Microphones, the way we capture and project our sound. With microphones being so important to a musician, it’s crucial we understand them so we can have the most authentic recordings and performances possible. Lucky for you, our experts here at Sound Pure want to make sure you know all about microphones and have provided some pro tips. Here is the first installment of our Microphone expertise series that explains the differences between types of microphones and polar patterns.
Dynamic vs Condenser (SDC vs LDC) vs Ribbon
Dynamic Microphones: Generally the most robust/durable, most affordable, and most common for loud sources (drums, guitar amps) and in live applications. They’re typical “jack of all trades” microphones as their sound is more natural, slightly forgiving, and less refined than condensers. Choose a dynamic when you’re not looking to capture the most detail when the mic is at risk of getting hit (drums), when a source is too loud for a condenser, or when on a budget. Because of their design, dynamic microphones have a natural roll off of high frequencies (generally starting around 8-10khz) which makes them sound less “open” and “airy” compared to condenser microphones. Most common/well known dynamic microphones are the Shure SM57, SM58 & SM7B, Telefunken M80, and M81 and the Sennheiser MD421.
Condenser Microphones: Offers the most detailed sound out of any element type and do so by using 48-volt phantom power to charge the microphone’s capsule. They are further defined as Small Diaphragm Condensers (SDCs) and Large Diaphragm Condensers (LDCs). Generally, SDCs are used for instrument recordings as they capture a large amount of detail and tend to be more accurate. LDCs are commonly used to record vocals as they tend to be smoother and “bigger” sounding as their larger diaphragm takes more time to respond. However, LDCs can be used on instruments when the detail of an SDC is too much (think of a rhythm acoustic guitar track where you want it to sit more in the backdrop). Condensers can capture the higher frequencies with more detail, whereas dynamic mics cannot, and therefore SDCs sound more open, airy, and detailed. The best condenser microphones deliver their detail without sounding harsh or abrasive, most notably in the upper-mid frequencies between 3khz and 6-8khz. Most common/ well-known condenser microphones are the Neumann U87 LDC & KM184 SDC, and the Telefunken ELAM 251Tube LDC and M60 SDC.
Ribbon Microphones: Arguably the least common element type due to their darker vintage-like sound and their more fragile nature. They’re very forgiving in their sound, which makes them great on guitar amps and brass instruments (naturally harsher applications where you do not want a highly detailed microphone). Ribbons also tend to take EQ very well. They are the most fragile element and can be damaged by a blast of air. They generally have the quietest output, requiring a large amount of gain from the mic preamp unless the source is incredibly loud. Sometimes using a ribbon with a cheaper ($200ish) interface/preamp produces problems as there’s not enough gain on the preamp and too much noise is introduced to the signal, so using a high enough quality preamp/interface or using one of the more modern phantom-powered ribbons from AEA is important to getting a good, clean sound. Most common/ well-known ribbon microphones are the RCA44 (now made by AEA), the Royer 121, the Coles 4038, and the Shure KSM313.
Vacuum Tube vs Solid State (Transformer OR Transformerless)
Vacuum Tube Microphones: Have an additional depth and 3-dimensionality to their sound that Solid State Microphones have a hard time mirroring. Additionally, tubes tend to add additional smoothness and fullness to a sound, making it a prime choice for vocals and bass (anyone recording vocals should have a tube LDC microphone). There is a spectrum of color and detail within the tube mic category, with mics like the Miktek CV3 and Sony C800G offering a cleaner and more detailed sound while the Peluso 2247 SE and Telefunken CU-29 Copperhead offer a creamy, smooth, and colored sound – but even the most detailed LDC tube will typically not have the detail associated with small diaphragm condensers (nor many solid state LDC mics either).
Solid State Microphones: Do not contain tubes and generally provide more detail and punch, which makes a voice or instrument feel like it’s jumping out of the speakers more compared to tube mics. Transformers are a commonly used electrical component in Solid State mics to add color and smoothness, similar to tube mics, but in their own unique way. The Neumann U87 (Clones: Peluso P87 & Warm WA87) is the perfect example of a smooth, colored and warm Transformer-based Solid State mic that has somewhat comparable qualities to a tube mic. The most detailed microphones tend to be Transformerless microphones and contain as few components as possible in the circuit path for the cleanest and lowest-noise signal possible. The TLM series from Neumann, like the TLM 102, is an example of a Transformerless design.
Cardioid Pattern: Often described as a heart-shaped polar pattern where the microphone picks up the sound in front of and slightly to the sides of where the mic is facing and rejects sounds that are at the rear of the microphone. Generally, most vocal recordings are done using the cardioid pattern. A Hyper-Cardioid Pattern is similar to Cardioid but offers even more rejection on the side and is more focused on the sound source the mic is facing at – also, it begins to pick up sound directly behind the mic, but not near as extreme as Figure-8.
Omnidirectional (Omni) Pattern: A non-directional pattern, meaning it picks up sound coming from all directions. They will pick up more of the room sound, which makes them less popular with home studio engineers and musicians who are typically recording in an untreated not so great sounding room. The Omni pattern does tend to have a very natural sound to it, making it favored by classical and orchestral musicians and engineers, or when additional room tone and openness is desired for a recording.
Figure-8 Pattern: A unique pattern that picks up a near equal volume front and rear lobe, and rejects sound coming from either side. This pattern is inherent in near all ribbon microphones due to their construction. Keep in mind, most SDC mics and Dynamic mics have end firing capsules, which means where you are pointing the mic is where you will be capturing sound. Most LDC mics are side firing, meaning you have to orient the front of the mic to the sound source while in a direction pattern.
Figure 8 Pattern