The Great Microphone Debate: Dynamic or Condenser?
Let’s take a step out from our usual in-the-box discussion today to focus on how important choosing the right mic can be to your overall sound. Picking the ideal mic for a given source is often as important as any mix decision you can make down the line from it.
Mics can be transformed with various plugins but without an accurate recording, it’s hard to make good mix decisions and edits. Instead, you spend more time trying to clean up what’s wrong about the mic. It pulls you out of the creative process.
Instead of just throwing up a mic for your next session, put some time and effort into getting the best possible source first. Make sure everything is in tune. Make sure the room isn’t coloring your sound in a bad way. Adjust your placement to get the sound you’re after.
Most importantly, choose a mic that’s best suited for your needs.
Dynamic microphones are some of the least expensive tools you can add to your collection, but they’re also the workhorses known for getting things done both on and off stage. Dynamic mics are rugged, durable and tend to take a beating without having their sound significantly altered.
For this reason alone, you’re likely to find dynamic mics all over live sessions and performances. They’re the go-to microphones for guitar amps and close up drum microphones. Anything that’s going to be loud and might have a chance of taking some abuse is a good candidate for a dynamic mic in the studio.
Dynamic mics also have a tendency of being great at rejecting noise around them. They’re usually front-address, meaning the body of the mic sits behind the capsule, adding to their rear rejection capabilities. If you’re looking to track something without the room bleeding in around it, a dynamic mic is naturally suited for the job.
Some of the most common modern dynamic microphones found in the studio include:
- AKG D112 (kick drum & bass)
- Electro-Voice RE20 (kick drum)
- Shure Beta 52a (kick drum & bass)
- Shure SM57 (guitars & snare)
- Shure SM7B (snare & sometimes vocals)
- Sennheiser e609 & e906 (electric guitars)
- Sennheiser MD 421 (toms)
As you can see, dynamic microphones have a huge presence on close-mic’d drums. Their ability to catch the fast attack of a stick hitting the drumhead makes it hard for other mics to compete with, and this gives them an additional benefit during mixing.
Having an accurate, powerful recording of your drum hits opens up the door for further processing like multi-band transient processors like Transify. By capturing the split-second detail of a drum performance, engineers are able to take their recording a step further by drawing out even more attack or sustain after tracking.
Condenser microphones are an excellent choice for acoustic instruments, including many vocal performances. While they’re more delicate than many dynamic microphones are, there’s plenty good reason for it.
Many condensers include additional electronics and circuitry to capture a pristine recording. These mics will use phantom power to operate and have a distinct sound that sets them apart from other types of microphones.
Also adding to a condenser microphone’s appeal is its transparency. Condensers tend to have some of the thinnest diaphragms of all microphones which means they’re going to the slightest change in air pressure around them. This makes them more delicate, but also more flexible when it comes to using them with other tools in the studio. Condenser microphones can have a completely different sound depending on the preamp they’re paired with, the amount of gain they’re using, and the type of room they’re placed in.
For vocals, this is often the reason condenser mics are surrounded by foam reflection filters or in fully treated booths – engineers are trying to remove the room from the equation.
Condenser microphones can run the price range from under $100 to several thousand dollars. Within each price range, there are some great deals that can be found. Trust your ears and demos to help you find the right one for your budget.
Common condenser microphones include:
- AKG C414 (multi-purpose)
- Audio-Technica AT2020, AT2035 & AT4040 (multi-purpose)
- Avantone CV12 (vocals)
- Neumann KM 184 (stereo pair/overheads)
- Neumann U 87 (vocals, piano, multi-purpose)
- Rode NT1-A (vocals & acoustic guitar)
- Shure SM81 (hi-hats & acoustic guitar)
This list could go on and on… There are so many great microphones out there, and as you can see from the short list we’ve built, most are more than capable of wearing multiple hats in a recording session.
From our perspective, any condenser that’s going to get you clarity and depth from a vocalist will suit your needs just fine. Don’t worry about trying to dive into the perfect signal chain right away, just make sure your process is right. Color can be added to any vocal recording through tools like Gain Reduction. A bit of compression and saturation on a well-recorded vocal is enough to make any producer grin.
Let’s not discredit the other options engineers often come across in the studio. A ribbon microphone can bring a whole new level of authentic, raw sound to a recording. PZM microphones can add a whole new dynamic to a drum session. We also shouldn’t rule out a DI box when the session calls for it – often some of the best bass tones are captured recording direct.
If you’re serious about finding the right approach to tracking and mixing your music, come join us in the JST VIP group. VIP members get exclusive access to mix crits, live streams, and in-depth tutorials showing you how to get the most out of the tools at your disposal.