There are two main types of microphones. They are either dynamic or condenser type. Some other types of microphones exist, such as ribbon, shotgun and boundary microphones, but they are far less common.
Worth mentioning that ribbon microphones are a subtype of dynamic microphones, but usually, when we talk about dynamic microphones we don’t think about ribbon microphones and exclude them out as a separate type.
Both condenser and dynamic microphones are great and there is no way of telling which type is better. it depends on the situation and they both have their applications and the choice of which to buy should be made individually while addressing your needs and environment.
Ideally, you want to own both types, but since it costs money most of the times we have to make a choice. Here I will try to help you make it easier for you to choose.
Note: This article is generalized. I am comparing condenser microphones to dynamic microphones in general and not specific microphones. For example, I am telling you that condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, but it doesn’t mean that all condenser microphones are going to be more sensitive than each dynamic microphone in the world. They are just more sensitive in general. So, exceptions still apply.
DIFFERENCES IN BUILD
First of all, let’s look at how condenser and dynamic microphones are built and what are the key differences in their engineering.
Condenser microphones have a capsule with a diaphragm in it, which is either small or large. Hence they are either called large or small diaphragm condenser microphones.
The diaphragm (also known as a membrane) is close to another surface which is a metal plate. When we speak we essentially create air vibrations which hit the diaphragm. When diaphragm starts moving the distance between a metal plate and diaphragm changes creating a difference in capacitance. This action produces an electrical signal which is then understood by a computer and we have a recorded sound.
An electrical signal created my moving diaphragm is too weak at first so it has to be strengthened by an impedance converter. This action requires external power. To provide external power we need 48V phantom power which is provided by an interface.
Dynamic microphones also have a capsule and diaphragm in it. However, the difference to a condenser microphone is in how it creates a signal. Dynamic microphones use wire coil which is attached to a diaphragm. When we speak and vibration hits the diaphragm it starts moving and the coil that is attached to it moves simultaneously with the diaphragm.
Similarly, to how there is a metal plate close to the diaphragm in condenser microphones, there is a magnet surrounding the coil. When coil moves magnet stays still and the change in the distance between the two creates a signal which is then understood by computers and eventually we have a recorded sound.
Dynamic microphones in contrast to condenser microphones do not need phantom power, however, some sort of interface is still required as they plugin through XLR cable.
Sensitivity refers to how much output microphone is capable of producing with an amount of input given or in other words how “hot” your mic runs. More sensitive microphones will catch more sound and will need less gain.
Sensitivity is one of the main differences between dynamic and condenser microphones. Condenser microphones, in general, are much more sensitive when compared to dynamic microphones.
The high sensitivity of condenser microphones means they won’t need much gain to work with and you will be able to use a lower-end pre-amp to provide clean gain.
Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, in general, are less sensitive and often require a lot of gain. A cheap pre-amp or interface with built-in pre-amp may not be sufficient for some of the more gain hungry dynamic microphones. If your pre-amp can’t provide enough clean gain you may experience inherent noise from pre-amp.
It all makes seem as high sensitivity is a benefit, but that is not always true. High microphone sensitivity means nothing if you have a good enough pre-amp. It is not like you can scream all you want into your microphone and get a clean sound out of it.
At some point you will start clipping your recording and all the sensitivity in the world will mean nothing. In the end, sensitivity is determined more by a pre-amp rather than a microphone.
In general condenser microphones have a better frequency response than dynamic microphones and can produce more natural and true sound. This ability comes from condenser microphones responding to sound faster than dynamic microphones.
In most microphone spec sheets you will find their frequency range. Condenser microphones are very often offering 20Hz – 20kHz frequency range which could also be specified as 20Hz – 20,000Hz. Dynamic microphones, however, are often in 75Hz-18kHz range, other times they are in the same 20Hz-20kHz range. Other frequency response ranges appear as well.
In overall, condenser microphones will have wider frequency response. It is not something to fret about when buying a microphone, because we rarely speak in extremely low or extremely high frequencies. But it shows that condenser microphones are often capable of a wider range response.
In addition to this, condenser microphones will have more details in high frequencies. And this is much more important than the frequency response range.
On the other hand, dynamic microphones may sound a bit warmer because they usually have slightly lifted low-end frequency response. Usually, we find the warm, deep sound more pleasant to the ear so it is a desirable attribute.
Noise cancellation is something dynamic microphones are better at than condenser microphones. It comes at the cost of frequency response, however, and this aspect separates the two types of the microphones and is the main difference that makes them suitable in different situations.
Noise cancellation means that dynamic microphones compared to condenser microphones are less sensitive to sound that is coming from further away. That is a great feature because unless you are talking from far away, you don’t want any other sound than you talking coming into the microphone.
If you are recording in a noisy environment which involves a heater, noisy street, neighbours or any other sort of noise, a dynamic microphone can attenuate it and pick less noise than condenser microphone which is super sensitive.
It makes you think which is more important to you. Good frequency response and more natural sound or less noise coming from afar. That is the main aspect you need to think about when choosing between the condenser and a dynamic microphone.
To evaluate which fits you better I want you to think about what is the environment you are recording in because it will determine whether you need less sensitivity from afar or not.
If you are recording in a perfectly soundproofed environment with no reverb there is no reason to choose a dynamic microphone for vocals because there is no noise to cancel, to begin with, and good frequency response will give you a better recording.
In a noisy environment such as most home setups or on stage performances dynamic microphones will work much better.
There is this concept that dynamic microphones are much cheaper compared to condenser microphones. And there are dynamic microphones that are cheaper than condensers, but then again, there are plenty of cheap condenser microphones that are cheaper than many dynamic ones.
The point is, the price doesn’t depend that much on whether it is dynamic or a condenser microphone. There are cheap and expensive microphones in both categories.
I am sure you will find both dynamic and condenser microphones in any price range.
Dynamic microphones have no moving parts in them and no inherent noise. That is exactly what you want.
Condenser microphones, however, use phantom power and require electric circuitry which makes them susceptible to noise interference and inherent noise.
Good quality condenser microphones will not face this problem. But if you are buying a cheap condenser microphone you can expect some inherent noise. “Cheap” is a relative word and this is a huge generalization, but from somewhere around $200 most of the condenser microphones will have a very low inherent noise floor or none at all.
Most of the microphone sellers will be providing you information about the inherent microphone noise floor so make sure you check that. If you can’t find it in the specification sheet look for some reviews and I am sure you will eventually find it.
Here are some guidelines on what is considered low and high inherent self-noise for a microphone:
<10 dB-A. Very low inherent noise. Practically inaudible as any room you will record in will probably have higher room tone.
10-15 dB-A. Low inherent noise, you might notice a very slight noise, but it is nothing to worry about. Most of the times it will still be unnoticeable and even in the studio environment, your room tone might still be higher than that.
16-20 dB-A. A medium to high inherent noise. Not too bad, you can still easily deal with it, but some of the noise will be laudable.
21-25 dB-A. High inherent noise. You will hear it, probably even in a home environment, but it is still possible to workaround.
>26 dB-A. Very high inherent noise. Probably not worth using in studio environment anymore. Still could be used in an environment with high background noise.
Dynamic microphones are usually heavier than condenser microphones. It is not necessarily a rule, but that is how usually it is.
Also, dynamic microphones tend to be more durable and sturdier compared to condenser microphones. A good dynamic microphone can handle travels in backpacks or luggage better than condenser mics. Although that is also a bit of a generalization.
That is great news for stage performers because you will most likely be carrying your microphone in luggage or bag when travelling and the microphone will take some hits on the road.
Condenser microphones, on the other hand, are less durable due to the many intricate parts they have. Condenser microphones consist of plenty components including tubes, diaphragm, metal plate and a transducer. The latter needs to be finely tuned and therefore is sensitive to physical damage.
This is a cheap trick to better protect your microphone. Despite whatever microphone you are using when travelling I suggest you put on a foam windscreen onto it to absorb some of the damage. Usually, they are extremely cheap and you can get a bunch of them around $5, the thicker the better.
In addition to physical harm, condenser microphones may be harmed when affected by extremely high sound volumes. The diaphragm can only take so much and gusts of air coming out of the mouth and high sound volume may eventually harm. Dynamic microphones are more robust in this regard.
What concerns about dynamic microphones in terms of durability is how heavy they are, which means they fall with force. But that is such a nuance argument it barely counts. The same goes for electromagnetic waves that can affect dynamic microphone. The magnet inside the dynamic mic capsule could be affected by other magnets and change sound qualities. Nevertheless, these are weak arguments against dynamic microphone durability.
Proximity effect introduces a lot of low-end frequencies and makes your voice sound bass-heavy and boomy.
Proximity effect is strongest when speaking closest to the microphone. The difference between dynamic and condenser microphones is in how strong the proximity effect is.
Dynamic microphones will provide much stronger proximity effect and make your voice sound extremely bass-heavy. You can achieve proximity effect with condenser microphones as well, but it is not going to be as strong.
Still, it is not completely clear whether the proximity effect is a good or bad thing. When in effect it makes your voice sound bass-heavy and that may be something you are looking for, but in exchange, you are sacrificing clarity and recording starts to sound muddy and incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, the proximity effect is something easy to control. If you have a pop filter between you and microphone you can easily avoid it. And since proximity effect is not a permanent attribute I find it useful to have a choice between a low-end heavy sound provided by proximity effect and a regular sound.
I think dynamic microphones best condenser microphones in this regard.
The main differences between the condenser and dynamic microphones are frequency response, sensitivity, inherent noise, phantom power, sturdiness and proximity effect.
Condenser microphones are the best for:
- Recording in a studio environment
- Recording guitars
Dynamic microphones are the best for:
- Home recording
- On stage performance
- Noisy environment
- Recording drums
Main advantages of dynamic microphones are:
- Noise cancellation
- Proximity effect
- No need for phantom power
Main disadvantages of dynamic microphones are:
- Low sensitivity
- Low frequency response
Main advantages of condenser microphones are:
- Good frequency response
- High sensitivity
Main disadvantages of condenser microphone are:
- Inherent noise
- Sensitive to noise
- Need for phantom power
To sum it up, if you are a professional and recording in a studio environment you probably already know all this stuff and already own a nice condenser microphone to record clean vocals. Maybe even a Neumann.
All the disadvantages of condenser microphone simply go away if you have a perfect environment to record in and it is an obvious choice, at least for vocals. Nevertheless, most of us rarely record in soundproofed and acoustically treated environment.
Hence, for the larger part of readers that record in not so perfect home conditions I recommend to acquire a solid interface and/or a pre-amp and a dynamic microphone to save yourself a lot of hassle when editing in post.