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What is the difference between condenser and dynamic microphones?

July 26, 2016 5 translation missing: en.blogs.article.read_time 1 Comment

Studio Microphones Blog

A question we often get asked is, "what is the difference between condenser and dynamic microphones?" It's a great question and one that you, as a recording artist, producer or sound engineer really should know. Below we explain the key differences between dynamic, ribbon and condenser microphones - we also touch on USB microphones and pencil microphones and their uses. We hope this blog makes your choice a little easier when choosing the correct microphone for your recording studio.

Condenser Microphones

The main difference is that condenser - or to be more precise, a capacitor microphone requires power from a battery or +48V usually from a pre-amp. They work by having 2 internal metal plates, one of which is the diaphragm - a very thin piece of metal. Sound- waves vibrate the diaphragm, changing the distance between the two plates. A louder sound-wave will push the diaphragm closer to the back-plate creating an increase in capacitance, creating a charge or current. This is how a condenser converts acoustic energy into electrical energy. The current created is extremely small, and requires an internal pre-amp to magnify the signal into a mic-level signal. This process requires phantom power. Condenser Microphones are like magnifying glasses. They offer a detailed picture of the sound-source - especially of the earlier transients and nuances in the sound. However, they are not great with very high SPL (sound pressure level).

 Condenser microphone diagram

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic Microphones, or moving coil microphones, are passive (require no phantom- power) and simpler in design. Here’s how dynamic microphones work: The diaphragm at the front of the microphone is attached to the coil and responds to sound pressure by moving the coil past the magnet, thus creating an electrical charge in the coil. Dynamic microphones are capable of handling extremely high SPL. In the studio they are a great choice for drums, percussion and amplifier cabinets. THE most popular, versatile and number one go-to dynamic microphone in the studio is the Shure SM57.

Dynamic Microphone Diagram

Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon Microphones are also considered to be dynamic microphones, as traditionally the earliest designs in the 1930’s required no phantom power to operate. In fact, some of the vintage RCA and Coles ribbon classics will become permanently damaged if any power is sent to them accidentally from a pre-amp. However, many current ribbon microphones are powered, or even have their own valve or tube based power-supply. Ribbon’s are a great point of difference for studio recording. Classic and current ribbon microphones for the studio are the Coles 4038and Royer R121. Ribbons sound fantastic on a range of different instruments. Ribbon microphones, like other dynamics such as the SM57 have a lower overall output. You will require more gain, and therefore a better pre-amp to compensate. Cloud Microphones, offer a product called a Mic Activator. They are like passive DI boxes, and in short boost the gain of the microphones output before it reaches the pre-amp.

USB Microphones

USB Microphones are condenser microphones (generally), that have an in-built USB interface in the body of the microphone. Whilst they are convenient, and eliminate the need for an audio interface by offering an all-in-one-solution, well lets just say there are very good reasons for some audio interfaces costing upwards of $5000.00! However, USB microphones are an excellent option for single track demo recordings, web-conferencing, pod-casting and some voice-over work. They are simple to operate, set-up and cost- effective. Be sure to check the output options on USB microphones before purchasing. Some include a headphone jack, and some do not.

Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

Small Diaphragm, or pencil microphones, as they are sometimes referred to are a fantastic choice for spot-miking a solo instrument. They are light weight - therefore do not require an expensive, heavy-duty stand to mount, but more importantly they offer more off-axis rejection to the capsule making them an excellent choice for home-studios or untreated rooms. Classic pencil microphones include the KM184 (Neumann) or the AKG C451. Both are very clean and transparent. These microphones would be a great addition to any production mainly using sample-based instruments and wanted to occasionally record solo instruments to blend in.

If I could only have 1 microphone for the studio which one should I choose?

Microphones are tools designed for the trade of recording. They are a little bit like spanners - there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all that will be sufficient for EVERY recording application. However, if ever there was an adjustable-wrench of the microphone family - so to speak, for studio recording, that would have to be a multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser. And here’s why. Firstly, a large-diaphragm (1-inch diameter) will capture lower frequencies more accurately than a smaller diaphragm (such as a pencil microphone), simply due to the physics of their design. It’s the same principle when it comes to speakers - a larger woofer will always represent lower frequencies more accurately due to the size of waveforms. So why is this important? Put simply, low frequencies are much harder to replace/boost/add when mixing. If they weren’t captured properly in the first place, there is little you can do. Conversely, lower frequencies are relatively simple to remove from a recording should they not be necessary. A multi-pattern microphone design, will give you further flexibility, if required in a recording session. Most condenser microphones have a cardioid (heart-shaped) polar pattern. Cardioid microphones reject frequencies from the rear of the capsule and offer maximum clarity from the front. Multi-pattern microphones will include at least an omni-directional and figure-8 polar-pattern, along with a cardioid polar pattern. The Neumann U87 is a classic example - and one of the reasons it is the most emulated microphone for studio recording since it’s inception. An omni-directional capsule will not accentuate lower frequencies like a cardioid capsule will once situated closer to the sound source (proximity effect). Also, if you were to acquire a second microphone, using a figure-8 in conjunction with a cardioid microphone enables you to record stereo in an M/S configuration. Recording with a figure-8 capsule is also a great way to record a solo singer & instrumentalist by using both sides of the microphone capture voice and instrument. Some multi-pattern microphones will offer further variations such as hyper-cardioid & super-cardioid - the current AKG C414 is a great example. Some valve (tube) Multi-pattern condensers will have a variable polar-pattern encoder on it’s power supply, for even more variation. In general any condenser microphone will have a higher degree of sensitivity for recording in comparison with a dynamic, making them the most versatile choice for a lot of studio-recording applications.

When choosing the right microphone for the job at hand there are many variables, hopefully this blog helps guide you to choosing the best microphone for the job. 

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