The microphone is easily the most universally known piece of music technology. You don’t need to be a studio engineer to know one.

But things change when we start talking about the different types of microphones. Moreover, things get truly complicated when we start talking about how microphones work.

But this guide is your one-stop-shop for everything microphone. Soon you’ll be clued up on what microphone is best for what recording purpose; how to work a microphone; and how microphones and polar pickup patterns work.

Rather than use a MIDI controller to paste notes straight into our digital audio workstation, we use microphones to record real-world sound waves and convert them into electrical signals.

What is digital audio? A guide for music producers


What is a transducer and what does it do?

Before we get into the main course, let’s talk about transducers. Transducers are any object that converts one form of energy into another. For example, sound waves into an electrical signal.

Outputs sent from transducers are always electrical signals. Additionally, these outputs are always proportional to the input energy.

The two common transducers are active and passive transducers. Passive transducers do not need an external power source, whereas active ones do. So, dynamic microphones are passive transducers. On the other hand, condenser microphones are active transducers.

Transducers are any object that converts one form of energy such as vocals into an electrical signal.


What microphone should I use for recording?

Whether you use an active or passive microphone depends entirely on your needs.


Four types of microphones for recording

Dynamic microphones

Dynamic microphones (PASSIVE transducers) are the most durable microphones around. Therefore, dynamic microphones are the best option for live performances.


How do dynamic microphones work?

Inside a dynamic microphone, a movable induction coil surrounds a magnet. Furthermore, the induction coil is also connected to a diaphragm that picks up incoming sound. Therefore, when the diaphragm vibrates when any sound does come into contact with it, it pushes and pulls on the induction coil. When the induction coil oscillates back and forth it creates an electrical current – generating an electrical signal.

How do dynamic microphones work? Dynamic microphones work via a movable induction coil that surrounds a magnet. Furthermore, the induction coil is also connected to a diaphragm. That diaphragm vibrates when any sound waves come into contact with it. Then, the induction coil oscillates back and forth past the magnet and creates a current which generates an electrical signal.
Image Credit: Thomann

As a result of their build, dynamic microphones respond to fluctuations in frequency well. And they can cope with high sound pressure levels (SPL) well too! It’s this matter of fact that makes them great for recording loud sound sources like snare drums and bass cabinets.


Large-diaphragm condenser microphones

Large-diaphragm condenser microphones (ACTIVE transducers) are the most common studio recording microphones. We’re sure you’ve watched a movie with a sound booth in it? Well, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone like the Rhode NT1A would have been in that vocal booth.


How do condenser microphones work?

Whether large or small diaphragm, condenser microphones use a capacitor (a condenser module) to convert sound waves into electrical signals. Like dynamic microphones, incoming sound waves vibrate a diaphragm – which is normally a gold-sputtered mylar (polyester film). And this diaphragm is stretched in front of a metal plate – the backplate.

Condenser microphones use a capacitor to convert sound waves into electrical signals.
Image Credit: MXL
Incoming sound waves vibrate a diaphragm inside the condenser microphone which is normally a gold-sputtered mylar (polyester film). This diaphragm is stretched in front of a metal plate - the backplate.

As the diaphragm vibrates, the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate changes. In turn, this changes the capacitance and converts the acoustic signal into an electrical one.
Image Credit: Teach Me Audio

Sputtering is a technique for applying a molecular layer of atoms to a surface. When gold-sputtering a Mylar diaphragm, this thin layer of gold makes the diaphragm electrically conductive and, therefore, an effective part of the condenser capsule.

My New Microphone

As the diaphragm vibrates, the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate changes. In turn, this changes the capacitance of the condenser module and converts acoustic sound into an electrical signal.

However, the electrical signal is a weak one. And that’s where phantom power comes in. Due to their build, condenser microphones have very high impedance (electrical resistance) and require a powered circuit to reduce the resistance.

It’s also due to their build that condenser microphones are far more sensitive to signal fluctuations than dynamic microphones. And with phantom power, they send a much louder signal to an interface or mixing desk! As a result, they’re the perfect choice for recording quieter sources. Furthermore, large-diaphragm condenser microphones are great for capturing sources where you want as much detail as possible – like vocals!


Small diaphragm condenser microphones

Small diaphragm condenser microphones (ACTIVE transducers) are the real underdog on the recording playground. They respond to transients and frequency fluctuations in such a way that they can rival dynamic mics. In addition, they have an extended top-end response and consistent pickup patterns.

As a result, small-diaphragm condensers are fantastic for recording sources in stereo. For example, it’s small-diaphragm condensers that we would use when to mic up a drum kit!

Another example is their use in classical performances too. In an opera theatre, you’d see small-diaphragm condensers in strategic places on stage in order to capture the full stereo sound of the performance. They’re often set up in pairs and are very effective for creating accurate stereo images of acoustic spaces.


What are ribbon microphones?

Ribbon microphones (PASSIVE transducers) were one of the earliest microphones around.

These mics actually date back to the 1920s. You could say they’re somewhat of the grandfather of microphones. Old broadcast recordings like Winston Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches‘ speech was recorded on one of these!


How do ribbon microphones work?

Ribbon mics use a very thin ribbon of conductive material which is suspended between two poles of a magnet. In turn, this mechanism converts acoustic sound into an electrical signal.

Ribbon mics use a very thin ribbon of conductive material which is suspended between the poles of a magnet. In turn, this mechanism converts sound into an electrical signal.
Image Credit: MusicRadar

What may not be surprising is that the earliest ribbon microphones were very fragile. For example, too high an SPL or rough handling would probably break them. However, ribbon mics have an iconically warm tone. So iconic, in fact, that it’s considered vintage in today’s day… and lo-fi music swallows it all up.

But don’t think today’s ribbon mics are unbreakable. They are still fragile, but they’re a bit more durable than they used to be. Ribbon microphones use a perfect figure of eight polar pattern (more on this soon) and produce a natural sound. Additionally, they also respond to EQ adjustments efficiently too!

A final tip we can give you is to avoid injecting 48V phantom power into ribbon microphones. You’re sure to burn out the ribbon coil of material inside the microphone!


How to work a microphone

How to connect your audio interface to your computer and audio interface
  1. Plug one XLR end into the mic connector.
  2. Plug your other XLR end into your audio interface.
  3. Open up your DAW and watch your master channels’ peak meter for signs of incoming audio as you talk into the mic. Make sure you’ve got headphones on to avoid feedback!
  4. If your DAW isn’t receiving sound, make sure the settings on your audio interface are set to let input signals in.
  5. Finally, make sure your DAW settings are primed for recording too!

Now that your microphone is hooked up to your interface, let’s talk about how to mic up instruments.

The amount of distance you’ll want to leave depends on the instrument you’re aiming to record. For example, many engineers mic up a snare drum with 1.5 inches worth of distance, while they may also mic up a piano with 8-11 inches if they’re using a single microphone. So, in addition to what instrument you’re looking to record, it also depends on how many microphones you have.

As a rule of thumb, a distance of 4-6 inches is pretty common. But if you’re mic’ing up an amplifier, place the microphone as close to the amp as you can without touching the grill.

Furthermore, where you position your microphone is important too. Positioning your microphone in the wrong place can lead to a number of problems. For example, you could experience signal bleed from other instruments in close range or even natural reverb. But more importantly, microphone positioning is key to ensuring you get a recording that replicates the original sound as closely as possible.


A microphone frequency response and sensitivity
The frequency response of a microphone refers to how well a microphone register sounds at different frequencies.

It’s unlikely you’ll run into frequency response issues, though it’s handy to know.

The frequency response of a microphone refers to how well a microphone register sounds at different frequencies. Like speakers, a flat frequency response means a microphone register sounds at all frequencies evenly.

Microphone sensitivity refers to how well a microphone responds to an input level. For example, if you’re recording quieter sources, you’ll want a higher sensitivity microphone like a condenser. However, recording a loud sound will call for a low sensitivity microphone like a dynamic microphone.


What are microphone pickup patterns?

So, we’ve explored how the different types of microphones register sound. Now we should explore microphone polar pickup patterns.

A microphone pickup pattern, known as a polar pickup pattern, is a “map” that explains what direction a microphone picks up sound from. Depending on its polar pickup pattern, a microphone can detect sound directly in front of it, behind it, or all around it.


What are the 5 microphone pickup patterns?

Cardioid pickup pattern

A cardioid microphone pickup pattern is hyper-sensitive to all sound directly in front of the mic head. A cardioid microphone will register sound from its sides too, but much quieter than the front. In contrast, any sound coming from behind the mic head is simply rejected.

A cardioid polar pickup pattern is hyper-sensitive to sound directly in front of the mic head. However, this type of microphone does pick up sound from the side of the microphone too, only quieter
Image Credit: My New Microphone

Cardioid microphones are hugely popular for recording sessions as well as live sound scenarios. The hugely popular dynamic SM57 & SM58 microphones by Shure are both cardioid microphones! Due to their pattern, cardioid microphones are great for recording in acoustically isolated spaces. On the other hand, they’re also fantastic in live sound scenarios as they minimise feedback and don’t pick up sound from a crowd or elsewhere on the stage.


Supercardioid

Like cardioid mics, supercardioid microphones are most sensitive to sound from the direction where the mic is pointing. In contrast, they have low to no sensitivity points at 127° and 233° where a cardioid would register sound. However, as you can see in the image below, supercardioid microphones will register sound at 180°. But this polar pattern is recognised for its stricter, more refined frontal signal reading compared to the cardioid pattern.

Supercardioid microphones are most sensitive to sound directly in front of the microphone. In contrast, they have almost no sensitivity points at 127° and 233° where a cardioid would register sound. . But this type of microphone microphone will register sound at 180°.
Image Credit: My New Microphone

It’s important that you don’t have the rear of your supercardioid microphone pointing towards monitors or other sources of potential feedback!


Hyper Cardioid

The hypercardioid pattern is very similar to the supercardioid, but differs at its points of least sensitivity. The points of least sensitivity on a hypercardioid are at 150° and 200° positions.

A hypercardioid microphone is very similar to the supercardioid microphone. However, they differ in its points of least sensitivity. The points of least sensitivity on this type of microphone are at 150° and 200° positions.
Image Credit: Home Recording Pro

Hypercardioid microphones have a further refined frontal signal reading compared to supercardioid microphones. Furthermore, they have less sensitivity at their sides but slightly more directly behind.

Like supercardioid microphones, hypercardioid mics are found in film production more than anywhere else too.


Omnidirectional pickup patterns

Omnidirectional polar patterns have a 360-degree radius. Microphones with this pattern register from all around the mic head.

Omnidirectional microphones register sound in a 360-degree radius. This type of microphone registers sound all around the mic head.
Image Credit: My New Microphone

You can use omnidirectional microphones to capture natural sounds or if you want a full stereo image. This makes omnidirectional microphones ideal for studio recordings where the objective is a natural, open sound.

They’re ultra-effective at recording acoustic instruments like guitars, recording big sound sources like orchestras, and so on. Additionally, direct sound sources such as speech too! Lavalier microphones (the tiny mics that news presenters wear) use omnidirectional patterns. News presenters wear them because they can move their heads around and not affect input volume, no matter how sad the news is.

But this means they’re not so great for live performances. In contrast to cardioid microphones, they pick up unwanted signals and cause some serious feedback. Furthermore, we recommend you avoid using omnidirectional microphones in an untreated room too. Sound bounces here, there, and everywhere in untreated rooms and omnidirectional microphones will register those reflections.


Figure of 8

Finally, we have the figure of 8 pickup pattern. A figure of 8 microphone has equal sensitivity at directly in front (0°) and behind (180°) but has the least sensitivity at 90° and 270°.

A figure of 8 microphone has equal sensitivity directly in front (0°) of the mic head and directly behind too.(180°). B this type of microphone has the least sensitivity at 90° and 270°.
Image Credit: My New Microphone

The Blumlein technique, pictured below, allows us to use two figure of 8 microphones to capture a full stereo image in performance. In scenarios where you won’t want sound at 90° and 270° to be cut such as podcasting, figure of 8 microphones are a great choice.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The figure of 8 pattern sounds like a brick wall at 90° and 270°. That is to say that no signal is registered at all.

Like omnidirectional microphones, these mics aren’t so good in live situations. As all instruments play in close proximity, you are very likely to have signal bleed come through. Furthermore, figure of 8 microphones have the smallest bass response of the five cardioid patterns. They’re incredibly sensitive to a change in pressure that elements like wind present.