8 Factors To Consider When Choosing A Condenser Microphone
It’s true that the price of a condenser microphone is reflected in the quality of its sound reproduction.
A bit of research will reveal that there are many affordable condenser microphones capable of performing in a variety of situations.
Many of these models actually copy the basic structure of condenser mics that cost many times more.
But, how to know which condenser mic is best for you?
Here are the 8 factors that you should consider when choosing a good condenser microphone.
- How Will You Use Your Condenser Microphone
- Choosing The Right Pickup Pattern
- Proximity Effect Sensitivity
- Frequency Response Curve
- Microphone Sensitivity
- Power Supply For The Microphone
- Self-Noise Of The Microphone
- Dynamic Range Of The Microphone
We will take a detailed look at all of these factors in the article.
This guide will help you choose the best condenser mic for your needs and budget.
Related: Best Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone; Reviews
What Is A Condenser Microphone
A condenser microphone is basically a highly specialized capacitor.
A capacitor is an electrical component that temporarily stores energy in an electric field. Two plates are placed in close proximity to each other to create capacitors.
The closer they are, the higher their capacitance, which is the ability to store an electric charge.
A similar construction is used for a condenser microphone capsule. It is composed of a thin membrane that is placed close to a solid plate of metal.
The membrane, or diaphragm as it is sometimes called, must be electrically conductive, at least on its surfaces. Gold-sputtered mylar is the most popular material used, although some older models use a thin metal foil.
Sound waves hitting the diaphragm cause it to move relative to the solid backplate. This means that the distance between the two capacitor plates changes.
The sound wave rhythms cause the capacitance to change. Voila! We have transformed sound into an electric signal.
However, the capsule signal is too fragile to be connected to other gear.
Although the output voltage of the condenser capsule is quite high, it produces very little current due to the fact that so much energy is stored in this tiny capacitor.
It is necessary to have an “impedance converter”, which is a circuit that buffers the capsule from the outside world.
The impedance converter makes the signal more solid by increasing the amount of signal current.
Condenser microphones do require external power, or ‘phantom power’, therefore, +48V Phantom power is often used to supply current to the circuitry.
Related: Best Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone Under $500
Types Of Condenser Microphones
The condenser microphones are well-known for their superior sound quality and ability to pick up fine details.
The low mass of a condenser microphone diaphragm allows it to vibrate with the sound waves of an input source more accurately than the heavy moving coil attached to a dynamic microphone.
Condenser microphones, regardless of their size, offer the best sound quality and frequency response. They also have the best ability to reproduce transients accurately.
There are two main types of condenser microphones: large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm condenser mics.
There is no better or worse, both large and small diaphragm condenser microphones are great recording tools. It all comes down to choosing the right tool for your job.
Related: Best Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone; Reviews
Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
Condenser microphones with large diaphragms, such as the Neumann U87, are a staple in studios.
You can record anything from vocals to strings, brass to percussion with large-diaphragm condenser microphones.
These mics are so versatile because of the multiple patterns and pads found on them.
The sound is shaped in a pleasing manner by large-diaphragm condenser mics. It just feels wonderful to hear your voice through your headphones.
A good condenser with a large diaphragm makes you want to sing. It sounds just like YOU on a record.
Many vocalists also like the size of large-diaphragm mics, as it allows them to focus on something, even if there is no audience.
Large-diaphragm microphones can be used to record vocals or spoken words. They are also often used for solo instruments to give them a richer, more vibrant sound and a “larger than life” appearance.
The RODE NT1-A cardioid condenser microphone is one of the world’s quietest microphones, and it comes complete with a ton of essential accessories! Its ultra-low self-noise means you’ll effortlessly capture clean, clear audio.
AKG’s P420 large-diaphragm condenser mic gives you high sensitivity, a robust SPL capacity, and multiple pickup patterns; in short, it’s a versatile, affordable addition to any pro facility where uncompromising quality is standard.
The Neumann TLM 103 large-diaphragm cardioid condenser mic boasts a capsule drawn from the U 87 and transformerless circuitry – not to mention classic Neumann sound! The TLM 103 is a great mic for any pro or project studio use and, due to its minimal self-noise, it’s been used for classical recordings with a wide dynamic range
Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
Many people mistakenly believe that small-diaphragm condenser microphones are inferior to their larger-diaphragm counterparts. However, they actually excel in a number of applications.
Their ultra-responsiveness is due to their lighter, smaller diaphragms.
Many recording engineers prefer small diaphragm microphones for drum overheads.
These studio microphones are also a great choice for acoustic guitar, hi-hat, harp, or any instrument with sharp transients and extended overtones
Another plus point of these mics is that they are very easy to position.
If you are looking for a pure, natural sound without adding flavors, small diaphragm condensers will be your best option.
You won’t find a microphone that can produce a better sound image than these.
High-quality small-diaphragm microphones with neutral sound can be used for just about any purpose because of their neutral sound.
Small diaphragm microphones can be used in pop music for piano, acoustic guitar and other stringed instruments, as well as drums (overheads and hi-hats, cymbals and percussion).
Although small diaphragm microphones have a great low-end response, they can also be used to play bass instruments. However, most pop engineers prefer the “lushness” of larger-diaphragm microphones for heavy bass sources.
Moreover, recording classical music is almost entirely done by sound engineers using small-diaphragm condensers.
Small-diaphragm condensers which have consistent pickup patterns are great for capturing choirs, ensembles, and orchestras in stereo, surround or surround.
The Shure SM81 Small Diaphragm Condenser Mic is a versatile, precise, and rugged mic, you’ve found it. Besides being an industry-standard microphone for acoustic guitar, this small-diaphragm condenser’s ruler-flat frequency response offers natural-sounding reproduction of other acoustic instruments, such as mandolin, violin, and banjo.
The sE Electronics sE7 is a high-quality small-diaphragm, back-electret condenser microphone designed for r a wide range of studio and live sound applications, from acoustic guitars to pianos to drums and beyond.
The AKG P170 is a small-diaphragm condenser microphone for recording percussion, acoustic guitars, and perhaps most typically, drum set from the overhead position. It’s a lightweight 1/2″ true condenser transducer diaphragm that delivers outstanding clarity and transient response. It is an affordable alternative to the revered ‘pencil’ microphones.
Related: 5 Top Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone Under $1000
Factors To Consider When Choosing A Condenser Microphone
1. How Will You Use Your Condenser Microphone
When choosing a microphone, the most important question to ask is “How will you use it?”
Is it intended to be used on stage as a microphone for an instrument or a vocal mic? Are you planning to use it in your home studio? Are you looking for something that will work in both situations?
Is it important to match your mic with the environment and gear it will be used in?
If you only plan to record basic demos in your bedroom, it may not be a good idea to spend thousands on a Neumann’s studio mic.
You’ll likely have poor acoustics and will need to add a mic preamp that might increase your overall cost.
Therefore, it might be better to choose a microphone that is less sensitive and cheaper.
Related: Best High-End Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone ($1000 – $5000)
2. Choosing The Right Pickup Pattern
Many condenser microphones can be set to a selectable pickup pattern depending on the room or intended use.
The microphone’s ‘pickup pattern’ is basically the sound field in which it will pick up sound.
Mics with a Cardioid Polar Pattern capture best from what is in front of them, while rejecting sounds from the sides and behind them.
The pattern’s graphic representation resembles a heart, thus, it is called a “cardioid”.
Cardioid patterns are useful for multi-miking situations and in areas where it is not desirable to capture large amounts of ambient sound.
Cardioid microphones are very popular in both studio and live on-stage use.
b) Supercardioid & Hypercardioid
The Supercardioid polar pattern is more directional than the Cardioid, and Hypercadioid is even more so directional than both Supercardioid and Cardioid.
These polar patterns, unlike Cardioid’s, have sensitive rear lobes (smaller in Supercardioid), which pick up sound. This can make it difficult to position these highly directional microphones.
Omnidirectional microphones can detect sound from all directions.
A circle is the graphic representation of this pattern. An Omnidirectional microphone will not have a strong proximity effect.
All microphones are omnidirectional from the beginning. Further engineering can be applied to create directional pickup patterns.
Omnis are excellent studio microphones that capture room sound and can be used for recording anything.
d) Figure 8
A Figure-8 polar pattern means that the microphone picks up sounds from both the front and back but rejects those from the sides.
This creates a pattern that looks similar to a figure-8, where the microphone capsule is located at the point of crossover on the 8. This microphone pickup pattern is also called bi-directional.
3. Proximity Effect Sensitivity
The proximity effect refers to a phenomenon whereby the mic is moved closer to the source, resulting in an increased low-frequency response.
Bass boost is greater the closer you are to the source. This can cause problems but it also opens up new ways to shape the sound.
The Proximity effect causes bass frequencies to be amplified as the sound source gets closer to the microphone.
This is a desirable feature for singers who use the microphone to create effects. For example, a recording engineer might choose a microphone with strong proximity effects to close-mike an instrument and bring out its bass tone.
Condenser microphones usually produce a greater proximity effect than dynamic mics.
4. Frequency Response Curve
The frequency response of a microphone refers to the range of frequencies that it can pick up. This frequency range is measured in hertz and is denoted by the lowest and highest frequencies.
For vocal microphones, a microphone with a frequency response of 80 Hz to 15 kHz would be a good choice.
For miking toms and snares, however, you should look for a range starting at 50 Hz. And for a mic for the bass drum, you’ll want to aim for 30 Hz to 40 Hz.
Related: Best Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone Under $500
5. Microphone Sensitivity
Sensitivity refers to how quiet a sound the mic can detect, and it is expressed using different systems.
The typical method of measuring microphone sensitivity is to use a 1kHz sine wave at either 94 dB sound level (SPL) or 1-pascal pressure (Pa).
It is measured by the magnitude of the digital or analog output signal generated by the microphone from that input stimulus.
6. Consider The Power Supply For Your Mic
Condenser microphones have active electronics that need an external power source.
Because of the way condenser mics work, their output is very high impedance and therefore requires a powered circuit to reduce that impedance.
Phantom power is a positive voltage (from 12 volts to 48 volts DC) that runs on pins 2 and 3 in an XLR cable.
Phantom is the name given to the mic’s power source because it is virtually invisible and runs through the same cord as the audio signal.
Many audio interfaces have a P48 switch that switches phantom power off and on. The 48 stands for the highest voltage rating.
7. The Self-Noise Of A Microphone
Microphone self-noise refers to the noise produced by the microphone itself.
All microphones have some degree of self-noise. Some microphones have negligible self-noise, while other mics should be avoided in quiet environments due to their loud self-noise ratings.
Manufacturers refer to self-noise as equivalent noise level (EIN). This is because the mic’s natural output level is equal to the output level recorded at a sound source level that matches its equivalent noise level value.
Condenser microphones are equipped with active circuit boards which actually make noise when they’re powered.
Circuitry adds noise to the mic signal and reduces the signal-to-noise ratio of the microphone.
8. Dynamic Range Of The Microphone
The dynamic range of microphones is the range that the microphone can handle between the lowest and highest levels.
This is not just a microphone function, but also of the preamplifier that is used in conjunction with it.
A microphone’s dynamic range is directly related to its sensitivity.
Dynamic range is the difference between the lowest and loudest levels you can record at.
Some microphones respond very well over their entire dynamic range, while others won’t.
Many microphones lose their bass response or gain unwanted frequencies at different levels.
A good-quality condenser microphone will give you a broad range to work with, and provide a consistent response across the entire dynamic range.
One of the most helpful things you can do in selecting a good condenser mic is some thorough research.
Another strategy to consider is sticking with the established, big-name companies that make professional mics. Many of them have lower-priced models that deliver surprisingly good sound.
For recording mics, the more you spend directly correlates with the quality of your recordings, so it is best to avoid the very lowest-priced models. Starting at around $100, you can find condenser recording mics that serve very nicely in home recording studios.
Of course, it’s safe to assume that the more you spend, the better the mic you’ll get. But be realistic. Work with your budget, and ensure your choice is appropriate for what you want to achieve. A mic’s overall quality should match the audio quality of the rest of your signal chain.
Now that you know the important aspects of what to look for in a good condenser microphone, it’s going to be much easier to figure out which is the right one for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is a condenser mic better for vocals?
Condenser microphones are best suited to record vocals and high frequencies. They are also chosen over other microphones for a variety of studio applications. Condenser microphones are used to capture delicate sounds because of their thin diaphragms and higher sensitivity.
2. What is considered a large-diaphragm condenser microphone?
As a general rule, a large-diaphragm condenser microphone has a capsule with a diaphragm that is at least 0.75 inches or more in diameter. They are the preferred type of microphone for vocals and are often used for solo instruments such as acoustic guitars and drum overheads.
3. What is considered a small-diaphragm condenser microphone?
As a general rule, a small-diaphragm condenser microphone has a capsule with a diaphragm that is less than 0.75 inches in diameter. They are typically used for piano, acoustic guitar, and other stringed instruments as well as drums and most bass instruments.
4. Can you use a condenser mic for live vocals?
Condenser microphones convert noise into electricity at a higher level than a dynamic microphone. Moreover, because of the thin diaphragm and increased sensitivity, condenser mics pick up plenty of background noise. This is why they are not as widely used as dynamic mics in a live setting.
5. Does a condenser mic need phantom power?
Condenser microphones have active electronic circuitry that needs an external power source to work. Moreover, the condenser microphone’s output is an extremely high impedance. Therefore, a powered circuit or phantom power is required to lower that impedance.
6. Will a condenser mic pick up background noise?
Condenser microphone capsules have a thin diaphragm which makes them increasingly sensitive to all noise. Moreover, a condenser mic converts noise into electricity at a higher level than a dynamic microphone. This is why condenser mics can pick up plenty of background noise.
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