This is a guest post by Tiki Horea.
Are you trying to find the right type of microphone for your home studio?
If so, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed with all the choices out there. There are hundreds of different types of microphones on the market, and they all vary widely in price and features.
When I started recording my own music, I didn’t know anything about microphones. I didn’t know what the 3 types of microphones were, or what made one type desirable over another. They all looked good, but I wasn’t sure which mic was best for my home studio.
I want to spare you the hassle of having to wade through tons of irrelevant information just to find out which microphone is best for you. That’s why I put together this article, which will teach you only the essential things you need to know about microphones, so you can make the right purchasing decision.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- what the 3 types of microphones are – so you can discover which one is best for your specific recording needs
- what polar patterns are and which one will help you achieve a more professional sound in your home studio
- the pros and cons of the different types of mics and polar patterns – so you can learn which options will work best for each recording situation you encounter
To skip straight to my product recommendations, click here.
The 3 types of microphones
When you’re cleaning your house, you use different cleaners for different surfaces. Some are tailored for your floors, others for the windows, while others are for your clothes.
The same concept applies to recording: different types of microphones work best for different jobs. Knowing the differences between the types of microphones will help you determine which will work best for each specific recording scenario you encounter. Using the right mic will help you make recordings that sound more professional.
There are 3 types of microphones that all home studio owners need to know about. All 3 are useful, but each works best in different situations.
These microphones feature a diaphragm suspended inside a capsule that moves as sound hits it. As the diaphragm moves, the changing distance between the diaphragm and the other side of the capsule is converted into an electrical current.
Condenser microphones capture sound with more fidelity (detail, high-frequency energy) than the other two types of mics. The resulting recordings have lots of detail and texture, so these microphones tend to be the best choice for vocals.
Condenser mics are more expensive than dynamic mics and are less suitable for recording loud sounds up close. This type of microphone requires external power (called “phantom power”), which most audio interfaces can supply.
- They pick up the fullest range of frequencies, so you end up with recordings that sound true-to-life.
Affordable, so they won’t stress your budget too much.
- They can’t handle very loud sounds, which makes them less-than-ideal for recording drums up close.
- Somewhat fragile, so they need to be handled with care.
- High end can be harsh in some models, so if your voice is bright or edgy, these mics may not be the best choice for you.
As sound enters a dynamic microphone, a diaphragm vibrates and bounces a coil fixed in a magnetic field. This creates an electrical current that varies according to the sound hitting the mic.
Dynamic microphones are not as sensitive to loud sounds and low and high frequencies as condensers are. The sound they pick up is more “colored” — meaning it sounds different from the way it naturally occurs in the room. Their lack of sensitivity to loud sounds makes them a great choice for anything you might record in your home studio — even drums.
Dynamic mics are built to last. They can survive being dropped out of a helicopter, smacked by drumsticks and thrown into the audience at gigs. They’re also cheaper than the other two types of mics.
- They can capture loud sounds without distorting, which makes them great for loud rock vocals, electric guitars, or close mics for drums.
- It’s hard to break them, so they won’t fall apart when your drummer accidentally hits them with his sticks.
- They’re more affordable than condenser mics, which makes them a great choice as your first microphone.
- They don’t pick up low and high frequencies well, so they won’t capture all the nuances of a vocal or acoustic guitar.
- They don’t pick up all the characteristics of sound as evenly as condensers do. This means the recordings don’t sound as true-to-life as those made by condensers.
The heart of this type of microphone is a thin metal sheet called a ribbon. When sound waves hit this ribbon, it vibrates and produces an electrical current. The current is then picked up by contacts at the end of the ribbon. This type of microphone has been around for close to 100 years.
Almost every ribbon mic has a figure-8 polar pattern. This means it picks up sound evenly from both the front and back of the mic (more on polar patterns later).
Ribbon mics require an audio interface with quality preamps, since the microphone’s output is very quiet and needs to be boosted significantly. If you have a cheaper audio interface with low-quality preamps, recordings made with a ribbon mic will likely end up with lots of distracting hiss and noise in them.
Ribbon microphones are known for being very fragile and expensive. Some older models can be broken if you blow on them too hard. Yikes.
Don’t buy a ribbon microphone as the first mic for your home studio. You’ll be paying a lot of money for a very fragile, expensive tool that won’t give you the results you’re looking for.
Here’s the same recording above with the high end boosted.
In the following example, the singer moves from the front of the mic to the side and then returns to the front. You can clearly hear the movement through the microphone’s polar pattern. This recording makes it clear how much the sides of a ribbon mic reject sound.
- Warm sound, which makes ribbons great for whenever you want “vintage” sounding recordings.
- High end is smooth and buttery, which means they’re ideal for recording harsh instruments like violins and trumpets.
- They look really cool, which can impress some clients and maybe your girlfriend.
- They can’t withstand loud sounds.
- Very, very fragile.
- Older models break if you accidentally apply phantom power to them.
USB mics: These are technically condenser mics with an audio interface built in. All you need is a USB cable to connect them to your computer. This type of microphone is great if you don’t have an audio interface and want a quick and easy way to record.
What do these mics sound like?
I recorded the same performance with all 3 types of microphones to show you how they each color and change the sound. This way, you can better understand the sonic differences between them. Understanding these differences will help you choose the right mic when you’re recording, so you can capture tracks that sound more professional.
For your convenience, here are all 4 audio examples again:
The microphones I used for these examples were:
- Bock 251 on the cardioid setting for the condenser microphone
- Sennheiser MD 441 for the dynamic microphone
- Cascade Fat Head for the ribbon microphone
The condenser picks up all the subtle nuances in the singer’s vocals. The high end is bright and present. All the mouth noises are clearly audible. You can even hear she had a slight cold. You can also hear the room tone.
The dynamic captures less detail than the condenser does. There is less
The ribbon picks up the least amount of
Microphones don’t pick up sound evenly from all directions. They hear things differently, depending on which direction a sound is coming from.
A microphone’s polar pattern determines how the sound the microphone picks up changes, depending on which direction it’s coming from. There are 3 main types of polar patterns. Polar patterns are also called “pickup patterns”.
Cardioid: mics with a cardioid polar pattern ‘hear’ mostly what happens in front of them. They do not pick up much sound from the sides and back of the mic.
This pattern is useful when you’re recording close to a computer. You can face the back of the mic towards the computer so the mic won’t pick up noise from the computer’s fan.
Bi-directional (figure-8): this polar pattern will pick up everything from the front and back of the mic, but reject sound coming from the sides. Ribbon microphones naturally feature this polar pattern.
This pickup pattern isn’t all that useful for most home studio owners.
One use case: recording two singers at the same time. However, if you do so, you can’t mix them independently later on.
Omnidirectional: microphones featuring this polar pattern capture sound equally from all directions. They capture the room tone alongside whatever you’re recording. Since most home studio rooms sound terrible, we usually don’t want to pick up the room tone when recording. Because of this, we tend to avoid using omnidirectional microphones in home studios.
Listen to the different polar patterns
Take a listen to the different polar patterns:
In the above examples, the difference between the cardioid and bi-directional polar patterns isn’t all that big. This is because the back of the microphone was facing a TV and we were in a relatively well-treated room.
What I can hear is that the figure-8 sample is slightly less clear than the cardioid one.
When set on the omnidirectional polar pattern, the microphone captured the sound of the whole room. This pickup pattern is clearly not useable on vocals in this studio. Imagine recording with an omni mic in your home studio. You’d be capturing the voice and all the terrible room tone. Oy vey.
Which type of mic is best for you?
You want a clean, clear signal in your recordings, so I strongly suggest you go with a microphone that has a cardioid polar pattern.
Because condenser microphones capture so much fine detail, you may want to avoid them in a poor-sounding home studio. Go with a dynamic mic, since it’ll reject a lot of the room sound.
Most home studios have a Shure SM7B. It sounds okay, even though it lacks a bit of low end, which can make vocals sound thin. I recommend you buy an Electrovoice RE-20. The low frequencies on this mic sound the same even if you move in very close to the mic.
For more in-depth information on recording professional-sounding vocals, check out our video here.
Rap vocals are often heavily compressed in the mixing process. Compression can bring up low-level details in the signal, including room reflections. Because of this, you want to minimize the room sound in your recordings. Use a dynamic mic. Go for the SM7B, or, if you can swing it, the RE-20.
However, rap vocals will benefit from having a lot of detail captured. If you can place some absorptive materials around the rapper and have them sing with their back to an open wardrobe, you can use a condenser microphone instead.
I suggest the Lewitt LCT 440 Pro. It sounds just as good as their flagship microphone, but it doesn’t come with the extra bells and whistles their most expensive model does.
The same advice applies to you as for the non-songwriter singers (see above). However, you have a few options when recording yourself.
- record guitar and vocals separately (see tips for singers above)
- record them at the same time using 1 microphone
- recording them at the same time using 2 microphones
I suggest you record guitar and vocals separately. This way, you only need one mic, and you can adjust the volume and tone of each track independently later on in the mix.
Hopefully you’ve learned how to choose the best microphone for your home studio. A dynamic cardioid mic is your best bet if your home studio room doesn’t sound great.
In short, here’s a list of my favorite microphones:
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