Whether you're in the studio or on stage, the mic is the first link in the audio chain. We'll look at which mic types work best for live or studio use, then describe how to get the best sound from them. There can be an overwhelming amount of microphones to choose from, so it's best to learn how each of them function. Keep in mind that in audio, many rules are broken, and a wide variety of microphones may work for your application. The following is a general guideline to start with.
- Microphone Types
- Final Thoughts - Choosing the Right Microphone
- Additional Resources
No matter which mic you choose, two key factors are ruggedness and directionality, or pick up pattern(the ability to pick up a particular sound source without picking up others). For example, one microphone might have an omni directional pickup pattern, which picks up sound all around the mic capsule, while another microphone may have a cardioid response, which is more suited for picking up audio directly in front of the capsule.
Dynamic microphones are physically rugged and can handle high sound pressure sound levels, so they’re the most common choice for PA systems. They also resist noise from handling, making them popular in hand-held applications (e.g., vocalists). The tradeoff is that the sound isn’t as refined as other technologies, but live, these differences are negligible.
Dynamic microphones can be used to pickup any audio from the stage, or in the studio. They are extremely versatile. The most popular application is for amplifying a singer's voice so that it can be heard by a crowd. There are other reasons you'd reach for a dynamic mic, such as for amplifying a guitar player's amp, which may not be loud enough on it's own. Dynamic microphones many time have a high SPL(sound pressure level) rating, which can handle the pressure change that, say, a kick drum makes without overloading the microphone.
By using dynamic microphones to capture every possible source, it allows the live sound engineer to have complete control over the audio levels, which in turn can even out the stereo field and provide balance in an otherwise chaotic performance. While dynamic microphones are ideal for live performances, many great records have been made using these rugged tools.
Condenser microphones are common for recording due to their excellent frequency response and ability to respond to transients (rapid changes in level, as from percussion). They’re more fragile than dynamic mics, and most models need a power supply—either from an internal battery, or from “phantom” power that can be supplied by all but the least expensive mixers (see our article here on Mixers). However, condenser mics designed for live use are getting more rugged, and with proper care, can hold up to the rigors of the road. As they’re sensitive to handling noise, they’re usually mounted on mic stands.
There are two common condenser mic types. Small-diaphragm mics are more sensitive, so they excel at reproducing transients. Large-diaphragm mics tend to give a “warmer” sound, and are often used for vocals in the studio.
: Condenser microphones are perfect for studio applications, where every a high level of detail is necessary. They are the typically go to for acoustic instruments and micing elements from a distance, but this shouldn't stop you from experimenting to find the best possible microphone for the job. On the stage, one must take care when placing the microphone in front of the audio source in order to avoid it picking up other instruments or causing feedback. The pickup pattern [link] heavily influences the mic's ability to capture unwanted background sound, so be sure to be aware of this when choosing a condenser mic for your recordings or live performances.
Ribbon Microphones are quite unique, in that they utilize a thin conductive film placed between the two poles of a magnet in order to pickup the sound. The ribbon microphone is seldom used for live applications due to fragility. These microphones should never be plugged into a mixer channel or preamp that has phantom power turned on, as this can permanently damage the conductive ribbon. Along with this, even high sound pressure levels can damage a ribbon microphone. Another reason these microphones are not suited for live sound is because they utilize a figure 8 pickup pattern [link] which captures audio directly in back of the microphone in addition to what the mic is aimed at. This makes them difficult to control and prone to feedback when other audio sources are present.
Ribbon microphones excel in the studio, and were the choice of radio braodcasters and producers around the world when the industry was getting started. Their figure 8 pattern can be a great tool for artistic use of room noise, or picking up to performers with one microphone. They are known for their high frequency response, which can smooth out an otherwise harsh instrument. Choose this mic for when you want a touch of vintage vibe in your recordings.
The subjects covered in this article are just a starting point for learning about microphones. Many times even two of the same microphone may sound slightly different, so the best thing to do is experiment and train your ears. Learn proper microphone placement techniques and make sure the source of audio is the quality you would want a microphone to pick up. A microphone will generally not make an audio source sound better than it already does to your ears. Once the basics of this guide are memorized, it can be easy to choose and use the proper microphone for the job.