One of the biggest lost arts of the recording studio today is knowing how to use and choose the right microphone polar patterns for your particular situation. For many, it seems like microphones with a polar pattern switch are left in the cardioid position endlessly – you’re literally leaving half of the functionality of your microphone untouched. If we’re lucky, an engineer might throw in the occasional figure-8 pattern on the off chance they use a ribbon mic, but are they really understanding the impact the pattern has on the sound?
If this is sounding all too familiar to you, I’m so glad you’re here.
Polar patterns aren’t complicated, but they are severely underutilized and you’ve got the opportunity on each and every recording session to make sure that doesn’t continue. Today, I want to cover the basics of polar patterns – what they are, why they’re important, and how you can get the most out of them in your sessions.
What is a polar pattern?
A microphones polar pattern defines the directionality of the microphone – which directions it will pick sounds up from and how much sound will be picked up in that direction. The most common polar pattern, cardioid, is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the directionality of a microphone. You point a cardioid mic at a source and generally speaking it’s going to reject everything behind it. It might catch some sound a bit to the left or the right of the source (up to about 90 degrees), but anything coming from behind the microphone will be largely rejected.
Generally speaking (and with a few curveballs), microphones can either capture more or less sound in different directions depending on the polar pattern. A super-cardioid or hyper-cardioid pattern is going to narrow in on the direction the microphone is pointed – cutting down on the noise on the sides. An extreme example of this might be a shotgun microphone or a parabolic mic (the giant half cones you see guys on the sidelines of football games pointing at the players). These kinds of mics start with a hyper-cardioid pattern, then use additional filtering to take it to the extremes.
In a more common scenario, you might find a lot of hyper-cardioid mics in live setups where you want isolation between each source to make them easier to mix.
Behind the Mic & All Around
Expanding into some additional polar patterns that have largely music applications, we round out the most common polar patterns with figure-8 (sometimes called bi-directional) and omnidirectional (“omni” for short). These two patterns tend to see the most studio application outside of the standard cardioid pattern.
Figure-8 gets its name from the shape of the pattern itself, looking like an eight when viewed from the top down. A figure-8 polar pattern is excellent at capturing sounds to the front and back of the microphone while completely rejecting sounds to the left and right. This pattern is most commonly found on ribbon mics because they operate with a ribbon diaphragm instead of the traditional microphone capsule – naturally moving in a back and forth motion as soundwaves reach it from either side.
As I’m sure you’re already envisioning, a figure-8 microphone back be a great way to mic up two sources facing each other, such as two singers standing face-to-face. They’ve also got some common stereo-micing benefits when paired with other microphones that have figure-8 polar patterns. We won’t get into the weeds of stereo micing techniques here, but if you’re interested in exploring them further, there are some great resources available to show you how.
Omnidirectional microphones are another great fit for the studio as they pick up sound evenly from all directions. While this can be a nightmare on stage or in the wrong environment, using omnidirectional mics in the studio is a great way to capture the room ambience, full drum kits, or choirs/orchestras in the largest cases. A big, colorful room with an omnidirectional mic can really start to add some character to your sound, especially if paired with heavy compression or limiting.
Committing to Creativity
As a word of caution with any creative micing techniques utilizing different polar patterns, there are always trade-offs. If you’re just swapping a single microphone from cardioid to figure-8 because you like the way it sounds more, this advice might not apply, but any time you’re combining multiple sources into a single mic, you lose some flexibility in the box.
This is no different than controlling bleed in your overheads or using spot mics to capture the details you need beyond what overheads offer. Once you commit to a creative decision to use different polar patterns, you need to be ready to lock in that decision before hitting record. There is no going back and changing it in-the-box.
For this reason, I urge every engineer to take the time and really fine tune their placement before they start recording. If it’s your first time using an omnidirectional mic as a room mic, move it around until you find the sweet spot. Be prepared to mute it in the mix if it doesn’t end up being the right fit. Finding the right thing creatively takes patience and practice.
Getting Started With Drums
I’ve found the best place to start practicing different micing techniques and using different polar patterns to be with drums. There are already so many different sources being captured and combined into a single instrument, it’s the perfect fit.
If you’re looking for some guidance on how you can get started and ways you can approach your drum mix with these new patterns & room mics, our eBook Taking Control of Your Drum Mix is a great resource for any producer or engineer. Pick up your copy as a JST VIP member today!