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7 important microphone types that you should know and the benefits of each

A post by David Mellor
Tuesday April 12, 2016
Choice of microphones is a very personal thing and there are many factors to take into account. There is no one general 'one microphone to rule them all', but a range of microphone types that all have their own characteristic sound textures.
7 important microphone types that you should know and the benefits of each

Dynamic microphone

This is 'dynamic' in the same sense as a dynamo, which is device that turns movement into electricity. For example an old-style bicycle dynamo rotates a coil of copper wire inside the field of a magnet to create electricity to power the front and rear lamps.

In the same way, a coil of wire connected to the diaphragm of the microphone vibrates inside the field of a magnet in response to incoming sound waves. The current induced in the coil varies in proportion to the sound wave, thus turning an acoustic signal into an electrical signal.

The dynamic microphone produces an electrical signal directly and does not need to be powered. The advantages of the dynamic mic are its simplicity and robustness. The disadvantage is that the diaphragm is weighed down a little by the coil, hence it isn't quite as responsive to quickly-changing transients as other types of mic.

You wouldn't expect a dynamic microphone to capture all of the zing and sizzle of a cymbal. But on drums it can capture a sound that is solid and satisfying to the ear. The dynamic microphone works well on electric guitar speaker cabinets too.

Dynamic microphones are often used for vocals in live sound. This is largely due to historical reasons because capacitor microphones used to be bulky and delicate. But even now that there are capacitor microphone available that are purpose designed for live vocals, their generally higher cost is a disincentive when dynamic mics work very well for the purpose.

Shure SM58 dynamic microphone
Shure SM58 dynamic microphone

Small-diaphragm capacitor microphone

The capacitor microphone works on the principles of electrostatics and needs to be powered, normally with a 48-volt system known as phantom power. They need this a) to charge the electrostatic diaphragm and backplate (which forms the capacitor), and b) to power the internal amplifier that is necessary, the output from the capsule of the mic being very weak.

The point in having a small diaphragm, some 12 millimeters or so in diameter, is that a small diaphragm can be extremely responsive to sound. A larger diaphragm will tend to have a less accurate frequency response to sound that doesn't arrive at the mic directly on-axis, and a larger diaphragm may have resonances that color the sound. An even smaller diaphragm can be used for newsreaders' clip-on mics for example, but they tend to be more noisy.

If you're looking for an extremely accurate sound therefore, the small-diaphragm capacitor microphone is the one to go for. A more accurate sound isn't necessarily better, and can sound 'small' compared to a more hyped-up mic. But if you want to capture things exactly as they are in real life, it's the mic type to choose.

Neumann KM184 small-diaphragm capacitor microphone
Neumann KM184 small-diaphragm capacitor microphone

Large-diaphragm capacitor microphone

Before microphone manufacturers found ways and means of shrinking the capacitor microphone, all capacitor mics had what we would now think of as a large diaphragm. Although there is no hard-and-fast dividing line between small-diaphragm and large-diaphragm, you can think of 24 mm as being large. Bear in mind that you would have to look at a mic's specification on this. Some quite bulky mics have surprisingly small diaphragms inside.

The advantage of this type of mic is that it gives you the kind of sound you would often want in the studio - not natural exactly, but a rich and warm sound that flatters anything you put in front of it.

Because of the larger diaphragm that captures sound vibration over a wider area, it has the potential to be quieter than a small-diaphragm capacitor microphone, but it would be unusual to find this a real-life benefit of significance.

The large diaphragm has the disadvantage that is is likely to be more directional at higher frequencies then lower. When it is used head-on then this won't be an issue. But when the off-axis pickup is important, such as when two mics are used as a stereo pair, then it is worth listening out for.

AKG C414 large-diaphragm capacitor microphone
AKG C414 large-diaphragm capacitor microphone

Vacuum-tube microphone

This design harks back to the early days of capacitor microphones when the internal amplifier had to have a vacuum tube as its active element because transistors had not yet been invented or had not become practically usable. Although some vacuum tube microphones from the past had small diaphragms, we now tend to see the vacuum tube and large diaphragm as going hand-in-hand (though there are exceptions).

The advantage of the vacuum tube microphone is that the tube amplifier tends to create a small amount of distortion of a pleasant kind that the ear interprets as 'warmth'. For vocals, the effect can be magical.

Although it would rarely be worthwhile to seek out a vintage example of any other kind of microphone, vintage vacuum tube microphones are often VERY desirable - and correspondingly expensive!

Peluso 22
Peluso 22 47 vacuum tube microphone

Ribbon microphone

The ribbon microphone is a special kind of dynamic microphone. But where the conventional dynamic microphone has a coil of wire attached to the diaphragm, the metalized ribbon is both the coil and diaphragm combined. Because the ribbon is so light, it can be as responsive as a capacitor microphone, although the tone tends to be a little darker.

Ribbon microphones are often thought to provide a detailed but slightly dark sound. This makes them useful as an extra artistic tool to play with in the studio.

Ribbon microphones are commonly fragile, to the point that some would advise not to walk quickly while holding one or the ribbon could be damaged or dislodged by the passage of air.

The ribbon mic doesn't need powering (apart from special types with their own internal amplifier). However their output is generally low and it is worth taking note of manufacturers' recommendations when choosing a preamp.

Coles 4038 ribbon microphone
Coles 4038 ribbon microphone

Electret microphone

The electret microphone is a special type of capacitor microphone where the diaphragm is pre-polarized and doesn't need to be powered. The internal amplifier still needs power. This can often come from a small battery as an alternative to phantom power, but battery-only electret mics are likely to be less sensitive and have a lower maximum sound pressure level (SPL) handling capability.

Early designs of electret microphones were often thought to be inferior due to the limited choice of material for the diaphragm. But the improved back-electret design removes this limitation by pre-polarizing only the backplate. Indeed some of the most accurate microphones in the world are back-electret types so this should no longer be an issue in microphone selection.

DPA 4011 electret microphone

DPA 4011 electret microphone

Piezo microphone

Just to round off, another type of microphone has fallen out of use for sound traveling through air, but still has wide-ranging applications in audio. This is the piezo or ceramic microphone which works by the piezo-electric effect where bending a special crystal can create an electric voltage.

The piezo design these days is used as a contact mic, either as a multi-purpose contact mic for any instrument you can stick it onto, or as an under-bridge pickup for acoustic guitar. Either way, it picks up vibrations directly from the sound source, not through the air. This has advantages in isolating the instrument from other sounds, but is usually some way from being entirely natural and is only used when there are distinct advantages in doing so.

Fishman BP-100 upright bass piezo pickup
Fishman BP-100 upright bass piezo pickup

Summary

These are seven types of microphone categorized by the way in which they work. There are also different polar patterns to familiarize yourself with, and microphones designed for various different applications.

Knowing and recognizing the distinctive sound textures of these types of microphones is an important skill for every engineer, producer and musician.

A post by David Mellor
Tuesday April 12, 2016
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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