this time with less enthusiasm and energy.

You can call it whatever you like:

  • Pickup Patterns
  • Polar Patterns
  • Directionality

All of these terms mean the same thing, and you don’t need to be familiar with any one. However, the person you are talking to may use any of them at anytime. You now have a good understanding of the terms.

You will learn everything you need to know about microphone pickup patterns. Although this is not a difficult topic, there are some terms you may not be familiar with.

They all work together with different prefixes, so it won’t be difficult to remember any of them. Let’s first explain what each term is about. Then we’ll show you an example of each type. It will click, and you won’t forget it.

Directionality: What is Microphone Pickup Patterns and How Do They Work?

A microphone’s directionality refers to its ability to record in different directions. One microphone might be more sensitive to sound coming from the front than another. Another microphone might be more sensitive to sounds coming in from the back and front.

Some microphones can record sounds in equal volume from all directions. This can lead to a loss of quality in your recording.

There are three types of directionality that all pickup patterns can fall into, and they are:

  1. Unidirectional
  2. Bidirectional
  3. Omnidirectional

Don’t freak! You don’t have to panic! These prefixes come from Latin, and most likely you have at least two. Let me try to explain them.

Uni- means “one.” A unidirectional microphone records sounds in one direction (in front) so it can be used for recording sounds. Bi- means “two.” A bidirectional microphone can pick up sounds in two directions, but not always in the same direction. Omni is “all” or simply “every”. An omnidirectional microphone can record sounds in all directions at equal sensitivity.

All microphone patterns that use microphone pickups will fall under one of these categories. They will have different sensitivity so it is important for recording engineers to know the polar pattern graphs that correspond with each pattern.

Polar Patterns Show Microphone Pickup Patterns

Although polar patterns and directionality are both related concepts, a Polar Pattern is a visual pattern that gives more detail than the three Latin prefixes. It is a bird’s eye view polargraph, which shows 360 degrees of the circle and concentric circles around it.

The diaphragm’s sensitivity in this direction is stronger the further you move from the center. This was confusing. But, you can see the picture to understand what I mean. A typical cardioid polar pattern on a polar graph.

Above you can see a cardioid pattern that emanates from what appears to be a Shure dynamic microphone, the Shure SM58. The cardioid pattern is overlayed on a polar chart with concentric circles representing 5 decibels of sensitivity.

The dark black cardioid pattern reaches 0dB at zero degrees. This means that the microphone records no data if it is directly in front of it.

The microphone can still record sounds at 90° and 270°. However, the sensitivity of the microphone is lower at these angles and it decreases as you move closer to the mic. No sound will be recorded at 180 degrees (perfectly behind mic).

These are just a few examples to get you started. Four more common polar patterns.

I hope you now get it. If not, you have failed. We will continue regardless.

My view is that if you combine the notion of directionality with the specificity and polar patterns, then you get the final overview, which I call the pickup pattern.

These are the 6 Microphone Pickup Patterns

The various terms can be used to explain the same idea in different ways and at different levels of detail. While some will argue that these terms don’t actually have any real differences, I believe they help build the concept in an orderly fashion.

You will eventually be able to see and comprehend the entire three-dimensional graphics of pickup patterns by gradually introducing you to more detail.

You don’t have to show every pickup pattern or go into detail. However, you can list the most popular, as I have done in the table below.

Pickup PatternSymbol
Cardioid
Hypercardioid
Figure 8
Halfcardioid
Omnidirectional
Supercardioid

These symbols can be found on documentation or on the microphone’s casing. These symbols will help you identify the microphone’s pickup pattern.

Let’s now take a closer look at 3D pickup patterns images to better understand their function in real life. You can also understand the other patterns by reading the notes and uses.

CARDIOID

The origin of Cardioid is the same and it refers to the term “heart” to explain its shape on the Polar graph. They are unidirectional and most sensitive at the front, but they have a large “listening” angle that can accommodate vocalists or instrumentalists’ movements.

It does an excellent job in most environments, but it is especially effective in controlled acoustic environments.

Things to Know and Uses:

  • This pattern is used to capture one source located in front of the microphone. Ambient sounds should not be included in this signal.
  • This is the general use pickup pattern. It’s great for handheld mic’s and live performance as well as studio recording.
  • There are several types of cardioid pickup patterns available, including hypercardioid and halfcardioid.

FIGURE OF EIGHT

The figure of eight polar pattern is typically found only in large diaphragm condensers or ribbon microphones. It records sounds from the front and the back, but rejects sounds from the sides. It has a bidirectional directionality, so it is rarely used for studio recording.

You could use it to record two vocalists face-to-face, but it’s better to use two cardioids. This is a great option for live TV discussions where lapel microphones may cause problems.

Things to Know and Uses:

  • If you feel tempted to use one, try two cardioids isolated.
  • These are more useful in live situations than they are in the studio recording, but it is still a good idea to separate sources into your own mic’s.

OMNIDIRECTIONAL

Omnidirectional microphones can accept sound from all directions and don’t need to be pointed in any particular direction. It is easy to set it and forget about. These are great for choirs or groups in a recording studio.

They are monophonic rather than stereo. They are great for microphones on lapels that are very close to the source, but they can be annoying because they cannot be directed away from undesirable ambient noise.

Things to Know and Uses:

  • If the mic is not close enough to the source that gain can be reduced, feedback and other undesirable noises will likely sneak in from all directions.
  • These are great for recording ambient sound in a forest or in the middle of a football field. These are great for sound engineers working outside the studio.

SUPERCARDIOID

This pickup pattern is different from cardioid’s because it has a narrower focus of sensitivity. This means that the microphone will pick up sound from the background. If the sound comes from behind, they pick up less ambient sound.

Things to Know and Uses:

  • You can adjust the gain to deal with sound from behind. This will make the signal source in front louder than the ambience.
  • To avoid feedback from high gain situations like live performance, place your stage monitors and other sounds between 105° and 255° in the dead zone.

These examples should help you work through the remaining pickup patterns logically. There are some special cases that I’d like to highlight to you.

Mic Pickup Patterns Special Cases

You’ll encounter situations that are not easily incorporated into any of the three types or one pickup pattern. These are the situations you will most likely have to deal with.

VARIABLE DIRECTIONALITY

The best studio microphones have switches on the back which allow you to alter directionality or polar patterns. It is possible to switch between a cardioid and omnidirectional pattern. These are not recommended to be used in a studio setting.

A mic that is a jack-of all trades will not be the master of any, but a dedicated microphone will have the research and development to ensure it works under the conditions it was intended for.

These switches can be found on some video camera microphones to reduce your sensitivity when zooming. Some of these switches will adjust themselves as you zoom in on the source.

Stereo pairs and X-Y microphones will be used in your adventures. These microphones are cardioid and can capture one source, but also provide stereo spread.

This is great for acoustic guitars, pianos, and other instruments that serve as leads in a small mix. These microphones are designed to avoid phase issues, which can be a problem if you don’t have the right equipment.

PROXIMITY EFFECT

This is just a passing mention. For more information, please read our complete exploration of the microphone vicinity effect.

The proximity effect is a phenomenon that affects all cardioid-type pickup pattern types. The proximity effect is a phenomenon where the effect becomes stronger the closer the microphone is to the source.

This causes a greater sensitivity to bass frequencies. Although cardioid microphones are preferred for close micking, people often take this too literally without realizing it.

Radio personalities and vocalists will benefit from this effect by “eating” the microphone. This allows them to have a warmer, bassier tone to their voices. This is combined with heavy compression to create that “radio DJ” sound.

This is all she wrote about Microphone Pickup Patterns

You can understand microphone pickup patterns if you take the time to read carefully. You are now ready to handle any situation in the studio or live.

While it is important to know all terms and options, the reality is that you will be recording engineers in studios using a regular cardioid pattern in a unidirectional microphone. There may also be two or three in a stereo pair, or an XY pair.

You will have to deal with many other options as a sound engineer for television and movies on the live stage. You should be familiar with microphone pickup patterns to make sure you are able to take advantage of every job opening that presents itself and do a great job.

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