Diving headfirst into the realm of music production or the broader field of audio recording requires more than just a keen ear. It necessitates a deep understanding of the tools of the trade, the principal among which are microphones. At the forefront of the multitude of microphones available, two types stand out due to their ubiquitous usage in various settings – the dynamic and condenser microphones. But what are they, and how do they differ from each other?
Before we delve into the differences between dynamic and condenser microphones, it’s important to grasp what a microphone is and its role in audio recording.
Essentially, a microphone is a transducer. This means it has the ability to convert one form of energy into another. Microphones transform sound energy (in the form of sound waves) into electrical energy (an electrical signal that can be amplified, recorded, or transmitted). Regardless of the type, every microphone operates on this fundamental principle.
The dynamic microphone, also known as a moving-coil microphone, is the oldest and arguably the most widely recognized type of microphone. It earned its name from its dynamic nature of converting sound into an electrical signal.
A diaphragm, coil, and magnet are at the heart of a dynamic microphone. When a sound wave reaches the diaphragm, it causes it to vibrate. This diaphragm is attached to a small coil of wire that is surrounded by a magnet. As the coil moves with the diaphragm, it creates an electric current representing the incoming sound wave.
Dynamic microphones are the ‘tough guys’ of the microphone world. Their sturdy construction allows them to withstand high sound pressure levels (SPL), making them ideal for capturing loud sounds without distortion. They shine in live performance settings and are commonly used to mic loud instruments like drum kits or guitar amps.
Dynamic microphones also have the advantage of not requiring an external power source, making them a go-to for many applications where reliability and durability are paramount.
Condenser microphones, sometimes called capacitor microphones, are another common type of microphone that offers different characteristics compared to dynamic microphones.
Condenser microphones operate based on an entirely different principle. They utilize a pair of charged metal plates, one fixed (the backplate) and one flexible (the diaphragm), forming a capacitor. When sound waves hit the diaphragm, it moves, changing the distance between the two plates and thus varying the capacitance. This variation in capacitance is then converted into an electrical signal, which can be amplified and recorded.
Unlike dynamic microphones, condenser microphones require an external power source. This is often supplied as phantom power from the recording device or mixer.
Known for their sensitivity and accuracy, condenser microphones capture quieter, more intricate sounds, making them the microphone of choice for studio vocals and acoustic instruments. They offer superior sound quality, capturing a wider frequency range and providing a better transient response than dynamic microphones.
However, their construction and power requirements make them more delicate and less durable than their dynamic counterparts, hence less suitable for high-pressure sound environments.
With a basic understanding of how dynamic and condenser microphones operate, it becomes easier to discern their strengths and weaknesses.
While both types of microphones can produce high-quality sound, they excel in different aspects. Dynamic microphones are robust and resistant to moisture, making them great for on-stage performances where handling noise and humidity may pose a challenge.
On the other hand, condenser microphones, with their wider frequency response and better transient response, tend to be more accurate and detailed, excelling in controlled studio environments.
Dynamic microphones are often praised for their durability. They can withstand rough handling, extreme temperatures, and high humidity levels. On top of that, they don’t require an external power source, making them low maintenance and ideal for touring and live performances.
In contrast, condenser microphones are more sensitive and fragile, requiring careful handling. They are more susceptible to humidity and temperature changes and need external power to function. Therefore, they tend to be used more in controlled environments like recording studios.
Generally, dynamic microphones are more affordable than condenser microphones, making them a common choice for beginners or those on a budget. However, high-end dynamic microphones can also reach higher price ranges.
Condenser microphones, particularly those of higher quality, can be significantly more expensive, but their enhanced sound quality can make them a valuable investment for serious audio professionals.
Both dynamic and condenser microphones are versatile in their own ways. Dynamic microphones, being robust and reliable, are often used for both vocals and instruments in live settings.
Condenser microphones, while primarily used for studio recording due to their sensitivity and superior sound quality, can also be used in live settings with careful handling. Some condenser microphones are specifically designed for live sound, offering a blend of the robustness of dynamic microphones and the sound quality of studio condenser microphones.
Once we’ve thoroughly understood the basic principles of dynamic and condenser microphones, their inherent strengths, and their applications, we must look at some specific models. The market is abundant with quality offerings in both categories, so let’s delve into a few options that have earned their place at the top of the heap through excellent performance, reliability, and widespread industry recognition.
Often dubbed the industry standard, the Shure SM58 is a cardioid dynamic microphone designed specifically for vocals. Its built-in spherical filter minimizes wind and breath “pop” noise, while the cardioid pickup pattern isolates the main sound source and minimizes unwanted background noise. Known for its rugged reliability, this microphone can endure the rigors of touring, making it a favorite among live performers worldwide.
The Electro-Voice RE20 is a professional-grade dynamic microphone often seen in radio studios. Its Variable-D design delivers an extremely clean and natural voice reproduction virtually free of both bass-boosting “proximity effect” and room-induced feedback. It handles various sound levels easily, from a whisper’s subtle tones to a kick drum’s booming resonance.
The Neumann U87 Ai is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone with legendary status. Known for its warm, rich sound and precision engineering, the U87 Ai offers three selectable polar patterns – omnidirectional, cardioid, and figure-of-eight. It is a versatile studio workhorse and shines in many applications, from capturing intimate vocals to room ambiance. Its high price tag is justified by its exceptional performance and unparalleled sound quality.
For those looking for a more budget-friendly condenser option, the Audio-Technica AT2020 is a compelling choice. It offers a wide dynamic range and handles high SPLs with ease. Its custom-engineered low-mass diaphragm provides extended frequency response and superior transient response. The AT2020 has gained fame for its superb performance-to-price ratio, making it an ideal choice for budding home studios.
Choosing between a dynamic and a condenser microphone depends largely on your intended use. A dynamic microphone might be your best bet for live performances or recording in unpredictable environments. If, however, you’re recording vocals, acoustic instruments, or any sound source with intricate details in a controlled studio environment, a condenser microphone might serve you better.
At the end of the day, both dynamic and condenser microphones play integral roles in the world of sound. By understanding their differences and strengths, you can make an informed choice that caters to your specific needs. After all, the ultimate goal is to capture the true essence of the sound you’re recording, and picking the right tool for the job is a significant step toward that goal.