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What to look for in a microphone
Whether you’re shooting a short film or starting a new podcast, audio is super important. Plenty of great content is made using just the microphone built into a smartphone, but great sound is key in taking your project up to the next level. The problem is trying to figure out which microphone is best for you can be a daunting process.
Plenty of technical jargon isn’t important, but it can be hard to tell it apart from the important stuff. Plenty of salespeople will just assume you know all of it when you ask about mics. So what do you need to look for in a microphone? Whether you’re shooting a short film, starting a YouTube channel, or upgrading your podcast setup, these are a few things you should know.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on July 26, 2021, to include a section on ribbon microphones.
How do you plan to use your microphone?
Arguably the most important step in getting good audio is figuring out exactly what kind of audio you want to record. You can get the most expensive microphone you can find and still not get crispy clear audio if you’re in the wrong environment. There are some special cases, but I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this you mainly only care about how to record vocals or instruments. Knowing which one is most important to you will then help you decide the type of microphone to get.
What are the different kinds of microphones?
Once you know what you’re trying to record, we can get into the good stuff. The gritty details can be a little confusing if you’ve never encountered the terminology before. There are two main kinds of microphones (there are others but these are the ones you’ll usually come across unless you’re spending thousands).
The first kind of microphone is a dynamic microphone. If you picture the mic that a singer or even your favorite comedian uses on stage, you’re most likely picturing a dynamic microphone. These microphones do great in noisy environments. They have a small coil on the inside that’s sensitive to sound vibrations. As the soundwaves move the coil it gets converted into an electrical signal that can be recorded. You can use these to record a performer on stage, if you’re interviewing someone on the street, or even a guitar or drum kick.
These are also great for all of these environments because the magnets and coil inside of dynamic mics are a little more durable compared to other microphones. They’re not exactly rugged, but for the most part they can take a beating without getting completely destroyed. Most people recommend the Shure SM58, as it’s a pretty tough and versatile microphone that works well whether you’re on location or recording at your desk. Plus, it’s only $100.
If you like the idea of a dynamic mic and want something a little higher up on the spectrum, the Telefunken M80 Dynamic microphone is another great pick—in fact, it’s the microphone of choice for our executive editor Chris Thomas.
The other type of popular microphone type is a condenser. This works slightly differently and uses capacitor plates instead of a coil and magnets. It’s easy to go further down the technical rabbit hole, but the practical thing you need to know is that condenser mics are more sensitive to smaller vibrations than dynamic mics. While dynamic mics are fine to use with bass drums, condensers are not. You’ll want to use these if you’re trying to pick up the subtleties in a voice like for example when recording a podcast or a singer in a booth.
The use cases for condenser microphones are typically much more static than those of dynamic mics, mainly because those capacitor plates are far more fragile than dynamic mics. The exception to this is shotgun microphones, which are the giant mics you see people holding on movie sets. Because they’re so sensitive to softer sounds, it’s worth the risk of carrying it around just to make sure you capture everything that the actress is saying.
If you’re looking for a solid all-around mic to use at home for vocals or string instruments, my personal mic of choice is the Rode NT1-A condenser mic which does a fairly good job with almost everything.
Condenser mics require an external voltage source to function, so you’ll need something that can provide phantom power to your mic, like an audio interface. Phantom power is also just a cool name for something that isn’t as cool as actual ghosts. All it means is that whatever you plug the microphone into has the ability to send +48V of power through the cable into the mic. Usually, this is found in audio interfaces or some portable recorders like the Zoom H5.
Less common types of microphones include ribbon mics. Typically the thing that gives ribbon microphones their name, also happens to be the reason they are easy to bust: a ribbon. Essentially a conductive ribbon rests between two electromagnetic poles detecting your sound source. These mics are technically a sub-type of the dynamic mic category. Think of early crooners in the studio and they’ve probably got a ribbon mic in front.
Newer ribbon mics have sturdier builds than old ones often using stronger nanomaterials, but you still avoid sticking one in front of a guitar amp, unless the manufacturer says it’s fine. Most of the time these mics have a bidirectional polar pattern (more on those below). A bidirectional polar pattern works well for recording two sources at the same time on either face of the mic, like two people speaking, if you control for volume difference in a pinch. Ribbon mics make great vocal microphones too. Many early broadcast microphones, after all, were ribbon, so they work great for podcasters if well-placed.
While sound is objective, taste is subjective. If you like how sensitive the condenser is to registering all sounds, but want a different tone, try a ribbon microphone. These mics used to be prohibitively expensive, but companies like Golden Age Electronics with the R1 MKIII and Studio Electronics and the X1 make more accessibly priced options.
Should you get a USB or XLR microphone?
USB microphones are not only convenient and easy to use, but are also typically cheaper than XLR microphones. Most USB mics have a cardioid polar pattern, meaning they pick up sound from the front, so they’re great for making podcasts or voiceovers.
However, if you’re looking to record vocal or instrumental music, or want a higher quality sound for your podcast, you’ll want to go with an XLR mic. XLR mics can be pricey and require the purchase of an audio interface, but they typically produce audio of much higher quality than USB microphones.
This is because as well as the microphone capsule itself, USB microphones have a built in analog to digital convertor (ADC), which won’t necessarily be set up optimally for the sound level you’re putting into it—plus the whole package will have been built to meet a specific price point. XLR microphones, on the other hand, don’t include the ADC, and will have an analog output stage that is typically balanced on pins 2 and 3 of the XLR connector to reject noise induced in the cable connecting it to the recording equipment.
What are polar patterns?
Once you’ve figured out what you want to use the microphone for and where, the next step is to determine what you want your microphone to record. Do you want your microphone to record only what is perfectly in front of it or if you want to pick up sound all around you?
These directivity charts are called polar patterns, and they’re easier to read than they look. I’m sure no one reading this was confused by what I just explained. The names for the different kinds of patterns can be intimidating, but they don’t get any more complicated. They’re all just different names for “Where do you want the microphone to record?”.
One very common polar pattern is the cardioid. This one is super easy to understand as the root word the pattern gets its name from means “heart-shaped” in Latin, so these microphones pick up sound in a heart shape. Another fairly common kind of polar pattern is omnidirectional which, as you may have guessed by the name, pick up sound in all directions. There are a few others such as super-cardioid and bidirectional, but I’m willing to bet you can guess what those look like. If you want to dig a little deeper we have a full explainer on the different types.
What is frequency response?
Frequency response gets tossed around a lot, but not everyone actually knows what it means. The practical part you need to know is the frequency response of something refers to how well the components of the microphone can reproduce the signals it is picking up.
In a perfect world, it’d be a one-to-one reproduction. The microphone will “hear” a sound and perfectly convert it into an electronic signal that’s perfectly transferred into the recorder. In reality, some vibrations get lost along the way and some of the information never makes it to the final recording.
How well a microphone can reproduce the acoustic signal can be visualized as a frequency response graph. If a certain tone comes out of the mic slightly weaker than it went in, this is visualized as a slight dip in the graph. If it comes out stronger then it went in, then that is visualized as a slight hump. This is a simplified version of what you’ll need to know.
To get a deeper understanding of how this affects your sound and your music, it’s worth reading this great piece on frequency response by our own Robert Triggs.
What is sensitivity?
When you’re looking at tech specs, sensitivity should also appear. Believe it or not, sensitivity refers to how sensitive the microphone is—I know, shocker. It tells you what the electrical output of a microphone will be (usually in millivolts) for a given acoustic input (in Pa for Pascals, or dBSPL) . The higher that number is, the more sensitive the microphone is.
How can you improve recording quality?
Knowing the ins and outs of a microphone is important if you’re serious about your craft, but knowing what everything means isn’t going to turn you into an audio engineer overnight. You need to mess up and then mess up again before you know exactly how each factor will affect your final product. Luckily, plenty of people (like myself) have messed up countless times, and there are plenty of tips and tricks all over the internet so you don’t make the same mistakes we did.
Treat the room
Treating the room is the most important and underrated tip no one talks about. I’d argue that it’s more important than what mic you pick up on your audio journey. If you take almost any microphone into a properly treated room, your audio will go from good to great. You can spend thousands properly treating your room, but if your funds are limited make sure to apply acoustic foam the corners of the room first.
This is where you can prevent low frequency build up from causing problems in your recording. Once you’ve done that, then you can move forward with covering the first reflection points of the room with acoustic foam. As I mentioned, that can get expensive.
To keep some money in your pockets, one tried and true method, believe it or not, is a simple blanket fort. If you’re recording your voice, you’ll be surprised how much throwing a blanket over yourself and your mic can clean up your sound quality. My personal favorite is to also flip up my mattress to help absorb even more of the ricochetting sound. If all else fails, you can always try to fix what you have in post with software.
Lavs shouldn’t be bumped
Ever wonder why lavalier mics are always positioned right under the chin in the chest area? There’s another reason, besides being close to the mouth of the person speaking: Lavalier mics have to be small and innocuous, which doesn’t allow for much protection, so careful placement is one way of avoiding ear-popping issues.
Do you need an audio interface?
Unless you opt for a USB microphone, chances are you’re going to need an audio interface, as most microphones come with an XLR connection. To record anything digitally into a computer, you’re going to need an interface that you can connect to your computer. Some of them can even provide the phantom power needed for condenser microphones.
One classic audio interface you can go with if you don’t want to break the bank is the Scarlett 2i2 interface, which—assuming you didn’t blow all your money on a top-of-the-line microphone—should work perfectly with most microphones. Of course, an interface is only necessary if you’re going to be recording at a set location as carrying one around in a backpack can be a hassle. If you’re going to be recording on location you might want to look into a portable recorder that can also accept XLR inputs.
Aim shotguns mics down at the chest
If you’re going to record actors or yourself on camera, a shotgun microphone is a great way to go. Shotgun mics are a type of condenser microphone, so they’re usually fairly sensitive to loud noises. If you’ve ever seen a behind-the-scenes video shoot, you’ll usually see that the person holding a shotgun mic over the heads of the actors pointing down.
If you point the microphone upwards into the person’s mouth instead of their chest, you’ll also be picking up everything behind the person. If you’re outside, that can be a lot of extra noise you might not want in the final recording. If you’re inside, that can mean a lot of extra room tone that you’re going to have to get rid of in post.
Look into getting a Cloudlifter if you have a quiet dynamic mic
While condenser microphones usually need some extra juice in the form of phantom power, high-end dynamic microphones can also need a little help. In the case of the Telefunken M80 or the popular Shure SM7B, you also might want to pick up a trusty little device called the CL-1 Cloudlifter. You can read all about it in our full review, but it basically just gives the audio signal a little boost before it reaches your interface to be recorded.
Now that you know the important aspects of what to look for in a microphone, it’s going to be much easier to figure out which is the right one for you. You might also want to look into some USB microphones, as there are some truly great options that don’t require anything other than a computer.
What if you work from home and need a mic?
Due to the new and awful reality we’ve all lived in for the last year, there’s a new market for audio devices: locked down people who want to sound better over Zoom. If you’re new to working from home, you’ve probably noticed that your AirPods microphone or the one built-in to your laptop sounds pretty rough. However, a lot of what we’ve covered in this post may seem like overkill—in truth, it is. Video and voice chat apps compress your audio as it moves across the series of tubes that is the internet, making the benefits of a pristine audio setup more or less moot, after a certain point at least.
If you’re looking for something that will strike the right balance of ease of use and noticeable improvement, the USB microphones we mentioned are probably the best option. If even that is a little daunting to you, even a decent gaming headset will make a big difference.