How do microphones work? For those who aren’t in the industry, microphones - how they work and which type is best - are somewhat of a minefield. It’s an interesting topic that is shrouded in personal opinions and corner-cutting. But to really understand where to start, it’s best to learn how things work and for you to think about what you’re going to use a microphone for.
Below, here are the categories we’ve used to divide up our best microphones guide, to help make it easier for you to find the right mic for your needs:
Condenser microphones - Condenser microphones offer superior sound quality, and are especially suited to recording vocals and high-frequency sounds (see the category below for a full explanation). They’re often favoured as studio mics for this reason.
Streaming microphones - Planning to stream video games or other content? The best streaming microphones will make your voice clear as a bell, with easy plug-and-play setup that’s straightforward even for those who have never used audio gear before.
Dynamic microphones - Dynamic microphones use electromagnetism to convert sound waves to electrical signals. They’re not as sensitive as condenser mics, but they tend to be more portable, more hard-wearing and easier to use. Also, if you’re going to be recording in noisy environments, a dynamic mic will probably pic up less of the unwanted background noise.
Podcasting microphones - Audio quality is of paramount importance in podcasting – nothing will turn off new listeners faster than muddy, indistinct voices. These are the mics that are perfect for group or solo podcast recording.
Studio microphones - If you’re crafting a recording studio setup and want a capable microphone to capture audio in pristine quality, these are the ones we’d recommend.
One thing we should point out before we kick off is that there’s a fair amount of crossover between these categories. Plenty of the best streaming microphones are also good for podcasting, and both dynamic and condenser microphones can be great for all sorts of different uses. These categories are included to help you, but they’re not absolute rules, so don’t worry too much about comparing mics from multiple categories. We’ll explain the strengths and weaknesses of each one as we go.
So, let’s get into it, and count off the best microphones you can buy in 2023.
Best Condenser Microphones
Condenser microphones deliver pristine sound quality above all else. Also known as “capacitor microphones”, condenser mics work via two plates placed in close proximity to one another. One of these plates is constructed of very thin metal – this is known as the diaphragm, or sometimes the membrane. And when we say very thin, we do mean it – in high-quality microphones, the thickness of the membrane can be as little as a few microns.
When sound waves hit the diaphragm, the distance between it and the other metal plate will fluctuate. The variations in distance will mirror the shape of the sound waves, allowing the microphone to convert the sound waves into an electrical signal, which in turn translates to listenable audio.
Condenser mics are extremely accurate, especially when recording high frequencies and voices. They’ll pick up absolutely everything that’s going on in their field, which can be an issue in noisy environments, but makes them especially ideal for studio use.
Rode VideoMic Pro+
The RODE VideoMic Pro+ sits at the top of RODE's line of DSLR style on-camera shotgun microphones. The VideoMic Pro+ comes with new features such as a switchable highpass filter, a safety channel, for recording in difficult environments, and a new intelligent on/off system, which turns the microphone on and off based on the power coming from your camera.
- Broadcast-level audio quality
- Multiple battery options and power-saving features
- Versatile digital switching modes
- Not as tough as other mics
Widely regarded as one of the best on-camera shotgun mics you can buy, the Rode VideoMic Pro+ is an exceptional tool for recording high-quality audio on the go. It’s a condenser mic that slides onto the hotshoe of a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and as a true condenser mic, it covers a wide frequency range of 20Hz to 20KHz. This means your low ends will be deep and full, while your high ends will be sharp and crisp. It’s a mic for coping with just about any audio situation.
Rode has also clearly reworked the design of the mic with portability and on-the-go use in mind – particularly with regard to its battery. The VideoMic Pro+ runs off an included RODE LB-1 Li-Ion rechargeable battery, but can also run on standard AA batteries if needed, or be powered via USB. This suite of options ensures that you can take steps to ensure you never run out of power when you need it the most.
Audio-Technica AT875R Condenser Shotgun Microphone
Offering a straightforward operation with a great off-axis rejection and smooth on-axis tone, the Audio-Technica AT875R Condenser Shotgun Microphone is a perfect recording device for TV shoots, indie films, documentary projects, and nature sounds. Its high sensitivity enables it to perform exceptionally well with a vast range of mic preamp classes. Its full-spectrum frequency response uses a gentle increase in high frequencies to improve intelligibility and make up for the loss in clarity caused by wind protection. It utilises a supercardioid polar pattern and interference tube to attenuate rear-entry sound as well as reject lateral sounds. The AT875R microphone is manufactured from the best quality materials to ensure long-lasting use. It is durable yet lightweight, so it does not burden your camera or boom pole. It comes with a microphone clip for easy placement on a boom pole or mic stand.
- Rich, clear sound quality
- Excellent off-axis audio rejection
- Small and lightweight
- No battery (requires phantom power)
The short, lightweight Audio-Technica AT875R may look a little simple at first glance. However, this is a highly capable condenser shotgun microphone that can be mounted on cameras and stands with ease, and provides excellent sound quality that’s good enough for TV and film shoots.
The off-axis audio rejection of the Audio-Technica AT875R is particularly good – this is in part thanks to its supercardioid polar pattern and interference tube, which are designed to reject lateral sounds. In layman’s terms, the mic is great for recording what you point it at, and discarding the surrounding noise. It also comes with a practical foam windscreen for reducing ambient noise from wind, air conditioners etc. One thing to be aware of though is that the Audio-Technica AT875R does not have batteries, and requires phantom power to operate. This can be provided using a microphone pre-amp or an external power supply.
Sennheiser MKE 200 Microphone
The Sennheiser MKE 200 Microphone is a directional mic that supports both isolated and in-camera audio recording. Great looking video can be recorded easily these days, even phones offer good video recording capabilities; however, this can't be said for audio. That's where the MKE 200 comes in. This microphone is ideal for vlogging and reportage style videos where you need to talk to the camera while in a busy space such as a restaurant. The microphone features a built-in windscreen and a shock mount to minimise any unwanted noise, especially wind and handling noise. This microphone to host to a range of features that provide impressively high-quality audio fit for any professional production.
- Works great with cameras and smartphones
- Excellent directional audio quality
- Integrated noise reduction
- No physical gain control button
More and more creators are using high-end smartphones to shoot stunning video content. However, while the visual quality of smartphone cameras has skyrocketed, the same can’t quite be said for the audio quality of the built-in mics. The Sennheiser MKE 200 is one of quite a few mics released to plug this gap – working well with both smartphones and traditional cameras, it’s a directional condenser mic delivering a frequency response of 40Hz to 2KHz.
The MKE 200 doesn’t need batteries – just plug it in and you’re ready to go. It has a built-in windscreen to reduce wind noise, as well as a shock mount that’s designed to minimise handling noise – the bumps and knocks you get when the person holding a mic moves or makes an adjustment. It’s quite a simple mic design, lacking a few physical controls – there’s no on-mic gain control, for instance – but it’s an impressive little plug-and-play unit that’s particularly good for vloggers.
Best Streaming Microphones
If you’re planning on streaming games or other content, you don’t want to be relying on the built-in mic of your computer or laptop. You’ll be much better served by picking up a dedicated streaming microphone – and don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be expensive. Many of the best streaming microphones are simple devices that are easy on the wallet. What’s more, they’re often plug-and-play devices that work via USB, meaning even a total audio novice can easily get one set up and working.
Having a solid streaming mic will make a world of difference to the quality of your streams. Many are unidirectional, meaning you can point them towards where you’ll be sitting and speaking and they’ll pick up audio from that direction while blocking out everything else. Plus, as streaming tends to be an indoor activity, you don’t need to worry too much about weatherproofing or battery life.
Rode NT-USB Mini
The NT-USB Mini from Rode is a compact and sleek USB microphone. This tiny microphone offers professional level audio-quality for directly to your computer or tablet. It features a high-quality condenser capsule and a directional cardioid pick pattern which together are capable of capturing clear and uninterrupted sound with a smooth frequency response. The shear level of the sound quality that this microphone can record will make it indistinguishable from higher-tier/more expensive piece of kit. The microphone also features an in-built pop filter that reduces plosives sounds as well as having a unique magnetic desk stand that not only provides a sturdy base but also reduces small knocks and bumps in your surrounds that can often occur whilst recording. This unit is perfect for a whole host of application including, gamers, podcasters, musicians and more.
- Tiny and unobtrusive
- Excellent, clear audio quality
- Built-in pop filter
- Fixed pattern
- No on-mic gain control
As the name implies, the Rode NT-USB Mini is a tiny little streaming mic that plugs in via – you guessed it – USB. Though if you were worried that having such a small mic would have an impact on audio quality, let us lay those fears to rest – the Rode NT-USB Mini delivers excellent sound, with a high-quality condenser capsule that captures exceptional clarity. There’s also a built-in pop filter to control for the plosive sounds in human speech – meaning you shouldn’t get unpleasant pops on your “P”s and “B”s.
The magnetic desk stand of the Rode NT-USB Mini serves two purposes – keeping the mic in one place, and reducing any unwanted sounds caused by it moving around. The Rode NT-USB Mini is a pretty straightforward device, meaning there’s no on-mic gain button, and its fixed cardioid pattern that’s optimised for vocals can’t be changed. However, mic needs for most streamers are going to be the same week-in, week-out, and the Rode NT-USB Mini excels at doing one job very well.
- Genuinely useful app
- Excellent high-frequency response
- Broad system compatibility
- Single cardioid recording pattern
For streamers who want a high-quality audio setup, the Shure MV7 Dynamic Microphone is an ideal choice. Its broad compatibility means it’s going to be suitable for pretty much any streaming setup – it’ll work with PCs and Apple devices, as well as smartphones, hard disk recorders and audio interfaces. We also have to give a shout-out to the ShurePlus MOTIV app – while companion apps for devices can often fill users with a feeling of dread, this one is genuinely useful, especially if you’re a novice user who wants some guidance through the settings.
Such users will likely stick with the auto mode, which does everything a streamer is realistically going to need, automatically tweaking settings for optimal sound quality in every situation. Audio quality itself is excellent, with a built-in pop filter, and the single cardioid recording pattern, while limited in some senses, should be perfectly fine for streaming setups.
Best Dynamic Microphones
Dynamic microphones work using electromagnetism to convert sound waves to electrical signals. Some of the first microphones ever made were dynamic microphones, and it’s a design that has well and truly stood the test of time. Dynamic mics work using a diaphragm that is attached to a metal coil (or sometimes an aluminium ribbon), suspended between magnets. When sound waves hit the diaphragm, both it and the coil will move – this causes electromagnetic fluctuations that mirror the sound waves.
Dynamic microphones aren’t as sensitive as condenser mics, as the coil requires stronger vibrations in order to appreciably move. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them inferior – it just means they’re useful for different applications. For instance, dynamic microphones are much better at coping with extremely loud sounds, meaning they’re the choice for recording gigs and concerts. They also tend to be more affordable and more hard-wearing, meaning run-and-gun video shooters may find a lot to like about them.
Tascam TM-82 Dynamic Microphone
The TM-82 Dynamic Microphone is ideally suited for vocal and instrument live performances and recordings. This Tascam microphone picks up the character and nuances of performances consistently, with the cardioid directional pattern significantly reducing feedback and distracting room sound. It also forms a moderate proximity effect, giving vocals (and other sound sources) that distinct warm ‘bottom'. The TM-82 further produces high-quality replication without the need for phantom power. This allows for efficient application from the home studio to the stage - versatile recording capabilities with both vocals and a range of musical instruments. Its robust metal construction and solid electrical build-up make this microphone a reliable companion for musicians, rental businesses and event venues. The TM-82 can withstand the rigours of everyday use - A robust, high-quality vocal and instrument microphone for the working performer.
- Excellent value for money
- Robust construction
- Unidirectional pattern reduces feedback
- No on/off switch
Tascam is something of an institution in the audio recording world, having pioneered the concept of the home studio with its Portastudio – made famous when Bruce Springsteen recorded the entirety of his acoustic 1982 album Nebraska on the device. The Tascam TM-82 is a simpler affair, but retains that democratising spirit of accessibility in its affordability – there are few good-quality dynamic microphones available at this price.
With its unidirectional cardioid polar pattern, the TM-82 is great for recording vocals or instruments while tuning out background noise. It’s constructed from metal (it’s heavier than you’d expect from a mic at this price) and its frequency response runs from 50Hz to 16KHz. If you’re setting up a home studio for vocals, guitars, drums or most other instruments, the Tascam TM-82 is an inexpensive dynamic microphone that’s well worth considering.
Zoom ZDM-1 Dynamic Large Diaphragm Microphone
The Zoom ZDM-1 is a carefully constructed Dynamic Microphone offering impressively high sound pressure levels so you can bash away at your symbols without fear of distortion. Featuring an internal shock mount that protects the capsule from bumps and a built-in humbucking circuit that rejects electromagnetic interference, this microphone is the perfect recording companion for when things get noisy.
- Copes well when things get loud
- Built-in humbucking circuit
- Durable all-metal body
- Included stand somewhat rudimentary
One of the strengths of dynamic microphones is their ability to handle high-volume sounds without distorting or clipping. The Zoom ZDM-1 Dynamic Large Diaphragm Microphone is one such mic, and if you’re a drummer looking for an affordable way to record crashing cymbals and cracking snares, it’s a great starting point. With an all-metal construction that includes a durable grille, the Zoom ZDM-1 is built for daily use.
This isn’t just a mic for recording gut-busting solos – its super cardioid polar pattern provides excellent isolation, making it a solid choice for speech recording such as podcasting. It has an internal shock mount to prevent handling noise from encroaching on the recording, and also boasts a built-in humbucking circuit, which rejects the kind of electromagnetic interference that can be caused by power lines, computer monitors and mobile phones. The 50 Hz to 18KHz frequency response also makes it great for recording lows and highs alike.
Best Podcasting Microphones
A good podcasting microphone does not need to be terribly complicated, but it does need to offer high enough audio quality to satisfy today’s discerning podcast listener. There are a lot of podcasts out there, and if yours is filled with plosive pops and audio that clips every time someone raises their voice, listeners aren’t likely to stick around for long.
It makes sense for podcasters to use a USB microphone, as you’ll likely have a computer running anyway during the recording, and will want the audio there as soon as possible for editing and sharing. With a good podcast microphone, you should be able to place it between your participants and have everyone picked up in good quality. A mic per person would be better of course, but not everyone has the budget for it, so we’ve picked out a couple of versatile mics that will give you everything you need to get set up and start podcasting.
Zoom ZUM-2 USB Podcast Mic Pack
The Zoom ZUM-2 USB Podcast Mic Pack provides everything you need to record, podcast and stream audio with your computer. This pack comes loaded with the best of Zoom’s tech, including the ZUM-2 super-cardioid mic, the ZHP-2 closed-back headphones and the portable TPS-4 Tabletop Tripod. Tie it all together with the other included accessories for a professional setup that brings your audio to life.
- Condenser-mic quality
- Headphones included
- Useful foam windscreen
- Headphones quite plasticky
This Zoom ZUM-2 USB kit is designed to give you everything you need for podcasting from the moment you open the box. This means that as well as the mic itself, you also get a tabletop tripod and a handy pair of dynamic stereo closed-cup headphones, meaning you can get started right away.
The mic may have a plug-and-play setup, but its super-cardioid polar pattern does a great job of capturing pristine vocal audio, reducing background noise for a consistently clean recording. The included foam windscreen helps reduce plosive pops and other unwanted noises, and the 2m USB cable gives you plenty of flexibility and means you aren’t too tethered to a computer. The mic is relatively lightweight too, and the aforementioned tripod means it’s easy to set up anywhere – useful if your podcasting isn’t confined to a single location.
Thronmax Mdrill Dome Plus USB Microphone
Compact and versatile, the Thronmax Mdrill Dome Plus USB Microphone lets you capture studio-quality sound, stream audio over the internet, record podcasts, or attend a WFH meeting. Featuring a single plug-and-play operation, this tabletop microphone connects directly to a PC with a USB cable. With dual operational patterns, you can record the desired audio for your projects and purposes.
- Omnidirectional polar pattern
- Wide frequency range
- No-fuss, plug-and-play operation
- No headphones in the box
Many of the mics we’ve featured on this list offer only one polar pattern. However, the Thronmax Mdrill Dome Plus USB Microphone gives users the option to choose either a cardioid unidirectional polar pattern, or an omnidirectional pattern. The former isolates audio from a specific direction, which is great for picking up a single person’s speech. The latter captures sound from all directions, allowing for high-quality recording of conversations featuring multiple participants. If this describes your podcast, and you don’t have the budget for multiple mics, the Thronmax Mdrill Dome Plus is an excellent choice of do-it-all mic.
Like many good podcasting mics, the Thronmax Mdrill Dome Plus is easy to set up, with a plug-and-play USB interface. It supports headphones via a 3.5mm jack (though not Bluetooth), meaning you can monitor your audio as you record. Its 96KHz frequency range means it meets the standard demanded by the professional podcast industry.
Best Studio Microphones
Studio microphones are just what they sound like – mics that are designed to work best in a controlled studio environment. Throughout this guide, we’ve often discussed features like portability and external noise reduction when selecting mics – however, if you’re only going to be using your mic in the studio, such factors aren’t really a concern. This leaves you free to focus on mics that deliver one thing above all else – top-notch audio quality.
As such, condenser mics tend to make for great studio mics, and ideally you want one with a large diaphragm for a stronger signal. You may just be recording voices, or you may have musical aspirations in mind – either way, a good studio mic should be able to handle it all without difficulty. We’ve picked out a couple of excellent studio mic options for this last section of our guide – they’re sold as kits, meaning you should have everything you need to get started.
Shure SM7B Studio Dynamic Cardioid Microphone
Characterised as a dynamic mic with smooth, flat, wide-range frequency response, the Shure SM7B is a truly multi-functional audio tool suited to recording both music and vocal audio. Integrating a cardioid polar pattern, bass roll-off, and mid-range push controls, the SM7B actively shields itself against broadband interference. Further to this, an integrated air suspension shock isolation benefits the elimination of mechanical noise. This consists of electromagnetic hums from computers, as well as more general background studio noise. The tactile yoke mount also facilitates key mounting and precise control, whilst the detachable close-up windscreen minimises plosives and heavy breaths.
- Absolutely superb vocal performance
- Effective rejection of electromagnetic hum
- Solidly built
- Not many we can think of!
The Shure SM7B has an enviable reputation in the audio tech-geek community. It’s often regarded as one of the best studio mics you can buy without spending the top-most price, and once you’ve heard your own voice through this mic, you’ll probably understand why. The vocal quality on this thing is freakishly good – if you’re in a controlled environment like a studio, you’ll be absolutely wowed by the quality. Clarity is pitch-perfect, and there’s also plenty of oomph in the low-end to add a little body and warmth. Seriously good stuff.
The off-axis rejection on the Shure SM7B is also first-class, making it a good choice for podcasters. It can actively shield itself from interference stemming from electronic devices, ensuring that nothing interferes with your recording. The built-in pop filter and shock mount also work reliably well, eliminating the need to pick up extra accessories, and making this a comprehensively well-featured complete package for the studio.
Rode NT1 and AI-1 Complete Studio Kit
The Rode NT1 and AI-1 Complete Studio Kit adds studio quality input and output capabilities to your computer, making home recording easier than it's ever been. The kit comes with the Rode NT1 studio condenser microphone, a shock mount, pop-shield, Rode XLR cable and USB-C/A cables to transfer data from your AI-1 to your computer, and power - including 48V phantom power to your AI-1.
- Exceptional sound quality with low noise
- Integrated shock mount and pop shield
- Premium metallic build
- Very few cons worth mentioning
A classic condenser mic for studio use, the Rode NT1 brings premium audio quality to your home studio. With its large 1-inch diaphragm, the NT1 captures a broad range of frequencies – vocals are crisp, sharp and detailed, with a satisfying low end, and noise is virtually non-existent. Rode has claimed this to be the quietest 1-inch cardioid condenser mic ever made, and it’s hard to find much fault with that claim. The integrated shock mount protects against handling noise, and there’s a pop shield for handling all those pesky plosive sounds.
While it might not quite be suitable for recording clattering drums or other loud sounds, the Rode NT1 handles vocals like a dream, and will also be highly capable for quieter instruments like guitars or keyboards. It is keenly priced, too, providing tremendous value for money for anyone looking to set up a home studio. The included AI-1 audio interface connects to a computer via USB, making it easy to get up and running.
Rock stars, comedians, gamers, and filmmakers - these are but a few mere examples of why you might be in the market for a microphone. The truth is, there are countless reasons you may need a microphone - too many to list here, that’s for sure. It’s all well and good being given suggestions but we feel it’s more important to have some understanding as to how and why microphones work!
Here, you’ll find our guide to how microphones where we’ll discuss the basics, the types of microphones there are, their many forms and several factors to consider when exploring your microphone options.
What is a microphone?
On a basic level, a microphone is a transducer - an energy converter. It can convert sound vibrations into electronic signals that can then in turn be recorded or amplified.
The first patented microphone was made by Alexander Bell in 1876. This microphone with made using a wire that conducted an electrical current (DC). It could generate and receive audio signals by moving an armature transmitter and receiver, enabling transmission from both directions. Along the way, there have been many versions of the microphone such as crystal microphones that used a piezoelectric crystal to generate electricity under the compression of a diaphragm. Another is the carbon microphone - early models used a platinum bead to press against a hard carbon disc but were surpassed by using loose carbon granule elements instead of the hard carbon disc.
These two early types of microphones took hold in the 1920s and 1930s, revolutionising the way that we could communicate. All of a sudden, people could talk to each other from one side of a country to another - from one country to the next!
Fast forward to the modern day and the technology used to manufacture microphones has come a long way. And, the ways in which a microphone works depend on its designed purpose.
Now, there are several types of microphones. Each type is built differently and as mentioned before, the way in which it works depends on what it is used for.
Perhaps the most common type of microphone is the dynamic microphone. Dynamic microphones are an industry standard - and a great all-round microphone solution. They’re celebrated for their reliability and rugged build, which make them perfect for live events and generally being thrown around!
Inside, there is a microphone capsule that uses electrical energy to produce an audio signal. The capsule contains a small diaphragm that’s connected to a moving coil - this vibrates when sound waves hit it, causing the coil to move back and forth within the magnetic field, thus generating an electrical current.
Dynamic mics are generally less sensitive than other microphones, such as condenser mics, and therefore need to be positioned close to the intended subject. While this could be seen as a negative, the lower sensitivity actually results in effective sound isolation. For example, if you were using the dynamic microphone for gaming or streaming, the microphone would isolate the voice without picking up background noises like clicks, keyboards, mouse movements etc.
Another popular mic type is the condenser microphone. Condenser microphones are characterised by their sound sensitivity, accuracy, frequency response range and phantom power requirement (more on that later). Now, how these microphones work differs from dynamic microphones but with the unifying result of producing an electrical signal by the movement of a diaphragm.
This type of microphone uses a capsule containing a diaphragm and an electrically charged backplate to form a capacitor. Soundwaves hit the diaphragm making it vibrate, and altering the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate. This fluctuating movement (matching the sound it’s picked up) produces an electrical signal that is amplified by an internal preamp. This feature requires the help of additional power - this can be provided by batteries, phantom power, an audio interface, or depending on the mic, a computer’s USB port.
As mentioned, condensers are characterised by their sensitivity. This type is much more sensitive than the dynamic options and as such, does not need to be placed as close to the intended subject. This, as well as wide frequency response and their capacity to pick fine details, clarity and presence, make them popular choices for recording studios and podcasters. However, the caveat to this is that the increased sensitivity means they’re more likely to pick up unintentional, background noises if you're not in a soundproofed recording environment.
Ribbon Microphones are an interesting one. They’re actually a type of dynamic microphone but instead of soundwaves vibrating a diaphragm attached to a coil; a ribbon microphone is fitted with an extremely thin strip of conductive material suspended in a permanent magnetic field - we’re talking half the thickness of a human hair! Where traditional microphones respond to the pressure of air particles, ribbon microphones respond to variations in the velocity of air particulars. As sound waves hit the ribbon, it vibrates within the magnetic field, which in turn generates a voltage that corresponds to the changes in velocity.
Now, this may sound more confusing and/or stranger than it’s worth - and without added insult to injury - there’s more. Ribbon microphones are known for being fragile. A rogue plosive or accidental bump while moving your kit could easily damage or break the extremely delicate conductive material. And, as such, they must be handled with care. Furthermore, they take some getting used to when put into practice. Most ribbon microphones are passive i.e. they have no onboard preamps or active components. This means it is vital to accurately set the impedance of your preamp input e.g. if it’s set too low, you’ll get a weak output and the tone will suffer. Fortunately, though, you can't damage a ribbon mic by changing the input impedance - you’ll just be altering its tone and sensitivity.
So why would you want one? Well, ribbon microphones have a unique sound. The ribbon acts as a diaphragm and transducer itself which actually provides a similar level of sensitivity as you’d expect from a condenser, with the added bonus, they have a unique and different tone to the audio they can capture. And, many newer ribbon microphones are less fragile and prone to breaking, so you can enjoy the beautiful audio quality these microphones can capture with less risk.
Most commonly used in film, television, broadcasting or theatre - this type of microphone is designed for discretion without compromising on audio quality. Also known as a lav, lapel mic or body mic, a lavalier mic is small and often clipped to the user’s collar, hidden from view. Not only this, but this type of microphone also offers hand-free use. Both of these factors are ideal for situations where another type of microphone could be an eye sore and/or distract a viewer e.g. theatre actors.
Shotgun microphones are named for the long tube in front of the microphone capsule that resembles a shotgun. They’re highly directional and thanks to the interference tube, which helps reduce incoming sound from the sides, this type is perfect for isolating and capturing audio from subjects that are far away. They’re commonly used in film productions, music recording and any situations where there is a lot of distracting ambient noise that would otherwise, distract from the intended subject.
Handheld Audio Recorders
You might think you could just use your phone to record audio when you’re in the field. But a dedicated handheld recorder is going to provide a much higher level of audio quality. It’ll have better microphones, stereo imaging and compression, all of which provide that vastly superior audio recording. There are several types of handheld recorders including those with multiple mics and XLR inputs for direct instrument recording, but generally, this type of microphone is ideal for field recording, interviews, recording live music or even just the sound of nature itself.
Headsets are designed for hands-free operation. You’ll see this type of microphone in a range of applications from gaming, call centres, sportscasters, pilots, singers and the list goes on! Generally, this type of microphone will feature a cardioid polar pattern to capture the user’s voice and ignore surrounding voices or noises.
Wireless microphones are used for live music performances, filmmaking, journalism, business, making speeches, education and more. They’re an essential part of modern audio recording and audio capture. But that’s not to say that wireless is better than wired!
Sure, wireless makes some recording environments easier, but some would say that you can’t beat a wired microphone. Furthermore, for wireless mics, you have to consider your transmitter, receiver, maximum range and the issue of latency. So, which is better?
As usual, it’s all based on your situation. Wired mics offer a direct connection, they’re simple and generally more reliable than wireless. But, wires can break, and cables can be a trip hazard. They simply add more or different elements to consider. Likewise, with wireless options, batteries can fun out, latency can be an issue and connectivity can become a problem. But if it were a question of audio quality, in the modern day, we’re lucky enough that there are options from both that provide exceptional audio quality.
With the rise of streaming and home recording, USB microphones have certainly seen some improvements from early models. USB mics differ from standard microphones in that they have an analogue-to-digital converter and a dedicated preamp. They also come with a built-in audio interface that allows you to directly connect to your device via the USB port, without having to invest in expensive audio equipment. USB mics are generally cheaper than other options out there but still offer excellent audio quality.
In basic terms, a polar pattern describes a microphone's directionality. There are different types of polar patterns that can be attributed to a microphone's sensitivity to sound waves coming in from different angles to the central axis. There are five patterns and each type has its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s important to know what pattern is so you can get the right tool for the job
Directional polar pattern
The most common type of directional pattern is the cardioid polar pattern (named due to its heart shape). This type is used when you need to focus on one sound source while reducing pick-up from the sides and rear. An example of this would be a singer on stage. This pattern would pick up the vocalist's voice while limiting sounds from other performers or monitor foldback.
Hyper-cardioid and super-cardioid polar patterns
These two types are similar and variations of a standard cardioid pattern, but with a narrower pickup range at the front. Both also have less sensitivity on the sides - something to note if you use a microphone with either of these patterns. You’ll often find these patterns on shotgun microphones that are designed to pick up sound from a specific area/distance away from the mic. The longer the shotgun mic, the narrower the fontal pick-up area and the less side sound will be picked up.
Bidirectional polar pattern
Also known as a figure-of-eight pattern, this pattern will pick up an equal level of sound from both the front and rear of the microphone, while blocking sound from the sides. This is often used to record ambient sounds alongside the main sound source in your environment. Another example could be if you were to record a guitar and vocals from a single player - you’d augment the microphone so it separately picks up the guitar sound and vocals.
Omnidirectional polar pattern
This pattern is designed to be sensitive from all angles, equally picking up sound from a 360-degree radius. This type is often used to pick up multiple instruments or sounds from different people simultaneously e.g. live performances or an interview setting. Of course, due to its sensitivity to sound from all angles - with no null points - this microphone is not ideal if you’re wanting to isolate a specific sound source.
Not exclusive to microphones, frequency response illustrates how that device responds to audio frequencies, and it is the most important factor in determining a microphone’s characteristics.
You’ll come across specifications like 20 Hz - 20 kHz, but this doesn't paint a useful picture and this is partly why we use a frequency response diagram to illustrate a microphone's sound balance and characteristics. These diagrams allow us to see how well a microphone reproduces all audible frequencies and if it makes any changes to the signal along the way.
Ideally, a frequency response curve should be a fairly smooth line. Sudden and abrupt peaks and valleys result in unnatural sound reproduction and may cause discrepancies like feedback. Although, some microphones enable you to change the frequency response to suit different applications. Most commonly, you’ll see low-frequency roll-off control to reduce pickup of low rumbles and an upper mid-range boost that enhances voice intelligibility.
Sound Pressure Level
Sound pressure level, or SPL, is an important factor in choosing a microphone. A microphone’s maximum SPL level is the level at which it can withstand without distorting the signal. This is important because, for example, if you require a microphone for live music performances, you need to use a microphone that can handle high volumes to reproduce a clean and crisp signal.
Many microphones feature switchable options that enable you to alter the way your microphone works. The obvious one that needs no explanation is the on/off switch. Easy, simple, we can move on! Other switches include EQ boosts/cuts, high-pass filters, attenuation pads and polar pattern switches.
Passive Attenuation Device. Active mics contain circuitry that can overload if the incoming signal from the capsule is too strong. When this happens, your audio signal can become distorted. Attenuation pads reduce incoming signal levels before the microphone’s active amplification process to avoid overloading. This may be used if you know the incoming audio source is going to be very loud.
High-pass filters, or roll-off switches, are used to cut out low frequencies from an audio source. By cutting these lower frequencies, you remove those unwanted low-level rumbles, that would otherwise degrade or interfere with your audio source. Using this type of filter can also reduce the proximity effect and distracting plosives within directional microphones.
A pop shield, also known as a pop filter or screen, is designed to reduce or eliminate plosives, and mechanical noises when recording singing or speech. This is an inexpensive and highly useful studio accessory for increasing the production value of your recordings.
A shock mount/cradle is designed to suspend a microphone, helping to avoid the microphone from picking up low-frequency rumbles that can be caused by bumps, shocks or hand movements.
Made from faux fur, a “dead cat” is a soft, fluffy accessory that can be put over a microphone, like a sock. Designed for outdoor use, this accessory adds an extra layer of protection from wind noises and plosive sounds while retaining acoustic transparency.
A mic stand is used for hands-free operation when using a microphone. There are various types of stands that suit different purposes such as stand arms, desktop stands, straight stands and gooseneck stands. Which is more suitable comes down to personal preference and/or the intended use.
Boom poles are an essential tool for television production and other industry use. This simple tool allows you to mount your microphone securely and easily follow your sound source without being in the shot of a camera. These are used when handheld or lav mics etc. are not appropriate e.g. filmmaking.
Glossary and FAQs
Amplification - Amplification is a process of increasing the strength of an electrical signal with an amplifier. Amplification is needed for mic signals so those signals can be recognised by mixing consoles and DAWs. Additional amplification is needed when sending these signals to loudspeakers.
Attenuation - Attenuation is a process of decreasing the amplitude of a signal. For microphones, attenuation is needed to decrease strong signals that could overload active circuitry.
DAW - DAW stands for “digital audio workstation”. This is an electronic device or application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files
Decibel (dB) - A decibel (dB) is a unit of measurement used to display the intensity of sound waves or the power level of an electrical microphone signal.
Diaphragm - A microphone diaphragm is located inside the mic capsule. When sound waves hit it, it moves, causing transduction which produces an electrical signal.
Distortion - Distortion is where a waveform is altered. Analog microphone distortion is caused when active circuitry is overloaded. Digital distortion happens when an audio signal exceeds 0 dBFS within a DAW.
Impedance - Measured in ohms, impedance is a way of expressing a circuit’s resistance and reactance to a signal.
Frequency - Measured in Hertz (Hz), frequency refers to the number of vibrations per second of a soundwave. Humans typically have an audible frequency range between 20-20,000 Hz and as such, microphones will generally have a frequency response within this range.
Phantom Power - Many microphones require external DC power to drive the circuitry inside. This is called phantom power.
Transducer - A transducer transforms energy from one form to another. In microphones, a transducer converts acoustic pressure into an electrical signal.
Can I use a microphone on my iPhone?
No, not really. The microphones on smartphones are usually small, poor-quality, omnidirectional mics that are stuffed inside the phone along with all the other components. Sure, they’re fine for phone calls and if it was your only option for an on-the-fly interview, it is fine. But the audio quality is poor and a dedicated microphone will always be preferable.
Can I use any microphone?
Technically, yes! But should you? Perhaps not. As discussed, there are many types of microphones that are optimised for different uses e.g. condensers for singers or lapel mics for interviews.
Are camera microphones good enough for recording?
Modern cameras have much better microphones than earlier models and as such, they can capture better audio quality. However, a dedicated microphone will always provide more accurate audio.
What is best for video recording?
Many modern cameras will have a microphone input that allows you to use small on-camera mics for audio capture. Alternatively, you can record audio separately and sync up the audio to video in post-production. Either will offer better results than the in-built microphone on your camera.
Do I need a license for a wireless microphone?
Most users will not need a license. However, there are some professional applications where you will require a license and you learn more about that here.
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About the Author
Leo White has been a member of the Wex Photo Video team since 2018, working in a variety of roles ranging from the contact centre to the product setup team. With both a photography BA and MA, Leo has a wealth of knowledge he's ready to share. See more of his writing on Leo's author page.