In audio recording, we work with a number of different microphone types. The most common microphone types used in the recording of music are condenser, dynamic and ribbon microphones. Each of these microphone types has a unique set of characteristics.
Microphone types and sound sources
These different characteristics make some microphone types more suitable than others when recording different types of instruments. That’s because different instruments produce different types of sounds. Some produce short, sharp sounds whilst others produce long, smooth sounds. Some sound sources may be quiet whilst others may be loud. Further still, different instruments produce different ranges of frequencies. So choosing a microphone type which will capture these different sounds in the way that you want is important.
Which of the microphone types you choose to use on a particular sound source can be very subjective. But in this article, we’ll look at some of the most popular and most commonly used microphone types for different instruments… First, let’s take a look at the characteristics of each of the three microphone types.
Microphone types: Condenser microphones
Of the three microphone types, condenser mics capture the broadest range of frequencies. They are particularly good at capturing high-end frequency content when compared to dynamic and ribbon mics. They also have a fast transient response. This makes them good at capturing the initial attack of a drum or the picking of a guitar string. You will often hear condenser mics described as “accurate”. Condenser mics come in both “small diaphragm” and “large diaphragm” variations. Small diaphragm condenser mics capture less low and low-mid frequency content and more high-end than their larger counterparts. Large diaphragm variations capture more low and low-mid frequency content and less high-end than small diaphragm versions.
Microphone types: Dynamic microphones
Dynamic microphones are very good at handling loud signals. A dynamic mic’s frequency response will usually exhibit a roll off in the high-end and sometimes in the low-end as well. For this reason, there are dynamic mics available which are specifically designed for capturing bass heavy sound sources like kick drums and bass guitar amps. These specific mics have little or no low-end roll off and in many cases actually boost the low-end. This boost often sits alongside other boosts and dips in the mic’s frequency response which are intended to be complementary when recording bass heavy instruments. The transient response of a dynamic mic is not as fast as a condenser mic. You will hear the sound that a dynamic mic captures described as “dirty”, “gritty” and “aggressive”.
Microphone types: Ribbon microphones
Although less commonly used nowadays than condenser and dynamic microphones, ribbon microphones are a unique and interesting option. A ribbon mic’s transient response is fast and the sound that it captures is “warm” and “smooth”. That’s because ribbon mics tend to roll of the high-end frequencies and emphasize the low-mids. Aside from the sound characteristic of this mic type, there is an additional factor to consider. That is the fact that ribbon mics can be damaged quite easily in certain circumstances. Subjecting a ribbon mic to a strong blast of air directly upon the ribbon itself can cause damage. So you must keep this in mind when using this type of microphone on some sound sources.
Now, let’s look at a few of the instruments that you might find yourself recording and see which of these microphone types people commonly used to record them.
Microphones for recording guitars
Acoustic Guitar: Both large diaphragm and small diaphragm microphone types are great for capturing acoustic guitar. Ribbon mics also work really well too. It’s not uncommon for producers to record acoustic guitars with multiple microphone types, such as a large diaphragm condenser on the body and a small diaphragm condenser on the neck for example. This is a great way of capturing the different sounds coming from different parts of the instrument.
Electric Guitar Amp: If the guitar amp is being played loudly then a dynamic mic is the obvious choice. At a more conservative volume level, a large diaphragm condenser is a great option. Additionally, ribbon mics are a great option too, but you’ll have to put some distance between the amp and the mic to avoid strong bursts of air from the amp’s bass port hitting the ribbon. As with acoustic guitars, you may choose to use multiple microphone types on the same sound source to capture different characteristics.
Bass Guitar Amp: To record the sound from a bass amp, a dynamic mic which is designed for use on low-end sound sources is a popular choice. Alternatively, a large diaphragm condenser works well too. You could even utilize a ribbon mic. But as with guitar amps, you’ll need to put some distance between the mic and the amp if you want to use a ribbon.
Microphones for recording pianos
Condenser mics are generally preferable when recording pianos. You can use both large and small diaphragm microphone types. In some circumstances, a ribbon mic may be appropriate, but in others, you may miss the accuracy that is provided by a condenser mic’s superior high-end frequency response.
Microphones for recording drums
Kick Drum: For the kick drum, a dynamic mic which is specifically designed for low-end instruments is ideal. You could also use a large diaphragm condenser as long as the volume of the kick drum doesn’t overload the mic.
Snare and Toms: For the snare drum and toms, dynamic mics work really well. Just like with the kick drum, large diaphragm condensers are also a great choice if the drummer is playing at a level which does not overload the mic.
Drum Overheads / Cymbal Spot Mics: Condenser mics are usually the preferred choice for overheads or for spot miking cymbals. Depending on the sound that you want to capture, you can use either large or small diaphragm variations. It’s not uncommon to see both variants used on one kit to do different jobs. An example of this could include a pair of large diaphragm condensers as stereo overheads plus a small diaphragm condenser as a spot mic on the hi hats. You can also use ribbon mics as overheads if you want to capture a darker sound.
Microphones for recording vocals
Often, the go-to mic for many people when recording vocals is a large diaphragm condenser mic. But other microphone types can be equally well suited to vocal recording. If you’re recording a particularly loud singer, then a dynamic mic is a great option. Ribbon mics can sound really good too. Although not as commonly used, even a small diaphragm condenser can also work well on certain voices.
Other factors to consider when recording
As you can see, some microphone types are better suited to certain sound sources than others. In addition to choosing between the different microphone types, there are numerous other factors to consider when recording instruments. The choice of pick up pattern used and the mic’s placement in relation to the sound source will each play a role in the sound that you capture. Similarly, the use of certain stereo miking techniques which work best when performed using specific microphone types will play a deciding role in how you record different instruments. Never the less, this article provides you with a guide to the microphone types that are most commonly used to record different instruments.
What microphone types do you like to use on different instruments? Leave your suggestions below.
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