What Are The Main Microphone Types And When Should I Use Them?

Microphones are an essential factor in good-quality audio performance and recording. Still, with so many different types available, knowing which to invest in can be difficult. 

Different types of audio require different microphones, and in this blog, we’re breaking down each in turn, so whether you’re a budding podcaster or a professional recording artist, you’ll have a better idea of which to invest in. 

So, if you’ve been wondering what the differences are between dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones, or if you’re interested in separating your USBs from your XLRs, read on to find your perfect microphone.

Table of contents:

What is a dynamic microphone?

What is a condenser microphone?

What is a ribbon microphone?

Are USB microphones any good?

Are XLR microphones better than USB?

What is a dynamic microphone?

A dynamic microphone is a hard-wearing microphone built for a life on the road. Thanks to its durability, it’s the best choice for live vocal performances and touring. Dynamic microphones are also great when used with guitar amplifier cabinets, dealing well with loud, low-frequency sounds. 

4 dynamic microphones on stands in a line

Their design is very simple, which is why they are so durable and a common choice for most singers and live artists. One of their most favoured criteria is that they perform well in live situations where audio quality isn’t the only factor. 

Because a dynamic microphone is usually a cardioid microphone and more sensitive to sounds approaching it from the front and sides, it’s great at picking out a singer’s vocal and eliminating other ambient noise from a busy stage. 

How does a dynamic microphone work?

Dynamic microphones work via electromagnetism. They contain a thin sheet, a diaphragm, which transmits vibrations caused by waves to a coil. These vibrations are then transferred to an electrical wire, which amplifies the signal and produces the sound we hear. 

Because of this technology, dynamic microphones are also known as moving-coil microphones; they are small, sound-driven electrical generators that create good, high-quality sound.

Are dynamic microphones good for recording vocals?

If you’re looking for the perfect microphone for recording vocals, a dynamic is a great choice for recording a live band or dealing with a singer who likes to jump around and scream into the mic. However, a large condenser microphone might be better for more delicate or intricate vocals, as it is generally better at picking up higher frequencies.

Generally, if you’re recording natural, raw vocals, opt for a condenser, but a loud, powerful voice might be better suited to a dynamic. 

What is a condenser microphone? 

A condenser microphone is a better choice if your main aim is accuracy, as they’re great at recording intricate frequencies. Condensers are a good choice for recording the strings of an acoustic guitar, stunning orchestral sounds, or rich vocals. However, you’ll need to consider whether you need a small or large diaphragm condenser microphone before purchasing, as although their technology is the same, they offer different results. 

A condenser microphone on a stand against a coloured background

Small diaphragm condenser microphone

Small diaphragm condenser microphones are the best choice if you’re looking for detail and purity of sound and want to record sounds as close to their natural tonality as possible. They are often referred to as pencil mics due to their thin construction, and they are unidirectional, picking up sound from the area to which the microphone barrel is pointing. 

Small diaphragm condenser mics are so accurate that they’re often sensitive to the picking of fingers and the scratching of strings, which can sometimes overshadow the actual sound of the instrument. They’re best used to add some sparkle to a recording, for example, recording orchestral strings or acoustic guitars when high frequencies are key.

Large diaphragm condenser microphone

On the other hand, large diaphragm condenser microphones are all-rounders in the studio and are best for recording speech and vocals. They operate the same way as small condenser microphones; however, where small condenser mics are experts at picking up super-high frequencies, large condenser microphones reject them, offering a broader, more colourful sound balance. 

Most professional studios will contain a collection of condenser microphones with unique voicing. The best producers will be able to match the correct microphone to its purpose for the best outcome, such as the best condenser suited to vocals and the best suited to guitars. 

How does a condenser microphone work?

Both small and large diaphragm condenser microphones work in the same way.

They contain a front plate, the diaphragm, and a back plate, which sits parallel to the front. Sound hits the front plate, causing it to vibrate and changing the distance between it and the back plate, thus changing the electrical signal. 

The size of the diaphragm in the condenser mic dictates how accurately sound is produced, which is why small diaphragm condenser mics are better placed at recording more intricate, high-frequency sounds. Large, on the other hand, offer a more balanced overall sound. 

What is a ribbon microphone?

Ribbon microphones work in a similar way to dynamic microphones. They use a thin, usually aluminium ribbon, which conducts electricity, and magnets to pick up audio signals and convert them into sound waves. 

They have a similar sensitivity to condenser microphones but are much warmer and more focused on low-end frequencies. Ribbon mics give a more accurate representation of sound as the ears would naturally hear it, so they are often thought to be the warmest-sounding microphones. However, they are both fragile and expensive, yet highly thought of for their recording quality.

A side view of a ribbon microphone

Ribbon microphones are bidirectional, receiving signals from the front and rear in a figure-of-eight-like formation. They can be used to accurately record most sounds where a prominent treble isn’t required. Because of this, they are often favoured for recording brass instruments and electric guitars, but they can also be used to record speech or the ambience of a room.

So now you know the main differences between the three main types of microphones, we’ll look at the best ways to connect them, starting with USB. 

Are USB microphones any good?

USB microphones are easy and accessible to use at home, so whether you’re looking for a microphone for podcasting or recording vocals in an at-home studio, USB mics with their plug-and-play technology can be plugged in and used easily. Because of this, they’re a popular choice with content creators and those investing in their first microphones. 

The good thing about USB mics is that they have a built-in analogue to a digital converter or an ADC. So, whether you choose a dynamic or condenser microphone, your sound files will be ready to use and easily accessible with your computer or laptop. 

USB microphones are useful for recording meetings or podcasts, easily picking up multiple voices. They are also a great choice for streaming, allowing you to record your audio without needing to tweak it. 

USB mics are a great choice for the digital space, with the high-end options creating exceptional quality audio. 

Are XLR microphones better than USB?

Although these are the most popular microphone connections, they have advantages and disadvantages.

Lots of XLR connectors connected to a system

XLR microphones use an analogue audio connector, a three-pin audio connector consisting of a positive and negative connector and a ground pin. A male XLR is known as the plug as it features the pins, whereas a female XLR connector is the part the plug connects to. Although there are other variations, a three-pin XLR connection is the most common, known as a professional audio connector. 

XLRs are renowned for their balanced audio and superior noise rejection, making them the most popular choice for live audio and professional settings. The main thing to remember when connecting them to modern digital equipment is that they need an audio interface or a mixer to convert their analogue signals into digital ones. 

Because of this, USB microphones are sometimes favoured in the digital space as they have an analogue to digital converter built into them, which makes them easy to transfer straight to a computer. This also means they are generally cheaper, as they don’t require an expensive setup with an additional analogue to a digital converter.

However, if you’re looking for real sound quality, XLRs are still considered the better, more professional choice. This is why many professional podcasters tend to have an XLR setup. Still, USB microphones offer decent quality and are great as an entry-level, relatively easy-to-use product. 

The best microphone types and when to use them: The highlights 

The most readily used microphone types are dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones.

Dynamic microphones are the most common, used for live vocals and performances. Dynamic microphones are incredibly durable and cope well with high sound levels. Their cardioid setup makes them exceptional at picking out vocals from ambient noise. They can be used to record vocals, particularly if the singer is being recorded with a live band or has a loud and raucous vocal.

Condenser microphones are more delicate, accurate and great at recording more intricate frequencies and sounds. They are usually favoured for music studios, where small condenser microphones are often used to record delicate sounding instruments such as acoustic guitars and orchestral strings; large condenser microphones are favoured for recording vocals and adding colour and balance to the mix.

Ribbon microphones work similarly to dynamic microphones and are great at recording multiple sounds, with particular strength in capturing lower frequencies in their truest form. Although exceptional, they are also incredibly delicate, so they wouldn’t be a great option to take out on tour.

When connecting your microphone to a system, both USB and XLR have their advantages. XLRs are a better option if you aim for the highest quality and clarity, although they require an ADC to convert their signals from analogue into digital. 

USB microphones have a plug-and-play setup and a built-in ADC convertor, which makes them a cheaper, entry-level, user-friendly option. Although they still provide exceptional quality, XLR is better if you require the highest-level professional audio quality. 

Shop microphones at Prebeat 

Now you know the difference between microphone types and the best ways to connect them, why not shop for yours at Prebeat? We have an exceptional range of dynamic and condenser microphones in wired and wireless options, so finding the perfect match for your setup has never been easier. Explore the range today, or for more help choosing the correct microphone for you, contact us for further assistance, and an expert team member will be happy to help!

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