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Picking the Right Microphone for the Job

21 JAN 2014
Career Path : Audio Engineering

As an audio engineer, you may be in charge of mixing and recording various types of sound. From studio recordings to film and live performances, there is no “one size fits all” microphone – even different instruments and vocal types have different needs when it comes to frequency ranges and pickup patterns.

When selecting the right microphone for your particular application, the most important things to know are the construction type and polarity pattern. The most commonly used microphone types are:

  • Dynamic
  • Condenser
  • Ribbon

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones are the most common, most durable and most inexpensive type of microphone. These are usually used for live performances, but can also be used in studio recordings for loud, high pressure sounds like screaming vocalists and drums. These microphones have very strong diaphragms, made of plastic or Mylar, but the high frequency response usually is not as clear as with condenser mics.

Condenser Microphones

Condenser microphones are the standard variety found in recording studios. These microphones have a thin metal or metal coated plastic diaphragm, which are relatively long-lasting, but should be handled with more care than dynamic microphones. Condenser microphones are susceptible to damage from floating dust particles and should be covered when not in use. Condenser mics usually require phantom power from a preamp, unless they have an internal battery.

Condenser diaphragms come in two sizes, large and small. Large diaphragm condensers are better for lower frequencies and are generally better for vocals because they pick up less mouth noise and other unwanted details. Small diaphragm condensers are usually used for instruments because their faster and higher frequency response picks up the intricacies and the upper ranges of instruments with much more clarity than large diaphragms.

Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon microphones get their name from their diaphragms, made from a thin ribbon of aluminum held between two magnets. Though these microphones were very common in the early days of recording, they have taken a backseat to condenser microphones because of their price and fragile nature. These days, ribbon mics are usually used in studios for vocal jazz recordings looking for a more smooth and vintage sound.

Understanding Polarity Patterns

Aside from the type of microphone, another key feature to understand is a microphone’s polarity pattern. This is the direction in which a microphone picks up sound. The three main polarity patterns are:

  • Omni-directional. These microphones pick up sound in all directions.
  • Figure 8. These microphones pick up sound from the front and back, but not all around.
  • Cardioids. These mics are sometimes referred to as “front-address” because they can only pick up sound from one direction. There are three types of cardioid: cardioid, super-cardioid and hyper cardioid. All three cardioid patterns pick up sound from only one direction, but have different pickup ranges.

Conclusion

Proper microphone selection and care are one of the fundamental things you will learn at an audio school, and some audio engineering schools go deeper into the complete mechanics and construction of a wide range of microphones. Knowing what type of microphone to use can make all of the difference in making just another standard, run of the mill recording or producing a clear and elaborate audio masterpiece.

Visit Trebas Institute for more information on audio school.