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What to look for in a microphone

Demystifying microphone specifications - dynamics vs condensers, omnidirectional vs cardioid patterns, frequency response tuning, hi/lo sensitivity applications. Connectivity considerations - XLR, USB, TRS, Wireless. Essential accessories - shockmounts to interfaces. Plus mic recommendations across budgets - ideal models for vocals, instruments, podcasts and field recording applications.

By: Aleksey Makohon Date: 01 / 05, 2024
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Whether you're a musician looking to record vocals or instruments, a podcaster wanting to capture clear speech, or a videographer aiming for crisp, accurate audio, having the right microphone makes all the difference. With the incredible range of mic types and specifications on the market today though, it can get overwhelming trying to pick the ideal one for your specific use case and budget.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll cut through the jargon and marketing claims to focus on the key attributes that define microphone quality and performance. You'll gain clarity on the pros, cons and best uses of dynamic, condenser, ribbon and wireless mics. We'll demystify technical specifications, explaining polar patterns, frequency response, sensitivity ratings and other vital stats in simple terms.

You'll also learn about active noise cancellation, pop filters and shock mounts - critical accessories for getting clean recordings. And we'll factor in connectivity and compatibility considerations with different devices when selecting your microphone. The goal is to match your vocals, instruments and audio sources with the right mic so you can capture supremely clear, accurate recordings every time.

Whether you're equipping a professional studio, improving audio for video calls and conferences, or chasing down your artistic dreams through music, having the right microphone makes a world of difference. Equip yourself with the knowledge to find your perfect match. Let's dive in!

Microphone Types: How They Work and Ideal Use Cases

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Microphones capture sound waves and convert them into electrical signals. But how that conversion happens can vary greatly between different mic types, which suited for distinct applications. Let's break down the operating principle and best uses of dynamic, condenser, ribbon and wireless microphones.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic mics are robust, relatively affordable and great for high volume, close-miked sound sources. They work via electromagnetic induction - sound waves cause a thin diaphragm attached to a coil of wire to vibrate within a magnetic field, generating an audio signal.


  • Can handle very loud signals without distortion
  • Resistant to physical damage
  • Don't require external power


  • Less sensitive and detailed than condenser mics

Best Uses: 

Lead vocals, guitar and bass amps, snare and tom drums, podcast vocals.

Budget Models: 

Behringer Ultravoice Xm8500 ($20), Audio-Technica ATR2100x ($99)

Pro-Grade Models: 

Shure SM58 ($109), Sennheiser E835 ($149)

Condenser Microphones

Condenser mics utilize a capacitor to capture higher fidelity audio with extended frequency response. They need external +48V "phantom" power but reward you with incredible sensitivity to nuance and detail.


  • Crisp, extremely detailed sound
  • Captures subtle tones and articulations well


  • Requires phantom power
  • Fragile membranes prone to damage

Best Uses: 

Overheads, acoustic instruments, vocals, speech, percussion like hi-hats and rides.

Budget Models: 

MXL 990 ($59), Blue Snowball iCE ($49)

Pro-Grade Models: 

Neumann TLM 102 ($699), Shure KSM44A ($499)

Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon mics feature an ultra-thin corrugated aluminum ribbon suspended in a magnetic field. Sound waves cause the ribbon to vibrate, modulating the magnetic flux to create precise, transparent audio.


  • Smooth, natural sound
  • Excellent transient response
  • Bidirectional polar pattern good for stereo recording


  • Extremely fragile ribbons
  • Expensive, need good mic preamps

Best Uses: 

Orchestras, pianos, brass, woodwinds, guitar amps, vocals as an alternative flavor.

Top Models: 

Royer R-121 ($1295), Beyerdynamic M160 ($579)

Wireless Microphones

Wireless mics transmit audio signals via radio frequencies or Wi-Fi between the mic and receiving unit so cables aren't needed. Convenient but needs some care when selecting frequency range and transmission power.


  • Freedom of movement
  • Cleaner stage appearance
  • Walker/talker applications


  • Interference issues
  • Sound quality varies greatly across price ranges

Best Uses:

Presentations, theater, houses of worship, conferences, electronic news gathering

Budget System: 

Sony UWP-D21 ($199 handheld kit)

Pro-grade System: 

Sennheiser EW 500 G4 ($799 camera mount kit)

Polar Patterns: Understanding Directional Sensitivity

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Polar patterns indicate how sensitive a microphone is to capturing sounds from various directions. Choosing the right polar pattern ensures your mic picks up the intended audio source clearly while minimizing unwanted ambient noise.


Omnidirectional mics pick up sound equally from all directions in a 360-degree pattern.

Best Uses: Capturing natural room ambience, widely positioned instruments like drum overheads, group interviews, roundtable conference calls.

Examples: Small diaphragm condensers, lavalier mics


Cardioid mics exhibit a heart-shaped sensitivity pattern, capturing sounds most accurately right in front with some pickup from the sides/rear at a lower volume.

Best Uses: Lead vocals, podcasts, spot mics on individual instruments, single speaker conference calls. Rejects unwanted stage noise.

Examples: Dynamic vocal mics, large diaphragm condensers.


Figure-8 pattern picks up equally well from both the front and rear of the mic, while sides are rejected.

Best Uses: Two person interviews, capturing room ambience, stereo ribbon mics for piano, guitar amplifiers

Examples: Ribbon microphones


A tighter version of cardioid with a small lobe of rear sensitivity. Offers excellent noise rejection from the sides and back for very directional applications.

Best Uses: Spot mics on loud stages, highly directional needs like outdoor news reporting

Examples: Shotgun mics, tight pattern condenser instrument mics

So consider polar patterns when selecting your mic for the intended application, and utilize directional choices to optimize recording quality.

Frequency Response: Tuning the Tonal Qualities

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Frequency response indicates the range of bass, mid and treble sound frequencies a microphone can accurately reproduce, from deep lows to soaring highs. Let's decode what these specifications mean and how to choose the right profile.

What is Frequency Response?

In simple terms, frequency response shows the variation in output volume across the audible tonal spectrum - 20Hz to 20kHz. Visualized on a graph, a perfectly flat horizontal line indicates equal sensitivity and output at all frequencies aka a neutral response mic. These are great for reproducing sound with complete accuracy and clarity.

However some mics offer tailored frequency response curves to flatter certain sources or help them cut through a mix better. For example, a vocal mic may have a presence boost around 5kHz helping bring out clarity and articulation in voices. A smooth roll-off around 80Hz removes subsonic rumble. Ribbon mics tend to have rounded high frequency response complementing strings and horns.

Low-Frequency Considerations

Pay attention to the low-frequency response spec which indicates how deep down the bass register the mic can reach while staying accurate. While 20Hz - 20kHz is the full spectrum, most budget mics roll off around 50-80Hz to avoid mud and room boom. This is fine for spoken word but music mics need 20-30Hz headroom.

Also watch for high pass filters that deliberately cut sub 100Hz bass to remove rumble and improve clarity/gain before feedback. Great for miking up presentations in boomy rooms but not ideal as your sole music recording mic without subwoofers or synth growl.

High Frequency Extensions

You'll also see mics labeled with high frequency limits like 18kHz or 20-20kHz, indicating where the upper treble reproduction begins attenuating or cutting off. Budget mics sometimes cap off at 16kHz. A lower spec could mean missing crisp detail and 'air' but won't be hugely noticeable for vocals or speech.

High end presence boosts add sizzle and detail enhancements around 5-10kHz (vocal clarity zone). They flatter bright sources like cymbals, acoustic guitars etc. But avoid over-boosted treble if recording material already rich in upper harmonics.

So choose your frequency response profile depending on your audio sources and desired tonality. Analyze the graphs when accuracy matters, or pick a characteristic curve suited for the application like vocals or instruments miked up close.

Sensitivity: Finding the Right Volume Level

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Sensitivity indicates how well a microphone converts acoustic sound pressure levels (SPL) into output voltage. In other words, how loud or strong an audio signal it can generate from quiet sources vs powerful loud instruments when placed at a set distance. Let's explore ideal sensitivity ratings for different use cases.

What is Sensitivity

Sensitivity is measured in decibels (dB) relative to 1 Volt per Pascal (V/Pa). So -40dBV/Pa means a mic needs 40dB SPL to output 1V. Higher negative number = lower sensitivity.

High Sensitivity Pros & Cons


  • Captures delicate detail even from quiet sources like fingerstyle playing
  • Allows greater working distance from source without signal degradation
  • Gives more flexibility with positioning when recording ensembles


  • More prone to picking up background noises and bleeding
  • Risk of overloading mixer inputs and recording interfaces
  • Often indicates low headroom before distortion

Low Sensitivity Pros & Cons


  • Can handle extremely loud sources like guitar amps and drums without distorting
  • Less likely to accumulate unwanted ambience and room tones
  • Better feedback rejection when used live on stage


  • Requires very close miking technique to achieve adequate signal level
  • Not well suited for subtle acoustic instruments and quieter vocal styles

Recommended Sensitivity Ranges

  • Vocals: -50 to -70dBV/Pa
  • Acoustic guitars: -45 to -55dBV/Pa
  • Loud instruments: -55 to -80dBV/Pa
  • Field recording: -26 to -35dBV/Pa

So choose mics with appropriate loudness response for your particular audio sources and recording needs. Use pad switches and/or attenuators when sensitivity ratings exceed your equipment capabilities.

Noise Reduction: Keeping Your Recordings Clean

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Whether you're fighting external room noises or minimizing self-noise from the mic itself, reducing unwanted sounds plays a huge role in capturing clean, professional recordings. Let's explore active and passive noise reduction techniques.

Active Noise Cancellation

Electronic active noise cancellation uses phase inversion to dynamically eliminate ambient background noise in real-time. While recording, built-in microprocessors analyze the offending frequencies and generate inverse waves that cancel them out.

Results can be striking, almost fully eliminating constant low frequency hum and hiss caused by HVAC systems, computer fans etc. However, sudden or unpredictable sounds are tougher to suppress fully. High quality ANC systems with multiple mics fare the best.

Examples: Sony MDR-1000X headphones, Apple AirPods Pro earbuds, audio interfaces like Audient EVO 4

Passive Noise Isolation

These techniques block sound physically via acoustic barriers, absorptive materials and vibration isolation - without needing any power. Dense windscreens, tight shock mounts and sturdy microphone bodies all help reject mechanical noise interference.

Pop filters containing multiple layers of stretched pantyhose actively combat plosives too. Well designed microphone shields surround the capsule in foam lined shells for noise blocking in noisy environments. Overall, combining several passive isolation methods works wonders.

Examples: Microphone isolation shields, Rycote shock mounts, Sorbothane vibration isolating feet for mic stands, heavy weighted mic stands.

So utilize active ANC electronics for reducing constant ambient hums while relying on passive measures to block unpredictable noises, vibrations and plosives. This balanced approach keeps your tracks crystal clear!

Connectivity and Compatibility Considerations

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Microphones utilize either wired connections or wireless transmission to interface with recording devices and computers. Choosing the right connectivity method ensures seamless compatibility and signal routing.

Wired Connectivity Options

XLR - Balanced connection that needs external mic preamps. Offers the best sound quality and noise rejection over long cable runs. Most professional mics and audio interfaces use XLR.

USB - Simple plug-and-play digital connection for home recording and podcasting. Condenser mics with built-in ADC converters simply connect to laptops and desktops without needing interfaces, but sound quality varies.

3.5mm / 1/8" TRS - Consumer mics and lavalier mics use this nearly universal jack to plug into DSLR cameras, mobile devices and hand recorders. Very convenient but also most susceptible to interference.

Lightning - Direct iPhone/iPad connectivity for mics like Shure MV88 that work seamlessly with Apple apps like GarageBand and FiLMiC Pro. Simple but platform dependent.

Key Wireless Connectivity Considerations

Bluetooth - Increasingly popular connectivity for headworn vocal mics and lavaliers. Look for low latency aptX HD codec support. Caps out at 32 feet distance.

Wi-Fi - More reliable over longer ranges than Bluetooth but also thicker frequency congestion in urban areas. Useful for presentations and conferences needing extended reach.

So choose wireless systems matching your application's range needs and check wired interface compatibilities when selecting microphones. Consider integrating external preamps and audio interfaces for best sound with pro XLR mics. Compare bitrates and codec support between wireless system models for reliability too. This ensures your mic links up perfectly with your gear.

Essential Accessories: Critical Add-Ons for Best Results

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While the microphone is the foremost device capturing your sound source, augmenting it with the right supporting gear hugely improves recording quality, flexibility and reliability. Let's review must-have add-ons.

Microphone Stands and Cables

Invest in a sturdy, heavy tripod mic stand for stability and precise positioning flexibility. Boom arms also maximize placement options. Premium cables like Mogami Gold reduce interference and add durability over cheap alternatives prone to shorting out.

Essential - fatestening desktop stands for podcasters. Straight or gooseneck options available.

Can Wait - floor scissor stands requiring permanent installs.

Shock Mounts and Pop Filters

Shock mounts using elastic bands or springs isolate the mic capsule from stand vibrations and thumps. This difference in unwanted rumble reduction is massive. Integrated pop filters containing layered screens minimize vocal plosives too.

Essential - Basic shock mount for almost all mics, cheap and very effective.

Can Wait - Premium shock mounts with advanced shock absorption and noise isolation tend to be expensive overkill for most users.

Audio Interfaces and Preamps

Interfaces enable XLR mic connectivity with computers, providing clean preamp gain and AD conversion. They massively outperform dodgy onboard laptop microphone inputs prone to static and hiss. External preamps also energize mics, adding warmth and character to voices and instruments.

Essential - Entry level interface like Behringer UMC22 provides clean XLR mic connectivity improving on dodgy laptop/desktop mic inputs.

Can Wait - Investing in stand-alone boutique preamps only makes sense later down the journey, after you've set up proper acoustic treatment and monitoring.

So start off with fundamental accessories enhancing flexibility, stability and noise isolation. Progress to electronics refinement after establishing those microphone best practices first.


What determines a good microphone?

Choosing the right mic involves matching specifications like polar pattern, frequency response and sensitivity to your desired usage - whether vocals, loud guitar amps or field recording. Build quality, durability and noise handling also play big roles. Ultimately the best mic captures your sound accurately and reliably.

How do I choose a microphone device?

Consider key criteria like your audio source (voice, acoustic guitar etc.), connectivity needs (XLR, USB etc.), form factor (handheld, lavalier etc.) and budget. Identify the best type - dynamic, condenser etc. that fits your needs. Also account for accessories like stands and pop filters.

Are expensive microphones better?

Not always. You can certainly get well-built durable mics under $100 like the Shure SM58 that sound great and become studio workhorses. Stepping up to say $400+ buys you incremental refinements in detail, tonal nuance and acoustic flexibility suited for professionals. Choose price tiers fitting your experience level.

How many Hz is a good mic?

Look for a microphone with frequency response spanning at least 20 Hz to 20 kHz to capture the full audible spectrum accurately. However, even budget mics covering 60 Hz to 18 kHz perform admirably for vocal and speech applications where extreme sub-bass and airy treble are less critical.

Which type of mic is best for vocals?

Handheld dynamic microphones like the industry standard Shure SM58 (or its rival Sennheiser e835) are perfect for live vocals while large diaphragm studio condensers like the AKG C214 capture intricately nuanced vocal recordings. Your mic budget and recording environment steer the decision.

Conclusion: Your Definitive Mic Buying Guide

Choosing a microphone that captures your sound with accuracy, musicality and reliability involves balancing several key variables from frequency response to connectivity. Begin by considering your usage application and budget to shortlist mic types suitable for vocals, instruments or field recording needs.

Evaluate frequency response graphs relative to your audio source characteristics too - do you need an ultra bright presence boost for airy overheads or a smoothed out low end eliminating room boom? High sensitivity mics excel at delicately conveying intricate textures but overload easily near loud amps where their robust dynamic counterparts thrive.

Round out your shopping list with essential accessories enhancing stability, shock isolation and pop resistance based on environment factors. Ultimately finding your dream microphone is a journey of self discovery – identifying sonic strengths and weaknesses helps pick the right tool to magnify your creative voice.

We hope this guide illuminated key specifications in simple language, while showing you how pro studios settle on their microphone arsenal based on versatile coverage across diverse sources and scenarios. Now go capture your masterpiece!

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