If you are a musician, a podcaster or you own a home studio, you know that great gear is crucial to get the job done. When it comes to microphones, there are so many products on the market that it’s sometimes difficult to make the right choice. I’m sure that, in this article, you’ll find some food for thought.
A microphone is a transducer, which transforms acoustic energy into an electric signal. The signal travels through a balanced cable to a pre-amplifier and mixer. Here, the signal is sent to the amplifier and speakers, where it’s converted back into acoustic energy (sound). The technology behind microphones is fairly old, even if in recent times there has been an improvement regarding the materials used, which has translated into good quality yet affordable products.
Some microphones can now be connected to a computer via USB, telephone, or audio interface, thanks to a built-in AD/DA converter. As with every piece of gear, quality depends on a number of factors, such as the materials used and the manufacturing process. Below, I’ll outline the main differences between dynamic and condenser microphones.
This type of microphone has a capsule with a moving coil surrounded by a magnet. Its operation is based on electromagnetism. The polar pattern (the radius of action) of these microphones is directional. This means that the sound arriving at the front of the microphone is captured, while the sound coming from the back is (mostly) canceled out.
Dynamic microphones are quite sturdy and can tolerate high-pressure sounds, such as kick drums, snares, and stage instrument amplifiers. Thanks to the fact that their polar pattern helps in avoiding feedback, dynamic microphones are the best choice for live music performances.
If you are a singer, you can also take advantage of a particular feature of these microphones, called the proximity effect. When held very close to the mouth, low frequencies are boosted, giving your voice a full sound, even on low pitched passages. Famous models in this category include the iconic Shure SM58 (for vocals) and the SM57 (drums and guitars).
Up to about fifteen years ago, condenser microphones were expensive and mostly used only in a recording studio environment. Lately, there has been a rise in low priced condensers and, while the quality is not always the best, this has allowed most musicians, podcasters, and audio engineers to take advantage of their features, without having to spend a fortune.
A condenser microphone operates through a built-in capacitor, made of a diaphragm and a backplate with a voltage applied to them. With sound pressure, the distance between those two surfaces changes, causing a voltage change. To be able to work, they need a particular voltage (48V), fed through a dedicated mixing console switch.
These microphone can do wonders on vocals, delivering a clear sound, free from frequency coloring. You’ll need to be careful when handling them, as they are quite fragile. Most models feature a shock mount, which will secure them to the stand, avoiding unwanted frequencies coming from the surface where the stand is placed.
Their polar pattern can be omnidirectional, directional or figure-of-eight (front and back). One of the most famous models in this category is the Neumann U87. Another good quality, widely used condenser is the Røde NT2.
I Will choose a dynamic microphone if:
- I use the microphone in a noisy environment
- I will use the microphone for live music
- I like the proximity effect (for example: bass frequencies boost on vocals)
- I need a sturdy, resistant piece of gear
- I need to record drums or other instruments with a high output level
- I want to avoid feedback problems in studio recordings and live gigs
I will choose a condenser microphone if:
- I am a podcaster or a radio host
- I own a home studio and want to record nice, crispy clear vocals and guitars
- I use the microphone in a quiet, soundproofed environment
- I need a UBS microphone
- I need a specific polar pattern