Whether you’re recording music, performing a live show, filming a YouTube video, or doing anything else that requires a microphone, choosing which microphone to use can be quite a challenge.
There are so many different types out there all with different benefits and drawbacks. But don’t worry, because in this article I’m going to walk you through all the different types of microphones out there and help you decide which one will be the best for each situation.
So whether you’re shopping for your first microphone, trying to decide which of your existing microphones to use for a specific situation, or you’re just curious about all the different microphones out there, you’re in the right place.
Table of Contents
One of the best and most common types of microphone out there is the dynamic microphone. Dynamic microphones are generally a bit cheaper to produce than a lot of the others which can make them nice and affordable for beginners.
But the main reason you would choose a dynamic microphone over other types is that they have low sensitivity.
This makes them great for recording in less than ideal locations like your bedroom if you don’t have a professional studio as they will pick up the sound of the subject very clearly, but they won’t pick up much background noise that may be going on around you.
Most dynamic microphones also don’t need to be connected to power in order to function as the sound waves from your voice actually create the power it needs to run.
A reasonably affordable but still very good quality and highly popular dynamic microphone is the Shure SM57-LCE which comes in at just under $100.
Or if you’re willing to spend a bit more for a super premium dynamic mic, you could look at something like the Shure SM7B which is not only great for singing vocals, but is also one of the most popular microphones among podcasters.
So as you can see, even extremely high quality dynamic microphones are still priced well below $500.
Condenser Microphones (Sometimes Known As Capacitor Microphones)
Condenser microphones can produce great sounding audio, but they do have a few drawbacks compared to dynamic microphones that you should be aware of.
For starters, they will pick up more background noise than a dynamic microphone.
This means they will work great in a professional studio environment where the entire room is built with acoustics in mind and there is no background noise. And in fact, condenser microphones are commonly used in professional studios.
But if you’re recording in your home or office or somewhere where there is a bit of background noise, a condenser microphone will be more likely to pick up that noise which certainly wouldn’t be ideal.
Additionally, good condenser microphones are often quite a bit more expensive than good dynamic microphones, so if you’re on a tighter budget, you will probably want to be looking at dynamic microphones.
Strangely, a lot of the really cheap USB microphones out there are condenser microphones. But if you’re looking at buying a really good sounding microphone, a good dynamic microphone will generally be a lot cheaper than a good condenser microphone.
And, due to the way condenser microphones function, they have a loudness threshold where any sound that is louder than a certain level will start to sound a bit distorted.
And, all condenser microphones also require a power source which isn’t exactly a downside but it’s just something you should know.
This power can sometimes come from a battery connected to or built into the microphone, or if it’s a USB microphone the power will likely come from your computer via the USB cable, or it might have a separate power cable that needs to be plugged into an outlet.
Or, if it’s an XLR microphone, the power might come through your audio interface via the audio cable using something called phantom power.
It doesn’t matter how your condenser microphone gets power, but the point is, it needs power to run.
Condenser microphones can record really high quality, really detailed sound including very high frequencies.
So if you have a great, quiet room to record in and are able to provide it with a power source, and your subject isn’t way too loud and you’re able to afford the cost of a quality condenser microphone, it can be a great option and can produce some really great results.
But if you don’t think that will be possible with the resources you currently have available, I would suggest going with a more flexible dynamic microphone instead.
Large Diaphragm Condensers VS Small Diaphragm Condensers
If you do decide to go with a condenser microphone, you’ll also have to choose between a large diaphragm condenser and a small diaphragm condenser. Large diaphragm condensers are the most common condenser microphones and they look the most like a traditional microphone.
The biggest advantage of a large diaphragm condenser compared to a small diaphragm condenser is that large diaphragm condensers usually have lower self-noise which means they won’t pick up as much of the noise that is made by the capacitor inside.
Large diaphragm condensers can sometimes sound less true to life than small condensers as they tend to make everything sound a bit bigger. But they can still be very good for vocals and loud instruments.
On the other hand, small diaphragm condensers, aside from being significantly physically smaller, sound a bit more true to life and are great for recording all the fine detail in a sound.
If you chose a large diaphragm condenser microphone, you could go with one like the Rode NT1-A which is a decent sounding microphone on the more affordable side of the scale.
Or if you want something super high quality, you could go for something like the Audio-Technica AT5040 which is certinatly a great microphone, but it will cost you almost $3,000 which is not exactly budget friendly. And even the more affordable mic from Rode costs around $300.
So while you can get a really cheap condenser mic for under $100, if you want something with good audio quality, a condenser mic is going to cost you a lot more than a dynamic mic.
These expensive condenser microphones can be great if you can afford them, but if you have a budget of $100 or less, I would highly recommend going with a mid range dynamic microphone over a very cheap condenser.
If you’re after a small diaphragm condenser, you could get a reasonably affordable but still reasonably good quality one like the Rode NT5, or something like the Sennheiser MKH 50 P48 if you’re after a super high quality one. Both of these are still quite a bit more expensive than a comparable dynamic mic, but they are a bit cheaper than the large diaphragm condenser microphones which is nice.
A somewhat less common type of microphone is the ribbon microphone. You might not have heard of ribbon microphones before, but they were actually the first type of microphone to be commercially available.
And, they were very commonly used in professional music studios in the past, and even today, despite the availability of other types of microphones, ribbon microphones are still reasonably common in professional studios.
The main benefit of a ribbon microphone over a dynamic or condenser microphone is that it sounds very true to life almost as though you are actually in the room which is great for capturing accurate sound, and they’re also particularly good at capturing high frequency sound.
So, with these great benefits, why don’t more people use them? Well, the thing is, they can actually be kind of delicate and fragile. If you put it close to loud instruments like a drum or even position it to close to your mouth, you can damage a ribbon microphone beyond repair.
Even using a ribbon mic out in the wind can cause some damage to it. And you definitely don’t want to send any phantom power to it, as that would also damage it.
When using a ribbon mic, you also need a preamp with very high gain. Ribbon microphones are quite quiet compared to other microphones, so you’ll need to turn up the gain on your preamp very high in order to get a useable sound.
But the tricky thing is, the gain on most preamps can’t actually be turned up that high, so you’ll really only be able to use a ribbon microphone if you have a certain preamp with really high gain.
So if you’re at more of a beginner to intermediate level of music production and you don’t have a very elaborate setup, or you’re recording a video or podcast or something like that, I probably wouldn’t bother messing around with a ribbon mic.
But if you’ve got a more fully equipped music production setup and you want to take your music production to the next level, you might want to consider adding a ribbon microphone to your collection as they can certainly have their benefits.
You would still want to use the ribbon mic in conjunction with a different microphone like a condenser mic, but it could certainly be worth adding one to your setup.
If you’re after a good ribbon mic, the Royer Labs R-121 is a very popular option with great audio quality. But I have to warn you, these don’t exactly come cheap.
Shotgun microphones are highly directional, so they really need to be pointed directly at the subject in order to get a good sound. But this can be really good as it will allow you to get loud and clear audio of your subject with very little background noise.
This also means a shotgun microphone can be placed further away from the subject than most other microphones while still getting a clear sound. This is really good for video production as it means the microphone can be placed further back out of the shot.
Shotgun microphones are usually placed either somewhere on the camera and pointed forward at the subject, or on a boom arm closer to the subject just high enough to be out of the frame of the video and pointing down at the subject.
So while there’s really no reason you’d use a shotgun microphone for music production, podcasting, and other situations where you’re able to position your mouth right in front of the microphone. If you’re doing any kind of video production, a Shotgun or Lapel microphone will likely be the way to go.
If you want to get a good shotgun microphone for video production, I would highly recommend the Rode VideoMic Pro+, you can get cheaper ones, but it has all the bells and whistles you could ever want, and the audio quality is fantastic.
Similar to Shotgun Microphones, Lapel microphones like this one are also really only useful for video production. But these two microphones are actually quite different.
With a Lapel microphone, everyone in the video will have their own microphone, and they will wear it either clipped to the top of their shirt or possibly even under their shirt if they want it to be less obvious.
This can be great if your subject is moving around a lot or they are quite far away from the camera because the microphone will always be there with them so the audio will pretty much always sound good no matter what they do.
And, because the microphone is nice and close to their mouth, the gain is able to be much lower, meaning you won’t really get any background noise, while still being able to hear their voice loud and clear.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks like the fact that you’ll need to give everyone in the video their own microphone, and it will take some time for everyone to put their microphones on.
And then you’ll also have to either set each microphone up with a small recorder so that everyone’s voice gets recorded and then sync all the tracks in the editing software. Or set up some sort of wireless transmission straight to the camera.
So for a lot of situations, a single shotgun microphone might be an easier option that can produce equally good results. But in certain situations, a Lapel microphone can be the best and sometimes even easiest way to get a good sounding recording of everyone’s voice.
Every other type of microphone works by capturing sound waves from the air, but a contact microphone gets physically attached to an object, and then it captures sound from the vibrations of that object.
So obviously, a contact microphone will be completely useless for recording vocals and certain instruments. But for certain other instruments like a guitar or violin, they can be perfect.
Because they’re attached to the instrument, they will pick up very clear and accurate sound from that instrument thanks to the vibrations.
But they won’t pick up any background noise at all. So even if there is something very loud right next to you, the recording from the contact mic will be unaffected.
And, if you want to get creative, you could even attach a contact microphone to all kinds of different household items and see what sort of sound it records.
If you’d like to get a contact microphone and try it out for yourself, you can actually get good ones like this one surprisingly cheaply on Amazon.
Tube microphones almost aren’t technically a different type of microphone, as every tube mic actually uses either a capacitor (the mechanism inside a condenser mic) or ribbon (like in a ribbon mic), but they are a bit different so I thought I’d add them to the list anyway.
A tube mic is usually a large diaphragm condenser mic, but there are some small diaphragm condenser and ribbon mics out there. And after the signal gets picked up by the condenser or ribbon, it will then pass through a vacuum tube to alter the sound before outputting it.
This process usually makes sound from a tube microphone a bit louder, warmer, and more colorful.
Personally, I don’t think there’s much point in using a tube mic because you can easily achieve these effects by using a different kind of microphone with some additional equipment if you want to. But tube mics are another option out there.
And while I personally wouldn’t bother with a tube mic, if you decide you would like to add a tube mic to your setup, the MXL V69M EDT MOGAMI Edition is a popular option.
And, that’s it! That’s all the different types of microphones there are. So whether you were choosing a microphone, or just curious about the different types, you now know everything you need to know about them.