So you're wondering which microphone you should buy, rent or otherwise try out. In this comprehensive buyer's guide, we'll go through everything worth considering before you make any decisions about a microphone.
If you've found yourself asking “which microphone should I buy?”, this extensive resource is for you. Though I will not be offering any specific recommendations, I have included links to check out certain microphones types at some of my favourite affiliated retailers.
With over 9,000 words, this article is rather long. Please feel free to jump around this article and read all additional resources I have provided links to.
With that, let's get into this comprehensive microphone buyer's guide to help you in your next microphone purchase!
• Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You’ve Likely Never Heard Of
• Microphone Database
• Microphone Brands Database
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
Table Of Contents
- What Is Your Microphone Budget?
- What Is The Intended Application Of The Microphone?
- Dynamic, Condenser & Ribbon Microphones
- Tube Vs. Solid-State Microphones
- Shotgun Microphones
- Lavalier Microphones
- Boundary Microphones
- Wired Or Wireless Microphone?
- USB, XLR & Other Microphone Connectors
- Microphone Polar Patterns
- Microphone Frequency Response
- Other Microphone Specfications Worth Noting
- Microphone Features
- Common Microphone Applications
- Know The Additional Costs Of Microphone Accessories
- Best Microphones By Type, Application & Price Point
What Is Your Microphone Budget?
The first thing to consider when making any purchase is your budget. Money can be a touchy subject for some, and so I'll keep this section brief.
I would never advise anyone to overspend on any audio equipment. Know what you can realistically afford, and do your best to stay within those limitations, whatever they may be.
Microphones, like many audio devices, range significantly in price. The market is rather large, and so there should be a good selection for any budget.
Note that some retailers offer payment plans, which could be an option.
Consider the cost to benefit ratio of the microphone purchase. For example, if the microphone is needed for business, perhaps stretching the budget is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you don't plan on making money with the mic, perhaps a more conservative budget is appropriate.
Also, consider any additional accessories or upkeep that may be required for your microphone.
Only you can determine your budget. All I'm here to say is that you should consider it.
Related articles to help find the best microphones on a budget:
• How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples)
• 11 Best Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $1000
• 12 Best Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $500
• 11 Best Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $500
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $1,000 for Recording Vocals
• Top 10 Best Microphones Under $500 for Recording Vocals
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocals
What Is The Intended Application Of The Microphone?
Before deciding on which microphone you should buy, be sure to consider the intended applications of the mic. There are a wide variety of situations that call for the use of microphones and, as a result, a plethora of different microphone types to accommodate.
So give some thought to the application of the microphone(s) you'll be buying. Though we'll discuss popular mic applications in a later section, here is a shortlist of typical options for common applications.
Studio vocals & voiceover: consider a large-diaphragm condenser microphone.
Live vocals & voice: consider a dynamic microphone with wireless connectivity.
Film, television, videos, etc.: consider wireless lavalier microphones and shotgun microphones.
Instruments: consider a wide range of dynamic, condenser and ribbon microphones.
Web-based communications: consider a USB microphone.
Dynamic, Condenser & Ribbon Microphones
Microphones are defined as transducers, which means they convert one form of energy (in this case, sound waves) into another form of energy (in this case, electrical audio signals). There are numerous transducer types found in microphones, but the main 3 worth noting are as follows:
Please note that, like many sections of this buyer's guide, I'll be generalizing in the following paragraphs.
Dynamic microphones (sometimes referred to as moving-coil mics) utilize electromagnetic induction to convert sound into audio. A coil of conductive material is attached to the mic's diaphragm and suspended in a magnetic field. As the diaphragm moves, the coil experiences a changing magnetic field, and an electrical audio signal is produced.
Some dynamic microphones have output transformers while others don't. The simple design of dynamic microphones is a big part of why dynamic mics are often cheaper than their ribbon and condenser counterparts.
For a complete article on dynamic microphones, check out My New Microphone's The Complete Guide To Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones.
Generally speaking, dynamic microphones are the least sensitive to sound pressure changes and to physical damage.
This makes them great choices for high sound pressure level (SPL) applications like miking kick and snare drums. A lack of sensitivity also works well in noisier environments.
Dynamic mics are also often chosen for live sound reinforcement because they are rugged and generally more resistant to feedback. The durability of dynamic mics extends to physical damage, temperature and humidity (within reason).
The downside to dynamic mics is that they're often “coloured” in frequency response, meaning they don't pick up all frequencies equally. This is particularly true in the high-end. Also, because they're generally less sensitive, they may not capture all the nuance of a performance like a condenser or ribbon mic would.
- Click this link to check out dynamic microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out dynamic microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out dynamic microphones on Amazon
Condenser microphones convert sound to audio via electrostatic principles. A diaphragm and stationary backplate make up a sort of capacitor (aka a condenser). Any diaphragm movement causes a change in capacitance and results in an audio signal at the output.
In order to function, the capacitor of the condenser mic capsule must be charged. This can be done via external power (as is the case with “true condenser microphones”) or can be achieved permanently with electret material (as is the case with “electret microphones”). Both systems work perfectly well with today's technology, so we won't discuss this difference in detail, though it is something to be aware of.
The signal from the condenser capsule is of very high impedance and needs amplification/impedance conversation. This can be done via solid-state technology (often FETs or JFETs) or via vacuum tubes. Tube audio equipment often has a certain warmth, while solid-state equipment is often colder. This is true of microphones as well.
For a complete article on condenser microphones, check out my article What Is A Condenser Microphone? (Detailed Answer + Examples).
Condenser microphones are more complicated and are, therefore, often more expensive. That being said, many of the cheap mics on the market utilize electret capsules and relatively simple signal paths.
Condensers are often chosen because they're sensitive, have extended and flattened frequency responses, and are more apt to capture the nuances of a performance accurately.
These mics are often chosen for studio applications. They require power (for preamplification and impedance conversion, among other things), which is often supplied via phantom power in the studio or by DC biasing for miniature Cavaliers.
Condenser mics, especially those with tubes, tend to be considered fragile. However, some condensers (like many lavaliers and shotgun mics) are designed to withstand physical abuse along with extreme temperature and humidity.
Beyond electrets vs. true, solid-state vs. tube, phantom power vs. DC bias, etc., there are two main styles of condenser microphones: small-diaphragm and large-diaphragm.
Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
SDCs have diaphragms generally 1/2″ (12.7mm) or less. They tend to be more accurate (frequency and transient response) but a bit noisier than LDCs.
SDCs are often chosen for miking stringed and woodwind instruments, as drum overheads, and for any source where detail is critical. Small-diaphragm condenser capsules are also used in shotgun microphones and, technically, in lavalier mics (though these capsules are often referred to as “miniature”).
- Click this link to check out SDC microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out SDC microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out SDC microphones on Amazon
Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones
LDCs have diaphragms generally 1″ (25.4mm) or more. They tend to be a bit less accurate (frequency and transient response) than SDC but more accurate than dynamic microphones.
LDCs are often chosen for their character and bigger sound. They are typically chosen in the studio for recording vocals, voiceover, brass, guitar and bass amps, and as room mics.
- Click this link to check out LDC microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out LDC microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out LDC microphones on Amazon
To learn more about small and large-diaphragm condenser mics, check out my article Large-Diaphragm Vs. Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones.
Like dynamic mics, ribbon microphones transducers utilize electromagnetic induction. This time, the conductive element is a thin ribbon diaphragm that moves within a magnetic field according to the sound waves around it.
Because the output signal from a ribbon transducer is rather low, many ribbon mics have transformers at the output. Some other ribbon mics, known as active ribbon mics, even use tubes or solid-state preamps to help boost the signal to more appropriate levels. An output transformer also helps protect the inherently fragile ribbon element from damage due to electrical surges (from abrupt cutting/engaging of phantom power, for example).
For a complete article on ribbon microphones, check out My New Microphone's Complete Guide To Ribbon Microphones (With Mic Examples).
Ribbon microphones are generally highly sensitive to nuances in sound and tend to have a gentle roll-off of high-end frequencies. This combination makes their sound detailed yet warm.
Ribbon mics are notoriously fragile and can be damaged by excessive air movement. That being said, they can handle high SPL and sound fantastic on vocals, horns, drums and guitar cabinets (so long as there is sufficient distance to eliminate any excess air movement at the ribbon diaphragm).
- Click this link to check out ribbon microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out ribbon microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out ribbon microphones on Amazon
Tube Vs. Solid-State Microphones
Let's expand further on the previous conversation about tube and solid-state microphones.
Microphones that require internal preamplifiers and/or impedance converters will typically use either a vacuum tube (often a triode) or a transistor (often a FET or JFET). The mics that utilize tubes are considered “tube microphones,” while those that utilize FETs are considered “FET microphones” or “solid-state microphones”.
Tube microphones are generally more expensive. Tubes are often more expensive than their solid-state counterparts. Additionally, tubes typically require dedicated power supplies with special cables rather than relying on phantom power, which adds to the price.
Tubes are very popular in audio equipment for their “warmth”; that is, their natural tube saturation and gentle high-end roll-off. Speaking of warmth, tubes also run much hotter than solid-state components.
Tube tend to have higher self-noise and are typically more fragile (physically, temperature-wise and humidity-wise). However, their sound makes them superb choices for studio and other safe recording environments.
Solid-state microphones, conversely, are often less bulky and sound cleaner than tube mics. This cleanliness is sometimes unwanted, though technically, the audio captured is more accurate in many cases.
Solid-state mics are generally more robust when it comes to physical handling, temperature and humidity.
So, choosing a tube mic may give the audio more character, while choosing a solid-state mic will typically yield more clinical results.
Shotgun microphones, as we've discussed, are often designed with small-diaphragm condenser capsules. They have long interference tubes that effectively filter sound coming at off-angles. The result of such a design is a very directional polar pattern that pinpoints sound directly where the microphone is pointing.
To learn more about shotgun microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• The Lobar/Shotgun Microphone Polar Pattern (With Mic Examples)
• Top 11 Best Shotgun Microphones On The Market
Shotgun microphones are used a lot in video applications. They are often attached directly to the camera (to pick up sound in the direction the camera is pointing) or at the end of boom poles (which are then positioned just out-of-frame and pointed at the subject).
Shotgun mics can also be used in tight recording and live environments in an attempt to isolate a particular performer. Finally, shotguns see use in broadcasting, where they can be positioned strategically to pick up sound at key locations (especially in sports).
- Click this link to check out shotgun microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out shotgun microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out shotgun microphones on Amazon
Lavalier microphones, also known as lapel microphones, are the miniature mics we see (or don't see) that attach to a performer. They often connect to a wireless transmitter and are designed with miniature electret condenser capsules.
To learn more about lavalier microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How And Where To Attach A Lavalier/Lapel Microphone
• 7 Best Lavalier/Lapel Microphones (Wired & Wireless)
Lav mics are used extensively for video content and also for live sound reinforcement in theatre.
Speaking of lav microphones, headset mics are very similar, though they connect to a head-worn apparatus.
- Click this link to check out lavelier microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out lavalier microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out lavalier microphones on Amazon
Boundary microphones, as the name suggests, are placed at boundaries (floors, walls, desktops, ceilings) and are designed to pick up sound in the environment without any reflection from beneath them. Boundary mics are typically built with condenser capsules.
For more information on boundary microphones, check out my article The Hemispherical Boundary Microphone/PZM Polar Pattern.
Boundary mics are often used as room mics in the studio, conference microphones at roundtables, and environmental mics in broadcasting (against hockey boards, on basketball floors, etc.).
- Click this link to check out boundary microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out boundary microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out boundary microphones on Amazon
Wired Or Wireless Microphone?
When buying a microphone, it's important to ask whether wireless connectivity is a must or not. It's also good to know the basics of wireless microphone connectivity to make a more informed decision regarding your purchase.
Wireless microphone systems can be pricey and are susceptible to dropouts, power issues (most transmitters run on batteries) and interference. On the other hand, the freedom that comes with wireless connectivity can be a major benefit or even a necessity in certain situations that we'll discuss shortly.
First, let's discuss wireless microphones in a bit more detail.
The Transmitter & Receiver
To send audio signals wirelessly from a microphone, a system must have two components: a transmitter and a receiver. The microphone connects (wired) to the transmitter, and the receiver connects (wired) to the mic input. The transmitter encodes the audio signal and sends it wirelessly to the receiver, which decodes the audio signal and sends it to the input.
Some wireless microphones systems will have a single channel, meaning that one microphone plugins into one transmitter that sends audio to one receiver. Multi-channel systems have multiple transmitters that send audio wirelessly to a single receiver with multiple channels and outputs. Multi-channel systems are often more economical if you require multiple wireless mics.
The transmitters are set to transmit wireless audio at specified carrier signal frequencies. The receiver channels are set at the same frequencies in order to properly receiver the wireless signals.
Wireless Microphone System Diversity
There are three main designs when it comes to how the receiver receives the wireless signal from the transmitter: non-diversity, diversity and true diversity.
Non-diversity system receivers have one antenna to receive the signal from the transmitter.
Diversity system receivers have two antennas spaced a short distance apart. Both are connected to a single receiver. The wireless connection only happens between one transmitter antenna (at the mic end) and one receiver antenna (at the receiver end). If the signal strength drops below an acceptable level on one antenna connection, the receiver will switch to the other antenna. This switch is done blindly, and it often improves a bad signal connection, but sometimes it makes a bad connection worse.
True Diversity system receivers utilize two separate antennas, with each connected to a separate receiver module. The receiver circuitry reads both antenna signals and selects the better of the two. At least one of the antennae should be receiving a clean signal, creating a clean signal transfer with reduced chances of dropouts.
When possible, go with a true diversity system.
Analog Vs. Digital Wireless Microphone Systems
Like many things audio, wireless microphone systems are either analog or digital. While the wireless carrier signal itself is always analog, the audio (modulator signal) that is carried can be either digital or analog.
Analog wireless microphone systems are generally more susceptible to noise and interference but work on relatively small portions of the frequency spectrum.
Digital wireless microphone systems mitigate noise and interference but introduce latency in the system and work on relatively large portions of the frequency spectrum.
At the high-end of wireless systems, both types are designed to perform incredibly well. However, it's important to understand the pros and cons of these systems.
Legal Wireless Transmission Spectrums
As technology evolves, more and more of the wireless frequency spectrum is taken up by certain devices.
Wireless microphone systems are designed to operate within a specific spectrum of frequencies, whereby a single carrier frequency is chosen to allow for communication between the transmitter and receiver.
Depending on location and restrictions, the wireless microphone system may be unable to function. If the frequency options in the wireless system are not part of the allotted wireless microphones frequency spectrum, then the wireless mics won't work.
Though many new systems comply with regulations, the narrowing of the wireless microphone frequency spectrum has made some older systems obsolete.
To make things worse, the restrictions on the wireless microphone frequency spectrum aren't necessarily the same from country to country.
It's also worth noting that some countries require licenses for wireless microphone operation in certain frequency ranges. Be sure to do your due diligence before buying a wireless system, especially if the manufacturer is from a different country.
Be sure to select the option (if there are multiple options) that operates within the legal boundaries of your own country and those of the countries you plan on operating the wireless microphones in.
Other Important Wireless Microphone System Specfications
Along with the microphone's specifications (frequency response, polar pattern, form factor), there are several specs to consider when choosing a wireless mic system. These specifications include:
- Operational range: how far can the receiver and transmitter be spaced apart before connectivity suffers. Does proper operation depend on line-of-sight?
- Frequency selection: do the transmitters and receivers of the system automatically sync or is manual frequency selection required?
- Transmitter form factor: what are the dimensions of the transmitter and how does it connect to the microphone?
- Receiver form factor: what are the dimensions of the receiver? Desktop and rackmount form factors are common.
- Battery type and life: what type of batteries does the transmitter require and what is the expected battery life?
Wireless Microphone System Applications
Let's consider a few common wireless microphone system applications:
- Handheld Microphones With Built-In Transmitters
- Lavalier Microphones With Bodypack Transmitters
- Headset Microphones With Bodypack Transmitters
- Clip-On Instrument Microphones With Bodypack Transmitters
Handheld Microphones With Built-In Transmitters
These microphones are great for vocalists and public speakers.
The transmitter typically connects directly to the microphone capsule, forming the body of the mic. The microphone and transmitter, therefore, form one piece without any cable between them. They're ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing.
- Click this link to check out wireless handheld microphone systems at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out wireless handheld microphone systems at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out wireless handheld microphone systems on Amazon
Lavalier Microphones With Bodypack Transmitters
These microphones are great for actors (video and theatre), other people on video, and public speakers.
Lavalier mics, as previously discussed, are miniature mics that can be clipped to clothing or hidden entirely on a person. These mics are nearly always wireless, allowing those who wear them the freedom to move around.
Lav mics typically connect to bodypack transmitters, which are also easily hidden on an individual, via a short cable.
- Click this link to check out wireless lavalier microphone systems at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out wireless lavalier microphone systems at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out wireless lavalier microphone systems on Amazon
Headset Microphones With Bodypack Transmitters
These microphones are great for singers with choreography, presenters who make many hand gestures, or anyone else who needs to move around with a hands-free microphone.
Sure, these mics aren't easily hidden, but the fact that the mic is out in the open also reduces noise associated with the movement of clothing and other material.
- Click this link to check out wireless headset microphone systems at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out wireless headset microphone systems at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out wireless headset microphone systems on Amazon
Clip-On Instrument Microphones With Bodypack Transmitters
Miking instruments such as woodwinds, brass and acoustic strings with wireless microphones offer musicians a certain level of freedom to move around. Musicians can move themselves or their instruments without affecting the mic positioning if the wireless mic is clipped on.
These mics clip onto the instruments and connect to a bodypack transmitter on the musician.
- Click this link to check out wireless clip-on instrument microphone systems at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out wireless clip-on instrument microphone systems at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out wireless clip-on instrument microphone systems on Amazon
For more information on wireless microphones, check out my article How Do Wireless Microphones Work?
USB, XLR & Other Microphone Connectors
Now that we've discussed wireless microphones, let's discuss physical/wired connectors found in microphone design.
It's important to note the connection type to ensure compatibility between the microphone and the rest of your system. Fortunately, the connection types are limited, and the largest variety of connectors have to do with wireless transmitters and lav mics.
The majority of microphones have 3-pin XLR outputs and connect to 3-pin XLR cables. This system carries balanced audio, which allows for minimal noise and interference over long cable runs. It also allows the transmission of phantom power for those microphones that need it.
Some microphones utilize XLR connections with other pin counts. Stereo microphones, for example, often have 5-pin outputs but typically come with a Y-splitter cable that branches out into two 3-pin connections. Older tube microphones with dedicated power supplies may have 6, 7 or 8-pin connectors for audio signal, power, shield and other necessities.
USB microphones are also popular for non-professional applications. These mics have built-in analog-to-digital converters (audio interface) and connect directly to computers. Many USB mics even have built-in headphone amps for latency-free monitoring.
When considering purchasing a USB microphone, be sure to check the specifications of the DAC and headphone amp. Ensure the system requirements, bit-depth and sample rate are compatible with your system. If applicable, consider the headphone amp's output, frequency response and total harmonic distortion.
- Click this link to check out USB microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out USB microphones at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out USB microphones on Amazon
Mini-XLR-type connectors such as TA3, TA4 and TA5 are commonplace among lav microphones. The pins in these connections may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so be sure to choose compatible mics and transmitters.
2501, Nexus, Tuchel are outdated, but it's worth knowing they exist.
Finally, TS, TRS, and TRRS connectors (of varying sizes) are used in some consumer-grade microphones such as karaoke and earphone mics.
For further reading on the connections we've discussed here, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Do Microphones Plug Into? (Full List Of Mic Connections)
• Do Microphones Output Balanced Or Unbalanced Audio?
• What Is Phantom Power And How Does It Work With Microphones?
• Do Microphones Output Mono Or Stereo Signals?
• How Do USB Microphones Work And How To Use Them
Microphone Polar Patterns
One of the most critical specifications of a microphone is its polar pattern. The polar pattern of a microphone refers to its directivity, in which direction(s) is the mic most sensitive to sound and in which direction(s) is it least sensitive to sound.
The typical microphone polar patterns are listed below:
- Bidirectional (Figure-8)
- Hypercardioid, Supercardioid & Subcardioid
- Boundary Microphone Polar Patterns
- Shotgun Microphone Polar Patterns
Before we get into each of the aforementioned polar patterns, let's discuss the point of origin for microphone directivity. Microphones are generally either top/end-address or side-address.
Top/end-address microphones have the centre-axis of their polar patterns pointing out the “top” or “end” of the microphone. This is typical of small-diaphragm condenser mics and handheld mics.
The Shure SM58 is an example of a top-address microphone:
Side-address microphones have the centre-axis of their polar patterns pointing out of the “side” of the microphone. This is typical of large-diaphragm condenser mics and ribbon mics.
The Neumann U 87 is an example of a side-address microphone:
To learn more about top/end address and side-address, check out my article What Are Top, End & Side-Address Microphones? (+ Examples).
The ideal cardioid microphone polar pattern is a directional pattern that is most sensitive in the mic’s on-axis direction with a null point in the exact opposite direction, and a gradual attenuation in between that reaches -6 dB at 90° and 270°. The cardioid pattern is the most common polar pattern.
Cardioid microphones are unidirectional and are superb choices in most applications. The frontward directivity is wide enough that mic placement doesn't need to be perfect, and there can be movement of the sound source (a huge benefit when it comes to expressive vocalists).
The rear null point makes cardioid mics great for on-stage and other sound reinforcement situations where feedback may be an issue. Pointing a cardioid mic away from a monitor, for example, allows a performer to hear themselves without the mic picking up the monitor sound.
Cardioid mics are great for miking instruments that are close together while achieving some amount of isolation (individual drums of a kit, for example). Conversely, they also excel and capturing a group of instruments from a distance.
Cardioid mics naturally possess the proximity effect, which effectively increases the bass response as the sound source gets closer to the mic. This can be particularly useful in voiceover recording.
- Click this link to check out cardioid microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out cardioid microphones at B&H Photo/Video
To learn more about the cardioid polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
The bidirectional (figure-8) microphone polar pattern is equally sensitive to sounds from the front and the back with a ring of silence at its sides. Bidirectional mics are the truest form of pressure-gradient mics and exhibit the most proximity effect. Nearly all ribbon mics are bidirectional.
Bidirectional microphones are useful when recording two individuals sitting across from each other with a single mic. They're also great for capturing the sound of a room as they pick up the source(s) in the front and the reflections in the rear.
This microphone polar pattern exhibits maximal proximity effect.
Note that ribbon microphones are naturally bidirectional, though, through acoustic design, they can be made to be other polar patterns as well.
- Click this link to check out bidirectional microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out bidirectional microphones at B&H Photo/Video
To learn more about the cardioid polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Bidirectional/Figure-8 Microphone? (With Mic Examples).
A microphone with an omnidirectional polar pattern, in theory, is equally sensitive to sound in all directions. It is the polar pattern of the pressure principle, whereby only one side of the microphone diaphragm is exposed to sound waves.
In general, omnidirectional mics yield the most natural sound of all microphone polar patterns. They're often chosen as room mics and on single sources in iso-booths because of this natural sound.
Omnidirectional microphones do not exhibit the proximity effect because of the pressure principle (where only one side of the diaphragm is exposed to sound). This is part of what makes them sound more natural, especially in close-miking applications. This factor (or lack thereof) also plays a role in omni mics sounding more natural in windy output environments while also helping to reduce handling noise.
Many lavalier microphones are omnidirectional. This all-directions pickup pattern is ideal for these on-person mics when it comes to capturing a consistent and natural sound. Similarly, many conference mics utilize omnidirectional capsules to capture sound equally around the room.
Omni microphones are less than ideal in sound reinforcement applications since they pick up sound from all directions, making them more prone to feedback. They are also avoided in noisy locations where close-miking and source isolation is necessary.
- Click this link to check out omnidirectional microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out omnidirectional microphones at B&H Photo/Video
To learn more about the cardioid polar pattern, check out my article What Is An Omnidirectional Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
Hypercardioid, Supercardioid & Subcardioid
The hypercardioid polar pattern is a highly directional mic polar pattern. Ideal hypercardioids are a 3:1 ratio of bidirectional to omnidirectional patterns. They are more directional than cardioids and supercardioids with a larger rear lobe of sensitivity and null points at 110° and 250°.
Hypercardioid microphones, like supercardioid mics, are often chosen for close-miking sources in noisier environments.
This polar pattern also works well when dual foldback monitors are set up, facing the null points of the pattern. However, the rear lobe of sensitivity makes hypercardioid mics more prone to feedback when positioned directly in front of monitors.
- Click this link to check out hypercardioid microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out hypercardioid microphones at B&H Photo/Video
To learn more about the hypercardioid polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Hypercardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
The supercardioid polar pattern is a highly directional microphone polar pattern. Ideal supercardioids are a 5:3 ratio of bidirectional to omnidirectional patterns. They are more directional than cardioids but have a rear lobe of sensitivity with null points at 127° and 233° (cone of silence).
Supercardioid microphones, like hypercardioid mics, are often chosen for close-miking sources in noisier environments.
This polar pattern also works well when dual foldback monitors are set up, facing the null points of the pattern. However, the rear lobe of sensitivity makes supercardioid mics more prone to feedback when positioned directly in front of monitors.
- Click this link to check out supercardioid microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out supercardioid microphones at B&H Photo/Video
To learn more about the supercardioid polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Supercardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).
The subcardioid/wide cardioid polar pattern is a broad, unidirectional pattern. Subcardioids have no null points and a 3-10 dB drop in sensitivity to the rear. They can be thought of as a superposition of omnidirectional and cardioid patterns.
Subcardioid microphones are best used in situations that require slightly more directionality from an omnidirectional mic. They're great as room mics, in iso-booths, and sound very natural (in general).
Like omnidirectional mics, subcardioid mics aren't the optimal choices in live sound reinforcement situations or in noisy environments that demand close-miking and isolation.
- Click this link to check out subcardioid microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out subcardioid microphones at B&H Photo/Video
To learn more about the subcardioid polar pattern, check out my article What Is A Subcardioid/Wide Cardioid Microphone? (With Mic Examples).
There is a good variety of multipattern microphones on the market. These mics, as their name would suggest, allow users to select from several polar pattern options. These mics are typically large-diaphragm side-address condenser microphones with two diaphragms positioned back-to-back. By altering the phase and amplitude of the capsules in relation to each other, various polar patterns can be selected.
Some multi-pattern microphones have switches that toggle between set polar patterns, while others may be continuously variable.
Other multi-pattern mics may achieve this feat via acoustic/physical means.
- Click this link to check out multi-pattern microphones at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out multi-pattern microphones at B&H Photo/Video
Boundary Microphone Polar Patterns
The boundary/PZM microphone polar pattern is a sort of hemispherical pattern. It requires a flat surface (boundary) to eliminate rear reflections and work properly. This specialized pattern can have a capsule with any standard polar pattern.
Boundary microphones are niche in their applications. They're chosen to record the environment from a surface. These mics are often chosen in studio recordings as room mics, in broadcast applications as ambient mics, and on stage as supplementary mics.
Shotgun Microphone Polar Patterns
The lobar/shotgun polar pattern is the extremely directional polar pattern found in shotgun mics. Lobar patterns are often based on hyper or supercardioid patterns and require interference tubes to achieve their directionality. They have side and rear lobes of sensitivity.
With the tightest, most directional polar pattern, shotgun mics are often chosen when isolation is necessary. They're often found camera-mounted to capture the audio on-screen. They're also commonly mounted to boom poles for film/video production, where they are dynamically positioned and pointed at the subject just out-of-frame.
Shotgun mics should be avoided for recording natural ambience. Due to the inherent rear lobe of sensitivity, they're also less-than-ideal for positioning directly in front of foldback monitors.
For an in-depth post on microphone polar patterns, check out My New Microphone's Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.
Microphone Frequency Response
Another of the most critical specifications of a microphone is its frequency response. The frequency response of a microphone refers to its frequency-specific output sensitivity of a microphone. In other words, it's a measure of how sensitive the microphone is to certain frequencies relative to other frequencies.
The frequency response range of a microphone depicts the range of frequencies it will effectively pick up. These ranges are usually set at some decibel range (±3 dB is common). However, these ranges can easily be exaggerated to make the microphone seem more capable than it is. The frequency response range also tells us nothing about how the mic reacts to frequencies within its range.
Rather, the more critical frequency response measure is the frequency response graph. These graphs show us frequencies (in Hertz) along the x-axis and relative sensitivity (in decibels) along the y-axis. If the microphone brand's testing methods are reputable, this graph should give us a great idea of the mic's actual frequency response.
Human hearing is universally defined between 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz. Microphones can have frequency response ranges smaller or larger than this defined range.
Microphone frequency responses are often categorized broadly into two camps:
Flat Microphone Frequency Response
A flat microphone frequency response means the microphone will be equally sensitive to all audible frequencies of sound (20 Hz – 20,000 Hz) along its primary axis (where the microphone “points”). Flat mics sound very natural since they do not accentuate any particular frequencies over any others.
A truly flat microphone frequency response is the result of superb design and is typically only found in high-end measurement microphones.
Flat frequencies responses, more generally, then, are often only “almost” flat. They sound more natural and do not exaggerate any particular frequencies.
Flat microphone frequencies responses are most often found in small-diaphragm condensers and less commonly in large-diaphragm condensers.
Here's an example of a flat frequency response graph (featuring the DPA 4006A):
Coloured Microphone Frequency Response
A coloured microphone frequency response means the microphone will be more sensitive to some audible frequencies than it will be to others. Coloured microphones can be thought of as having their own characteristic “EQ” in that sense.
Dynamic microphones and ribbon microphones are often coloured. Condensers may also have coloured frequency responses.
For instance, ribbon microphones tend to have a gentle roll-off of their high-end frequencies. Since they are less sensitive to the brilliance range, they are “coloured”. Similarly, many dynamic microphones have rather sharp roll-offs at some point in the high-end frequencies.
Other microphones may boost and/or cut certain frequency ranges within their overall response. This “EQ” of the microphone may not sound the most natural when compared to flatter mics. However, for some instruments and some acoustic environments, it may help to accentuate the character of the sound.
For example, a microphone with exaggerated bass and scooped mids may be the ideal choice for a kick drum. Conversely, a microphone with less low-end and a boosted presence could work great for guitar.
Here's an example of a coloured frequency response graph (featuring the Shure SM57):
For more information on flat and coloured frequency responses and microphone frequency response more generally, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Are Coloured And Flat Microphone Frequency Responses?
• Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples)
Other Microphone Specfications Worth Noting
Though the polar pattern and frequency response specifications are among the most important aspects of a microphone, it's worth noting a few more specifications when making a purchase decision. These other specifications include:
Note that, for the most part, microphones will be designed with appropriate specs in these three areas for compatibility with most equipment and sufficient performance in the majority of applications.
Microphone sensitivity measures a microphone’s efficiency as a transducer (how well it converts acoustical energy to electrical energy). A microphone’s sensitivity rating is determined by its output voltage (audio signal strength) relative to the sound pressure level it is subjected to.
Microphones with higher sensitivity ratings (often those with built-in FET or tube pre-amps) will output higher signal levels given the same sound level. Therefore, higher sensitivity mics are less reliant on microphone preamp gain at the preamp stage.
To learn more about microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.
Microphone signals are AC voltages. Impedance is the “AC resistance” of audio signal voltages. Impedance controls the flow of the audio signal. For a mic signal to travel optimally, the microphone output impedance must “match” or “bridge” the input impedance (load impedance) of its mic preamp.
Generally speaking, a microphone with a nominal output impedance below 600 ohms will work with most preamplifiers without issue. High impedance microphones, like cheap karaoke mics, will generally be designed with their own gain staging and aren't meant to be compatible with typical microphone preamplifiers.
To learn more about microphone impedance, check out my article Microphone Impedance: What Is It And Why Is It Important?
Maximum Sound Pressure Level
The maximum sound pressure level of a microphone is not the pressure level that will destroy the microphone. Rather, max SPL is the sound pressure threshold at which a microphone’s output signal begins to distort.
Microphones with high max SPL ratings are better suited for loud environments (like in front of a kick drum or trumpet). However, be sure the mic's diaphragm can withstand the bursts of air that often, but not always, accompany high sound pressure levels. This is especially important with ribbon microphones.
That being said, most microphones will have max SPL ratings higher than almost any application they'll be subjected to (unless you plan on recording a jet engine at one metre or something similarly loud).
To learn more about maximum sound pressure level specifications in microphones, check out my article What Does A Microphone’s Maximum Sound Pressure Level Actually Mean?
Let's now consider a few common features that may or may not be part of a microphone design:
A “PAD” stands for Passive Attenuation Device. The circuitry in active mics may overload if the incoming signal from the capsule is too strong, causing audio signal distortion. Pads reduce signal levels before the active amplification process to avoid overloading the microphone circuitry.
Choosing a microphone with a pad option (or multiple pad options) can help us achieve the desired input level at the microphone preamp and avoid clipping in high SPL situations.
For more information on attenuation pads, check out my article What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do?
A high-pass filter effectively cuts out the frequency response of a mic below a certain set point, allowing only the frequencies above this point to “pass” through as the audio signal. High-pass filters remove unwanted and excess low-end energy that otherwise degrades the audio signal.
The advantage of a microphone with a built-in high-pass filter switch is that we can remove low-end information at the source. This can ultimately lead to a cleaner microphone signal with more appropriate signal levels as opposed to high-passing the signal with EQ processing later.
High-pass filters can be engaged on those microphones that offer them to reduce proximity effect, low-end environmental rumble, handling noise, and electromagnetic interference. It can also improve the isolation of the source against low-end frequencies of other sources (so long as the source itself doesn't produce critical information in the low-end).
For more information on high-pass filters, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One?
• Audio EQ: What Is A High-Pass Filter & How Do HPFs Work?
Other EQ Switch
Though not as common as high-pass filters, some microphones offer other “EQ” switches such as presence boosts. Again, these switches effectively alter the microphone's frequency response and act to “equalize” the mic signal at the source.
Polar Pattern Switch
As discussed in the section on multi-pattern microphones, some microphones have switched or dials that allow users to alter the polar pattern discretely or continuously, respectively.
Common Microphone Applications
To add even more value to you, let's consider some common microphone applications and what type of microphones best suit them. In this section, we'll be discussing the following common mic applications:
- Vocals: Singing
- Vocals: Speaking
- Guitar Amps
- Bass Guitar Amps
- Brass Instruments
- Woodwind Instruments
The quality of singers' voices ranges wildly from singer to singer. This is partly why so many microphones are considered to be good vocal mics.
When it comes to live vocal performances, dynamic cardioid microphones are often the choice of performers and engineers. They're robust and resistant to feedback thanks to the often-coloured frequency response and cardioid polar pattern.
Wireless microphones are also common for live singers.
In the studio, singers are often positioned in front of large-diaphragm condenser microphones. Both solid-state and tube microphones are commonplace studio vocal microphones.
Scream-style vocals often sound best through dynamic microphones on stage and in the studio. Rap vocals sound great through dynamic mics live and LDCs in the studio.
In cramped rooms and stages, shotgun, hypercardioid and supercardioid condensers are sometimes used, though care must be taken to mitigate feedback.
When setting up a public address (PA) system for public speaking, the microphone of choice is often a dynamic handheld wired or wireless mic. Podium microphones are also common, which are typically miniature condenser microphones. To avoid feedback, these mics will generally have a cardioid polar pattern.
Wired and wireless handheld microphones are common in broadcasting. These mics often have either dynamic or condenser capsules with an omnidirectional polar pattern, especially in interview situations.
In the studio, whether it's recording a podcast, audiobook, or voiceover, large-diaphragm condensers are typically the go-to choice for engineers.
When recording ADR (automated dialogue replacement) in the studio, it's often ideal to use the same microphones that were used on the actor during the filming. This most often means a shotgun microphone and a lavalier microphone.
When it comes to acting, lavalier microphones are the choice for sound recording and reinforcement. Lav mics are also used extensively in video/film/television production to capture the sound of the actors, interviewers, etc.
When speaking over the internet via video and/or audio conferencing applications, a good USB microphone will do wonders in improving sound quality on your end. That being said, other microphones, when combined with an audio interface, will likely yield even better results.
Drums are rather diverse instruments. Drum kits will have multiple different drums to capture the sound of.
When capturing the full drum kit with a room mic or multiple room mics, large-diaphragm condensers and ribbon microphones are popular choices.
PZM/boundary mics are fairly common for capturing the sound of the full kits and the room.
Kick drums are most often close-miked with one or more dynamic microphones. It's important to choose a microphone that can effectively capture the low-end thud of the kick while also picking up the high-end thack of the beater. Ensure the mic can handle the amount of air movement in and around the kick without getting overloaded.
Snare drums are typically miked with one or more unidirectional (cardioid, hypercardioid, supercardioid) dynamic microphones. The same is true of toms.
Drum overheads are often small-diaphragm or large-diaphragm condenser microphones.
The hi-hat, when miked, is often done so with an SDC.
Guitar amps are often close-miked live with dynamic or ribbon microphones. In the studio, a variety of mics can be used to capture the sound of a guitar amp at varying distances from the cabinet.
Bass Guitar Amps
Guitar amps are often close-miked live with dynamic microphones, if they're miked up at all. Dynamic mics are often used close up in the studio, while ribbon mics can be used at a distance.
Acoustic strings often sound best when miked with condenser or ribbon mics. Small-diaphragm condensers are common when close-miking, while large-diaphragm and ribbon microphones are popular when miking at a distance or miking an ensemble of string players.
Miniature condenser microphones are common when clip-on mic options are used on stringed instruments. Note that acoustic stringed instrument pickups are most often piezoelectric.
Brass instruments, when close-miked, are generally done so with cardioid dynamic or condenser mics. Clip-on mics are typically either dynamic or condenser.
When recording in the studio at a distance, ribbon microphones can sound incredible on brass instruments.
Like brass instruments, woodwind instruments are often close-miked with cardioid dynamic or condenser mics. Clip-on mics are typically either dynamic or condenser.
Also, when recording in the studio at a distance, ribbon microphones can sound incredible on woodwind instruments.
Pianos of all types and sizes are often miked with large-diaphragm condenser microphones. This is true of close-miking and distance-miking. Cardioid mics are often used when other instruments accompany the piano. If the space is acoustically pleasing (which is often the case with pianos), then perhaps an omnidirectional LDC microphone would be a better choice.
Small-diaphragm condenser microphones are also fantastic choices for miking pianos.
Know The Additional Costs Of Microphone Accessories
- Interchangeable Microphone Capsules
- Microphone Clips
- Microphone Shock Mounts
- Boom Poles
- Pop Filters
- Microphone Stands
- Microphone Cases
- Microphone Cables
- Microphone Preamplifiers
Interchangeable Microphone Capsules
Some microphones are modular. That means that the microphones capsule and circuit (preamp, processing and output) are interchangeable.
When buying a modular microphone, it's often the case that a single preamp will have multiple interchangeable capsules (typically with different polar pattern options).
Though many of these modular mics can be purchased with all the capsules, it could be the case that additional capsules will cost extra after the initial purchase.
- Click this link to check out interchangeable microphone capsules at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out interchangeable microphone capsules at B&H Photo/Video
A microphone clip is a physical device that holds the microphone in place and connects to a mic stand. These typically do not provide any mechanical isolation but work to hold the mic in its designated position.
- Click this link to check out microphone clips at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone clips at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone clips on Amazon
Related My New Microphone article: What Is A Microphone Clip? (Physical And Electrical)
Microphone Shock Mounts
A microphone shock mount effectively holds a microphone in place while isolating it from the stand or boom it is attached to. This isolation provides protection from shock (mechanically transferred noise) and safely mounts the microphone to its stand or boom arm.
- Click this link to check out microphone shock mounts at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone shock mounts at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone shock mounts on Amazon
Related My New Microphone articles:
• What Is A Microphone Shock Mount And Why Is It Important?
• Best Microphone Shock Mounts
A microphone boom pole is a long pole that effectively holds a microphone steady at one end and allows the boom operator to dynamically position the microphone from a distance. Boom poles are essential in video/film as the subjects on screen move around. The boom operator and microphone can move along with the action while staying out-of-frame, thanks to the proper use of a boom pole.
- Click this link to check out microphone boom poles at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone boom poles at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone boom poles on Amazon
Related My New Microphone articles:
• How To Properly Hold A Boom Pole And Microphone
• Top 11 Best Microphone Boom Pole Brands On The Market
• Best Microphone Boom Poles
Windscreens come in a variety of form factors from simple spongy foams that slip directly over a microphone grille/cap to blimp-style windscreens with built-in shock mounts that encompass the entire microphone.
Windscreens are designed with soft perforated material that reduces wind noise by absorbing plosive and wind energy while maintaining acoustic permeability to allow sound waves to pass through with minimal effect on frequency response.
- Click this link to check out microphone windscreens at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone windscreens at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone windscreens on Amazon
Related My New Microphone articles:
• Why Do Microphones Have Screens? (Pop Filter, Grille, Windscreen)
• What Are Dead Cats And Why Are Outdoor Microphones Furry?
• Best Microphone Windscreens
A microphone pop filter is a device used to protect mic capsules from plosive energy. A pop filter helps to eliminate the popping sound associated with gusts of air from the human voice and other sources. Pop filters work by dissipating transient sound energy between a sound source and mic capsule.
- Click this link to check out microphone pop filters at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone pop filters at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone pop filters on Amazon
Related My New Microphone articles:
• What Is A Microphone Pop Filter And When Should You Use One?
• Best Microphone Pop Filters
In conjunction with mic clips or shock mounts, microphone stands are used to hold microphones in place for proper microphone positioning.
Mic stand types include desktop stands, low profile stands, tripod stands, round base stands, tripod boom stands, and overhead stands.
- Click this link to check out microphone stands at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone stands at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone stands on Amazon
A microphone case is a soft or hard case that fits and protects a microphone when the mic is not in use.
- Click this link to check out microphone cases at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone cases at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone cases on Amazon
Microphone cables (often XLR cables) connect the microphone to its preamplifier and carry the mic signals to the preamp.
- Click this link to check out microphone cables at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone cables at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone cables on Amazon
A microphone preamplifier is a type of amplifier with the purpose of bringing mic level signals up to line level for use with professional equipment. Microphones output mic level signals and need preamps if they are to be used with mixing consoles, recording devices or digital audio workstations.
- Click this link to check out microphone preamplifiers at Sweetwater
- Click this link to check out microphone preamplifiers at B&H Photo/Video
- Click this link to check out microphone preamplifiers on Amazon
Related My New Microphone articles:
• The Ultimate Microphone Preamplifier Buyer’s Guide
• What Is A Microphone Preamplifier & Why Does A Mic Need One?
• Complete Guide To Microphone Preamplifier Specifications
• Top 13 Best Microphone Preamplifier Brands In The World
• Best Microphone Preamplifiers
Best Microphones By Type, Application & Price Point
Below is a list of My New Microphone articles regarding the best microphones per type, application and price point:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top 11 Best Active Ribbon Microphones On The Market
• Top 12 Best Passive Ribbon Microphones On The Market
• Top 11 Best Dynamic Microphones On The Market
• Top 4 Best External (Lightning) Microphones For iPhone
• Top 4 Best External Microphones For Android Smartphones
• Top 12 Best Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $500
• Top 11 Best Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $1000
• Top 7 Best Lavalier/Lapel Microphones (Wired & Wireless)
• Top 20 Best Microphones For Podcasting (All Budgets)
• Top 11 Best Microphones For Recording Vocals
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocals
• Top 10 Best Microphones Under $500 for Recording Vocals
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $1,000 for Recording Vocals
• Top 11 Best Shotgun Microphones On The Market
• Best 11 Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones Under $500
• Top 11 Best Solid-State/FET Condenser Microphones
• Top 11 Best Tube Condenser Microphones On The Market
• Top 9 Best USB Microphones (Streaming, PC Audio, Etc.)
• Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones)