Take Control of Your Recordings: Understanding Microphones

Builds and Types

There are four main types of microphones: dynamic, condenser, ribbon and tube. Each of these microphone builds has its own set of advantages, disadvantages, applications and characteristics.


Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic mics are sturdy, inexpensive, tolerate loud sounds and do not require phantom power. However, their high frequency response is generally dull, they must be close to the source and they need lots of gain (which makes them more susceptible to noise).

The most famous dynamic microphone of all time is the Shure SM57 ($99). It has been a staple in the studio and live sound for decades. It is a trusted tool as an all-purpose microphone, to the extent that during times of uncertainty, the expression “just throw a 57 on it” is popular jargon to hear in most any recording setting. Its cardioid polar pattern has a frequency response that is dull in the low and low-mid range, sharp in the mids, boosted around 10kHz and dull in the high frequencies. Its cousin, the SM58 ($99), has a similar frequency response, but is more tailored for a live vocal.

The Sennheiser MD421 is another example of a classic, dynamic, cardioid microphone ($479). What makes this microphone unique is the five position bass roll-off and the plastic bar across its front-address build (yes, the side with the plastic bar goes toward the source). Without a bass roll-off engaged, its frequency response is dull in the low-end, flat until about 1.5kHz, then significantly and somewhat evenly boosted until about 17kHz. As the five-position bass roll-off that begins around 1 kHz is incorporated, it increasingly rejects low and low-mid frequencies.


Condenser Microphones

Condenser mics come in two flavors: small and large diaphragm. Each of these type of condensers have different applications, but their features, pros and cons are similar. Condensers are generally more sensitive than dynamic mics, so loud signals near the capsule can easily become distorted. They required Phantom Power, which is 48 volts of direct current applied to the mic’s capsule via the preamp. Also, good quality condensers are expensive! Inexpensive condensers can yield a cold, sterile sound. Remember: just because it’s a condenser doesn’t mean that it sounds great.

Good quality condensers have three main benefits. They are very sensitive, meaning the nuances and details of the source will be captured more intimately. They also have a better high frequency response than dynamic mics and produce less noise.

The Neumann KM184 ($850) is a cardioid, small diaphragm condenser that is a reissue of the vintage Neumann KM84. The frequency response is thin in the low end (under 100 Hz), flat throughout the midrange and bright in the high frequencies. It works wonders on the fretboard of an acoustic guitar, hi hats or percussion.

The ultra-flexible AKG C414 XLS ($1,074) is a multi-pattern, large diaphragm condenser that is a reissue of the vintage C414 B-ULS. It has all five polar patterns, three types of PAD’s and three different roll-offs. Its frequency response is flat in the low and low-mid, has a dip around 1.5kHz and is bright in the high frequencies. It can be used for vocals, the body of an acoustic guitar, piano or percussion. The versatility of the 414 XLS makes it a great condenser option for the startup or project studio.


Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon mics work on a similar principle as dynamic microphones. A very light, conductive ribbon is used as a diaphragm. Ribbon mics are known for their warm, versatile, “classic” sound. However, they typically have a very low output (which requires more gain from the mic pre) and are fragile. Ribbon mics have a Figure 8 polar pattern in all but the most rare of circumstances.

There is much ado regarding ribbon mics and phantom power, which isn’t required for the mic to function. Some say never to apply phantom power to a ribbon mic, as it could damage the ribbon beyond repair. Others say a ribbon can only be damaged by phantom power if the mic is not wired properly. I like to err on the side of caution here: the fact that there is debate about this topic is enough reason to make me steer clear and never apply phantom power to a ribbon.

The Royer R-121 ($1,295) is a modern-day classic ribbon microphone with a side-address build. Its frequency response is fairly flat across the entire band and it flatters anything from an acoustic guitar, guitar amp, piano, horns & brass or drums.

The AEA R44C ($3,780) is a reissue of the famous RCA 44B microphone used for decades on famous recordings. AEA has meticulously recreated this microphone, including the use of the same ribbon material as the original while maintaining low self noise. The frequency response flatters low and low-mid frequencies more so than high frequencies.


Tube Microphones

A tube microphone is a type of condenser that uses a vacuum tube to amplify the signal. The actual tubes inside of the mic have their own sonic characteristics. If the tube is changed or swapped, the sonic characteristics will probably change as well. Tube mics (also known as valve mics) are known for their pristine clarity and emphasis in upper midrange and high frequencies. They require an external power source (that normally ships with the mic) and do not require phantom power. Tube mics are multi-pattern, clear, warm and extremely detailed. However, they are sensitive to loud signals and very fragile.

The Mojave Audio MA-300 ($1,295) is a multi-pattern tube mic that has a PAD and a roll-off. When the cardioid polar pattern is selected, the frequency response enhances lows and low-mids, softens midrange frequencies and stays fairly flat in high frequencies. It is a warm, detailed solution for vocals, the body of an acoustic guitar, piano or live strings.

The sE Electronics Z5600a II ($999) is also a multi-pattern tube mic that has a PAD and a roll-off, but its frequency response is different than the Mojave MA-300. Here, the low frequencies are flat almost all the way to 20Hz (with the roll-off disengaged). The mids are flat as well, with a boost beginning in the high-mids and continuing to the high frequencies for a bright texture. The applications for the Z5600a II are similar to that of the Mojave, but expect a different result: the recordings will be much brighter due to the high frequency boost. Use this information to customize the sonic texture of your recordings as it pertains to microphone selection.


Slate Digital VMS

The Virtual Microphone System (VMS) by Slate Digital ($999) is designed to emulate the frequency response and clarity of several classic, vintage tube microphones. It ships with a large diaphragm condenser microphone and a head unit that provides a built-in preamp, phantom power, polarity flip and a PAD. The system works by recording the source with a very flat frequency response and extreme clarity. Companion software allows the user to emulate several vintage tube mics. To my ear, the most accurate emulation is the Sony C800G. I have personally performed a shootout between a proper C800 and the VMS versions of the C800 (two versions are available). The differences between the two are slim-to-none, which makes the VMS an option for professional-level recordings at a fraction of the price of what it would cost to purchase a C800 ($9,990, plus a separate preamp).

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