Not Every Microphone's a Hammer
What you need to know about dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones.
What do I mean by not every microphone's a hammer? It's mainly a spin on the title of a book I read by Adam Savage called Every Tool's a Hammer. Great book. I would definitely recommend reading it. But I also believe this title perfectly represents how we should view microphones.
In extremely simple terms, a hammer is a tool used to drive nails into wood. As we know, hammers come in all shapes and sizes but they all accomplish the same task using the same method. A microphone is just a tool we use to capture sound. Similar to our hammer example; microphones also come in all shapes and sizes. Although, while all microphones accomplish the same task, the method by which they do so can vary greatly. Thoughtful consideration needs to go into choosing the right microphone for each specific job.
Consider these questions as you read through this article: Why use one type of microphone over another? How does a microphone have a sound of it's own? Is the microphone I'm currently using the right choice for the job?
In this article, I'll be discussing the three different types of microphones, some of their main uses, and a few pros and cons of each. Let's first start with the basics.
What is a Microphone?
A microphone is a transducer. A transducer is a device that converts one form of energy to another. A microphone converts sound waves (sound energy) into an electrical signal (electrical energy). This electrical signal can then be manipulated by what we call analog gear, such as a mixing console, or it can be converted once again into binary data that can be understood and manipulated by computers. This binary data is then converted back to an electrical signal that can be transformed by a speaker into sound waves.
All microphones are designed to perform this "basic" function, but the method by which they do so is not always the same. This is where we get our three different microphone types: dynamic, condenser and ribbon.
Considered to be the most common microphone type; the dynamic mic is a well-rounded tool that's perfect for the majority of circumstances. They're affordable, reliable, and work well on loud sources and in noisy environments.
Most dynamic mics are extremely durable and can sometimes be used as a literal hammer. Though definitely not recommended.
A dynamic mic captures sound via a "moving coil" architecture. Inside the capsule, there's a fixed magnet surrounded by a metal coil. Sound pressure forces the metal coil to move around the magnet causing electromagnetic induction, which generates an electrical signal. There's a great explanation of how this design functions over at Teach Me Audio. Click HERE to learn more.
Dynamic mics are commonly used during live performances and in studio environments. I often recommend that podcasters use a dynamic mic if their recording environment suffers from unwanted noise problems. They offer great noise rejection properties due to their low sensitivity and directionality. Dynamic mics can lack in clarity compared to most condensers and ribbons. If you're looking to capture a really clean and open sound, I would avoid a dynamic.
Can handle high sound pressure levels
Passive (no power needed to function)
Great noise rejection
Limited frequency ranges
Require a significant amount of gain
Audio Engineers will drool over a nice condenser mic. The majority of condenser mics are found in studios, but there are a few variations that make there way into live events. These microphones are extremely sensitive and often very expensive, which is why they're not ideal for most live environments.
To keep things simple; a condenser mic captures sound by using two electrically charged plates. One plate is fixed at the rear of the capsule, while the other plate, also known as the diaphragm, is suspended in the front of the capsule. There is a slight gap between the two plates. Sound waves push the diaphragm closer to the back plate. The space alteration between the plates is converted into an electrical signal. There's a great explanation of how condenser microphones work over at Neumann's website. Click HERE to learn more.
Condenser mics need power to operate. The electrical current needed to charge the plates in the capsule is called Phantom Power, which is displayed as +48V on audio interfaces and consoles. Some condensers may also run on an internal battery or some other external power source.
Large diaphragm condenser mics can be built with a solid state or tube infrastructure. Tube condensers are more expensive, require occasional maintenance and generally have a "warmer" tone compared to solid state condensers.
Clear, bright and open sound
Wide frequency ranges
Can be extremely small/compact
Easily captures depth or dynamics in a performance
Quality condenser mics are expensive
Extremely sensitive - Easily captures room noise and other unwanted noises
Not as durable as dynamic mics
Usually unable to handle high sound pressure levels
Active (requires power to function)
I've listed below the different forms of condenser microphones commonly used today.
Large Diaphragm condenser mics are typically found in recording studios. Some of the most expensive microphones are large diaphragm condensers. Most commonly used for recording vocals.
Small Diaphragm condenser mics, such as the Neumann KM184, are frequently used as overhead mics on drums. They're also great on stringed instruments like acoustic guitar. The frequency range on these mics are typically not as broad as a large diaphragm condenser would be, which is why it's a less ideal choice for recording vocals but great on certain instruments.
Shotgun microphones are commonly used in the film industry. This is what you'd find on the end of a boom pole. They're extremely directional and offer great noise rejection properties by using phase cancellation. The length of the mic determines how directional it will be. You won't find many shotgun mics in a recording studio. It's definitely a go-to mic if you're recording outside or at a distance. Add on the fluffy windshield for even more isolation.
Lavalier or lapel microphones are commonly used during interviews. They're fairly small condensers that can be easily hidden. They usually come with clips to attach on clothing or they can be taped to surfaces. The sound quality of these microphones is not always the best. It can also take some time to setup properly since it's being attached to a person in some form.
Headset microphones are similar to lavaliers, except they are built onto an earpiece frame. If you've ever watched a TED Talk, you've definitely seen a headset condenser in use. They're perfect for public speaking but less desirable for most singers outside of a theater/broadway environment.
Ribbon microphones have been around for almost a century now, but it's rare to find this style of microphone anywhere outside of a studio.
This type of microphone gets it's name from the extremely thin piece of metal that's suspended in a magnetic field inside the capsule. This metal ribbon functions similarly to the moving coil of a dynamic mic. Sound waves move the ribbon within the magnetic field, thus causing electromagnetic induction. Sweetwater has a great article about ribbon mics and how they function that can be found HERE.
Early ribbon microphones were extremely fragile due to the design and materials used for the ribbon. If you exposed the mic to high levels of sound or a direct blast of air from a singer, the ribbon could stretch or even break entirely. While ribbon mics built today are much more durable, I would still be cautious; they're extremely expensive to repair.
Until recently, ribbon mics were passive just like dynamic mics. Now there are active ribbon mics that require phantom power similar to a condenser. Some passive ribbon mics can be damaged by phantom power, so it's important to know exactly what model of ribbon you're using.
Ribbon mics are great for recording electric guitar cabinets, horn and string instruments and occasionally vocals.
Described as sounding natural and smooth
Captures a detailed sound without being oversensitive
Often adds less color than a dynamic or condenser
Can be active or passive (model dependent)
Ribbon mics are expensive
Can be fragile
Usually unable to handle high sound pressure levels
Passive ribbon mics require a significant amount of gain
There are a countless number of different microphones available that fall under one of these three categories. It's important to understand the basics of each type to determine which would work best for you and the source you're trying to record.
If you learned something new or found an idea particularly helpful, please like and share this post. Let me know in the comments below what your favorite microphone is.
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- Sterling Skye
Resources and Additional Learning Materials:
“Microphone.” Tech Terms, 5 June 2013, https://techterms.com/definition/microphone.
“Dynamic Microphone.” Teach Me Audio, 2 May 2020, www.teachmeaudio.com/recording/microphones/dynamic-microphone.
“Condenser Microphone.” Teach Me Audio, 26 Apr. 2020, www.teachmeaudio.com/recording/microphones/condenser-microphone.
“Microphone Basics (2) - What Is a Condenser Microphone?” Microphone Basics: What's a Condenser Microphone?, www.neumann.com/homestudio/en/what-is-a-condenser-microphone.
“Ribbon Mics - How They Work and When to Use Them.” InSync, Sweetwater, 21 May 2020, www.sweetwater.com/insync/ribbon-microphones-how-do-they-work/.
"Guide to the Different Types of Microphones." Beginner Guitar HQ, 22 Mar. 2021, https://beginnerguitarhq.com/types-of-microphones/.