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What to Look for in a Microphone – Things You Need to Know

When you are trying to choose a quality microphone, you are going to come up against a load of jargon. Therefore, it’s useful to at least be able to understand the basics of what you are being told.

In this article, I am going to explain some of the more basic elements so you will have a good understanding of the information. But to answer the question of what to look for in a microphone is going to depend almost entirely on one thing. What are you going to use it for?

How Will You Use Your Microphone?

Use Your Microphone

You will need to think about how you will use it and what it is for. And you will have to get that decision right. That decision might be quite simple.

Are you buying it for a recording studio, either at home or elsewhere where it will remain in the same place? If so, then that rules out some considerations. But you will still have to consider issues like is it for vocals or instruments or both? For example, if it is for recording a kick drum, you will need a high SPL.

Podcasts and interviewing at home or outside

Is it for home use for podcasts, YouTube videos, or similar? Again that means you have to consider fewer potential problems. Will you use it for interviews? Will that be one individual talking or maybe more than one person at a time. That could have an effect on the polar pattern you need.

But what about if you want to use it at home and outside? Sometimes weather conditions could be harsh. Wind, rain, and external noises can all give you a poor result if you choose the wrong mic. The environment you use it in is going to have a significant effect on your choice.

A high price isn’t always the right answer

Just because you go out and spend a small fortune on a mic doesn’t guarantee it is going to give you great results. Some of the best quality microphones you can get, if placed in the wrong environment for them, won’t perform very well at all.

That is why it is important to be clear about how you are going to use it. Part of that decision process starts with a choice. There are six main types of microphones. Although two of them do overlap with others. The six are:

  • Dynamic.
  • Large-diaphragm Condenser.
  • Small-Diaphragm Condenser.
  • Ribbon.
  • USB.
  • Lavalier.

Let’s take a brief look at all of them.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic Microphones

There are one of the two most popular microphones and are often described as workhorses. That is because they can be used in a variety of situations and are usually quite rugged. They are the mics you will see being used live on stage most of the time. The legendary Shure SM58 and SM57 are both Dynamic mics.

The Internals

They are very sensitive to sound vibrations. They have a small coil that is moved by soundwaves. That is converted into an electrical signal. They are good in all situations because the coil and the magnet inside are made to be durable. That means they can take a few knocks.

Noisy environments

These mics tend to work well where it is noisy, such as live performances for a singer or band. They also work very well for mic’ing up instruments, including drums, in a studio. In fact, the Shure SM57 is the most recorded snare drum microphone in history. They can also handle external sounds from bad weather in interviews outdoors.

Also, they won’t need any phantom power, but with some mics, like the Shure SM7, you might need a more powerful preamp to give it a boost, although this is unusual.

Need some recommendations?

According to most engineers, the Best Dynamic Microphone is the Shure SM58 Cardioid Vocal Microphone. It is one of the great mics used in live concerts and studios all over the world. A workhorse at a great price point. Check out our detailed Shure SM58 Review for more information.

Or, for a wide selection of superb options, take a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Dynamic Microphones on the market.

Condenser Microphones

Condenser Microphones

This is the other most used mic. There are a few things to consider with this type of microphone in that they are more sensitive than dynamic mics and can pick up small sound vibrations. This makes them an excellent choice for acoustic instruments, from orchestral to acoustic guitars and pianos.

They are also a great choice for recording vocals and also voices in interviews. They are best used in a fixed environment.

Phantom Power

Unlike Dynamic mics, Condenser mics need power. So you will need to get it from an external source. This is often an audio interface or a mixing console that supplies what is known as Phantom power. Bit of a fancy name for something quite simple. It just sends +48v into the mic via the standard microphone cable.

Condenser mics are more vulnerable than Dynamic mics. They have capacitor plates instead of magnets which are not as durable. This is the main difference between dynamic and condenser microphones, but there are a few others as well.

Large and Small Diaphragm Microphones

The difference is obvious in the title. But to be specific, the small option will have a diaphragm that measures less than ¾ of an inch. It would appear if that is the only difference, but it isn’t. The sound is characteristically different as well.

Small Diaphragm Mics

They will be better on the higher frequencies and will give what engineers refer to as “air” to the sound. This is because of the size. Being smaller, it can react to the air disturbances more accurately.

It can also be much more rigid in its design than the larger version. This can give you greater sensitivity but also reduce distortion. The smaller size means it doesn’t take as much sound pressure to create the motion.

Some uses…

They tend to be used in situations where a lot of detail is required and where the sound might be best described as delicate. They are the perfect microphones for acoustic guitars and woodwind instruments. But also for overheads, ride cymbals, hi-hats, and any smaller percussion instruments.

Large Diaphragm Mics

Yes, you’ve guessed it, larger than ¾ of an inch. Some think they are better for the lower frequencies. They tend to produce a less defined but much “bigger” sound.

Larger in size…

Obvious, really, I suppose. But it does tend to make them a bit more durable and rugged. They are very good at handling high SPL levels. Engineers normally use them for Vocals, Bass amps, room mics, recording guitar cabinets, and for brass instruments.

Most professional studios will have a selection of both large and Small Diaphragm mics to suit specific purposes and instruments.

Looking for a quality Condensor Microphone?

Then take a look at our reviews of the Best Condenser Microphones you can buy.

Ribbon Microphones

In terms of capturing the sound as naturally as possible, Ribbon mics are probably the best. They hear the sound very much as your ears do. There are lots of reasons why you should use a Ribbon mic for recording. Especially as drum overheads, for guitar cabinets, room mics, and possibly for brass instruments.

However, the cost of them is rather precluding for most. That may be because they can record the loudest sounds due to their high SPL. They have a reputation, a little unfounded these days, for being rather fragile. This is a bit of a misconception. They are not as tough as Dynamic mics, it is true, but they can handle average usage.

That said, if you have an older vintage model and happen to run phantom power through it by mistake, it will be time to buy a new microphone.

Performing in a digital world…

Ribbon mics were invented in the 1920s. The analog age. In those days of tape machines, the ribbon mic with its gradual roll-off did not always sound so good. But that very roll-off has created a whole new set of fans in the digital world. It might not have been the highlight in the past, but in the digital era, it works well.

A great mic in a static environment. But as I said, very expensive and not the sort of thing you are going to carry around with you.

USB Microphones

USB Microphones

Most USB mics are Condenser mics, although there are a few Dynamic options. The big plus with a USB mic is that they can be plugged straight into your Computer. This makes them the ideal microphone for home recording studios.

But perhaps more importantly, those who run podcasts, blogs, or put speech on videos. Most have Cardioid polar patterns. That means they will pick up sound from the front, which is great for voiceovers.

Great for narration, not so good for acoustic guitars…

In fact, voiceovers and podcasting have been the driving force behind their development. At this stage, the quality of the reproduction doesn’t lend itself to work in professional studios. But as an option for use at home, they are fine. Another plus is that they are much cheaper than most Dynamic or Condenser mics.

A great USB Microphone choice is the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ Cardioid Condenser USB Microphone. It is not the cheapest USB mic you can buy but is an excellent performer. For comparison, you can also find out about another great USB mic in our Audio-Technica AT2005USB Review.

For some great options, take a look at our comprehensive reviews of the Best USB Microphones and our in-depth Blue Snowball USB Microphone Review.

Lavalier Microphones

Most people will be familiar with these little clip-on mics used on TV for interviews. They are made small enough to be difficult to see and can be positioned near the mouth of the speaker.

The downside is that while they are suitable for interviews, their size means they have no padding. Therefore they are not protected from any bumps or accidental knocks.

They are usually dynamic or electret microphones. They are a cost-effective option if all you will use them for are interviews or voice-overs. Being clip on they are also good for use ‘hands-free.’ They also make a great kick beater microphone taped to the beater head of a kick drum.

Need a quality Lavalier? Then check out our reviews of the Best Lavalier Microphones you can buy.

Polar Patterns

Don’t be intimidated by the over-complex names given to the polar patterns. They are just a way of letting you know where the source of the sound is coming from. In other words, do you want to record what is in front of the mic, behind it, to the side of it, or even all around it?

Let’s take a look at the five basic options. Understanding polar patterns will go a long way in helping you know what to look for in a microphone.

Omni-directional

An Omni mic will collect the sound equally from all around it, and they have no proximity effect. Positioning them isn’t going to be a problem.

The downside is that eliminating room or other external sounds is very difficult. Likewise, any other instruments will “bleed” across. It hears everything and captures it.

Cardioid

This is a heart-shaped pattern (although the heart is on its side) and is ideal for a vocal or for speaking straight into it. It is the most common polar pattern you will find. It will pick up a minimal amount of sound from the sides and even less from behind it.

Supercardioid

As you might guess, this is a variation of the Cardioid pattern. The difference being the angle for sound collection at the front is tighter. It also allows a little bit more sensitivity from the rear. This will give you a much better exclusion of sound from the sides than the Cardioid.

They are ideal for recording instruments that suffer from a lot of bleed such as snare drums.

Hypercardioid

This takes things even further, becoming very directional and very sensitive to where you place them. They have a significantly greater proximity effect. And the angle of capture is very tight indeed. Very good for use in situations where you need to concentrate on the target in front of you.

Figure of Eight

This pattern will give you a good sound collection response from both front and back. It also gives you sound rejection from the sides. Perfect when recording instruments that are side-by-side, close together, or for face-to-face interviews.

In the good old days, they were often used to record duets with both singers facing each other and using one microphone for that ‘intimate’ feel. They are also a great option if you have two singers doing backing vocals at the same time because they can play off each other vocally.

What is Frequency Response?

Frequency Response

Simply put, this tells you how good the mic is at reproducing the frequency range that it is hearing. It is often demonstrated in graph form. You will quite often see a frequency response described as 20Hz–20kHz. That is quite a standard figure, but it doesn’t tell you the sensitivity at each frequency range.

Different frequency responses are best suited to certain recording requirements. Recording vocals will be different from recording a kick drum. The most accurate way of assessing the response is through a graph. But there isn’t enough space and time to go into that here.

However, to give you an idea, look at the graph for a particular microphone. Can you see a rise on the higher frequencies? If so, you can expect the mic to have a bright sound. The same applies for the lower frequencies, except for the bright part; they will be deeper.

What are Sensitivity and SPL?

You will see those expressions used in just about every description of a mic. They are both quite easy to understand and will help in your quest of what to look for in a microphone.

SPL is short for Sound Pressure Level. It is measured in decibels and is a measurement of the sound at its loudest point. Expect a mic for recording a kick drum to have a high SPL. This is because of the amount of sound generated.

The average SPL is about 75-80dB, with the ability to peak at 100dB. Although it is higher for some instruments, like a kick drum.

Sensitivity, not surprisingly, is a measurement of how sensitive the mic is. It will tell you how quiet the sound can go and still be picked up. A lower number means that a quiet sound will still end up being recorded.

Do You Need an Audio Interface?

If you are going to buy a USB mic, then you won’t need one as you can plug it straight into your computer. But as we have already said, the quality of the USB is not as high as a Dynamic or Condenser mic.

If you need a quality recording, you will need a mic that probably has an XLR connection. In that case, you will need an audio interface. They are not particularly expensive, and I have included an example at the end of this article.

As an added plus, the interface is also likely to carry Phantom power. This will drive your condenser mic if you choose one. The products at the end of this article include that facility.

Need some recommendations?

If you’re looking for an awesome audio interface, then check out the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen. It offers excellent value, great performance, with Phantom Power, and is an item I use myself. For more information, check out my in-depth Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Gen 3 Review.

For more superb options, check out our reviews of the Best Audio Interfaces, the Best iPad Audio Interface, and the Best USB Audio Interfaces on the market.

Portable Recorders for Podcasting

If you do choose an XLR mic, then using it out in the field for interviews will cause you some challenges. You can’t go carrying your audio interface with you. In that scenario, you can buy a portable recorder that has XLR inputs. That might be worth considering.

If you need some quality recommendation, then take a look at our Best Portable Audio Recorder Reviews and our reviews of the Best Multitrack Recorders you can buy.

Quality or Convenience?

You could argue it comes down to a choice. The USB mic is convenient and easy to use. However, an XLR mic will give you better quality. USBs are cheaper, and with an XLR, you will need to buy an audio interface. Quality or convenience. It is whatever suits your requirements the best.

Need Great Microphones?

We can help you find the right mic. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Microphones For Recording Vocals, the Best Microphones For YouTube, and the Best Wireless Microphones you can buy in 2021.

Also, take a look at our comprehensive reviews of the Best Computer Microphones, the Best Interview Microphones, the Best Live Vocal Mics, the Best Shure Microphones, the Best XLR Microphones, and the Best Microphones For Gaming currently on the market.

What to Look For in a Microphone – Final Thoughts

There are many issues to consider when picking the perfect mic. We haven’t got the space to go into them all here. One consideration that is often ignored applies to if you are using the mic in a home or other recording studio. Does the room need “treating”?

It can cost a lot of money. But if you are on a budget, try and treat the corners first with some foam. Good mics become great ones in an acoustically prepared environment.

And remember that whether you are recording in a studio, or at home, podcasting, or creating videos, the vocals are the most important.

Until next time, make your voice heard.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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