Microphone Gear Guides
These guides explain what you need to consider when buying microphones and also show you which mics have the highest Gearank scores:
This article will help you understand the what the main kinds of microphones are that are used in music production, both live and recording, and what each type of mic is typically used for.
Microphone Polar Patterns
Polar patterns describe how microphones pick up sound, showing specifically where mics 'listen' spatially and which positions are blocked. Having a good grasp of these polar patterns will help you select the right mics that capture the sound that you need while minimizing unwanted noise.
Cardioid mics capture everything in front and block everything else. This front-focused pattern will let you point the mic to a sound source and isolate it from unwanted ambient sound, making it ideal for live performance and other situations where noise reduction and feedback suppression are needed. Cardioid mics surpass other polar patterns by far in terms of popularity, used widely in live performances, from karaoke to big arena concerts. Other common uses include miking loud instruments like drum kits and guitar speakers. Note that these types of mics add subtle sound coloration when the source is off axis, which is why mic position when speaking and singing is very important.
Super/Hyper Cardioid Microphones
These mics have the same front directionality, but have a narrower area of sensitivity compared to cardioids. This results in improved isolation and higher resistance to feedback. Because of their enhanced ability to reject noise, you can use these for loud sound sources, noisy stage environments or even for untreated recording rooms. On the flip side, back rejection is a bit compromised, so you will have to position unwanted sounds like stage monitors and drum kits on the dead spot sides.
These are microphones that capture sound from all angles. Because of their non-directional design and zero rejection, these mics capture nuances better, resulting in a more natural sound. You can use these mics in studios and other venues (like old churches) with great acoustics, and can also be used for live recording of multiple instruments, as long as the noise level is low. The obvious downside is that they lack background noise rejection and are prone to monitor feedback, which makes them unsuitable for loud and noisy venues.
The name of this pattern is derived from its graphical representation, which looks like the number 8. The long and short of it is that Figure-8 mics capture the sound of both the front and back, while rejecting the two sides. This front and back sensitivity makes them idea for stereo recording and for capturing two or more instruments. They are essentially like omni directional mics, but with sound rejection on two sides. Although not as popular as other polar patterns, the figure-8 is commonly used on ribbon mics and on some large diaphragm condenser microphones.
Shotgun mics, also called Line and Gradient, feature a tube like design that make their polar pattern even more directional than hyper cardioids. The capsule is placed at the end of an interference tube, which eliminates sound from the sides via phase cancellation. This design results in a tighter polar pattern up front with longer pickup range. Although Shotgun mics are more commonly used for film and theatre, they also make great overhead mics for capturing things like singing groups, chorals, drum cymbals. .
These are microphones that can change between different polar patterns, allowing for versatile placement. Many of today's USB condenser microphones have this feature, letting you switch between multiple patterns by simply flicking a switch. Others provide the same flexibility through changing the mic head. The advantage that these mics offer is obvious, more positioning possibilities and more usage. Just remember to be careful when handling these mics, you don't want to accidentally damage the extra moving parts and circuitry that give them their versatility.
Microphones pick up sounds through their diaphragm, a thin material that vibrates when it comes into contact with sound. This vibration converts sonic energy into electrical energy. While there is no actual standard unit of measurement, there are currently three main classifications for mic diaphragms, all of which are referring to the diaphragm's mass. The size of the diaphragm affects the microphone's sound pressure level handling, sensitivity, dynamic range and internal noise level.
Mics with small diaphragms are commonly called pencil mics because of their thin cylindrical shapes. Their compact design makes them lighter and easier to position, and interestingly, they are designed to be stiffer, to handle higher sound pressure levels and have wider dynamic range. You can use them on acoustic guitars, hi-hats, cymbals, and other instruments. Known limitations of this particular diaphragm type are increased internal noise, and low sensitivity.
The bigger the diaphragm, the more it can sense air vibrations, and the more vibrations are captured, more of the sonic details are faithfully reproduced. Unlike small diaphragms that are stiff, large diaphragms move easily, allowing them to detect even faint differences in sound pressure levels which result in a more transparent and natural sound. This affinity to fidelity has made large diaphragm mics a staple in recording studios, and they are now the most common configuration used on modern USB mics. You can use them to record just about anything, from vocals to guitars and other instruments, just make sure that you keep the volume in check because they can distort when the sound pressure level is increased.
Medium Diaphragm mics are sometimes called hybrid because they combine the characteristics of small and large diaphragms. They tend to have a slightly fuller and warm sound similar to large diaphragms while retaining some of the high frequency content that small diaphragms could. These are modern microphones that are gaining reputation in both live and recording situations, but essentially, you can skip on these mics if you're setting up a small home studio or a small venue, especially if you already have large and small diaphragm mics to work with.
3 Types of Microphones used in Music
Here are the three types of microphones most commonly used in music, available with either XLR or USB connectivity. Note that USB powered versions don't require phantom power.
If you're looking for something reliable and versatile, then you ought to start with dynamic mics. Thanks to their moving coil magnetic diaphragm, these mics reliably capture sound and can do so even at high sound pressure levels. As such, you can use them for miking loud sound sources like bass and guitar amplifiers, and even drum kits without worrying about unwanted distortion or damage. Finally, they are not just for high SPL (Sound Pressure Level) applications because they work quite well in quieter settings.
Condenser mics have a thin conductive diaphragm that sits close to a metal backplate. This configuration works like a capacitor wherein sound pressure vibrates the diaphragm which in turn changes the capacitance to produce the audio signal. Since they use capacitance instead of actual moving coils, fidelity and sound quality is improved, making these mics ideal for precision recording in the studio. Note that this method of sound capture requires power, so you'll need a mixer or direct box with phantom power (except in cases where batteries are used). Whatever instrument you are trying to record, condenser mics will get the job done so long as the sound pressure levels aren't too high. Just remember to handle them with care as they are not as sturdy as dynamic mics.
While these mics are no longer as popular, Ribbon mics were once very successful particularly in the radio industry. The light metal ribbon used in these mics allows it to pickup the velocity of the air and not just air displacement. This allows for improved sensitive to higher frequencies, capturing higher notes without the harshness while retaining a warm vintage voicing. These days, interest for Ribbon mics have returned, especially since modern production ribbon mics are now sturdier and more reliable than their old counterparts, making them viable for live multi-instrument recording on venues where noise level is manageable. You can also use them for recording if you're looking for vintage vibe, or you can set it up in combination with dynamic or condenser mics for a more open sounding track.
For live vocal performances where stage volume can get loud and feedback suppression is important, the best choice is to use cardioid mics - see our guide to the best microphones for singing live. Recording vocals on the other hand is a different undertaking that requires more attention to the singer's nuances, as such large diaphragm condensers work best. If you are going for a more vintage sounding vocal recording, use ribbon mics or go for good old dynamic mics instead. In addition, small diaphragm omnidirectional mics and shotgun mics can be used for capturing choirs and singing groups, and are especially useful when choirs perform in venues with great acoustics, like churches.
Because acoustic drum kits are naturally loud and punchy, you'll want to go with dynamic cardioid mics for the snare, bass and toms. Small diaphragm microphones can then be used to capture the nuances of the hi-hat, ride and cymbals. For best results, there are specialized mics that are fine tuned to handle the different frequencies and SPLs of each part of a drum kit, you can either get them one by one or go for convenient drum kit mic bundles. In the studio, you can setup an Omnidirection or ribbon mic to blend in some ambience into your drum tracks.
Electric Guitar Amplifier
Close mic'd guitar amplifiers are as loud, sometimes louder than drum kits, and as such they require mics that can handle high SPL. Your best bet is a cardioid or hyper cardioid dynamic mic that is well positioned in front of the amp speaker. Again a second condenser mic or ribbon mic, set back at a distance, can be used in case you are using multiple amps or if you want a warmer more classic sounding output, or in combination with a close mic to capture some of the room ambiance.
Acoustic guitars when not amplified have a softer sound with immersive nuances. These type of instruments require the fidelity and quality of large diaphragm condenser mics. You can also go for a well placed Cardioid condenser mic or Figure-8 pattern ribbons depending on the situation and noise level. Finally, setting up an extra small diaphragm mic will work wonders in capturing the higher frequencies that sometimes get lost when acoustics are plugged in or miked directly up front.
Practical Microphone Applications in Music
Here we look at the main purpose each kind of microphone is typically used for. This is a good guide to get you started and once you gain experience with each mic type you'll find additional applications that work for you.
We've talked about the main types of microphones you'll use in various situations, however as you gain experience you'll also learn how to break with convention. If there's anything more you would like to know about microphones then please feel free to ask in the comments below.