Last Updated on December 16, 2023 by AG
Microphones, come in different varieties to suit different recording purposes. Some are better suited for recording in a studio setting, some are great for recording live performances, some can pick out sound while disregarding surrounding noise and some have something unique to their sound. You could say they have their own coloring or vibe, this is true for many vintage microphones.
Different microphones can alter the sound of the recorded music, you could compare it to applying a filter to your smartphone’s image, this can affect the look of the image, even if it is the same view, at first.
Because microphones not only vary in their intended use but also in terms of their pick-up patterns, tones, and colors, it’s important to find the right microphone for your specific needs. Before buying a microphone, you should consider several factors, including:
- your budget,
- what you plan to record,
- your current setup.
It’s also helpful to understand the terminology associated with microphones so that you can make informed decisions when purchasing one.
Buying a Microphone – Specifications and Terminology
Many people look at other studios’ equipment lists or spend a lot of money on a mic without fully comprehending what they’re purchasing. Don’t do it as it can cost you twice, once you realize that you need something different to achieve your goal.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL): This refers to how quiet and loud a signal can be so the mic can capture it and reproduce it accurately. Respect those numbers, because too high sound pressure levels can and will damage your microphone!
Frequency Response: This refers to the range of frequencies a microphone can capture. This is especially important if you want to capture very deep or high notes. Make sure that your chosen microphone can record those.
Response Curve: This describes how a microphone performs at different frequencies. The curve shows peaks and dips in certain frequency ranges that way you can see what the mic is best suited for. For example, vocal mics may peak more in the high-mid range, which gives more presence to the vocal recording.
What are Microphone Polar Patterns?
The polar pattern of a microphone defines the sensitivity for picking up sound at different angles. It shows for example if noises coming from the back of the microphone are displayed the same way as sound in front of the microphone, in a noisy room, it makes a big difference.
Cardioid: This is the most common pattern. Cardioid Microphones capture sound best, if it is directly in front of them while rejecting sounds coming from the back and sides.
Omnidirectional: This type of mic captures sounds equally from all directions, making it great for room recordings or if you have just one microphone available for more than one musician.
Figure 8: This pattern allows for equal recording of the front and rear positions of the mic while rejecting sound coming from the sides. It is used for room recordings etc. like the omnidirectional microphone.
Super/Hyper Cardioid: These mics are very similar to the cardioid ones, but don’t reject as much sound from behind and are more directional in their focus. They pick up the sound you’re pointing them at while rejecting sound from the sides. They are often used in sound recording from a distance like in movie production.
Different Types of Microphones
There are several types of microphones available on the market, each with its unique features and characteristics. Some of the most commonly used microphones are:
Dynamic microphones are ideal for loud sound sources and live performances. They are rugged, durable, and do not require any additional power. They are not as detailed as condenser microphones, but they are much more affordable.
Condenser microphones are great for capturing detail in recordings and are known for their high sensitivity and low self-noise. They used to be very expensive, but have become more affordable. They require phantom power to operate.
USB mics are becoming more popular due to their ease of use and growing popularity. They are not ideal for professionals, but they are great for quick recording projects, podcasts, and voiceover work.
These are hyper-cardioid or super-cardioid patterned microphones that are excellent for voiceovers and field recording. They focus on the sound in front of them and reject unwanted sounds behind and on the sides.
Is a Smaller or Larger Mic Better?
When it comes to microphones, size does matter – but it’s not a matter of “bigger is always better.” Microphone size can affect sound quality in several ways, and choosing the right size helps you to achieve the desired outcome.
Microphone size refers to the physical dimensions of the microphone, specifically the size of the diaphragm, which is the part of the microphone that converts sound waves into electrical signals.
Larger diaphragms generally mean larger microphones, while smaller diaphragms correspond to smaller microphones.
How Microphone Size Affects Sound Quality
The size of a microphone can have a significant impact on its sound quality. In general, larger diaphragms are more sensitive and can capture a more detailed, nuanced sound. This is because they have a larger surface area to capture sound waves, which can result in a more accurate representation of the original sound source. Generally, they produce a warmer and fuller sound, have a high sensitivity, a lower dynamic range, and lower self-noise.
Small diaphragm microphones have often higher self-noise, lower sensitivity, and a higher dynamic range. They can handle higher sound pressure levels without distorting or breaking up and are great for recording sounds with sharp transients. Depending on the microphone they can sound great on vocals, so much so that there are musicians that liked to record their vocals with small diaphragm mics, only. Jimi Hendrix for example.
When to Use a Smaller or Larger Microphone
The choice between a smaller or larger microphone ultimately depends on the specific recording situation and the desired sound. In general, larger microphones are better suited for recording nuanced sounds or instruments, such as pianos or voices, while smaller microphones are better for recording individual instruments or louder sounds, like drums, but they are also great for guitars or vocals.
Additionally, the distance between the microphone and the sound source can also affect the choice of microphone size. If the sound source is relatively close to the microphone, a smaller diaphragm may be more appropriate to capture the sound accurately. If the sound source is farther away, a larger diaphragm may be necessary to capture the sound with enough detail.
Ultimately, the choice of microphone size should be based on a combination of factors, including the intended use, the specific recording situation, and the desired sound quality.
Why Do I Have to Know All That Stuff?
Understanding microphones and their characteristics is crucial when shopping for one. It helps you make informed decisions and ultimately improves the quality of your recordings.
It is important to note that more money does not always equate to better quality. A good preamp with a decent mic will be a better investment than a cheap preamp or interface and an expensive mic, and the other way around.
So in essence it is not the microphone alone that will determine your result and the weakest link in your chain will be your limiting factor.
What to Expect for Your Microphone Budget
So, how much should you expect to spend on a microphone? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
Microphone prices can range from less than $50 to several thousand dollars, depending on the make and model. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:
- For a decent budget microphone, expect to spend at least $100-150.
- For a mid-range microphone, expect to spend $300-500.
- For a high-end microphone, expect to spend $1000 or more.
Remember, these are just general guidelines. Your budget may vary depending on your needs and preferences. So do your research and find the best microphone for your intended use and budget.
But how to find the best microphone without listening to it? For many microphones, you’ll find recordings and comparisons on youtube, etc., look for those that compare dry and unprocessed voices or instruments as this will give you a better feel for the mic than a finished record. And then there is also the possibility of renting time in a studio, this could be a good option for getting a feeling for different microphones, but speak with them beforehand if it would be possible to try out different mics.
Before buying a microphone, it is important to consider your budget, what you plan on recording, and your current setup. Knowing the basics of language used to describe microphones, what polar patterns are, and why diaphragm sizes matter will help you make informed decisions and ultimately get the most out of your recordings. Remember to not get too caught up in the hype of expensive equipment and focus on the quality of the recordings you want to produce.