What Is A Microphone? (Mic Types, Examples, And Pictures)


After about a year of building the My New Microphone blog, I realized I never took the time to write an article to define exactly what a microphone is.

What is a microphone? A microphone is a transducer that converts mechanical wave energy (sound waves) into electrical energy (mic/audio signals). There are many types of mics, and they nearly all utilize a diaphragm (reacts with sound); transducer element (converts energy); and circuitry (carries/outputs mic signal).

In this article, we’ll five further into our definition of a microphone. We’ll also look at the various types of microphones, describing their differences and how they convert energy.


Table Of Contents


A Microphone Is A Transducer Of Energy

The simplest way to define a microphone is that it is a transducer.

What is a transducer? A transducer is a device that converts one form of energy to another.

In the case of a microphone, the transducer (microphone) converts mechanical wave energy (sound waves) into electrical energy (mic signals).

Mechanical Wave Energy (Sound Waves)

What is mechanical wave energy? Mechanical wave energy is the energy that is carried by a mechanical wave (an oscillation of matter within a medium). Mechanical waves, and therefore mechanical wave energy, can only be transferred in media which possess elasticity and inertia (gas, liquid, solid).

The mechanical waves a microphone is concerned with are sound waves.

Sound waves are the mechanical waves within the audible frequency range of 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz.

Microphones are typically set up to capture sound waves in air (gaseous medium) However, they can also pick up sound within solid mediums (this is known as rumble or handling noise). There are also waterproof microphones on the market that will effectively capture sound within liquid mediums.

Electrical Energy

What is electrical energy? Electrical energy is really electric potential energy. It is supplied by electric current and electric potential (voltage) and is delivered through electrical circuitry. In modern times, electrical energy is harvested and is nearly always converted to some other type of energy (heat, motion, light, etc.).

The electrical energy a microphone is concerned with is in the form of audio signals.

Audio signals are AC electrical signals with frequencies within the audible range or 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz.

Microphones output mic signals, which are effectively audio signals.

For more information on mic signals and electrical energy, check out my article What Is A Microphone Audio Signal, Electrically Speaking?

From Sound Waves To Mic Signals

So to recap, a microphone is a transducer that converts mechanical wave energy (sound waves) into electrical energy (mic signals).

For an in-depth discussion on how microphones convert sound waves to mic signals, please read my article How Do Microphones Work? (A Helpful Illustrated Guide).


How To Define A Specific Microphone

Before we get into the definitions of each microphone type, let’s talk briefly about defining individual microphones.

The primary method of describing a microphone is by its transducer type (which we’ll get to in a moment) and through its specifications (which includes the mic type).

The most important specs in defining a microphone are as follows:
Click the links for more detailed My New Microphone articles on each spec.

Describing a particular microphone with these specifics will provide a solid idea of what the microphone is; what it looks like; and how it will perform.

For more information on microphone specifications, check out my articles Top 5 Microphone Specifications You Need To Understand and Full List Of Microphone Specifications (How To Read A Spec Sheet).


Microphone Transducer Types (With Examples)

So we’ve clearly defined a microphone as being a transducer.

However, there are many types of microphones and each type has its own way of acting as a transducer.

Let’s define the 3 general microphone types and how they convert energy:

Click here to skip to a list of all the microphone types/differentiations.

What Is A Dynamic Microphone Transducer?

When we talk about dynamic microphones, we usually mean moving-coil dynamic microphones. Ribbon microphones are also technically dynamic microphones, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Shure SM58 Dynamic Microphone

What is a moving-coil dynamic transducer? The transducer element of a moving-coil dynamic mic converts sound waves to mic signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a conductive coil that is attached to the diaphragm. The diaphragm/coil moves within a permanent magnetic field provided by internal magnets.

A popular example of a [moving-coil] dynamic microphone is the Shure SM58 (pictured above).

If you’re interested in the Shure SM58, here’s an affiliate link to check the price on Amazon.


What Is A Condenser Microphone Transducer?

Neumann U 87 AI Condenser Microphone

What is a condenser microphone transducer? The transducer element of a condenser mic converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles. A condenser diaphragm makes up a part of a parallel-plate capacitor. As the diaphragm moves, the capacitance of the [fixed charge] capacitor changes and an AC voltage (mic signal) is created.

A popular example of a condenser microphone is the Neumann U 87 AI (pictured above).

If you’re interested in the Neumann U 87 AI, here’s an affiliate link to check the price on Amazon.


What Is A Ribbon Microphone Transducer?

As mentioned earlier, a ribbon microphone is technically a dynamic mic, meaning the ribbon transducer works with electromagnetic induction.

Royer R-121 Ribbon Microphone

What is a ribbon transducer? The transducer element of a ribbon dynamic mic converts sound waves to mic signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a conductive ribbon-like diaphragm. The diaphragm moves within a permanent magnetic field provided by internal magnets, inducing an AC voltage (mic signal) as it does so.

The main difference between a ribbon dynamic and a moving-coil dynamic microphone is the diaphragm.

A ribbon microphone’s diaphragm is shaped like ribbon; is made out of conductive material (usually aluminum); and it typically corrugated. The ribbon diaphragm acts as the conductive element in the electromagnetic induction.

A moving-coil microphone’s diaphragm is non-conductive, circular, and relatively thick. A conductive coil is attached to the circular diaphragm and acts as the conductive element in the electromagnetic induction.

A popular example of a ribbon microphone is the Royer R-121 (pictured above).

If you’re interested in the Royer R-121, here’s an affiliate link to check the price on Amazon.


Definitions Of Common Mic Types (With Examples)

So far in this article we’ve defined the term “microphone” and have looked at the 3 general types of microphone transducers.

However, there are plenty of variations within the main types of mic transducers. Let’s look at and define the 9 most common types of microphones and give examples of each type.

I’ll link the mic examples to online microphone retailers so that you can check out the microphones in greater detail and get a sense of their price points.

The 9 most common mic types are:


What Is A Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphone?

What is a moving-coil dynamic microphone? A moving-coil dynamic mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a conductive coil attached to a movable diaphragm within a magnetic structure.

Moving-coil dynamic mics are often simply referred to as “dynamic mics” while ribbon dynamic mic are generally referred to as “ribbon mics.” However, it’s important to note that they both work on the dynamic principle of electromagnetic induction.

Here are 3 different examples of moving-coil dynamic microphones:

Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphone Examples
Shure SM57AKG D112Electro-Voice RE20

Likst most moving-coil dynamics, the above 3 mics have coloured frequency responses. The response of the mics effectively tailors the SM57 to sound great on most instruments; the D112 on kick drums and bass cabinets; and the RE20 on vocals.

The Shure SM57 has a small diaphragm while the AKG D122 and Electro-Voice RE20 have large diaphragms. Diaphragm size is not as important with dynamic mics as it is with condensers, but the differentiation is still worth mentioning.

Here are some key points and generalities about moving-coil dynamic microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electromagnetic induction.
  • Diaphragm is attached to a conductive coil within a permanent magnetic field.
  • Can be small or large-diaphragm.
  • Has magnets within the microphone.
  • Does not require power to function (passive).
  • Often has a step-up transformer at output.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Moisture resistant.
  • Rugged.

For more information on moving-coil dynamic mics, check out my article Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.


What Is A Passive Ribbon Dynamic Microphone?

What is a passive ribbon dynamic microphone? A ribbon dynamic mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a conductive ribbon-like diaphragm within a magnetic structure. Passive ribbon mics have no internal amplifiers and, therefore, relatively low output.

When referring to a “ribbon mic,” it’s nearly always understood that it’s a passive ribbon dynamic mic. When referring to active ribbon mics, which we’ll get to in a second, it’s important to note that mic is active.

Here are 3 different examples of passive ribbon dynamic microphones:

Passive Ribbon Dynamic Microphone Examples
AEA R84Coles Electroacoustics 4038Beyerdynamic M 160

As you can see in the above examples, ribbon mics come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Ribbon mics naturally have a bidirectional polar pattern due to the pressure-gradient nature of their diaphragms. However, I’ve included the hypercardioid Beyerdynamic M 160 to show that this is not always the case.

For more information on the bidirectional and hypercardioid microphone polar pattern, check out my articles
What Is A Bidirectional/Figure-8 Microphone? (With Mic Examples).
What Is A Hypercardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples).

Here are some key points and generalities about passive ribbon dynamic microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electromagnetic induction.
  • Diaphragm is made of a conductive, corrugated, ribbon-like material. It moves within a permanent magnetic field.
  • Has magnets within the microphone.
  • Does not require power to function (passive).
  • Often has a step-up transformer at output.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Somewhat moisture resistant.
  • Fragile.
  • Naturally have a bidirectional polar pattern.

What Is An Active Ribbon Dynamic Microphone?

What is an active ribbon dynamic microphone? A ribbon dynamic mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a conductive ribbon-like diaphragm within a magnetic structure. Active ribbon mics have relatively high output but require power to operate their internal amplifiers.

Here are 3 different examples of active ribbon dynamic microphones:

Active Ribbon Dynamic Microphone Examples
Royer R-122AEA R84ARode NTR

Active ribbon microphones are a relatively new invention in the world of microphones. Of the 3 mic examples listed above, 2 mics (the Royer R-122 and the AEA R84A) are active versions of passive mics (the Royer R-121 and AEA R84, respectively).

For more information on active and passive microphones, check out my article Do Microphones Need Power To Function Properly?

Here are some key points and generalities about active ribbon dynamic microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electromagnetic induction.
  • Diaphragm is made of a conductive, corrugated, ribbon-like material. It moves within a permanent magnetic field.
  • Has magnets within the microphone.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal amplifier.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.
  • Fragile.

For more information on dynamic ribbon mics, check out my article Dynamic Ribbon Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.


What Is A Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone?

What is a small-diaphragm condenser microphone? A small-diaphragm condenser mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electrostatic principles. It does so with a parallel-plate capacitor diaphragm/capsule that holds a fixed charge. “Small diaphragms” typically measure less than half an inch in diameter.

Here are 3 different examples of small-diaphragm condenser microphones:

Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone Examples
Neumann KM 184DPA 4006ANeumann M 150

I’ve included the Neumann M 150 in the above small-diaphragm condenser mic examples to shows that not all SDCs are top-address pencil-style mics (though generally they are).

Of the 3 mics examples listed above, 2 are “true” condensers (the Neumann KM 184 and M 150). The DPA 4006A is a pre-polarized/electret condenser mic.

Here are some key points and generalities about small-diaphragm condenser microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles.
  • Diaphragm is part of a parallel-plate capacitor element.
  • Diaphragm diameter is typically less than half an inch.
  • Can be of electret, true, or tube condenser varieties.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal impedance converter and amplifier.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.

What Is A Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone?

What is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone? A large-diaphragm condenser mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electrostatic principles. It does so with a parallel-plate capacitor diaphragm/capsule that holds a fixed charge. “Large diaphragms” typically measure an inch or more in diameter.

Here are 3 different examples of large-diaphragm condenser microphones:

Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone Examples
AKG C 414 XLIINeumann TLM 102Rode NT1-A

Large-diaphragm condenser microphone capsules lend themselves well to having polar pattern options. The AKG C 414 XLII has a whopping 9 selectable pattern. The Neumann TLM 102 and Rode NT1-A are both cardioid mics.

Of the 3 mics listed above, 2 are “true” condensers (the AKG C 414 XLII and the Neumann TLM 102). The Rode NT1-A is an electret condenser.

Here are some key points and generalities about large-diaphragm condenser microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles.
  • Diaphragm is part of a parallel-plate capacitor element.
  • Diaphragm diameter is typically an inch or more.
  • Can be of electret, true, or tube condenser varieties.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal impedance converter and amplifier.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.

What Is An Electret Condenser Microphone?

What is an electret condenser microphone? An electret condenser mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electrostatic principles. It does so with a parallel-plate capacitor diaphragm/capsule that holds a fixed charge. Electret material in the capsule allows for a permanent charge across the plates.

Here are 3 different examples of electret condenser microphones:

Electret Condenser Microphone Examples
Sennheiser ME2DPA 4011ACylewet Electret Mic

Electret condenser microphones make up the vast majority of microphones in the world. They make up most of the mics in both consumer and professional-grade electronics (computers, cell phones, hearing aids, etc.). That being said, they are also common in pro lavalier mics as well as in both small and large-diaphragm condensers.

The above electret mic examples show a pro lavalier (Sennheiser ME2); a high-end small-diaphragm condenser (DPA 4011A); and a consumer electret mic (Cylewet).

The previous section on large-diaphragm condensers showed the Rode NT1-A, which is a popular examples of a large-diaphragm electret condenser microphone.

Here are some key points and generalities about electret condenser microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles.
  • Diaphragm is part of a parallel-plate capacitor element.
  • Capacitor element is permanently charged via electret material.
  • Can be small or large-diaphragm.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal impedance converter and amplifier.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.

What Is A True Condenser Microphone?

What is a true condenser microphone? A “true” condenser mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electrostatic principles. It does so with a parallel-plate capacitor diaphragm/capsule. Unlike electrets, “true” condenser capsules do not hold a permanent charge and, therefore, require an external polarizing voltage to function.

Here are 3 different examples of true condenser microphones:

True Condenser Microphone Examples
Schoeps CMIT 5UAKG C 414 XLSNeumann KM 183

The term “true” condenser came about in the early days of electret condenser mics. At the time, electret technology was somewhat crude and gave condenser microphones a bad name. The term “true” was established to separate the higher-quality externally polarized condensers from the lesser-quality electrets.

Electret technology today allows electret mics to compete with “true” condenser mics and so the term “true” is no longer the selling point it once was.

Of the above 3 mics, two are small-diaphragm condensers (the Schoeps CMIT 5U and the Neumann KM 184). The AKG C 414 XLS is a large-diaphragm condenser.

Here are some key points and generalities about true condenser microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles.
  • Diaphragm is part of a parallel-plate capacitor element.
  • Capacitor element is charged via external polarizing voltages.
  • Can be small or large-diaphragm.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal impedance converter and amplifier.
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.
  • Sensitive to temperature.

What Is A Tube Condenser Microphone?

What is a tube condenser microphone? A tube condenser mic converts sound waves into audio signals via electrostatic principles. It does so with a parallel-plate capacitor diaphragm/capsule with a fixed charge. Vacuum tubes (valves) provide the necessary impedance conversion and amplification of the capsule’s output signal.

Here are 3 different examples of tube condenser microphones:

Tube Condenser Microphone Examples
AKG C 12 VRSony C-800GBlue Bottle

Tube microphones are most commonly of the large-diaphragm condenser variety (as shown in the above 3 examples). However, there are also small-diaphragm tube condenser mics and even tube ribbon mics on the market.

Before the advent of the transistor, active microphones utilized vacuum tube electronics to convert the impedance of the capsule’s output signal and amplify it before the mic output.

Tube microphones are still highly sought after for their characteristic “tube sound.” Vintage, new “boutique,” and modern tube microphones are some of the most expensive mics on the market.

For more information on the price of microphones, check out my articles How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples) and Top 20 Most Expensive Microphones On The Market Today.

For more information on vintage microphones and “boutique” clones, check out my article Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones).

Here are some key points and generalities about tube condenser microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles.
  • Diaphragm is part of a parallel-plate capacitor element.
  • Capacitor element is charged via internal vacuum tubes, which are powered via external power supplies.
  • Are typically large-diaphragm.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal vacuum tube (impedance converter and amplifier).
  • Outputs analog audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.

What Is A USB Microphone?

What is a USB microphone? A USB microphone is any microphone with an internal analog-to-digital converter and a USB output connection. USB mics can have dynamic or condenser transducers and come in a variety of diaphragm sizes and capsule designs.

Here are 3 different examples of USB microphones:

USB Microphone Examples
Blue YetiAudio-Technica AT2020USBRode Podcaster

In the above USB microphone examples, we have a multi-pattern/stereo small-diaphragm electret condenser (Blue Yeti); a large-diaphragm electret condenser (Audio-Technica AT2020USB); and a moving-coil dynamic (Rode Podcaster).

For more information on analog and digital microphones, check out my article Are Microphones Analog Or Digital Devices? (Mic Output Designs).

For more information on microphones, computers, and signal flow, check out my articles
Are Microphones Input Or Output Devices?
How To Connect A Microphone To A Computer.

Here are some key points and generalities about USB microphones:

  • Converts sound waves to mic signals via electrostatic principles or via electromagnetic induction (can be dynamic or condenser transducers).
  • Can be small or large-diaphragm.
  • Requires power to function (active).
  • Has internal analog-to-digital converter.
  • Often has internal zero-latency headphone output.
  • Outputs digital audio signals.
  • Not moisture resistant.

Full List Of Microphone Types

We’ve covered some of the main differentiators between microphones.

There are other less popular, less accessible, and less practical microphone types in the world. There are also many other ways to differentiate between different microphones. In the section, I’ll provide you with a full list of mic types.

But first, let’s describe a few microphone transducer types that aren’t as popular as those described above:


What Is A Liquid Microphone Transducer?

What is a liquid microphone transducer? The liquid mic is an Alexandre Graham Bell invention. A cup is filled with conductive liquid (water and sulphuric acid). A diaphragm moves according to sound waves, causing an attached needle to move in the conductive liquid. Coinciding variations in the circuit’s resistance causes an “audio signal.”

Liquid Microphone
Photo Courtesy Of Wikipedia

What Is A Carbon Microphone Transducer?

What is a carbon microphone transducer? A carbon mic creates signal via a capsule with carbon granules pressed between two metal plates (diaphragm/backplate). A voltage across the plates causes a current through the granules. As the moving diaphragm alters the pressure and resistance of the granules, a low-quality mic signal is outputted.

Carbon Microphone
Photo Courtesy Of Wikipedia

What Is A Piezoelectric/Contact Microphone Transducer?

What is a piezoelectric/contact microphone transducer? Piezo mics work with piezoelectric materials (known as crystals) that, when subjected to varying pressure (sound waves) produce an AC voltage (mic signal). They have very high output impedances and are mostly used as contact mics for acoustic instruments or to record in high-pressure environments.

Piezoelectric/Contact Microphone

What Is A MEMS Microphone Transducer?

What is a MEMS microphone transducer? A MEMS (MicroElectrical-Mechanical System) mic is etched into a silicon wafer by MEMS processing. A MEMS mic “capsule” has a diaphragm and a fixed backplate over a cavity in the base wafer. MEMS mics are designed with integrated preamps and analog-digital converters and output digital audio signals.

MEMS Microphone

What Is A Laser Microphone Transducer?

What is a laser microphone transducer? A laser microphone is considered a surveillance device. Laser mics utilize laser beams to detect sound vibrations in objects and surfaces. The laser beam is directed at a surface and reflects off the surface, returning to a receiver that converts the beam interferometrically into an audio signal.

Laser Microphone Kit

Full List Of Microphone Types And Differentiating Factors

This list includes links to my in-depth Microphone Terminology/ Glossary page.


Why is a microphone called a microphone? The term “microphone” can be broken into “micro” and “phone.” Micro (from Greek mikros) means “small” and phone (from Greek phone) means “sound” or “voice.” Microphone translates to “small sound,” which is accurate, since mics turn sound waves into small audio signals.

For a fun article on the naming of microphones in general, check out Why Are Microphones Called Microphones?

What is the main purpose of a microphone? The main purpose of a microphone to capture the sound waves around it and turn them into audio signals. These mic level audio signals can then be amplified, recorded, manipulated, played back, or used in other ways.

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