The Four Types of Microphones Explained

The Four Types of Microphones Explained intro image

Have you arrived fresh off the boat and into the world of audio recording? You’re probably browsing microphones and coming across titles such as “Supercardioid Dynamic Vocal Mic” or “Double-Ribbon Microphone” and wondering what that’s all about. Don’t worry. It’s a lot simpler than you might think!

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Before we start looking at the different types of microphones and their uses, it’s crucial to help you understand why choosing the right microphone is essential before buying. I know many of you out there want to get the shopping over and done with or tend to impulse buy – we all do it. I won’t judge. However, instead of wasting your money on a below-average recording device, let’s try to understand how microphones work and how each type of mic captures sound.

There are all sorts of microphone types out there, and trying to understand a bit of each of them will bring you closer to choosing the perfect microphone for your needs. If you’re wondering how many microphones there are and how they work, your questions will be answered by the time you finish this article!

I have even selected a few of the most popular and reliable microphones of each type, so if you’re looking for some audio-recording gear to add to your studio, you’ll have a few durable and affordable mics to choose from. Let’s get started!

Why It’s Important to Know and Pick the Right Type of Microphone for You 

You know better than me why you need a microphone. It’s the very reason that brought you to this article. Are you a musician? Maybe you need a stage mic for your band’s live performances? Surely you want to know what the best microphone for recording guitar is as well? Perhaps you’re interested in starting your very own home recording podcast, and you need some gear? Do you need a microphone for your university recording studio? Are you wondering which microphone will best capture your musical instruments?

It’s important to understand that there are different microphones for filming YouTube videos, just like there are different microphones for filming movies. One type won’t necessarily replace the other! You can’t use a boom mic for your podcast recording. 

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Аnother vital factor to consider is the price. Some microphones will cost you a lot more than others, but you won’t notice a significant change in your audio. If you’re doing simple voice recording at home for your YouTube channel, you can get an easy-to-use USB mic that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Likewise, you’ll still manage to produce audio that people love. Similarly, it’s pointless to spend $400 on a broadcasting mic for your church confirmation. A simple headset mic will do an excellent job!

Consider your location, too. Are you going to record in a recording studio? If not, there’s a high chance the wrong kind of mic will pick up noise coming from all directions in your vicinity. That’s why you should keep an eye on your mic type and its specifications before buying.

I bet you’re already dying to know the main types of mics and what they are best for. So, let’s take a look аt each of the mic types explained!

The 4 Main Types of Microphones 

If you’re trying to decide what the correct type of microphone is for you, you need to get acquainted with the four types of microphones. Depending on the way it captures sound, each type can have a different effect on your recording.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic mics, also called “moving coil mics,” are named due to the specific electromagnetism occurring inside the mic. Dynamic mics convert the sound into an electrical signal. There are three main components inside a dynamic mic – a voice coil attached to a diaphragm and a magnet. When the sound waves from your voice hit the mic diaphragm, it moves the voice coil within the magnetic field. The magnetic field then converts your audio into electrical signals, which your amp or audio interface (laptop, PC) can read.

With their simple construction, dynamic mics can be pretty sturdy. They handle extremely loud sound signals well and can also eliminate background noise. Dynamic mics also have a lower output level than other mics, meaning they don’t operate with complete frequency response. Frequency response is how we measure how well a particular audio component (headphones, microphone, or speaker) can reproduce audible frequencies and if any changes occur in the process. Ideally, your preferred frequency response shouldn’t change the input sound’s bass, middle, or treble. When looking for a mic, try to find one with a smooth and flat frequency response, opposed to a highly variable one.

So what can dynamic mics be used for? Well, you’ve heard a dynamic mic at least once in your life when traveling on road trips and listening to the radio or watching a football game. Dynamic mics have a distinct broadcast sound, and most radio stations prefer them. This is when things get heated up during a sports game, and the commentator starts shouting.

Dynamic mics are also great for recording instruments. They work best when recording low- to mid-frequency musical instruments, such as drums and electric guitar amps. Here are two of the most commonly used dynamic mics that I thoroughly recommend.

1. Shure SM7B

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Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone
  • ONE MICROPHONE FOR EVERYTHING - Studio Recording, Home Recording, Podcasting & Streaming. The SM7B Is Trusted By The Worlds Leading Vocalists, Podcasters & Streamers.
  • STUDIO VOCAL RECORDING - The SM7B’s Dynamic Cartridge With Smooth, Flat, Wide-range Frequency Response Produces Exceptionally Clean & Natural Reproduction Of Both Music & Speech.
  • PODCAST & BROADCAST - Found In The Top Podcasting Studios Around The World, The SM7B Air Suspension Shock Isolation & Pop Filter Eliminate Both Mechanical Noise And Breathiness. So Words Get Through...

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Shure SM7B can be used for pretty much anything. However, if you want to record vocals with superb quality for your podcast or online stream, the Shure SM7B dynamic mic is a great choice. Dynamic mics are also an excellent option for musicians recording with their band. If you use a dynamic mic in this scenario, you won’t pick up the noise from your band, and you’ll get a stable mic signal. The Shure SM7B is a highly versatile microphone that does more than your average dynamic mic. It’s excellent for recording pop vocals or more aggressive screamo vocals, too.

2. Sennheiser E945

Sennheiser e945 Supercardioid Dynamic Handheld Mic
  • Metal construction: Rugged and reliable
  • Shock-mounted capsule: Low sensitivity to impact and handling noise
  • Supercardioid pickup pattern: Insulation from other on-stage signals

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Sennheiser E945 is a super-cardioid handheld vocal dynamic microphone with incredible off-axis background noise rejection. Compared to other microphones for singing, this E945 mic is fantastic. It’s very detailed in the high frequencies and full and rounded in the low frequencies. Thus, if you’re someone with a particularly high-pitched voice, this will be an excellent addition to your gear. 

The E945 is a top-choice stage-use microphone with a lot of detail and clarity and little need for adjusting on the mixing board. The super-cardioid polar pattern will help eliminate the bleed between other instruments and the recorded voice. The Sennheiser E945 is excellent all-around and especially for live and on-stage vocals!

Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones 

Condenser microphones (also called capacitor mics) consist of three main components: a diaphragm case, the diaphragm itself, and a backplate – all within the mic capsule. Once the capsule is charged with electricity and you start speaking, the sound waves coming from your voice hit the diaphragm.

The diaphragm moves closer and further away from the black plate, converting the sound signals into electrical signals. You may already know some of this information from our best microphones for podcasting review, so this time, let’s expand further into the subject. What is the difference between a large-diaphragm condenser microphone and a small diaphragm condenser mic?

We’ve all heard the joke that size matters, but what about diaphragm size in condenser mics? Also, what exactly makes a diaphragm “large”? Well, the textbook definition of a large mic capsule diaphragm is typically 1 inch or more in diameter, while the small ones tend to be half an inch or less.

In practice, however, you’ll find many small diaphragm mics use larger capsules for audio recording. So why do they exist? To make matters even more confusing, some manufacturers will measure the diaphragms wrong, giving you the measurement for the capsule and not for the diaphragm itself, which rarely goes beyond an inch and a half. Does it all matter in the end? Not really.

Historically, large-diaphragm condensers came in the 1930s and 1940s. The large capsules were designed to eliminate the tube noise inside the mic electronics. Later on, in the 1950s and 1960s, when noise transistors became a thing, small-diaphragm mics gained popularity. So why are large-diaphragm condenser microphones still used to this day?

The answer is simple: they have incredible noise performance. This perk makes large-diaphragm condenser microphones excellent for recording vocals because they’re typically side-address mics. When you picture a studio mic in your head, you’re probably thinking of condenser mics. A large-diaphragm condenser mic can record anything with a lot of range and nuance. These microphones are pretty sensitive and tend to pick up low frequencies, too. Thus, make sure you use them with a pop filter when recording your voice.

Pop filters have another function a lot of people neglect. Over time, the moisture from your mouth can integrate into the mic capsule and ruin it, so an excellent way to protect your expensive mic is by buying a pop filter or windscreen. 

Here are some excellent, large-diaphragm condenser mics that gained popularity due to their performance and durability.

1. AKG C414 XLII

AKG Pro Audio C414 XLII Vocal Condenser Microphone, Multipattern
  • Sonic character of the famous AKG C12 delivers astounding sound quality for lead vocals and solo instruments
  • Nine selectable polar patterns for the perfect setting for every application
  • Three attenuation levels (-6/-12/-18dB) for close-up recording or high-output sources of up to 158dB SPL

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The AKG C414 XLII, more commonly referred to as “that microphone that PewDiePie uses,” is indeed a professional microphone for voice recording. It has a total of 9 polar patterns (9!!!) to choose from! You can toggle the polar patterns through the switch at the front. The AKG C414 XLII has omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, and bidirectional (figure-8) polar patterns, as well as all the in-between options. 

The frequency response of this mic is 20–20kHz. The back of the mic has two filter switches. The first one can add -6, -8, or -12 Db to your sound. The second switch is a high-pass filter so that you can add 40, 80, or 160 hertz. It’s great for recording your electric guitar or your voice when singing. You can find the AKG C414 XLII in recording studios worldwide due to the versatility in its settings and the ease with which you can adjust the mic to any environment. 

Thе AKG is a high-end mic that creates a beautiful sound, and if you can spare the buck, you’ll indeed have a winner by your side.

2. Audio Technica AT2035

Audio-Technica AT2035PK Vocal Microphone Pack for Streaming/Podcasting, Includes XLR Mic, Adjustable...
  • Large diaphragm for smooth, natural sound and low noise
  • High SPL handling and wide dynamic range provide unmatched versatility
  • Custom shock mount provides superior isolation

Last update on 2021-09-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Another great large-diaphragm condenser mic is the Audio Technica AT2035. If you have read our review of the best podcasting microphones, you probably remember the AT2035. It does an incredible job at eliminating background noise and has two helpful toggle settings at the back of the mic. There’s a 10-decibel pad, perfect for recording loud sound sources such as guitar amps. It also has a bass roll-off (which helps cut down the frequencies below 80Hz), so you can say goodbye to low-frequency rumbling! The AT2035 is a highly affordable mic for recording voice audio, acoustic guitar, and other instruments. It’s one of the best-quality mics under $200, so it has an impressive quality for its price!

Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones 

Small-diaphragm condensers tend to be slim and pencil-shaped and typically operate end-fired (meaning they won’t pick up sounds from the sides). Many professionals argue that small-diaphragm condensers are the superior condenser mics because they have an incredible transient response. It turns out that small diaphragms are better at accurately tracing sound waves. Small-diaphragm condensers also have increased high-frequency response, even to a point in which a human ear can’t hear. 

Lastly, these mics can maintain a consistent pickup pattern. Small-diaphragm mics also create the most natural and pure-sounding audio and are the preferred gear to record a piano with. If you want to record classical instruments, you should go for a small diaphragm. Its pickup pattern consistency and ability to accept high-pitched frequencies that you usually hear from a choir, orchestra, or ensemble are remarkable.

Small-diaphragm microphones are used a little differently from large condenser mics. Small-diaphragm condensers are used to catch sounds from a distance, for example, when recording music. They are great for capturing the sounds of a drum. Similarly, if you’re recording an orchestra or church choir, you can put a few small-diaphragm condenser mics in the concert hall or church hall to fully capture the sound of the performance.

Something to consider about both types of condenser mics is that they usually require an additional power source. This power source is called phantom power. What is phantom power? Typically, a switch you can find on a mixing board sends power to your mic and boosts its signal. You can also purchase phantom power as a separate attachment if you don’t have a mixer when using an XLR mic.

1. Rode NT5

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Rode NT5 Compact Cardioid Condenser Microphone, Single
  • Externally biased condenser; Low noise
  • Gold sputtered 1/2 inch capsule
  • Heavy duty satin nickel plated body

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Rode NT5 is a great shotgun mic for picking up vocals in a room. Even though the box says that this is a cardioid polar pattern mic, it uses a hyper-cardioid polar pattern. This can be seen from the pickup pattern image illustrated on the mic itself. Users also tend to disagree with the given description after testing it out personally. 

This is an indoor mic for sure, and it’s excellent for capturing both sound and dialog. You can take it with you anywhere you go because it’s small, compact, and can easily be attached to a boom arm – another great benefit of shotgun mics. The Rode NT5 is the perfect mic for recording anything from film audio to classic concerts in a big hall.

2. Shure SM81

Shure SM81-LC Cardioid Condenser Instrument Microphone
  • 0 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response
  • Selectable low-frequency response: flat 6 or 18 dB/octave rolloff

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Shure SM81 is one of the best small-diaphragm condenser mics. While some small-diaphragm condenser mics sound a bit darker, the Shure SM81 is neutral and transparent. This makes it the go-to choice for capturing sounds from an acoustic guitar.

The cardioid unidirectional polar pattern allows the mic to record sounds coming from the front of the mic and rejects those at the rear. You can cleverly use this polar pattern to capture a particular sound source like a guitar without other noises or instruments nearby.

This mic has deficient self-noise levels, meaning you can bump up the gain on this mic significantly before starting to experience the noise floor. It’s an ideal feature for recording instruments. The Shure SM81 is durable, and its performance is above standard, so you’re getting value for money when purchasing this mic.

Ribbon Microphones

The fragile children of the microphone family, ribbon microphones are the fourth mic type we’ll be discussing. If you come across an old ribbon mic, be careful how you use it. The smallest amount of phantom power can break it. Be especially careful when you plug and unplug the mic. Always turn it off first. Otherwise, it can cause you an expensive repair. Newer versions of ribbon mics don’t have this problem but always keep it in mind. Now that I’ve got my warning out of the way, let’s talk about what these microphones are. Think of a crossover between a condenser and a dynamic mic.

If you’re looking to create a warm and natural sound, ribbon mics are just the thing for you! What exactly goes on inside ribbon mics? There are two small magnets placed on either side of a strip of conductive material. These mics are susceptible to the smallest amount of air pressure and are utterly preamp-dependent. Some ribbon mics have built-in preamps, but others may require external ones.

Like I already mentioned, ribbon mics are susceptible to the point where even blowing air into the mics can break it. For the same reason, they aren’t great to use during windy days because the air can stretch the sensitive ribbon material. It would be best if you also were careful about how you store ribbon mics. If you let the mic rest horizontally for a long time, it can also loosen the ribbon and permanently damage it.

So why exactly do people put up with these high-maintenance mics? Ribbon mics are prized for their incredible sound and have recently made their way into live environments like concerts and gigs. They are lovely to use when recording guitar or as drum overheads.

1. Royer R-121

Royer Labs R-121 Large-Element Ribbon Microphone, Nickel
  • High SPL capabilities
  • No internal active electronics to overload or produce distortion up to maximum SPL rating
  • Extremely low residual noise

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Royer R-121s mics are figure-8 mics famous for recording electric guitar amps, but you can also attach them to acoustic guitars or use them as room microphones, and they will deliver a beautiful sound. It would help if you were careful not to use 48V phantom power for these mics (like you would for cardioid mics). Likewise, it would be best to expose it to high sound pressure, for example, coming from instruments like kick drums or guitar amps.

Despite this sensitivity, the Royer mic is specially designed for high-pressure sources, unlike most ribbon mics. Always make sure to record using a mic stand with this ribbon mic to be safe. The Royer R-121 is great for recording acoustic instruments and will maintain a consistent frequency response despite the distance you record from. The Royer R121 creates an outstanding, wholly natural, and smooth sound that you really cannot find with other mics.

2. Beyerdynamic M160

Beyerdynamic M160 Double Ribbon Microphone - Hypercardioid
  • Unique double ribbon microphone transducer with hypercardioid polar pattern
  • Extended frequency response
  • Excellent transparency and transient response

Last update on 2021-09-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Beyerdynamic M160 is a double-ribbon microphone made with quality in mind. It feels excellent, with immense thanks owed to new German engineering. Unlike most ribbon mics, this one has an all-metal spherical mesh grille which is incredibly sturdy and has zero give. The durable grille is perfect because it adds extra protection to your mic, but I’d still recommend getting a pop filter. 

You can use this mic to record different instruments, even an electric guitar. You can expect above-standard quality from this double-ribbon mic. The sound is very present, smooth, and pleasing to the ear. This ribbon microphone can handle gentle and intimate music, which is a massive part of why so many people tend to use this mic to record acoustic guitar and mellow vocals. 

The Beyerdynamic M160 is also perfect for singing. Nothing pops, and you won’t hear any sharp or unnatural highs. Lastly, this microphone shines even if you’re planning on recording spoken word. The M160 can even capture the sounds from your consonants beautifully and sharpness-free, without any plosives or popping sounds. We genuinely give the Beyerdynamic our thumbs up!

Microphone Type According to Purpose

So far, so good! You have been introduced to the different microphone types and characteristics. Now it’s time to match some of them to a specific purpose! All kinds of microphones can record your voice, but not all of them will be good at recording drums or an electric guitar, for example. 

Many audio experts are also aware that the piano is the most challenging instrument to record. The Internet is often swarming with people on a quest to find the perfect mic for piano recording. Today, I want to recommend various types of microphones according to your needs so you can choose what best fits you.

Vocals

Most often, people tend to look for the best microphone for vocals. Whether they’re recording videos or looking for the best mic for YouTube, the best podcast microphone, or a stage mic, chances are, they will end up with a dynamic mic. These microphones need to have excellent background noise isolation, as well as feedback suppression if you’re using one near other electrical gear. 

If you’re a singer, large-diaphragm mics with their huge capsules can easily capture the nuances of your voice. If it’s a mic for a choir or a church-singing group, then ribbon and shotgun mics will perfectly capture sound. Some wireless microphones can surprise you despite their small size. I recommend wireless mics to anyone doing active physical exercise while speaking into a microphone. With that, feel free to check out our best wireless mics article.

The most popular vocal microphone in the world to this day is the Shure SM58, a first-choice mic for singers and podcasters. It’s affordable, light, and sturdy. It is also made for on-stage live use because it’s tuned for voice recording. You can easily connect it to a Mac or a Windows PC with an XLR mic by using an XLR-to-USB adapter cable. You won’t even lose on audio quality.

Drums

Drums are a complex instrument to record due to the intense low frequencies and sound pressure levels. Acoustic drums, especially kick drums, are loud and punchy. For best results, I recommend you look for dynamic cardioid mics or specialized mics attuned to the SPL and frequencies of a drum kit like the Sennheiser E604, which is also extremely easy to position on your drum kit due to its compact size and clip. 

You’ll be glad to know that the Sennheiser comes in a pack of three. Likewise, you’ll need multiple mics to record a whole drum set. The E604 can handle distortion greater than 150dB, ideal for toms, snare, and bass. If you are looking for the best mics for a hi-hat, ride, and cymbals, you can try out some small-diaphragm mics like the Rode NT5 we already mentioned. 

Guitars (Acoustic and Electric)

Acoustic guitars produce similar frequencies to vocals, so it makes sense to record acoustic guitars with large-diaphragm condenser microphones. There is a massive abundance of choices with this type of mic, so it’s guaranteed that you’ll find something for any budget. The only downside is the bulkiness of the shock mounts, which cannot be permanently removed and may limit your options for positioning.

Alternatively, you can use small-diaphragm mics to get rid of the size issue. The high sensitivity of these mics can handle the dynamic sound of the guitar and produce better stereo sound and detail even if you try to replace one with a couple of large-diaphragm mics. Of course, some types of small-diaphragm mics can be a bit more expensive. However, you should know that the sky’s the limit when it comes to pricing microphones. Also, there’s always a more expensive option waiting around the corner.

Electric guitars and dynamic condenser mics pair well. Just make sure you’re using a cardioid or hypercardioid polar pattern when recording. It’s best to place your dynamic condenser near the guitar’s amp, where it will be more than able to deal with high-pressure frequencies. The Shure SM57 is the perfect option for anyone wanting to record their electric guitar. It’s also known as “the microphone that’s used in the White House.”

Suppose you have read any of our mic reviews. In that case, you probably noticed there’s rarely anything terrible that can be said about Shure mics. They are pretty affordable and have a sturdy metal body. Much like its sibling, the SM58, this one can be run over by a bus and still won’t do the microphone any damage. They pretty much set the industry standard, so it’s not surprising to find a microphone of this brand to record electric guitar, too.

Piano

When it comes to capturing the natural sound of the piano, there is no better option than picking a small-diaphragm microphone. Other microphone types can’t replicate the pure classical sound of the piano. Different kinds of mics also tend to add a filter or flavor to your recording and won’t create that true-to-life sound you’re aiming for. Their consistent pickup patterns are another reason for professionals to choose them over other mics.

A great example of an excellent mic for recording piano is the Neumann KM 184, which is very discreet due to its small pencil-shaped body. It has an incredible frequency range of 20–20kHz, meaning it can rival the sensitivity of large-diaphragm mics while still maintaining high SPL handling. Neumann produces amazing-quality mics, so don’t be surprised by the luxurious mic build and feel. Sure, the price might seem steep, but some users have been using this mic for over ten years and report consistent and professional recording to this day.

Many users also talk about this mic’s versatility, reporting that they have used it to record different audio types, not strictly piano. It’s an excellent mic for vocals and singing, as well as recording acoustic guitar.

Making the Right Choice and Picking the Best Type of Microphone 

Now that you know everything about the different types of microphones, the last question to answer is how to pick the best kind of microphone for you.

Firstly, determine what it is you need from your microphone. Are you a singer or plan to use your mic for spoken word? If so, you should think about the frequency of your voice for a second. If you’re someone with a particularly high-pitched voice, perhaps choose a microphone that can handle high frequencies. You want a microphone that will make your voice sound as natural and authentic to life as possible. Such mics are the small-diaphragm and ribbon mics, which will create the most honest audio representation. If you’re someone with a deeper voice and prefer a vintage feel to your recordings, a dynamic mic or large-diaphragm mic might work a lot better for you. 

Always make sure to check the decibel range of the mic you’re buying to determine if it can handle the low or high frequencies of your voice. The same goes for instruments you’re trying to record. If you’re wondering what the best microphone for double bass is, for example, look at the decibels of the instrument. You’ll find that a large-diaphragm condenser mic like the AKG C 414 will genuinely capture the nuance and vibrance of the instrument. 

If you intend to get ultra-crisp sound, you might want some good background noise rejection, so keeping an eye on the polar pattern setting of your mic before buying is essential. If you want as much isolation as possible, you should look for cardioid mics or end-fire mics. Alternatively, for instrumental recording, you might be better off looking for a mic that can produce excellent stereo sound, such as ribbon mics. 

Last but not least is the budget. Whether you like it or not, you might not always be able to afford the best of the best. There is honestly no limit to microphone pricing, and you might even find some hipster audio “experts” to argue that there isn’t a good mic under $3000. Of course, this is laughable, and you can find great microphones that are affordable and work to create a beautiful sound for $100 or less, like the Shure SM mic series. It all depends on what you need, and if you follow our guide, you honestly won’t be disappointed. 

That’s It!

To conclude, you’ll find that dynamic, large-diaphragm, small-diaphragm, and ribbon mics are all excellent options to choose from. It all depends on the job or gig you’re planning on using them for. With all this in mind, I think you’re finally ready to venture into the microphone world and truly stun your audience with some impeccable sound!

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Cite this article as: Jim Peterson, "The Four Types of Microphones Explained," in My Speech Class, September 7, 2021, https://www.myspeechclass.com/microphone-types.html.