How to Choose a Microphone | The Ultimate Guide


If you are looking for some help on how to choose a microphone, you have reached just the right place. This article would cover each and everything you want on how to choose a microphone.

Choosing the right microphone is not an easy task especially because of the terminologies that are involved. These are complex pieces of electronics and those who are new to the market find them vastly confused. Thus, in order to help such people out, we have compiled this article that contains everything that you want on how to choose a microphone.

The answer to how to pick a microphone is to understand what the terminologies mean and how they can impact your experience. Thus, in this article on how to choose a microphone, we would enlist these terms and explain to you what they really mean- In simple terms.

1) Types of Microphone as Per Their Mechanism

The first thing one must know about is the types of microphones that are available in the market. You would usually find two types of microphones, the dynamic and the condenser. Each of these has its own set of pros and cons. Plus, the targeted audience is also different from one another. In this section of how to choose a microphone, we would dive deep into these two types of microphones.

a) Dynamic Microphone

Dynamic Microphones are the oldest type of microphone and thus features orthodox designs- well mostly. These microphones have a very simple design and mechanism. The diaphragm is attached with a metallic coil which is suspended between two magnets. When the vibration from sound hits this coil, it moves up and down and produces a small AC current. This current mimics the sound wave that hit the coil.

In case you didn’t understand the mechanism, all you need to know is that they can withstand high sound pressure levels. And this is what makes them ideal for live settings. Plus, the designs of these microphones are pretty basic which makes them affordable as well.

One shortcoming of these microphones is that they cannot record the low frequencies and have low sensitivity as well. It is because the vibration of a certain magnitude is required to move that coil up and down. And the quieter sounds are not able to do that. Thus, in studios where you want to record the tiniest of details, these do not make the perfect fit.

b) Condenser Microphone  

Condenser Microphones are the second type that you would come across in the market. These, unlike the dynamic microphones, are much more sensitive and are able to record low frequencies as well. This is what makes them the ideal option when it comes to recording in the studios.

Similar to a dynamic microphone, it also features a diaphragm, usually made up from metal. Plus, another metallic piece is available known as backplate. When the electricity is applied to these metallic components, a static charge is produced between them. Thus, when the soundwave hits the diaphragm, a small current is produced because of the vibration.

The drawback of this design is that you need electricity to make it work. And this electricity is either provided via batteries or by something called Phantom Power. In either case, the circuit of the microphone becomes a little complex which in turn increases the price of the microphone.

Moving on, you might encounter some other types of microphones as well. For example, the Boundary Microphone and Ribbon Microphones but these are just some variants of the microphones mentioned above.

The bottom line is, if you are wondering about what microphone I should buy, figure out the type of job you want them to carry out. Once you have realized what the job is at hand you would find an answer to what microphone should I buy.

TypeDynamicCondenser
ProsAffordable, does not need electric powerCan record low frequencies
ConsCannot record low frequenciesExpensive, needs electricity
Best useLive settingsStudio settings

2) Types of Microphone as Per Designs

In addition to having different mechanisms, microphones also have different designs but these are pretty much self-explanatory. For example, the handheld microphones are meant to be held in the hand. Similarly, the headworn microphones are meant to be worn on the head. Number of other designs are also available in the market. However, these designs do not really have a great impact on the quality of recording.

These designs are merely available to increase the convenience of the users. Thus, the selection of these designs depends on the type of job you want to carry out with them. Beside this, there is not much to explain about these designs.

So, what is the best microphone? You might ask. The answer is there is no single microphone that is best for everybody. Every user has one’s own unique requirements and the microphone that fulfills that requirement is the answer to what is the best microphone.

3) Types of Polar Pattern

The second most important thing in how to choose a microphone after selecting the right type is the polar pattern. And it is also probably the most confusing of all. However, in this section of how to choose a microphone, we would break it down to you in as simple terms as possible.

While browsing the market, you would usually come across two types of polar patterns, the unidirectional and omnidirectional. Both of these patterns are different from one another and hence have different use as well. We will take a close look at them in this section of the how to choose a microphone.

In order to understand the different types of polar patterns, you need to know what polar pattern really is

In simple words, the polar pattern is the three-dimensional space that surrounds the capsule and the area that is most sensitive to the sound. In this section of how to choose a microphone we would go into details of these polar patterns.

a) Unidirectional/Cardioid

The microphone that features an omnidirectional or cardioid polar pattern can pick up the sounds from one direction only. Thus, only those sound waves that are directly pointed at the sensitive part would be able to make it into the microphone. All the other sounds from the surrounding would not be able to make it into the microphone. Therefore, you would get an audio clear of all the noise from the surroundings.

These microphones would come in really handy when you want to isolate the sound of one instrument from others. For example, if you want to record the sound of a drum, you can simply place it in front of that. Since the sounds from other instruments would not be directed at it, those would not make it into the microphone. Therefore, you would get the crisp and clear sound of drums only.

Beside these, these microphones are also great for live performance because of their ability to ignore the sound of audiences. Furthermore, in rooms where the acoustics are not great one can use unidirectional mics to get amazing results.

However, they also have some drawbacks as well and they are pretty obvious. Since, they can record from a selective portion of mic only, even the slightest of off-axis coloration would produce bad results.

Furthermore, these mics also produce something called proximity effect which is unique to unidirectional microphones. In simple terms, it is production of excessive bass when the mic is brought to close the person singing or speaking.

b) Omnidirectional Microphones

As the name indicates, these microphones can record sound from all directions. Although they are not even nearly as popular as they once used to be, before the invention of unidirectional microphones, they are still very much relevant. Furthermore, they are still somewhat superior to cardioid microphones in some aspects.

The most important of these is the immunity to proximity effect and the non-existence of off-axis coloration. Besides these, they are preferred when the user wants to record the feedback as well. Thus, when you want to record the echo or the acoustics of a room as well, this is where you would want omnidirectional microphones in your gearbox. A common example of this is the recording of the songs in church.

In addition to these, these microphones also perform very great when one wants to record a moving target. And also, when the sound source is spread wide. However, with all these benefits, there are some areas where these microphones lag behind significantly.

The most obvious of all is the interference from all the directions which would eventually distort the audio that you are recording.

Type of MicUnidirectionalOmnidirectional
Best UseFor isolation of particular soundFor recording the environment as well
ProsNoise cancellation, Records in untreated room, isolates the equipment in live settingsNo off-axis coloration, immunity to proximity effect
ConsOff-axis coloration/ proximity effectMay record unwanted sounds

Besides, these two polar patterns mentioned in our article on how to choose a mic, you might encounter some other types as well. These might include stereo, bidirectional, super-cardioid, and hyper-cardioid. However, these are the extensions of the polar patterns mentioned above. And if you have understood the above-mentioned polar pattern, you would have no problem understanding the other types that are available.

4) Frequency Range and Response

The term frequency range and response often get thrown around a lot but not many know what it actually means. However, in this article on how to choose a microphone, we would break it down for you in simple words.

To put it simply, frequency range essentially means the spectrum of frequency a particular microphone can record. As the range of frequency gets wider, the ability of to microphone to record higher and lower frequencies also increases. When one asks about what to look for in a microphone, this must be mentioned. Especially, when the user has to work with musical instruments.

The second part of this is frequency response and it also must be mentioned when one asks about what to look for in a microphone. It is a difficult concept to grasp but let me try to put it in simple words.

The microphone essentially records the sound in the form of electrical signals. These signals are then converted to the audio again. The response is basically a measure of how well the microphone is converting these signals. If the microphone is converting well, you would see a flat line but if it does not you would see either a hike or a drop in the frequency graph.

Therefore, when you are wondering about how to choose a mic, notice if the frequency is flat and wide or not. One that is flat and wide would make the best microphone for you.

5) SPL and Sensitivity

SPL and Sensitivity are terms that sound very confusing but are in fact very simple. SPL or the sound pressure level is the measure of how loud a particular microphone can record. It is expressed in decibel and the number represents the loudest sound a particular microphone can process. Thus, if a microphone has, let’s say 80dB SPL, it would not be able to record sound loudest than 80dB.

The sensitivity on the other hand is the measure of how quiet sound can be recorded by a particular microphone. It is also expressed in the decibel and is essentially the same thing except the fact that it is the quietest sound that can be processed.

For ordinary users, SPL and sensitivity do not matter a lot. However, when it comes to recording vocals or instruments in the studio they are just as important as other features. You would not want to pick a microphone that cannot even process the sound of the drums.

Thus, the users who want to work with loud sounds and quieter sounds must look for these features. So, if you were wondering about how to pick a microphone, these features must be looked at while getting one.

6) Impedance

Impedance is essentially the resistance a microphone provides to the circuit it is attached to. If you cannot get your head around this, let me put this in simple words. The microphone would low impedance would work well regardless of the length of the cable you attach it with.

In contrast, the microphone that has high impedance would degrade or distort the audio when you attach a long cable with it. To cut is shorts, the microphone that has low impedance is the answer to the what is a good microphone.

If you want a numerical answer to what is a good microphone, I would say that any microphone that has impedance lower than 200 is good enough.

7) Equivalent Noise Level

Microphones produce a noise even when no sound source is available and it is known as self-noise. And this noise is expressed in terms of equivalent noise levels. In order to find out the self-noise, companies put the microphone in a soundproof container and measure the output it is producing. It is expressed in dB-A, wherein A stands for the weighting, it is essentially a method that has been used to simulate human perception.

So, is this important in how to choose a microphone? Yes, it really is important and a key feature to include while making a list of features that determine how to buy a microphone. Furthermore, it is the key feature to look for especially in a microphone for the studio room.

On the basis of this self-noise microphone can be classified into different categories as shown in table. This table would be very helpful in how to choose a microphone or how to buy a microphone.

SPLStatus
Below 10 dB-AOutstanding
11-15 dB-AExcellent
16-19 dB-AGood enough
20-23 dB-ABelow average for studio recording
More than 24 dB-AUnworthy of studio microphone

8) XLR vs USB Microphone

Microphones come with one of two types of connection, it is either USB or XLR. The selection of the connector depends on where you want to make the compromise. The USB microphone is very convenient and easy to install. However, their sound quality is not as good as the XLR microphone. Hence, one can use these for causal recording or for simply communicating with the audience but not for the recording of instruments or the vocals.

xlr vs usb microphones

The microphone with XLR connector, on the other hand, is not as convenient as a USB microphone. However, the recording quality is way better than the USB microphone. Thus, it is up to you to decide where you want to make the compromise and what is more important for you.

Both of these microphone types are available online on markets like Amazon.com and ebay.com. This should also tell you where I can buy a microphone.

Conclusion- How to Choose a Microphone

We hope this article on how to choose a microphone has helped you in understanding the microphones. We have tried to keep this as simple as possible so even the people who are just getting started could also understand. However, if we have left anything about how to choose a microphone or you want to add something about how to choose a microphone, let us know in the given section. We would love to respond.

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