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Gear 101: Microphones


“Use your ears” is good advice when selecting the right microphone, but what do you do when you don’t have time for a mic shootout? Every sound source is different, and sometimes you don’t have the time to compare different mics. By understanding some of the basic differences between dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones, you’ll be in a better position to grab the right mic the first time. This guide intends to help you make better choices regardless of what microphones you have available to you.

Mics_DynamicDynamic Mics: Durable and Simple to Use
One of the most relevant characteristics of dynamic microphones is that they’re generally not as sensitive to sound levels as condenser microphones. That can be a huge benefit, depending on where you’re recording or performing. If you’re in a room with poor acoustic qualities, you’ll pick up much less room noise in a dynamic than you would with a condenser mic. This characteristic also means you can record louder sound sources without distorting the microphone’s output, and it also helps to reduce bleed from other sound sources.

So when would you choose a dynamic microphone? If you’re recording a loud guitar amp, individual drums, or an aggressive vocalist, a dynamic mic will help ensure that you don’t overdrive the microphone and introduce distortion. Dynamic mics can often help “smooth out” the sound of harsh or sibilant sound sources, too. If you’re recording a vocalist that emphasizes “s” and “t” sounds, a dynamic microphone could save you lots of work with a de-esser down the line!

Mics_CondenserCondenser Mics: Detailed and Flexible
A condenser microphone is a great choice when you’re looking for that realistic, upfront sound in your recordings. Because condenser microphones are generally more sensitive than dynamic mics and usually have a wider frequency response, they’re a great choice for picking up the subtle nuances and overtones that other mics may miss. Condenser microphones often have selectable polar patterns, too, giving you the ability to fine-tune how much room ambience is picked up by the mic.

When is a condenser microphone your best solution? If you need maximum detail, a condenser microphone is a great choice. Acoustic guitars, piano, woodwinds, and vocals are all great candidates for condenser microphones. And because they’re sensitive and wide-ranging, condenser mics are also the best solution for picking up the sound of an entire room, for example, recording a choir or orchestra.

Ribbon Mics: Smooth and Silky
While ribbon microphones are technically dynamic mics by design, their unique characteristics put them in a category all their own. Ribbon mics have an ultra-thin, ribbon-like element that’s very sensitive. But because ribbon mics generally have a lower output than condensers and even some dynamics, ribbon mics usually require a quality microphone preamplifier with lots of gain to sound their best. It’s also worth noting that although some ribbon mics are described as sounding “dark” or “warm,” they actually pick up a surprising amount of high-frequency content due to their sensitive nature. Run a track recorded with a ribbon mic through a high-quality EQ and boost the higher frequencies, and you’ll be amazed at the detail and ambience that the mic picked up.

Mics_RibbonSo when is a ribbon mic the right solution? You’ve probably guessed that their sensitivity makes them perfect for capturing the detail of acoustic instruments, and they can add an extra sense of intimacy with vocals. But one area where ribbon mics definitely excel is capturing the sound of a room. Put a good ribbon mic in the corner while you’re tracking a full band, and you’ll have captured a natural ambience that can add extra dimensions to your final mix. They’re great for orchestral recordings, too. Their smooth response also makes a ribbon mic an excellent solution for recording brighter sources such as guitar amplifiers and brass instruments.

Hopefully this guide will help you grab the right microphone the next time you’re in the middle of a frantic session or setting up for a stage performance. Of course, there’s much more to know about microphones than we’ve covered here, so contact your Sweetwater Sales Engineer for help to find the right mic for your needs!

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