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A 3-Minute Guide to Selecting a Recording Microphone

Search for "Recording Microphone" on some web sites and you may find 1000 choices or more. Where to begin? Here's a very quick tour.

Dynamic or condenser? Dynamic mics are great for on-stage, They work best up close and are, by design, "deaf" to any sounds not right in front of the mic. Condenser mics are far more sensitive and capture much more detail of the sound you're recording. For example, details such as a vocalist's "breathiness", the "wash" and "decay" of a cymbal, the complex overtones of an acoustic guitar -- these are best captured by a condenser microphone and, indeed, the better the mic the more detail it can "hear" and capture. If you're buying your first recording mic, you probably want to begin with a condenser mic.

Polar or pick-up patterns? In non-technical terms (and, admittedly it's not the full story) the polar pattern (AKA pick-up pattern) is the angle of acceptance of the microphone, that is, the angle from which the microphone is sensitive to sound. By far, the most often used of these patterns is called the cardiod or unidirectional pattern. A microphone having a cardiod patter responds to sounds coming to it from one side, approximately from an angle of about 120 degrees. Some microphones offer selectable pick-up patterns. The omnidirectional pattern (in which the mic can "hear" sounds coming at it from 360 degrees, or from any direction all around the mic) is used when you want the sound of the room or space that the instrument or vocal is in. If you have a great natural reverberance, say you're recording your vocals in a great-sounding old basement that just sounds "right", then the omnidirectional pattern may help you capture this effect. One example of how the bi-directional or figure-8 pattern is used would be recording a vocal duet where each singer sings into the opposite side of the microphone.

Generally, you'll spend less on a mic that is cardiod only and, for most of us, that will work 98% of the time.

Large diaphragm or small diaphragm condenser? The diaphragm of a microphone is the thin material inside the mic which vibrates with sound and converts that sound (acoustical energy) into electrical current or energy. Large diaphragm generally means that the diaphragm material is about 1 inch in diameter. Small diaphragms are about half that size. All things being equal (and they almost never are), the large diaphragm condenser is more sensitive than its smaller brother. However because of its lesser mass and thus its ability to respond more quickly, the small diaphragm mic is better at capturing sound waves that are "fast-moving", such as a classical guitar played with natural vibrato, a flute or violin, or the attack and decay of a cymbal. On the other hand, the large diaphragm mic is the first weapon of choice for vocals, strummed acoustic guitar, electric guitar amps, and ambient recording of drums. As we said in the intro, these are very general rules and any musician or engineer can give you examples of when they choose a dynamic mic or a small diaphragm condenser mic in place of the large diaphragm condenser, but heck, you have to start somewhere!

A "pad" may be a useful feature. A pad is circuitry in the mic that reduces or attenuates a loud sound so that the sound does not overdrive the mic, thus causing distortion. Say you want to record a loud guitar amp. If you place the mic far enough from the amp so that the amp's speaker does not distort (in a bad way) the microphone, then you might be getting too much of the room sound and not a focused direct sound from the amp. A pad (you'll typically see cuts of -10dB (decibels of sound) or -20dB or both) would allow you to place the mic close to the amp where it sounds best, but without having to turn down the amp and thus lose that killer tone you finally achieved.

So why do some large diaphgragm condenser mics cost $69.95 while some could cost $6995.00? There really is a difference in quality among microphones and this difference is reflected in the quality of the final product, the recording. How fine and how accurate is the detail captured? How quiet is the mic? Does its internal circuitry add any "self-noise"? Does the mic perform better for some instruments than others? Also there's the "build quality" of the mic: the materials of the diaphragm, the mounting of the diaphragm, the internal circuitry. These are questions that are well beyond the scope of this quick guide and, indeed, some of the answers are very subjective. Pick a price range that you can work with. Don't let anyone tell you that one microphone in that price range is absolutely better or worse for your needs than another. Remember much of the difference among microphones in a similar price range comes down to individual taste and how well a microphone "matches" a particular voice or instrument. It's much like a painter having a broad palette of colors to use. Blue isn't necessarily better than green, nor is red better than orange - just different.