Condenser vs. Dynamic Microphones – What’s the Difference?
The terms “condenser” and “dynamic” refer to two different ways microphones are built, and function. There are two distinct differences and it’s imperative that you select the correct mic for the job. Today, we will discuss the differences, best practices, and everyday use cases for the two microphone types. Read on to learn more about condenser vs. dynamic microphones!
Recording and posting music online is a great way to share your talent with the world and connect with people. When you’re singing over recorded tracks or just starting, investing in a high-quality microphone probably isn’t on your mind.
When browsing for a microphone, there are many options out there. You’ll want to look for either a condenser or a dynamic microphone, but what’s the difference?
A condenser microphone is perfect for capturing gentle sounds at higher frequencies, while a dynamic microphone is better for strong and loud sounds.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning the difference between the two microphones and trying them out to see where their strengths are.
In this article, I’ll address what makes these microphones different from each other, when you should use one or the other, and some of my recommendations for each type.
How Do Microphones Work?
I’m sure you have a general understanding of how microphones work. They pick up sounds and amplify them and record, right? Well, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Microphones work by transferring and converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. Any sound made causes sound vibrations that move into the air, commonly called airwaves.
When you speak, sing, or play an instrument, a microphone will pick up those airwaves and transform them into electrical signals. The signals will cause the diaphragm inside the microphone to vibrate.
Once the diaphragm starts to vibrate, it moves a magnet near a coil. Depending on the microphone you’re using, the coil might vibrate instead of the diaphragm. When the converted electrical signals vibrate the diaphragm, they’re interpreted and recorded onto your device.
Small vs. Large Diaphragm
Every microphone comes with a diaphragm, which can be small or large. Generally, the size of the diaphragm corresponds with the overall microphone style.
Small Diaphragm Condensers
A microphone with a smaller diaphragm is better at picking up higher frequency sounds than a larger one. When I say that they’re better, I mean that they can pick up these tones more accurately than a microphone with a larger diaphragm.
Most small diaphragm condensers are pencil-shaped and have a diaphragm of about a half-inch or less in diameter.
Large Diaphragm Condensers
Large diaphragm condensers are better at picking up lower frequencies. They’re usually an inch or more in diameter. These microphones pick up sounds on both sides of the device rather than just the top where you’re singing or playing music into.
This type also captures internal and external sounds. Being able to pick up internal and external sounds means it’s excellent at picking up the lead singer’s voice while accurately recording the guitar and other lead instruments.
Understand Your Polar Patterns
When choosing the right microphone for you, you’ll need to understand polar patterns. Polar patterns, sometimes called polar response curves, are how much signal a microphone collects from every direction.
Understanding the polar pattern of the microphone you’re using can help you eliminate any unwanted sounds when you’re recording. This knowledge can also help you choose the proper pattern to balance the various sounds in your recordings.
The best way to understand polar patterns is to picture a 360° field around the microphone. The front, where you’d sing or play into it, is the most sensitive area and picks up the best sounds. We’ll call this area 0°.
The field around the microphone is made of concentric circles. These go outward from the 0° point in the front of the microphone. From this point, each radiating ring signifies a 5dB drop in sensitivity. So, the further you are from that center point, the less sensitive the mic is.
There are five common polar patterns you should know. Each pattern records sounds differently, and you might want to experiment with them to find which ones you prefer.
Cardioid is the most straightforward pattern to use for recording purposes. Its highest sensitivity is 0°, and its lowest sensitivity is 180°. It’s a great pattern to use if you’re recording in a noisy room or have to deal with extra background noise from neighbors or outside.
A supercardioid pattern is more directional than a cardioid pattern. It picks up more sounds on the sides of your center point than from behind. Its least sensitive areas are 127˚ and 233˚ from the center point.
For single, direct sounds, it has the best sensitivity. This pattern is ideal when recording in a live setting because it allows you to increase the mic gain without needing to increase the volume, and it’s excellent at minimizing distortion and feedback.
If you’re looking for a polar pattern that gives you great sensitivity from all sides, then omnidirectional is for you. It responds the best to bass and does a great job at minimizing sounds from the wind.
This pattern is perfect for those recording in a studio because there are no external sounds that the sensitive microphone can pick up.
The figure-8 pattern is the most sensitive at the 0° and 180° points and the least sensitive at 90° and 270°. Using this pattern helps eliminate sounds originating from the left and right angles.
When you’re recording multiple instruments in one room, this pattern helps you do so without losing the quality of each instrument.
The wide cardioid pattern, sometimes called the subcardioid pattern, is the best part of the cardioid and Omni cardioid patterns. It picks up sound from all directions, but not as much near the rear of the center point.
You can use this pattern when recording a group of instruments or vocals without sounding weird that they’re in close proximity.
What Is a Dynamic Microphone?
A dynamic microphone is an older type of microphone and has been around for almost as long as microphones in general. The design is relatively simple, but it’s effective at many things. Primarily, dynamic microphones are fantastic at picking up loud sounds.
These types of microphones work by a sound wave hitting the diaphragm. The diaphragm on these mics is typically made with some kind of plastic.
The movement from the diaphragm causes the metal coil that’s suspended between magnets to move as well. The metal coil moving produces something that mimics a sound wave.
Since dynamic microphones can easily handle high pressure, they’re best when using them in live settings or when recording very loud sounds.
That being said, the metal coil can only vibrate so much due to its weight. When you try to record a sound that’s too low or high in frequency for the microphone, it may not pick up on it well or at all.
Examples of when you’d want to use a dynamic microphone are:
- Recording anything live
- Recording drums
- Recording electric guitar or anything with an amp
There are several pros to using a dynamic microphone.
- They’re general inexpensive
- They’re durable and last for a while
- You don’t need a power source for them to work
While this type of microphone is excellent for specific recordings, there are some cons to consider.
- They’re not good at picking up quiet sounds
- It’s not great for very high or very low frequencies, either
What Is a Condenser Microphone?
A condenser microphone is your best bet when you want to record quieter and more delicate sounds like softer vocals. They are better at picking up on these sounds, but they do it with higher accuracy.
A condenser microphone works because when sound enters the device, it converts sound into an electrical signal by moving the diaphragm, not a metal coil.
With condenser microphones, the sound transfers from the airwaves to two metal plates that hold an electrical charge. This charge then runs through the internal circuitry.
Since condenser microphones need an electrical charge to produce sound, you’ll need to have a power source for them. This could be a battery, or some require you to plug them into an electric outlet. Or, you can use phantom power, which I’ll get into shortly.
With a lighter diaphragm, electrical plates, and internal circuitry, these microphones can produce a cleaner sound and have a higher sensitivity.
Since condenser microphones are pretty different from dynamic microphones, these are the best things to record using this type of microphone:
- Acoustic guitar or other acoustic instruments
- Delicate vocals
These are the main pros to using a condenser microphone:
- They’re sensitive to quiet and delicate sounds
- They’re more accurate regardless of the frequency range
Condenser microphones are very popular, but let’s look at the main cons of these devices:
- They can get expensive
- They can’t accurately pick up loud sounds
- They’re not as durable as dynamic microphones
What Is Phantom Power?
For a condenser microphone to work, it needs a power source. Phantom power helps the diaphragm of this microphone move and, therefore, produce sound. You can usually find this power on your preamp or audio interface. You’ll turn it on, and it supplies power at +48V or P48.
The Difference Between Condenser and Dynamic Microphones
If you haven’t figured it out by now, there are some critical differences between the condenser and dynamic microphones. Dynamic microphones are better at capturing loud noises like drums and live performances, while condenser microphones are better for delicate, in-studio sounds.
There are several reasons you should choose one microphone over another, and they’re all based on what you’re looking to record.
Dynamic microphones are considerably more durable than condenser microphones. People most often use dynamic microphones for live performances and when musicians are touring. Being tossed around on stage and when traveling means they need to be able to withstand some wear and tear.
While condenser microphones aren’t nearly as durable as dynamic ones, they’re still suitable for travel and live settings if you get a high-end condenser microphone.
Even though you can use them for these activities, they still aren’t as durable as dynamic ones. You’re better off leaving them at home or in the studio.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamic ones. This is why they can pick up on the softer and more delicate sounds with better accuracy.
Dynamic microphones are better at withstanding higher sound pressure and aren’t as sensitive. Regardless of sensitivity, they’re both equally good at projecting the noise they pick up.
This one is simple. Condenser microphones need a power source, while dynamic microphones don’t. The only time that a dynamic microphone will need a power source is if you use an active dynamic microphone.
Dynamic or not, you don’t need additional phantom power if you use a mic with USB-connectivity. USB-microphones receives the power they need from the computer.
For the most part, dynamic microphones are more affordable than condenser microphones. There are some more costly dynamic microphone options, but they’re almost always cheaper than condensers of similar quality.
Which Microphone Should I Use?
Now that you know the differences between the two microphones, which one should you use? Which one you should use depends entirely on what you’re using it for.
If you intend to use the microphone to record vocals, a condenser microphone is generally a better option. These microphones will allow you to record isolated vocals for songs or other voice recordings. On the other hand, a dynamic microphone is better if you need one for a live performance.
I enjoy using the cardioid polar pattern when recording vocals because it helps reduce ambient noise. It also is more responsive to sound coming from the front of the microphone than the back.
The good news is that small and larger diaphragms work well for recording vocals. If you can choose, you should opt for a larger diaphragm because it can capture a broader range of frequencies than a smaller one.
If you’re looking for an excellent condenser microphone to record vocals, the MXL Mics 770 Cardioid Condenser Microphone is one of my favorites.
When recording an acoustic guitar, you should use a condenser microphone. You’ll love how this mic picks up the subtle notes of the somewhat softer instrument accurately.
Since these microphones are more sensitive, you’ll be able to hear every single note you pluck or strum clearly on the final recording. I also enjoy a cardioid polar pattern for recording acoustic guitars.
Like with vocal recordings, using this pattern for acoustic guitars allows the mic to pick up sounds from right in front of the mic, where you’re playing. It helps reduce any other noise or instruments in the room, which I prefer.
While it doesn’t matter too much, the diaphragm size you should look for when specifically recording an acoustic guitar is a smaller one. I suggest trying the Behringer C-2 Matched Studio Condenser Microphone.
When jamming out on your electric guitar, you should use a dynamic microphone. These microphones are better at taking in louder noises and making sure that they still come out as clear as possible.
Choosing a condenser mic with an electric guitar can cause clipping during recording. This happens when the guitar’s volume is too loud for the microphone to handle, causing the waveform to become saturated and distorted.
You can go with a cardioid or supercardioid polar pattern with electric guitars. The cardioid pattern is ideal if you’re recording the electric guitar track, and the supercardioid is best when performing with the electric guitar.
I’d suggest using a large diaphragm for electric guitar recordings. Between the dynamic mic and a large diaphragm, you’ll be able to better capture the loud sound without losing quality.
Look at the Shure SM57-LCE Cardioid Dynamic Instrument Microphone with Pneumatic Shock Mount for recording electric guitar.
Drums are another louder instrument that benefits from a dynamic microphone when recording or playing live. These are great because you can set the mic up close to the drums. You can do this without worrying about the sound being too loud for the mic to handle.
You might want to try placing one dynamic mic next to each snare and bass drum to capture their sounds fully. When it comes to cymbals, they have a higher frequency, so the dynamic microphone may not pick up on it well. You could use a condenser in this case.
Drums are asymmetrical instruments. The same sound won’t happen to the right as it will to the left. So, you’ll want to use different mics for each part of the drum. For the most part, the cardioid polar pattern works best for drums.
I’d recommend using a large diaphragm for drums because they can handle the high frequencies and loud sounds without reducing sound quality.
For drums, you should try the Shure SM57-LCE Cardioid Dynamic Instrument Microphone with Pneumatic Shock Mount for recording drums.
While it’s crucial to find the right microphone for what you’re recording to ensure the microphone picks up all the sounds adequately, what you prefer may be different from someone else.
Knowing the difference between condenser and dynamic microphones is the first step to choosing the right one for you.
Each microphone is ideal for different situations and shines in areas where the other doesn’t. After learning about these microphones, you can start browsing to find the best product that suits your needs and start recording!