The three most popular types of microphones are, dynamic microphones, condenser microphones and ribbon microphones. These three types differ in internal design, therefore will produce different recording results.
In order to pick the right microphone for your content creation, (for example, if you are recording sound for a film, YouTube video, podcast, music recording or game stream), it will really help to know what the main three types of microphone are and how they produce different recorded results.
As mentioned, the three main types of microphone are:
- Dynamic Microphone.
- Condenser Microphone.
- Ribbon Microphone.
There are other types, but these are the most popular and typically the vast majority of microphones on the market will fall into one of these categories.
The different types have different audio qualities and therefore each type will bring a different audio aesthetic to your recording and content production.
The main difference between these microphone types is that they differ in how they are designed and operate internally. This difference in physical design and construction adds different audio properties while recording.
How a Microphone Works [in one sentence ☺️]
As the different microphone types differ in design and internal construction, it can help to have a basic idea of how a microphone works
I am going to attempt to try and do this in one sentence to cut out a lot of jargon – here we go….☺️
“A diaphragm” which is a really thin piece of material inside the microphone vibrates when you project sound at it, this then converts the sound waves of your speech to an electrical signal which can be amplified and recorded.
What microphone type is best to use in my content creation?
To get the most out of a microphone and pick the best one for your recording setup and content production, it helps to know what each microphone type is best suited for
Here is a quick guide, detailing a typical recording scenario and the most appropriate mic type.
|Condenser microphones are great for vocal recording. By design, they are more sensitive than dynamic microphones therefore you can get greater clarity in the recording which is perfect for speech recording. Before committing to a large diaphragm condenser, ensure your recording environment is pretty quiet as the sensitivity of condenser mics, particularly the very expensive ones, will pick up a lot of environmental noise.|
|Speech clarity is fundamental in audio book recording, therefore using a large diaphragm condenser microphone will give you excellent results.|
|Dynamic or Condenser||Although condenser microphones are great for clear vocal and speech recordings,they can be very sensitive and pick up a lot of environmental and background noise. In a streamer environment where you are both narrating your game streams, but also making noise due to movement and controller sounds, a good quality dynamic microphone could be a better choice. You could get the clarity of vocals but less background environmental noise.|
Musical Instrument Live Performance
|Dynamic||Dynamic microphones are typically used for live performances as they will pick up the instrument and less background noise. They are also more durable, so can be thrown around a stage and still survive.|
Musical Instrument Studio Performance
|Dynamic or Condenser||For studio musical instrument recording which microphone you use depends on the instruments and what you are trying to achieve. For guitars and “higher” sounding instruments dynamic or condenser microphones can work well. For lower frequency instruments such as drums or bass, or powerful sounds, like a strong electric guitar use a dynamic microphone as they are more robust. Most condenser microphones will be easily damaged by the large volumes of air moved by drum and bass instruments. The internal structure is delicate and can break.|
|Drum or Bass Recording||Dynamic||To avoid breakage use a dynamic microphone as they are more durable. The internal design of a condenser microphone is delicate. The large volumes of air coming from bass and drums will easily damage the internal structure of a condenser microphone.|
Vocal Recording [Studio]
|Condenser||Condenser microphones are the natural choice for vocal recording due to the clarity they produce. For studio recording of vocals, this is always a great choice.|
What does a dynamic microphone look like?
With so many new designs and shapes of microphones, these days it can be difficult to identify a dynamic microphone without checking the manufacturer specification.
There are some tell tale signs however.
Firstly, they do not require an external power source to work.It is plug and play.
Secondly, they can be quite heavy. I appreciate it is impossible to define “heavy”. However, due to the internal design of dynamic microphones which have a magnet and coil assembly design internally, even the cheaper microphones will feel heavy.
Thirdly, they are typically cheap. Again, it is hard to define “cheap”, but you can get a very decent dynamic microphone in the £50 region.
Below are some images of dynamic microphones for reference.
What are the key features of dynamic microphones?
- The dynamic type is the least sensitive of the three. (Least sensitive in sound design terms means that they won’t pick up every sound in the environment)
- Often, they can be significantly cheaper as their internal mechanics & circuitry is not as complicated. Don’t mistake their cheaper price for lack of performance however!
- Of all the microphone types, they are the most durable and robust. They are used in live stage performances most commonly due the amount of abuse they can take without breaking.
- They are used in the music recording world for loud instruments, like drum kits as they can absorb the louder sound without causing internal damage.
What does a condenser microphone look like?
With so many new shapes and designs, it can be difficult to identify a condenser microphone immediately and it best to check the manufacturer specifications, however there are some tell tale signs.
Firstly, they need an external power supply to run. Due to the design, they need to get power to work.
Therefore, if you are purchasing a condenser microphone, you need to ensure you have a power source. Most USB condenser microphones will take their power to run from the USB connection, however, condenser microphones with standard XLR connections will need a power source.
If you use an audio interface to connect your microphones to your computer, check that it has a “phantom power supply”. You may see a button with 48V next to it.
If you see “48V” on your audio interface, this means that the audio interface will supply power to the condenser microphone so it will operate.
If you don’t have a power supply option as part of your audio interface, you can buy an external power supply into which your microphone connects and can draw power to operate.
Another way to identify condenser microphones is to look at the head.
With large diaphragm condenser microphones, it is sometimes possible to see the “large diaphragm” disc inside the housing. If you see this inside the housing, you have a condenser microphone.
In the past, dynamic microphones were the cheaper option and condenser microphones a more expensive choice, but this is no longer the case.
I think most professionals will agree that on average it is more difficult to get a great condenser for less than £100, unlike the dynamic microphones which produce acceptable results in the £50 price range.
However, once you go above the £100 price range, the waters become a bit muddy and using “price” to identify a condenser microphone from a dynamic microphone is not useful.
What are the key features of condenser microphones?
- The condenser type is most commonly used in the recording studio for higher frequency instruments and vocal recording.
- They are superb for achieving clean vocal recording and are the go-to choice for recording professionals when recording vocals.
- Be aware that the large diaphragm condensers microphones, due to their excellent sensitivity, will pick up noise in the environment, therefore ensure you use high-end condenser microphones in a studio or quiet environment.
- Wonderful at picking up detail and clarity in a recording.
- Really should be used with a shock mount as they are more sensitive to picking up sound. This is a suspension system within which the microphone is mounted to protect it from noise and vibration.
- Comparatively more expensive than dynamic microphones and need more care when handling as they are less robust – drop one of these or put it in front of a loud sound and there is an increased chance that you will damage the internal mechanism.
- Condenser microphones, due to the internal circuitry, needs external power from another source. This is called a phantom power and is typically 48V. Your audio card or audio interface will need to be able to provide a 48V supply to your condenser microphone in order for it to work. You can buy an external 48V phantom power supply if needed however.
- Many of the newer USB powered condenser microphones will use the USB power so there is no need for an independent power supply, but it is worth double checking this to be 100% sure as models vary.
What does a ribbon microphone look like?
It can be very difficult to identify a ribbon microphone without checking the manufacturer’s specification.
One key tell tale sign of a ribbon microphone is that it is passive – in other words, it does not require an external power source to operate.
Some personal experience on ribbon microphones
I think it could really be beneficial to share some of my own personal experience of working with ribbon microphones.
I don’t want to deter anyone from trying out a ribbon mic, but to be honest, they are not my first choice and I will always select a condenser over a ribbon type.
The main reason is that these microphones can sound great but they are very delicate and very sensitive to microphone position. This has made them my second choice.
I had a week-long recording session once using a high end ribbon microphone, priced in the £1500 range to record multiple takes of electric guitar.
This is an incredible microphone – like exceptional – but I had a problem. As I had to come back into the studio every day, I found that if the microphone was not perfectly positioned as per the day before, we would get a different sound. When you are looking for continuity this is a problem.
We used masking tape and pictures and measuring tape to carefully document our microphone position, but it was just an extra level of work for us.
This sensitivity to mic placement shows the detail that these microphones can pick up which is a amazing, but you will need to be very professional and consistent when working with ribbon microphones to get the most out of them.
In a nutshell, from my personal recording experience, if you have a studio environment with a well controlled acoustic setup, ribbon mics are an option. If not, consider a condenser before investing in a ribbon microphone.
What are the key features of ribbon microphones?
- The ribbon microphone is similar in operation to the dynamic microphone but has a very thin metal ribbon as part of the internal mechanical design, hence the name. Technically, they are a sub-division of dynamic microphone.
- Of all the microphone types, ribbons are one of the most sensitive to sound.
- Being the most sensitive, they really should be used for very quiet and controlled recording environments. They pick up everything!
- Very fragile. Needs to be handled with care as the metal ribbon can be easily damaged.
- Recommend only for controlled studio environments or very controlled conditions.
There are three main microphone types, namely, “Condenser”, “Dynamic” & “Ribbon”.
There are other types, but these are the most popular and the vast majority of microphones on the market will fall into one of these three categories.
These three microphones differ mechanically in how they pick up sound. As a result, each type has advantages and disadvantages when applied to different recording scenarios.
In a nutshell, for recording high quality vocals a large diaphragm condenser type is recommended,
It is worth noting that large diaphragm condenser microphones are very a “sensitive” type of microphone and as a result they are more prone to picking up external background noise. Therefore this microphone type is best suited to recording in a quiet room or studio environment. Otherwise, this microphone type can easily pick-up surrounding environmental noise.
Dynamic type microphones are more robust and durable than the condenser type and won’t pick up every detail or noise in the environment, hence why they are used for live performances where there is a lot of surrounding noise.
However, they are less sensitive, (i.e. don’t pick up as much audio detail) and you may not get the detailed clarity or brightness that often sounds great on vocals. They are still a great option however.
The ribbon type microphone, a subdivision of the dynamic type, is the least common.
Some people love ribbon microphones but for the average filmmaker and content creator, it is too delicate (i.e. easily broken) and requires a very quiet and controlled recording environment.
In my opinion, it does not achieve anything special over a condenser microphone for low budget recording.
There are some awesome ribbon microphones that I have used such as the Royer R-121 Studio Microphone which I love, but they are expensive products best suited to high-end professional studio recording. You gotta treat ribbon microphones with some love. ☺️
Disclaimer: This blog is intended as a guide only for educational and informational purposes. It is not legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.