If you are a performing musician, a music recording nut, or both, then you know that there are many different types of microphones available on the market.
Two of the most popular types are dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. In this article we’ll compare and contrast the two variants – condenser vs dynamic. Plus, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each and help you decide which one is right for you!
- Let’s get a tiny bit technical
- Horses for courses: dynamic mics vs condensers
- Plenty of choice
- Condenser microphones: the large and the small
- Hang on – rewind. What’s phantom power?
- Polar patterns explained
- Frequency response
- Final thoughts
Let’s get a tiny bit technical
Dynamic microphones work by using a coil of wire that is suspended in a magnetic field. When sound waves hit the diaphragm it vibrates and the coil moves along with it. This movement creates an electrical current that is sent to the amplifier.
Condenser microphones work by using two plates that are charged with electricity. One of these plates is the diaphragm, which vibrates when sound waves hit it. This causes the distance between the two plates to change, which in turn changes the level of voltage that is sent to the amplifier.
It’s all about the conversion
More detail probably isn’t necessary – we’re musicians not physicists after all – but if you’re hungry for more there’s tons of info readily available all over the Interweb. For now, just know that all microphones fundamentally work in the same way: sound waves are converted into voltage and sent to a preamp.
But when doing a dynamic mic vs condenser mic comparison, the difference is in the WAY the energy is converted. A dynamic microphone uses a magnet; condenser mics use the altogether more grandly titled variable capacitance method. Let’s park it there.
Horses for courses: dynamic mics vs condensers
Chances are unless you’re a beginner or on a tight budget, you’ll have several dynamic mics and condenser mics in your armory already. If not and funds permit, go for a good quality dynamic microphone like the Shure SM57 or 58 and a decent large diaphragm condenser like the Rode NT1 or NT1A.
If you can only stretch to one microphone, stick with us until the end of the article and we’ll make our recommendation.
We should emphasize that there’s a lot of crossover here between the two types and you shouldn’t allow things to become too pigeonholed or stereotyped. In recording environments, the Shure SM57 dynamic microphone for example is something of an industry standard for mic’ing up electric guitar amps, but it’s also great for rock vocals.
Similarly, the Rode NT-1 large diaphragm condenser microphone is highly regarded as a cost-effective vocal studio mic; but it’s also brilliant on acoustic guitar. We’ve also seen it rocking out in front of valve guitar amps. As always in music, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries and let your ears be the judge.
Taking things onstage, dynamic mics are good for live performances because they can handle high sound pressure levels without distortion. A dynamic microphone is also less sensitive to feedback than a condenser microphone.
Condenser microphones are good for studio recording because they capture a wider range of frequencies than dynamic microphones. They’re also more sensitive to subtle nuances in sound, making them ideal for reproducing the true character of a singer’s voice or an acoustic guitar.
Again, citing some practical examples, the Shure SM58 dynamic microphone has a frequency response of 50Hz – 15kHz. The Rode NT-1 large diaphragm condenser mic hits lows of 20Hz extending up to the heady heights of 20kHz in the upper frequencies.
Other facets in the dynamic vs condenser mic face off are robustness and build quality; and dynamic microphones gain the upper hand here. They’re primarily built for live work and their bulletproof metallic construction usually reflects this fact. They’re designed to be used and abused – which is why they tend to last for years.
In recording situations, dynamic microphones excel when your recording space is far from perfect acoustically. Because they only capture sound that’s directly in front of them, they’re less prone to picking up ambient noise like dogs barking, neighbors arguing, noisy family members in other rooms, and outside traffic.
Condenser mics are the opposite. They certainly will reveal any imperfections acoustically as they’re so sensitive and they will pick up ambient noise. For this reason, they work well in rooms that are acoustically treated.
It’s also quite likely you’ll need to buy a shockmount and a pop shield to minimize vibrations and sibilant and plosive vocals sounds. That’s P’s and S’s to you and me. In the condenser mic vs dynamic mic debate, sensitivity comes at a price!
Plenty of choice
There’s certainly no shortage of dynamic and condenser microphones on the market today. Some examples of the former include the Shure SM57, 58 and SM7B, as well as the Electro-Voice RE20 and Sennheiser MD-421-II.
Condenser microphones: the large and the small
There are two main types of condenser microphone: small and large diaphragm. We’ll get into the detail in due course but know that whatever flavor you choose you’ll need phantom power to make them work.
Most audio interfaces provide this functionality so you should be sorted. Dynamic mics don’t need phantom power.
OK let’s drill down a bit. There are a few key differences between large diaphragm and small diaphragm condenser microphones – the most obvious being (surprise, surprise) the size of the diaphragm.
Large diaphragm condensers have a large surface area – typically around 1 inch – which means they can capture more sound. This makes them versatile – ideal for vocals and other sounds that need to be clear and detailed like acoustic guitar – but they’re also effective as drum overheads and on guitar cabs.
Depending on the polar pattern (more about that later), large diaphragm condensers receive sound from the side of the mic.
Small diaphragm condensers (often called pencil microphones) on the other hand have a smaller surface area. This makes them better suited for capturing high frequencies and transient detail.
Unlike their large diaphragm counterparts, small diaphragm condensers receive sound from the front similar to dynamic microphones. Generally, they also tend to generate more self-noise.
Because they handle transients (fluctuations in volume) so well, small diaphragm condensers are great on most instruments: acoustic guitar, piano, drums, banjo, mandolin. You get the idea.
I’ve used an AKG C1000S mic very successfully on vocals, but generally they’re not particularly favored for this application. Their attention to detail is superb – which is why they’re widely used in classical music circles.
Hang on – rewind. What’s phantom power?
It’s a method of powering condenser microphones. Condenser microphones have active electronics that require a power source, and phantom power supplies this power via the microphone cable. The worldwide standard is 11-52 volts at +48V.
Its advantage is that it provides a clean, uninterrupted power source to the microphone. This is important because condenser microphones are sensitive and can be easily damaged by electrical interference.
Phantom power is typically provided by a mixing console or audio interface, and most condenser microphones will have a switch that allows you to turn it on or off.
If you are using a condenser microphone for recording or live sound reinforcement, it is important to make sure that it’s turned on. Otherwise, you may hear noisy audio or see low signal levels in your recording.
Polar patterns explained
Large diaphragm condenser microphones are available in a number of different polar patterns which directly influences how they receive – and reject – sound sources.
The most common polar patterns are cardioid, omnidirectional and figure-8 along with hypercardioid and supercardioid which are less common. Each polar pattern has its advantages and disadvantages.
Dynamic microphones are a lot simpler. They’re cardioid.
Cardioid microphones have a heart-shaped pickup pattern that is sensitive to sound sources directly in front of the microphone while rejecting sound from the sides and rear.
This makes cardioids ideal for vocals and instruments that are loud relative to the ambient noise level. However, they can produce a ‘proximity effect’ where low frequencies become exaggerated when the sound source is close to the microphone.
Omnidirectional microphones have a spherical pickup pattern that is equally sensitive to sound from all directions. This makes omnidirectional microphones ideal for capturing ambient sound and for recording sound sources that are moving around. Great for choirs and orchestras.
Figure-8, or bidirectional microphones have a bidirectional pickup pattern that is sensitive to sound from the front and rear of the microphone while rejecting sound from the sides. This makes them ideal for recording two sound sources at once, such as a conversation between two people.
However, they are less common than other polar patterns and can be more difficult to position correctly.
Hypercardioid and Supercardioid
Hypercardioid and supercardioid microphones are similar to cardioid in that they predominantly pick up sound from the front but the ‘sweet spot’ in both cases is narrower. Hypercardioid is more focused than supercardioid, and both offer excellent resistance to feedback.
When choosing large diaphragm condenser mics it’s important to consider the polar pattern that will be most effective for the desired application. For example, if you are recording a conversation between two people, a figure-eight microphone would be ideal.
But if you’re recording a solo singer, a cardioid microphone would tick all the right boxes. If you are recording ambient noise, an omnidirectional microphone would cut the mustard.
For most applications in the studio, however, our money’s on cardioids. Live, it would be dynamic mics.
We mentioned it previously, but in a nutshell, microphone frequency response is the range of frequencies that a microphone can pick up.
For example, if a microphone has a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz, then it can pick up sounds from 20Hz to 20kHz. If a microphone has a frequency response of 50Hz to 16kHz, then it can only handle sounds from 50Hz to 16kHz.
In general, condenser mics have a wider frequency response than dynamic mics. You should also pay attention to the frequency curves of a particular microphone. This is normally provided as part of the mic’s specification and is essentially a graph that shows how a microphone responds to different frequencies of sound.
The right mic for the job
The frequency response of a microphone can vary depending on its design and construction and it’s important to understand how a microphone will respond to different frequencies in order to get the best possible sound quality.
Different frequency ranges can be more or less prominent in a given recording, and by understanding the frequency response of a microphone, you can choose a model that will best suit your needs.
For instance, if you are looking to record vocals, you will want a microphone with a frequency response that emphasizes the midrange frequencies where the human voice is most prominent. On the other hand, if you are looking to record instruments such as guitars or drums, you may want a microphone with a frequency response that reflects the timbre of those particular instruments.
No matter what your recording needs are, understanding frequency curves can help you choose the right microphone for the job, but again there’s no right and wrong here because much of it depends on personal preferences.
Ideal world first. For recording, grab a couple of dynamic mics, a large diaphragm and small diaphragm condenser and you’re pretty much good to go. For live stuff, it’s dynamic microphones all the way because of their inherent robustness, ability to handle high sound levels and no-frills approach.
In the real world, however, all is not lost even if money is tight. If you’re looking for a versatile microphone that can be used for a variety of recording applications, a large diaphragm condenser microphone is your best bet.
Condenser mics are typically very sensitive so they’re great for capturing nuances in your performance. They also have a wide frequency response so they can reproduce the full range of sounds in your music.
Large diaphragm condenser mics are generally more expensive than other types of microphones, but they offer excellent sound quality and versatility.