Let’s Talk Microphones

With so many choices available these days, choosing the right microphone for your recording or live sound needs can be challenging.  How do you know which mic will best suit YOUR needs?  Well, let’s begin with breaking down the different types of microphones that are available and what they’re used for.

Microphone Types and Uses


Dynamic Microphone:   Most commonly used for live sound and known for its durability.  It’s also the best choice for the high volume levels of bass guitar, bass drums and amplifiers.  For optimal performance, this mic should not be placed any more than one foot away from the sound source.  Otherwise, the result could be a thin sound with less color and clarity.  A couple of popular dynamic microphone choices are the Shure SM57, which is appropriate for miking pretty much any sound or instrument you can throw at it, and the Shure SM58, which contains a wind screen that makes it a great choice for vocals.

Condenser Microphone:  Most commonly used for recording lead vocal tracks, acoustic guitars, pianos, and live strings, the condenser is known for its ability to capture the smaller nuances of sound.  It has a very quick, accurate response as well as a clarity that cannot be achieved by other types of microphones.  While not as rugged as a dynamic, this mic is capable of capturing a broader range of frequencies from a greater distance than any other type.  Popular condenser microphones include:  Shure’s Beta series and the M-Audio Nova.

Ribbon Microphone:   Known as the most fragile of the different microphone types, some sound engineers are hesitant to utilize this mic in any live setting for fear of damaging it.  Despite its lack of ruggedness, most engineers agree that the effects and quality of sound from a ribbon microphone are superior to any other type.  Similar to a dynamic, these mics tend to enhance the higher frequencies of the sound and perform best when placed within close proximity of the sound source.

As you can probably tell, dynamic and condenser mics are the most common and will likely be what you and/or your engineer are working with.

Now, an important part of choosing the right microphone is considering its directionality, or pick-up pattern.  Have you ever noticed when singing or speaking into the side of a mic, rather than the front, your volume will often decrease?  That is because the front of that microphone has more pick-up capabilities than the side.  Understanding the various pick-up patterns can help you to not only maintain a good volume, but also to avoid picking up unwanted noises that might be present in the room.

Microphone Pick-Up Patterns


Here are some of the most common microphone pick-up patterns:

Description: pick-up patterns

Cardioid — Named for its heart-shaped pattern, this design is optimal for picking up sound in the front of the microphone.  The sides will usually be at about half strength and only one-tenth strength at the back.  This is actually very useful, as all you need to do to reject unwanted sound is have the back of the microphone facing the source of what you do not want to pick up.  This pattern is used for most vocal or speech situations.

Omnidirectional — Gives the mic the same pick-up strength from all angles.  This can be great if you are trying to capture all of the intricate nuances of sound in a room, but can be very difficult to control and is susceptible to feedback.

Supercardioid — Has slightly less strength in the front than a cardioid, with some pick-up capability at the rear.  Sound rejection on the sides is better than with a cardioid.

Hypercardioid — With an even narrower pick-up pattern than a supercardioid, and a stronger pick-up in the rear, this type is more likely to be found in a recording studio than on a stage.  As with the omnidirectional pattern, hypercardioids can make it difficult to prevent sound bleeding and feedback.

Some higher-end microphone models allow you the option to select your desired pick-up pattern, which can be quite useful.  Examples of these types of microphones are:  Shure KSM44A and KSM9.

An excellent resource for learning about microphones and microphone technique is the Hal Leonard Recording Method Book/DVD Volume 1 – Microphones & Mixers