Microphones aren’t just for live bands and recording studios anymore. The explosion in podcasting, home recording and desktop filmmaking has made microphones an increasingly common sight in homes. If you want good sound on your projects, or if you’re hitting the clubs to tune up for the next American Idol, you’ll need a quality microphone that captures the full range of sound. Pronto’s Microphone Buying Guide will match you to the best mic for live, studio or home use.
Choose a dynamic microphone if you’ll be recording vocals, guitar or need a microphone that can travel. Condenser microphones are best for recording the largest range of sounds and volumes, but they are fragile and very sensitive to loud sounds.
Pattern choice depends on what you’re recording. Choose cardioid patterns for vocals and voice in most home and live performance settings and look for supercardioid and hypercardiod models if you’re recording guitar or brass instruments to cut down on vibration. For drums and organs, choose an omnidirectional mic. If you’ll be recording interviews or live vocals where space is at a premium, bidirectional microphones are best.
Most podcasters and musicians should choose a dynamic cardioid microphone for the best combination of durability and versatility. Omnidirectional condenser microphones are the best choice for professional recording and advanced home studios.
Microphones connect with three-prong XLR cables, and you can get adaptors or specialized cables to use a microphone with the 1/8” microphone jack on your computer or a ¼” phono jack on amplifiers. For dynamic microphones, look for basic mic stands to protect them from falls and spills. Condenser microphones need suspension mounts that minimize stray vibrations.
To reduce pops and breathing sounds, purchase a membrane pop filter for a home or studio or a foam windscreen for live venues. Look for windscreen foam that isn’t too thick or it will muffle sound. Avoid microphones with on/off switches if you’ll be using an amplifier or mixing board. Wireless microphone packages should be weighed carefully, as the radio frequencies these mics use could be reallocated in 2009.
A heart-shaped polar pattern that favors the front and front sides of a microphone. Supercardioid and Hypercardioid microphones offer variations of the pattern with greater sensitivity directly behind the microphone.
A microphone that uses a diaphragm mounted just above a metal backplate to transform sound waves into electrical signals. Condenser microphones are extremely sensitive, which gives them a greater frequency response but also makes them more susceptible to vibrations and damage from loud sources or rough handling.
A polar pattern in which sound is detected in an uninterrupted arc. Variations include omnidirectional, which picks up sounds all around the microphone; half-omindirectional, which transmits sounds in a 180º arc in front of the microphone, and bidirectional, which hears sounds in separate 110º arcs at the front and rear of the microphone.
A microphone that uses a metal coil in a magnetic field to detect and transmit sound. Dynamic microphones have less frequency response, but they are more durable and do a better job with loud sounds.
The range of sounds a microphone can sense, measured in Hertz (Hz). The human ear can pick up sounds from low 20Hz rumbles to high 20,000Hz tones. A range of 50Hz to 15,000Hz is good for most microphones, and some offer more sensitivity to lower or higher frequencies.
The shape of a microphone’s field of sensitivity, Microphones’ polar patterns are classified as directional, which picks up sound in an arc, or cardioid, which detects sound in a heart-shaped pattern.
A thin plastic membrane that mounts in front of a microphone, reducing the air sent to the microphone from breathing or percussive sounds, such as the sound made by the letter “p.”
A type of dynamic microphone that uses a flat piece of metal instead of a coil to detect sound.
A piece of foam that slips over the top of a microphone, preventing the sound of moving air from reaching the microphone.
All microphones are not the same, and not all mics are good at all things. Some microphones are better for vocals and some are better for instruments. Basically, you need a microphone that will capture as much of the range of a sound source as possible. If you’re shopping for home use, be aware that you need a lot less range than you would in a professional recording studio, as most compressed audio and video formats devour some of the audio range, negating the quality of high-end microphones.
Condenser microphones are the best available. This design uses the motion of a diaphragm against a metal backplate to translate sound into electrical frequencies. Condenser microphones are expensive and extremely fragile, and these microphones require what’s known as “phantom power,” or electricity from a mixing board or preamp. For studio use, a condenser microphone is the best choice. If you’re plugging straight into a PC, a condenser mic won’t work.
Dynamic microphones don’t need additional power and can plug straight into your PC or a mixing board. These microphones are more durable and less expensive than condenser mics, but they don’t capture the same range of sound. Dynamic microphones are much more forgiving of loud noises and rough handling, making them the best choice for home use, nightclubs and traveling musicians. Most dynamic mics use a moving coil in a magnetic field to capture sound; “ribbon” microphones are a subtype of dynamic mics that use a thin metal ribbon instead of a coil.
The recording range of a microphone is its Polar Pattern. This tells you where the mic can be placed relative to a sound source, such as your voice or a guitar, and pick up the most signal.
There are two broad categories of microphone polar patterns: directional and cardioid. Directional microphones are further categorized as omindirectional, which picks up sounds in a 360º pattern; half-omindirectional (or bidirectional), which gathers sound in a 180º pattern in front of the mic, and bi-directional, which picks up sound to about 110º to the front and rear of the mic but rejects sounds from the sides.
Cardiod microphone patterns are heart-shaped, with the strongest pickup to the front and front sides of the microphone. Supercardioid and Hypercardiod offer a little more sensitivity directly behind the mic.
Choosing the right pattern depends on how you’ll use the microphone. Cardioid patterns are best for vocals and voice in most home and live performance settings. If you’re micing a guitar or brass instrument, use a supercardioid or hypercardiod microphone that cuts down on vibrations.
Directional microphones pick up a lot of ambient room noise and aren’t good at isolating individual sound sources unless they’re placed very close. Omnidirectional mics are good for drums and organs, and their lower sensitivity to vocal pops (from breathing and “p” sounds”) can be useful in a home or studio setting that doesn’t have a lot of echo. Bidirectional microphones are best for one-on-one interviews or live vocals where space is at a premium.
Taking pattern and microphone type into account, the best choice for general vocal and instrument use is a dynamic cardioid microphone. Condenser mics should be reserved for professional use and the most well-equipped home studios, where you want to capture a full range of sound levels from quiet to loud.
Most microphones connect with a standard, three-prong XLR cable. You can find specialized cords that have a 1/8” microphone jack on one end, which is standard for most computers, or a ½” phono jack common on amplifiers. You can also get separate adaptors. Don’t get more cord than you need. Longer cords lose some of the signal as it travels from the microphone to the mixing board, amplifier or input jack.
Even if you plan to hold a microphone in your hand while you use it, you should have a microphone stand for storage. Microphones shouldn’t be left sitting on a desk where they’re subject to falls and spills. Most microphones come with a standard mount that screws onto a stand. A simple desktop stand will do for home use, just make sure it doesn’t transfer vibrations to the microphone.
Sensitive condenser microphones need specialized mounts that isolate their diaphragms from vibration. These microphones are typically suspended in a square frame with elastics, and the frame can be hung from a wall or ceiling. Desk mounts have an adjustable arm similar to those found on desk lamps. The important thing with condenser microphones is to make sure that no vibrations get to the mic, as they will get sent to the amplifier.
Most handheld microphones are available with or without an on/off switch. The rule of thumb is to avoid microphones with a switch if you’ll be using them with a mixing board. The switch can be handy for home use.
Pop filters and windscreens eliminate breathing noise and wind sounds. Membrane pop filters are the best choice for home and studio use. Choose a foam windscreen for live performances, but make sure the foam isn’t so thick that it muffles sound.
Wireless microphone kits are also available. The cost of these microphones makes them practical only for live performance venues like theaters and nightclubs. You may want to think twice about investing in wireless microphones, however, because the radio frequencies they use could be reallocated in 2009.
We've compiled this group of information links to help you further your research: