The battle between condenser mics and dynamic mics rages on social media. The answer might surprise you.
The Social Media wars
Reading on Facebook boards, you’d think dynamic mics are the answer to everything. They have several magical properties, like not picking up noise, and they can tolerate a lot more damage so perhaps you can hit an uncooperative guest over the head with one.
So after the last blog, where I discussed the finer details of what to look for in a mic, here we’ll go over the differences between dynamics and condensers, and also bring up a few other options you might come across.
Dynamic mics are the plug and play of mics, meaning you can just plug in and not worry about much else. They work using electromagnetism and can be divided up into two categories: moving coil and ribbon. Here let’s take a look at the moving coil type and below I’ll bring up the ribbon.
The moving coil is the standard dynamic mic and usually just referred to as a “dynamic mic” or “dynamic”, while their ribbon cousins are called “ribbons”. It uses a membrane and an electric coil to transmit electric signals from sound.
They don’t need external power and are often pretty sturdy. Also they tend to be less sensitive. You’ll see them on stage for these reasons, and very rarely in a studio. The trend now in home studios is to use them because of their simplicity and their low cost.
You’ll notice some cords start with the XLR mic plug and end with a quarter-inch tip sleeve plug. These are fine if you’re going to plug the mic into an amplifier. However, for a home studio purpose, like in podcasting, it’s best to use an XLR – XLR cord to plug into your mixer.
If you notice some hiss in the recording, it means your gain is too high. Since dynamic mics by nature are a lot less sensitive than condensers, but are gain hungry since they don’t use any added energy boost. This means you’ll want to invest in a board with quality preamps, or an external preamp like a Cloudifier CL-1.
The condenser mic is the standard choice for most studios. It’s made of a thin membrane that runs alongside a metal plate instead of a spring. The membrane itself must be conductive and is often made out of gold. Meaning, naturally, that condensers are often more expensive.
In order to transmit the signal, it needs an extra boost. That means a condenser MUST be plugged into something providing phantom power, whether it’s a sound board or an external pre-amp. Not all mixing boards have phantom power, and on the ones that do, you’ll have to make sure to press the button to activate it.
The membrane, or diaphragm, of a condenser is much more sensitive than that of a dynamic and is much more faithful in its sonic reproduction. That is why studio engineers tend to favor them. This is also why home studio owners tend to fear them, thinking that they’re too sensitive for the home setup.
It’s important to keep in mind that you can in a sense control the sensitivity of the condenser. On the mixer or preamp, simply turn down the gain. Raise the gain until you’re able to sit and speak comfortably. Though you have to take this additional step of adjusting the gain, it gives you far greater control than a dynamic mic.
A USB mic is essentially a pocket-sized condenser. They use a similar membrane and plate technology, but the USB also has its own preamp and analogue-to-digital interface built in. There’s no need to worry about phantom power either, as the USB tech provides the boost.
These are obviously the easiest of all mics. Just plug them in and go, and with the right attachment, you can even plug them into your mobile. They’re also the cheapest and can produce a decent enough sound.
If you’re on a budget and you’re just sticking your toes in the content creation business, than this might be the best way to start. But eventually you’ll want to upgrade to a condenser mic and a sound board.
You can use a USB mic without a sound board or sound card, as it has all the necessary technology in the box. If you’re doing a lot of traveling, doing interviews and such on the move and recording directly into your tablet or phone, a USB mic might actually be the best option over the other two traditional styles.
The lavalier, or “lav”, is a dynamic mic that you can clip on your shirt or jacket. They often end in a 3.5 mm plug (the same one that earphones have… that is the old kind with a wire that your dad uses). They tend to be omnidirectional, but low in sensitivity so they need to be near the source.
You can easily make a lav “wireless” by getting a transmitter pack. Just plug it into the transmitter which will go to a receiver which then plugs into your recorder, sound board, or computer.
Lavaliers are the best for when you do a lot of shots on the move. Say you like to walk around with your camera and film yourself in the street. Then you’ll want a lav mic to pick up your voice much better than your mobile phone will. Either plug it into your phone, into a recorder, or into a Bluetooth transmitter and use your phone to record.
Lavs are also great for stationary interviews where you don’t want a microphone in the way or being passed around.
These are a much more expensive version of dynamic mics. Instead of using a membrane though, it uses a small “ribbon” of aluminum. Because of how the foil is set up, the ribbon mic has a very low sensitivity and requires power. As their frequency response curve is quite low in the upper end, they’re rarely used for the higher ranges and tend to be used for things like brass or bass guitar cabinets.
Which is better?
Each mic type is a perfectly viable option, and what makes them better or worse wholly depends on what you’re going to be using them for, and of course, on your personal preferences. If you want something that contains the warmest and truest sound, and you can do a little bit of treating your room, then a condenser is the best. If you’re on a budget but still want quality, then a dynamic or upper-end USB mic will do.
Of course, budget is a concern for everyone. A good condenser mic can cost over a thousand dollars. Neumann’s “budget” mic, the TLM 102, costs about 700 USD. Luckily, Rode is a pretty solid budget brand and you can actually get a decent condenser under the 200 dollar mark.
A top of the line dynamic, like the Shure SM7B, will cost about the same as a lower-end condenser. For more quality budget friendly mics, I would check out the Audio-Technica line, or you can go with the time honored Shure SM58, which is more well-known as a stage mic (but a cheaper, all-around great mic).
What ever you decide to go with, just make sure to do some experimenting before you use it. Try out an EQ and discover different settings to make your voice sound rich and full. And once you’ve got it perfect, mark down all of those settings. Now get on creating!