Should I Use a Dynamic or Condenser Microphone?
What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are different types of microphones and some work better in certain situations.
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This article is going to look at the two main varieties you’ll come across, as you’ll most likely end up purchasing one of these two.
When reading about mics, you’ve probably heard the terms “dynamic” and “condenser” when referring to the style of the mic, so let’s explore what makes them different.
The Difference Between a Dynamic and Condenser Microphone
There is a lot of misinformation out there about the difference between these two mic types and people like giving a bunch of reasons for why they are different.
The distinction is actually really simple and it’s based on their different transducer principles.
A transducer converts energy from one form to another. In a microphone’s case, this is sound being converted into an electrical signal which is then sent to a separate unit.
Dynamic mics have a tiny diaphragm that acts as the electrical generator. Diaphragms are very thin and can be made out of a variety of materials: paper, metal, etc.
Sound waves smack the diaphragm causing it to vibrate, which then vibrates a small coil attached to the diaphragm.
A magnetic field surrounds this suspended coil and the movement of this coil in the magnetic field creates the electrical signal.
Condensers have a type of diaphragm as well, but instead, it works with a backplate to form what is commonly known as a capacitor which holds a charge.
When the diaphragm vibrates, it changes the distance between it and the backplate, which generates the electrical signal.
The Dynamic Microphone
(Pros / Cons)
The Condenser Microphone (Pros / Cons)
Which Mic Type is Better?
It Depends on Your Needs
Typically, you can separate these two mics based on whether you need it for a live situation or in the studio.
Dynamic mics rule the live world, while condensers rule in the studio.
That’s not to say a condenser can’t be used live. Some vocalist prefer to use one live when they have a quiet or small band behind them.
And as you’ll see in my favorite mic section, dynamic mics are used heavily in the studio for certain instruments.
But maybe you need a mic for both situations and can only use one.
Another way to separate these two is by the instruments they work better for. Dynamic mics are great for guitars, both live and in the studio, and you’ll often see them on drum snares as well.
Hands down, condensers will always be the best for capturing the most realistic and best sounding vocals, and you rarely see dynamic mics used for vocals in the studio.
If you still can’t decide which one is better for you then you’ll want to consider the cost. A great dynamic mic can be purchased for super cheap, while the same probably can’t be said for a condenser.
A decent dynamic can be nabbed for $20, while a decent condenser is probably starting around $100.
The last thing you’ll want to consider is the diaphragm size. For the most part, diaphragm size will only be talked about when considering a condenser.
Small diaphragms are technically better, and capture higher frequencies, follow sound waves more accurately and have a more consistent pickup pattern; which results in a purer and more realistic tone.
But large diaphragm mics have an incredibly low-frequency response that color vocals and other instruments in a very rich and pleasing way.
Many singers prefer the shaping of their vocals that large diaphragm mics create.
Small diaphragm mics are typically used for piano, string instruments, on most parts of a drum kit.
While, anything bass heavy is given a large diaphragm mic like bass, drum kick, and floor toms, etc.
Dispelling All Too Common Myths
I mentioned earlier that there is a lot of misinformation out there on the difference between the two mics, so let’s look at all-too-common myths that need to die here.
You may find me playing semantics with these myths, but often messy language causes real confusion for beginners, which results in poor musical knowledge.
Myth #1: “Condensers are louder than dynamic mics.”
This myth probably stems from people confusing the terms “sensitivity” and “volume” as condensers are generally more sensitive and pick up sound from a farther distance.
It’s important to separate these two terms, however.
You want to always associate sensitivity with its relationship to sound pressure levels (SPL). I.e. if you have a low SPL then you want a high sensitivity microphone.
Microphones do not create volume or amplify sound, they simply convert sound into an electrical signal (which is very weak), which then must be transferred to a preamp that dramatically boosts this signal.
Myth #2: “Dynamic mics handle higher SPL better.”
Since I just briefly mentioned SPL, let’s look at another myth that deals more with it.
Condensers, for the most part, do a damn good job handling high sound pressure, the issue instead relies on whether the preamp can handle all the power that is coming from the mic.
You could say condensers handle SPLs too well.
Myth #3: “Condensers always feedback when used live.”
When you watch a vocalist sing live compared to them singing in the studio do you notice anything glaringly different? Like their distance from the mic?
Do you see how when singing live, vocalists are often right on, if not touching the mic when they sing?
In the studio, however, you usually see a vocalist sing half a foot away with a pop filter in between.
Sometimes condensers feedback live because they were developed to be sung into from a distance, and when amplified they produce a low-frequency feedback.
A high-pass filter will usually do the trick, or you could just use a condenser designed with live performance in mind.
Myth #4: “The difference between dynamic and condenser mics is their directional characteristic.”
Microphones have a thing called polar pattern/directionality, and this just means how sensitive the mic is to sound arriving from different angles.
If you have an omnidirectional mic then that means that the mic is equally sensitive to sound despite the angle it is coming from.
If you have a cardioid polar pattern, then the mic is more sensitive to sounds that are directly in front of it compared to sounds that are hitting the mic from the sides or back.
There are six main polar patterns, and the directional characteristic does not dictate whether the mic is a condenser or dynamic.
Sure, dynamics are often cardioid because they are usually designed for the stage and as such you want to prevent bleeding. But there are tons of cardioid condensers out there.
Some mics even have multiple polar patterns that you can choose from, which you’ll see below.
Our Favorite Microphones
Now that you know the difference between a dynamic and condenser mic, let’s look at a few of my favorites before I send you off.
Shure SM57 and SM58
These are the two dynamic mics that you will see on everyone’s list and they can be found in home studios that are just starting up, all the way to major label studios.
The SM57 was used to capture many of the guitar tones you hear on Stadium Arcadium by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of how often you’ve heard this mic when listening to your favorite records.
You can easily spot the SM58 as the staple vocal mic, in both tiny hole-in-the-wall venues, to behemoth wide-spanning festivals.
It’s easy to see why these two mics are the standards. They provide excellent sound quality, are incredibly affordable ($100-$200), and are literally indescribable.
And not in the metaphorically 21st century way, but in the you-can-google-“Shure SM58 Durability Test” and watch a video of it being ran over, cooked on a grill, and thrown in the ocean, and it still works perfectly!
The SM57 works great on pretty much all instruments, but is often used for guitars and drum snares both in the studio and on the stage.
SM58’s usually stays on the stage, however.
Sennheiser MD421 II
If you want one dynamic microphone that can do it all then the Sennheiser MD421 II will be the thing of your dreams.
It’s typically called the king of all dynamics, the desert island mic, and it deserves the praise.
It’s more expensive than the SM57 and SM58 combined, but it works great for any instrument and can withstand the levels of pretty much any music source you can throw at it.
It’s rather bulky and not the sleekest looking microphone around.
But hey, when that’s all you can really complain about, you must be doing something right!
Behringer Ultravoice XM8500
The XM8500 is a budget mic, but it’s a stupid good budget mic, if not the best.
You can grab a new one for $20, so they are great for karaoke and novice use.
It’s not going to be the quality of the above mics, but you can buy five of these for the cost of one SM57 and they have decent features.
It features a nice shock mount system, a pop noise filtering, and some slight noise isolation among a couple of other features.
Great for your teenage garage rock band.
USB microphones have been rapidly gaining in popularity and allow you to connect your microphone straight into your computer with one cable and start recording.
No phantom power, no batteries, no external power source needed whatsoever. They have the stigma of not producing the highest sound quality, but they do a damn good job for their price and ease of use.
They are perfect for podcaster, YouTubers, and radio personalities alike.
Most would say that Yeti by Blue is hands down the best USB microphone out there, and I agree!
There are those who don’t like the sound, so as always, make sure you’re happy with the way you sound through it before purchasing. The Yeti has controls for mute, gain, and volume.
For those on a budget, Audio Technica now makes a USB version of their famous AT2020 that is cheaper than the Yeti while still keeping all the features that made the AT2020 a classic.
It’s not cheap, but if you walk into a professional studio and they don’t have the Neumann TLM-102 then they better have a more expensive model or you should walk out.
The TLM-102 is actually super affordable sitting around $700 new. That might seem like a lot, but it’s common to see $1000+ condensers in professional studios.
Neumann is known for creating some of, if not the best, mics around, and the TLM-102 is loaded with features. It can handle sound pressure up to 144 dB and has a slight presence boost about 6 kHz.
Some will complain about the latter, but honestly, the majority of vocals benefit from a slight boost in the ranges over 6 kHz.
The most expensive mic on the list coming in close to $1000, but it’s so incredibly worth it. AKG now produces two versions of the classic C414: C414B XLS & XLII.
The only difference between the two is that the XLII has a pronounced presence peak above 3kHz which produces an airier sound that’s more open.
The both have a dynamic range of 152 dB, 5 polar patterns (omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure 8), and they sound good on pretty much any instrument.
AKG makes a much cheaper version, the C214, that has a switchable attenuator (20db) and a bass-cut filter, but it only has one polar pattern.
Audio Technica 20 and 40 series
Since condensers range in price way more than dynamics, I wanted to give you another source for finding the right condenser mic.
I mentioned it above, but if you decided that a condenser mic is the right one for you, then check out Audio Technica 20 and 40 series.
There are a lot of mics available in those series and they cover the range of great mics from $100-$1000. AT is known for producing fantastic mics and you will often come across them in the studio.
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