What Microphone Do I Get?

It’s one of the most common questions floating around radio-oriented mail lists, discussion boards, and any time radio producers get within six feet of one another.

If you’re in the mood for some details to get you started, here’s some info to help narrow the search.

There are lots of different kinds of microphone types: dynamic, condenser, ribbon, boundary, binaural, M-S and more. There are a myriad of pick-up patterns, different-sized diaphragms, variations in frequency response, sensitivity, self-noise, susceptibility to handling noise, wind or plosives. The possibilities can boggle the mind.

Basically, they are all devices to convert sound pressure levels into an electrical current. Dynamic mics’ diaphragms move a coil of wire near a magnet, much like a small speaker in reverse. (In fact, if you wire a speaker, or a pair of headphones, into a microphone input, either will perform as a microphone–not a very good one, but either will act as a transducer from sound waves to electrical impulses.) Condenser mics use “phantom power” to create a charge differential between a suspended diaphragm and a fixed backplate. In either design, as the diaphragm is moved by sound pressure changes, the microphone translates that movement into electrical impulses.

Any decent music store or catalog will have a large selection of mics, but most of them will be mics designed for fairly specific sound reinforcement purposes or for recording of musical instruments. Some of these mics can also be useful for collecting sound in the field, or recording voice tracks in the studio, but conducting interviews and tracking narration have some special requirements.

The most basic distinctions we are concerned with are between Dynamic vs. Condenser, Directional vs. Omnidirectional, and Large Diaphragm vs. Small Diaphragm. None of these choices is universally superior, each has strong and weak points.

Dynamic Mics

Need no external power.
Handle high volumes well.

Common Examples:

Shure SM-58, SM-57, SM-7
Electrovoice RE-50, RE-20, 635A
Sennheiser 421

Condenser Mics

Require Phantom Power.
Louder output.

Common Examples:

AKG 414, C-3000, C-1000
Neumann U-87, KM-series modular
Sennheiser K6-series modular

Condenser mics are often a little more expensive, usually have a louder, more detailed output, but one should not overlook the benefits of dynamic mics, especially in the field. Dynamics are MUCH more forgiving of rough treatment, and do not require external power. Condenser mics break more easily if dropped, and require phantom power to operate, which must come from the recorder (draining batteries faster) a mixer, a preamp, or a separate power source. And even in the studio as an announce mic, Large Diaphragm dynamics such as the Electrovoice RE-20, Shure SM-7 and Sennheiser 421 produce very high-quality results. In the field, the overall durability and lack of phantom-power issues make dynamic mics very attractive.

There is often confusion between phantom power and preamplification. Although many preamps provide phantom power, they are separate power streams. All microphones require a pre-amp stage to raise levels approximately 60dB, but condensers, and some other types of mics, also require a low-level current to charge the diaphragm of the mic, setting up the electrical differential between the diaphragm and the backplate of the mic. Most modern mics want to see 48volt phantom power.

If your mixer or recorder will only turn phantom power on globally, that is, to all channels, and you are using a mix of mics, don’t worry, the phantom power will not hurt your dynamic mics. (Although it can create some noise problems if applied to unbalanced line-level signals.) It is good practice to only turn on phantom power after all mics and cables are securely plugged in, and to turn off the phantom power at least a minute before unplugging the mics. This is absolutely crucial if one is using ribbon mics, and good form in any case.

Many condenser mics, especially those designed to be hand-held, can accept a battery to provide the phantom power. This eliminates the need for an external box if your recorder or mixer will not provide power, but also adds another battery that can drain at the least opportune moment.

Condenser mics almost always provide a louder output, reducing the often noisy preamplification stage. And condensers often give a brighter, more detailed sound.

Pick-up Lines

Either type of mic can have various pick-up patterns. Some mics can be switched to change patterns, or capsules can be screwed on and off, giving greater flexibility. Of course, these mics are usually more expensive than fixed-pattern mics, so if you’re on a tight budget, you might want to choose a fixed-pattern mic that best suits your needs.

The most common directional pattern is called “cardioid” for its heart-shaped lobe of maximum sensitivity in front of the mic. Sounds to the sides and especially to the rear of the mic are largely rejected, or at least attenuated. Hypercardioids have an even smaller, more focused pattern, the most extreme example of which is the “shotgun” mic, which is meant to be used at greater distances. It’s important to remember that even the most directional mics do not completely reject sound outside of the pick-up pattern. “Off axis” sounds are reduced in volume, but also often acquire a phasey or muffled character, sometimes making extraneous sounds seem rather odd. Sometimes, what’s most effective for one purpose, such as reducing feedback on a noisy rock concert stage, is not as pleasing for another, such as an intimate commentary in a quiet room.

The next most common pick-up pattern is called “omnidirectional” for its ability to pick up sounds in all directions equally. Because of the mic’s design, it has less of a focus on a particular direction, but also, off-axis sounds are picked up more accurately and naturally, lending a more realistic ambience. Some people mistakenly believe that omni mics will pick up close and distant sounds equally, making the background too loud compared to the primary source. But these mics must still obey the laws of physics, and focus on the subject can be achieved simply by getting the mic in close.

Both human perception of audio and the physical behavior of sound waves are measured according to the inverse square law, which is to say that in ideal conditions, sound intensity drops 6 dB (half the volume) every time the distance is doubled, and conversely, the volume doubles as the distance is halved. This gets more complicated based on the sound source and the actual acoustical properties of the space, but it remains a good rule of thumb. What this means for mic technique is that even an omnidirectional microphone can focus on the close sound, because the level of distant sounds decreases logarithmically with distance. And conversely, in most cases, in order to get good sound on tape, one must get the microphone close to the source because its sound pressure levels are dropping rapidly as you lengthen your distance.

Omnidirectional mics have the added benefit of being less susceptible to handling noise, and more tolerant of wind and plosives (popped “p” sounds and the like) and less “boominess” when close to the source, although, of course, not completely free from these problems.

Directional Mics

Heightened focus on centered subject.
More susceptible to handling noise, wind and plosives.
Needs precise mic placement, off-axis sources often sound bad.
Less susceptible to handling noise, wind and plosives.
Common Examples: Shure SM-58, AKG C-1000, Sennheiser ME64 capsule, shotgun mics

Omnidirectional Mics

More rejection of ambience.
Natural, “you are there” sound.
More forgiving on mic placement, off-axis sounds are more natural.
Picks up more of surrounding ambience.
Common Examples: Electrovoice RE-50, 635A, Sennheiser ME62 capsule, most Lavalieres

Does Size Really Matter?

Among the varieties of microphones covered above, there is yet another distinction based on the size of the diaphragm. Dynamic or Condenser, Cardioid, Omni, Figure-8 or other patterns, each of these can employ a large or small diaphragm. In general, handheld microphones will have small diaphragms, which are more durable, less susceptible to handling noise and air currents, and well…gee…they’re smaller.

Large diaphragm mics are best suited for studio work in controlled environments, where they can be placed on a stand, preferably with a shock mount and a pop-filter. The larger, more flexible diaphragm gives a richer, more detailed sound with a higher sensitivity, and so is generally preferable for primary announcing duties. Even in the field, if circumstances allow conducting an interview while the subject is sitting in one place, it’s worth considering bringing a large diaphragm mic, a stand and a pop filter, particularly if the interviewee is used to microphones (an experienced public speaker, a musician) because the overall sound quality will be better than with a smaller hand-held mic. But these large-diaphragm mics are very susceptible to extraneous noise and vibrations, and despite frequent claims by manufacturers of having integral pop-filters, they always need additional foam or mesh pop-reduction devices.

Small diaphragm mics can usually handle louder sources, and counter-intuitively, actually can have a larger frequency range, especially in higher frequencies, due primarily to the smaller diaphragm having less weight.

Be sure to read Jay Allison’s excellent Basics of Field Recording column here in Transom Tools for tips on mic technique and interviewing strategies.

Yeah, but…

I know, I know, after all this blather, I still haven’t told you what mic to get. The best answer is for you to try out a few and see what mic prefer for your style of reportage. The old reliable faves seem to be the omni EV RE-50 and the Beyer M-58, or the Sennheiser K-6 modular system with capsules of your choice.

Choosing a pattern is largely a question of taste and production style. Some producers prefer the open sound of an omni, others the closer, tighter sound of a directional mic. Some use short shotgun mics up close for interviews, giving a high degree of rejection of extraneous noise.

Avoid the temptation to use lavaliere microphones, at least for interview recording. Clipped to a lapel, or hanging around the neck, the lav mic is in a less-than-ideal position for good voice pick-up. Additionally, if the subject is moving around, clothes and cables will likely add unacceptable noise.

Here’s a comparison of a small number of the more popular and/or affordable mics:

    Electrovoice 635N/D (specs) – Dynamic, Omni, Small diaphragm
    All-around workhorse reporter’s mic. Cheap. Can hammer nails with it. (80hz-13khz)

    Electrovoice RE-50 (specs) – Dynamic, Omni, Small diaphragm
    Same microphone as the 635A, but with better pop filtering and isolation from handling noise. (80hz-13khz)

    Beyer M-58 (specs) – Dynamic, Omni, Small diaphragm
    Better frequency response than above mics (40hz-20khz), hotter output. Long handle.

    AKG D230 (specs) – Dynamic, Omni, Small diaphragm
    Similar to RE-50, but with much wider frequency response (40hz-20khz)

    Shure SM-58 (specs) – Dynamic, Cardioid, Small diaphragm
    The most popular all-purpose vocal mic in the world. Very rugged, good sound. Cheap (about $100).

    AKG C-1000 (specs) – Condenser, Cardioid, Small diaphragm
    Good frequency response (50hz-20khz) uses standard 9 volt battery for power.

    Sennheiser K6/ME66 (specs) – Condenser, Short shotgun, Small diaphragm
    Modular, can fit different capsule on K6 power supply. Very tight pattern, good for recording from medium distance. (50hz-20khz)

    Sennheiser K6/ME64 (specs) – Condenser, Cardioid, Small diaphragm
    Modular, can fit different capsule on K6 power supply. (50hz-20khz).

    Sennheiser K6/ME62 (specs) – Condenser, Omni, Small diaphragm
    Modular, can fit different capsule on K6 power supply. (20hz-20khz).

    Neumann 180 series (specs) – Condenser, Small diaphragm
    Omni, cardioid and hypercardioid mics. Very small. (20hz-20khz).

    AKG C-414 (specs) – Condenser, Variable Pattern, Large Diaphragm
    Classic, versatile large-diaphragm condenser, suited for studio announce.

    AKG C-3000 (specs) – Condenser, Cardioid, Large Diaphragm
    Affordable large-diaphragm condenser, with sound similar to AKG 414.

    Neumann U87 (specs) – Condenser, Variable Pattern, Large Diaphragm
    THE big, warm announce mic. Large-diaphragm condenser with superb sound. Pricey.

    Neumann TLM 103 (specs) – Condenser, Cardioid only, Large Diaphragm
    Affordable Large-diaphragm condenser with Neumann sound. (About $700).

    Electrovoice RE-20 (specs) – Dynamic, Cardioid, Large Diaphragm
    Perhaps the most common on-air announce mic. Warm, flat sound. Good pop-rejection. (45hz-18khz).

    Sennheiser 421 (specs) – Dynamic, Cardioid, Large Diaphragm
    Versatile mic, effective on everything from voice to drums. (30hz-17khz).

    Rode NT1 (specs) – Condenser, Cardioid, Large Diaphragm
    Very inexpensive large-diaphragm condenser (about $200) Good sound quality, similar to Sennheiser 421, but louder. (20hz-20khz).

    Oktava 319 (specs) – Condenser, Cardioid, Large Diaphragm
    Another very inexpensive large-diaphragm condenser mic (about $200 in some stores and catalogs) rounder, warmer sound than AKG or Rode.

For More on Mics

Up Next: Stereo mics, and stereo techniques with two mics: X-Y, M-S, ORTF and lots more acronyms decoded and compared.

Jeff Towne

Jeff Towne

During more than 25 years as a producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Echoes. Jeff Towne has recorded interviews and musical performances in locations ranging from closets to cathedrals, outdoor stages to professional studios, turning them into radio shows and podcasts. Jeff is also the Tools Editor for Transom.org, a Peabody Award-winning website dedicated to channeling new voices to public media. At Transom, he reviews field recorders, microphones and software, helping both beginning and experienced audio producers choose their tools. In his spare time, Jeff will probably be taking pictures of his lunch in that little restaurant with the strange name that you've been wondering about. 


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  • Tyree Callahan



    I’m seeking a decent mic for the iPad 2. Is there such a thing? I’ve read the iPod mic reviews and am waiting on someone to develop something functional for the iPad. The Meteor Mic, a USB Studio Microphone by Samson, seems (at a quick glance) one of a very small number of mics available for the iPad. As someone presumably ‘in the loop’ can you give a heads-up to what might be on the horizon? Thanks, Jeff! Keep up the excellent work!

  • BarrioAfro



    This is really an article from 2001? USB microphones on that time? wow! 😀

  • Richard Goodman



    Hi Jeff,
    Is there a simplified version of this for the true beginner?

  • Neumann U87 AI Review



    Im glad someone finally came out and said not to use lavaliere mics! 5 seconds with one and boom i was annoyed as hell.

  • Chris



    As always, a great article! I’m wondering if you used the Sennheiser K6/ME66 held directly in your hand for your handheld shootout and in general or do you always use it with a pistol grip. I’ve heard a lot about shotguns on this site, but I’m trying to decide if it would be suitable for general purpose, reporter style back and forth interviews or only for use with a boom or stand.



    • Jeff Towne



      It’s not easy to hand-hold a shotgun mic without causing thumps and rumbles. Even very small movements of your hand can cause handling noise, it’s a consequence of directional mics: the more directional, the more handling noise, along with more wind noise, more P-Pops. That said, I personally DO hand-hold short shotgun mics, such as the K6/ME66, or Rode NTG2, etc. With some practice, you can develop a soft, but firm, grip that does not transmit vibration and other handling noises to the mic. I have also started using a cheap and simple aid: bicycle handlebar foam will slide right over most shotgun mic tubes, so a small section of that foam, slid over the part of the mic where you hold it, can serve to isolate the mic from handling noise fairly effectively, at a VERY low cost, and even more important, without adding a lot of bulk and attention-getting apparatus to your recording rig. That said, an isolation mount, attached to a pistol grip, or some other kind of stand, is the MOST effective at reducing noise problems due to handling and other vibrations. If you’re using a boom pole, even a relatively short one, I’d say that an isolation mount is required, it’s common to get very serious low-frequency vibrations up the pole that can cause real problems, sometimes mysterious ones, because the vibrations can result in excess energy below the audible range, so you might not be able to hear the source of the problem, even as your meters are jumping all over the place, and your audio is distorting.

      So, for a basic interview, you might be abel to get away with hand-holding, but you’ll be better-off if you can pad the mic with some foam, or use an isolation mount. If you’re going to get a mount, I highly recommend Rycote’s “Lyre” style suspensions over elastic-band style suspensions. The lyre is more robust, but also just seems to do a better job of isolating.

      And then, no matter whether you’re using nothing, or foam, or a pro iso mount, still try to make gentle, slow movements, it’s still possible to induce noise in a shotgun mic from handling, or wind, if you move it abruptly, or bump it, or alter your grip.

      • Chris


        Thank you so much for your excellent and detailed answer!


  • Lee McAvoy



    Mostly a good article, but your statement regarding the inverse square law is wrong. You say that “sound intensity drops 6 dB (half the volume) every time the distance is doubled”. In fact, as you double the distance, you quarter (not halve) the volume. It’s a simple mistake a lot of people make, however I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on it when you mentioned the 6dB drop. A 3dB drop would be half the volume, so a 6dB drop would be half of a half (a.k.a a quarter!).

    I’m also surprised at your flat-out rejection of lavalier mics for interview recording. Yes, in an indoor setting there are better options, however when recording in the field the lavalier does have some advantages. They are (usually) omnidirectional, meaning better wind rejection (plus you can sometimes position the subjects’ body to act as a further wind break). They can be positioned very close to the source meaning better ambient noise rejection (inverse square law and all that). Their small profile and ability to be shielded by clothing means they are less likely to be hit by raindrops when recording in less than ideal conditions (try the same thing with a shotgun in a blimp!). Their size and ability to be somewhat matched to a person’s clothing also makes them less visually intrusive than a handheld mic (although more so than a mic boomed out of the way). Their size and positioning is less intimidating to a subject than having a handheld mic shoved in their face (although this can be a good cue that it’s ‘your’ turn to talk. Sometimes you’ll miss some audio if they start speaking before or after a handheld is in position, a pair of lavs will capture both channels all the time). Ultimately, the choice of mic will depend very much on the application. Regarding the “less-than-ideal position for good voice pick-up” – there is shadow effect region directly beneath the chin, so if the audio sounds dull or ‘muddy’ try positioning the mic lower on the body. Clothing or movement noise can be reduced or eliminated by taping and padding of the mic and wires as appropriate.

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