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Are you in the market for a new microphone and need help deciding whether to choose a condenser or a dynamic mic? Or perhaps you’re just wondering how these two types of microphones differ from one another and why. In either scenario, we’re here to assist you by providing all the necessary information and answering all your questions.
Microphones are classified into three types. Condenser, dynamic, and ribbon. (Even though technically speaking, ribbon microphones are considered dynamic microphones.)
Since condenser and dynamic are the most popular types, we will discuss how each of them works, how they differ, what each type is used for, as well as their benefits and downsides.
Before discussing each type, it is crucial to know that all microphones work the same way, whether it’s a condenser, dynamic, or ribbon mic. They all convert sound waves into voltage, which is then sent to a preamp.
However, condenser and dynamic microphones each use a different technique to convert this energy. We will start by discussing condenser microphones before we move on to dynamic mics.
What is a Condenser Mic?
A condenser microphone is what you’ll mostly see in professional recording studios. And that is primarily due to their high sensitivity. Compared to dynamic microphones, condenser microphones are much more sensitive. They do a much better job picking up high frequencies and quiet, distant sounds.
When it comes to functionality, we mentioned that all microphones convert sound waves into voltage, but condenser and dynamic microphones each use a different technique to convert this energy.
Condenser microphones use variable capacitance. They work as a battery. Sound waves cause a magnetic plate behind the microphone’s diaphragm to vibrate, which leads to a voltage boost caused by a phantom power supply (+48V) and then sent to the microphone’s output. The phantom power supply boost is critical because you won’t get much of a signal without it.
All condenser microphones require an external power supply to function properly, as they are “active” microphones. (Contain active circuitry.)
When it comes to condenser mic’s diaphragm sizes, you have small and large diaphragm mics. But what’s the difference? And does size matter?
Generally, a small diaphragm is ½ inch or less in diameter. A large diaphragm measures 1 inch or more.
Small diaphragm condenser microphones often have a pencil-shaped body tube with a capsule at the end.
Small diaphragm microphones are typically used for instruments like the piano, acoustic guitar, and other stringed instruments, as well as drums and percussion. They are almost exclusive to recording classical music, choirs, and or chestras. They can be used for anything due to their neutral and flat sound.
Large-diaphragm condenser microphones, like the Neumann TLM 103, make the sound appear larger and capture the depth of very low-frequency sounds, which is why they’re more commonly used on the human voice.
Pros and Cons
- A condenser mic is better for vocals.
- It is accurate and provides a more detailed sound.
- Premium sound quality.
- Wide and flat frequency response.
- Excellent for recording acoustic instruments.
- It requires an external power supply to function properly.
- It can be “too sensitive,” capturing sounds and sounds you don’t want.
- Bad for loud environments.
- It’s fragile, so you have to be careful dropping it.
- Tends to be expensive.
What is a Dynamic Mic?
A dynamic microphone is typically used live on stage by performers such as vocalists, comedians, public speakers, etc., and just like condenser microphones, it converts sound waves into voltage. However, dynamic microphones use electromagnetism to convert sound into an electrical signal.
Electromagnetism uses sound waves that vibrate the diaphragm to create electricity, which is then boosted by a transformer before it’s sent to the microphone’s output, producing sound.
There are two types of dynamic microphones, moving coil and ribbon microphones.
Moving coil microphones (AKA dynamic mics) is what you often see being used on stage, and they are built similarly to loudspeakers. A coil with a powerful magnet surrounding it is glued to the back of a membrane. The membrane and the coil on the back of the microphone move in time with the sound waves when they hit it. This coil then produces a small signal voltage due to its relative movement inside its magnetic gap, turning your microphone into a device that converts sound into an electrical signal.
Moving coil mics are what you often see live on stage because they have the upper hand regarding durability, as most are very durable and ruggedly built. They tend to handle hard falls much better than both condenser and ribbon mics, which is one of the main reasons you will see them more with live performers, public speakers, karaoke bars, and many other places. Moving coil microphones also have the added advantage of being passive, meaning they don’t need an external power source to function.
Ribbon mics also use electromagnetism to convert sound into an electrical signal. However, a narrow strip of incredibly thin aluminum foil is used in a ribbon transducer in place of a membrane and a coil. And because this piece of aluminum ribbon is much thinner and lighter, a ribbon transducer can track sound waves more precisely than a moving coil capsule.
However, ribbon microphones produce much lower output, have lower sensitivity, and are more fragile than moving coil mics.
Pros and Cons
- Ideal for live performances.
- Durable. Making it ideal for travel.
- Made to handle loud sound sources.
- doesn’t need an external power source to function.
- Can find a lot of high-quality dynamic mics at an affordable price.
- Picks up less ambient noise.
- Poor high-frequency response.
- Not very accurate or sensitive.
- Not suitable for recording instruments, especially acoustic instruments.
Factors to Consider when Purchasing a Condenser or Dynamic Microphone
When it comes to recording, each type of microphone serves a specific purpose. So Before getting too excited and buying the first microphone you see, there are factors to consider to prevent purchasing the wrong microphone that might turn out to be ineffective for your intended use. So how do you determine which microphone is best for you? Or if you require a dynamic or condenser microphone? Let’s look at the key factors you must pay attention to before making your purchase.
The first question you must ask yourself is, “what are you recording?”
Do you need a new microphone to record your vocals for new music? Do you need one for your gaming sessions? Podcasting? Voice-over work? Recording acoustic or electric instruments? Figure out your purpose before choosing the right microphone.
Condenser microphones are preferable to dynamic microphones when recording vocals or acoustic instruments as they are more sensitive and detailed than dynamic mics.
For drums, you can use a condenser mic for cymbals, overheads, and sometimes toms and snares.
A condenser microphone also works best for gaming, podcasts, and voice-overs.
For live use, it’s better to use a dynamic microphone since they are less sensitive to loud sources, making them also ideal for recording snare drums, brass instruments, and guitar amps.
When purchasing a microphone, it’s essential to consider the polar pattern, as how you position the microphone can affect the tone of your sound source. In contrast to condensers, which can have just about any pattern, and some even have a switch to change polar patterns, most dynamic microphones typically have either a cardioid or super-cardioid pattern.
There are mainly three polar patterns to consider;
A cardioid polar pattern is the most commonly used for recording vocals, as its job is to pick up sounds strictly from the front of the microphone and reduce ambient noise.
Omnidirectional microphones pick up sound from all directions equally, which is not something you want when your goal is to record a person’s vocals. Instead, you would use an omnidirectional microphone when you want to simultaneously record sounds from multiple people, like during plays and musicals.
Bidirectional microphones have a “figure 8” pickup pattern, meaning they’re sensitive to sounds from the front and rear but reject sounds from the sides. You can use a bidirectional mic to record two background singers using the same mic, you can place one between toms or congas, and any two sound sources positioned side by side.
So before you buy your microphone, think of what you need to record, and choose your mic’s polar pattern accordingly.
Maximum SPL (Sound Pressure Level)
Max SPL refers to the maximum sound pressure level a microphone can withstand before experiencing distortion. The standard reference for this specification is 0.5% distortion at 1 kHz. This means that you should ensure that your microphone’s maximum SPL is higher than the level of your sound source.
It’s best to look for a microphone with 130-140dB of max SPL, which is high enough to record most sound sources without overloading the mic and causing distortion.
Equivalent Noise Level
Equivalent Noise Level, or “self-noise,” is the signal that the microphone generates, even in the absence of a sound source. If you want to avoid that hiss, look for a microphone with an equivalent noise level below 15 dB-A. You may be able to get away with 20 dB-A, but 10-15 dB-A will guarantee extremely low noise.
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Condenser Mics vs. Dynamic Mics – Final Verdict
There really isn’t one type of microphone that’s better than the other. It all depends on what you plan to do with the microphone. If you’re looking for a new microphone for live performances, it’s best to go for a dynamic microphone, as it’s more durable and will pick up less ambient noise than a condenser mic.
Also, due to the excellent job dynamic mics do in capturing loud sound sources, they can be used as direct/close mics to record individual drum elements and guitar and bass amps.
If you’re looking for a microphone that can reproduce frequencies more accurately, giving you a more detailed, precise sound, then a condenser microphone is your best choice.
Condenser microphones are also preferable for recording vocals and instruments such as acoustic guitars, drum overheads, string and brass instruments, and horns.
Therefore, it’s not really a competition after all. Each type of microphone is built for a specific purpose; all you have to do is figure out your goal before purchasing your ideal mic.