What Are Pencil Microphones And What Are They Used For?


Microphones come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. One such microphone shape, which is actually quite common, is the “pencil shape.” Mics with this shape are known as pencil microphones.

What Are Pencil Microphones And What Are They Used For? The term pencil microphone refers to a top-address microphone that is long and narrow with a small-diaphragm. Pencil mics are typically condensers and are used as measurement and instruments mics or in any situations that need accurate audio.

In this article, we’ll talk about the characteristics and typical specifications of a pencil microphone and also look at a few examples of these popular microphone types.


What Is A Pencil Microphone?

The term “pencil microphone” is a widely-accepted slang term for a microphone based on shape. That is to say that pencil mics look similar to [unsharpened] pencils, which are long, thin, and cylindrical.

These microphones are top-address (otherwise known as end-fire), which means that their primary axes of sensitivity point out of the top of their bodies. Being top-address and having a long body makes a pencil microphone very easy to point in the intended direction.

To learn more about top-address microphones, check out my article What Are Top, End & Side-Address Microphones? (+ Examples).

Pencil microphones are nearly all small-diaphragm condensers.

Pencil Microphone Characteristics

Let’s quickly run through the characteristics that make up a pencil microphone. This will help us to differentiate between pencil mics and other similarly-shaped mics.

Pencil microphones have the following characteristics:

  • Thin cylindrical bodies.
  • Top-address axes.
  • Small-diaphragms.
  • Diaphragm positioned near the top of the microphone.

For example, the DPA 4006A is a pencil microphone. It is a small-diaphragm condenser mic with a thin pencil-shaped body and is top-addressed. Its diaphragm is positioned near the top while its output connection (XLR) is at the bottom.

DPA 4006A

Due to their shape, pencil microphones can easily be designed modularly. With modular pencil microphones, the capsules are detachable from their bodies (which house the internal circuitry and amplifier of the microphone).

One such example of a modular pencil microphone is the Audio-Technica AT4900B-48. It features the following attachable capsules in the AT40 series:

  • AT4049b-EL
  • AT4051b-EL
  • AT4053b-EL
Audio-Technica AT4900b-48 (preamplifier only)

Non-Pencil Microphones With Similar Bodies

Though “pencil microphone” may simply be widely-accepted slang, there are still criteria that must be met for the term to apply. Let’s look at some microphones that are perhaps pencil-shaped but are not pencil mics.

Royer R-121 (Non-Pencil Ribbon Mic Example)

The Royer R-121 looks similar to a pencil mic but is actually a side-address ribbon microphone:

Royer R-121

To learn more about ribbon mics, check out my article Dynamic Ribbon Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.

Electro-Voice RE20 (Non-Pencil Dynamic Mic Example)

The Electro-Voice RE20 is a long cylindrical top-address microphone. However, it has a large dynamic diaphragm that is positioned deeper within the mic body:

Electro-Voice RE20

To learn more about dynamic mics, check out my article Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.

Sennheiser MKH 416 (Non-Pencil Shotgun Mic Example)

The Sennheiser MKH 416 is a popular shotgun microphone. Shotgun mics are very similar to pencil mics.

Sennheiser MKH 416

The only difference, which is a big difference, is that shotgun mics have long interference tubes in front of their diaphragms in order to narrow their polar patterns.

Besides that difference, shotgun mics are generally thin; have a small-diaphragm condenser capsule, and are top-address.

So shotgun mics are not really pencil microphones.

To learn more about shotgun mics, check out my article The Lobar/Shotgun Microphone Polar Pattern (With Mic Examples).

Earthworks M50 (Non-Pencil Measurement Mic Example)

Measurement microphones are typically small-diaphragm top-address condensers. They are often differentiated from pencil mics by the narrowing of their bodies from mid-way to the diaphragm.

An example of a measurement mic is the Earthworks M50:

Earthworks M50

DPA, Audio-Technica, Royer, Electro-Voice and Sennheiser are all featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.


Typical Pencil Microphone Specifications

Though exceptions to generalizations are rampant from microphone to microphone, it’s useful to know the general characteristics of pencil mics. Knowing some generalities about pencil mic specifications will help us to understand these microphones better.

Most of these generalities are due to the fact that pencil microphones are small-diaphragm condensers.

  • Top-address.
  • Consistent polar patterns.
  • Extended and flat frequency responses.
  • Never bidirectional.
  • Self-noise.
  • High sensitivity.
  • Accurate transient response.

Let’s touch on each of these specs in more detail here:

Top-Address

As previously mentioned, pencil microphones are top-address. It is easy to intuit the direction in which these microphones effectively point toward.

Consistent Polar Patterns

The small-diaphragms and acoustic labyrinths of pencil microphone capsules allow for relatively consistent polar patterns.

Though all microphones tend to be more directional at higher frequencies (and more omnidirectional at lower frequencies), pencil microphones tend to have very consistent polar patterns across their frequency responses.

For everything you need to know about microphone polar patterns, check out my article The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.

Extended And Flat Frequency Responses

Speaking of frequency response, pencil microphones tend to have very flat and extended frequency responses.

Small diaphragms are relatively easy to move with sound pressure, even at high frequencies. Depending on the extent of the capsule design, any resonances or null points can be effectively tuned out, allowing for the flattening of the frequency response.

For everything you need to know about microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).

Never Bidirectional

Due to the top-address nature of pencil microphones, they cannot physically have bidirectional (figure-8) polar patterns. These polar patterns require the diaphragm to be equally exposed to sound pressure at both sides, a design that is practically impossible with a top-address pencil microphone.

Note that some modular pencil microphones have bidirectional capsules but these capsules are side-address.

To learn more about the bidirectional polar pattern, in particular, check out my article What Is A Bidirectional/Figure-8 Microphone? (With Mic Examples).

Self-Noise

Because pencil microphones are condensers, they have active electronics that add noise to the mic signal. This noise, even if barely noticeable, affects the pencil microphone’s signal-to-noise ratio negatively.

For more information on microphone self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).

High Sensitivity

Another characteristic of condenser microphones is that they have higher sensitivities than dynamic microphones. This sensitivity, like the self-noise, is due to active electronics (ie: amplifiers) within the bodies of the small-diaphragm pencil condenser microphones.

For more information on microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.

Accurate Transient Response

Pencil microphone diaphragms are lightweight and have small diameters. They are also generally tensioned quite tightly in the microphone capsule.

These factors all improve the transient response of the microphone, meaning that the typical pencil mic will react very accurately to sound wave transients. This makes the typical pencil microphone a good choice for recording transient sound sources with clarity.

To learn more about microphone transient response, check out my article What Is Microphone Transient Response & Why Is It Important?


Pencil Microphone Applications

Pencil microphones are used in many different applications. That being said, let’s discuss a few of the more common ways in which pencil mics are used.

  • Stereo miking techniques.
  • Drum overheads.
  • Stringed instruments.

Pencil Mics And Stereo Miking Techniques

Pencil microphones are great choices for stereo miking techniques. This is particularly the case with coincident and near-coincident pairs.

Pencil microphones have small bodies and small diaphragms. This makes it easy to position two (or more) pencil microphones in close proximity and is just what we need for coincident and some near-coincident pair techniques.

Pencil mics are also easy to point in the proper direction due to their being top-address. We can intuitively point pencil microphones in the proper direction which means we can easily angle our microphones to their proper angles within a stereo miking technique.

To learn more about stereo miking techniques, consider reading the following My New Microphone articles:

Top 8 Best Stereo Miking Techniques (With Recommended Mics).
What Is A Coincident Pair Of Microphones? (With 2 Techniques).
What Is A Near-Coincident Pair Of Microphones? (+7 Examples).
What Is A Spaced Pair Of Microphones? (With 3 Techniques).

Pencil Mics As Drum Overheads

Though large-diaphragm condensers are sometimes used as drum overheads, we’ll often see pencil microphones pointed down in a spaced pair (or a single mono) above a drum kit.

Because of their consistent polar patterns and wide frequency responses, pencil mics are great at capturing a full, cohesive sound of a drum kit when placed overhead.

To learn about my recommended drum overhead mics, check out My New Microphone’s Best Drum Overhead Microphones.

Pencil Mics On Stringed Instruments

Pencil mics are also commonly used on stringed instruments to pick up the rich harmonic character along with the bulk of the strings’ sound.

Engineers will often immediately reach for pencil microphones when tasked with recording piano, guitar, harp, violins, and many other stringed instruments in studio environments.

To learn more about my recommended microphones for all stringed instruments, check out My New Microphone’s Recommended Microphones page.


5 Common Pencil Microphones

It’s always beneficial to look at examples when learning about new microphone types. With that in mind, let’s look at 5 pencil microphone examples.

  • Neumann KM 184
  • Rode M5
  • AKG C 451 B
  • Schoeps MK 4 / CMC 6
  • Behringer C-2

Neumann KM 184

The KM 184 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a very popular pencil microphone by the world-renowned microphone manufacturer Georg Neumann.

This small-diaphragm top-address condenser microphone has a cardioid polar pattern and is actually part of a series of pencil microphones (the KM 183 is Neumann’s most notable omnidirectional pencil mic while the KM 185 is the most notable hypercardioid pencil mic).

Neumann KM 184

The Neumann KM 184, like the following 4 microphone examples, exhibits off all the typical pencil microphone specifications listed above. Once again, they are:

  • Top-address.
  • Consistent polar patterns.
  • Extended and flat frequency responses.
  • Never bidirectional.
  • Self-noise.
  • High sensitivity.
  • Accurate transient response.

Rode M5

The Rode M5 (link to check the price of a matched pair on Amazon) is a small-diaphragm pencil condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern.

This microphone, like many pencil mics, is most-often sold as a pair. Pencil mics are commonly used in stereo miking techniques.

Rode M5

AKG C 451 B

The AKG C 451 B (link to check the price on Amazon) is a small-diaphragm pencil condenser microphone based on the design of its predecessor, the C 451 EB with a CK1 capsule. In fact, the 451 B is described as having the “identical acoustical behaviour of its predecessor.” The original mic is now a legendary vintage microphone which was a bestseller from its inception in 1969 to the time it was discontinued.

The 451 B has a consistent cardioid polar pattern and features two switchable high-pass filters for extra versatility.

AKG C 451 B

Schoeps MK 4 / CMC 6

The Schoeps MK 4 / CMC 6 (link to check the price on Amazon) is a great example of a modular pencil microphone. The capsule (MK 4) is one of many detachable capsules for the pencil preamplifier (CMC 6).

The MK 4 is the cardioid capsule option for the CMC 6. Schoeps also provides many other capsule options for this pencil preamp as part of its Colette series.

The capsules have different polar patterns (even including a side-addressed bidirectional capsule).

Schoeps MK 4 / CMC 6

Schoeps also provides other module parts for the CMC 6 and its capsule including a pad and high-pass filter.

Behringer C-2

The Behringer C-2 (link to check the price of a matched pair on Amazon) is the budget pencil microphone example on this list. This small-diaphragm condenser is typically sold as a pair and features a high-pass filter and pad.

If on a budget, the C-2 an excellent little microphone that will get the job done (though perhaps not as well as the other mics on this list!).

Behringer C-2

To learn more about microphone high-pass filters and pads, check out my articles What Is A Microphone High-Pass Filter And Why Use One? and What Is A Microphone Attenuation Pad And What Does It Do? respectively.

Neumann, Rode, AKG and Schoeps are also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.


Related Questions

What are dynamic microphones used for? Dynamic microphones are used in many practical applications. They are often preferred in live applications and on loud sound sources due to their low sensitivity and high gain-before-feedback.

What is the most common type of microphone? The electret condenser microphone is by far the most common mic in the world. These mics do not only make up many studio and film mics but are also found in practically all consumer and professional electronic devices (including cell phones, hearing aids, and many other devices).

To learn more about the most common mic in the world, check out my article What Is The Most Common Type Of Microphone? (With Examples).

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