An often overlooked aspect of a band’s live or studio sound is the type of microphones that are being used for the vocals or to mic up the instruments and drums. In fact, the choice of microphone used for these applications is nearly as important as what amps, guitars, or drum kits are being played!
Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
There are two main types of microphones: dynamic and condenser. While they some can appear similar at-a-glance, there are some major differences between the two. This is a very general description of the differences.
Dynamic microphones generally are less expensive than condenser microphones and do not require a power supply. They have a narrower frequency response and pick up audio in a unidirectional pattern or only from the front. This makes them ideal for a live vocalist, who can simply sing directly into the mic and not worry about other instrument sounds bleeding in from the sides. It also reduces feedback by not picking up speakers from the sides and back of the microphone.
Condenser microphones typically have a wider frequency response and require power to operate. Power is usually supplied through a console’s 48 volt supply, an external supply or an internal battery. One form of condenser is the studio large diaphragm microphone. They are a lot more sensitive with a very wide pick up area, so it’s probably not ideal to use them live on stage for heavy metal vocals or snare drums. Although, there are many condenser microphones made specifically for live vocals, these look like dynamic microphones and are specially designed with a unidirectional pick up pattern. Large diaphragm studio microphones are great for achieving warm, smooth, and full sounds, so they are perfect for instruments like acoustic guitar, violin, or other string instruments. Because condenser microphones require some sort of power input, they often have added electronics, so they have many forms, even with internal tubes, that is beyond the scope of this article.
Choosing the Right Microphone and Common Applications
Now that we’ve gone over the basic differences between the two main microphone types you’ll find on the market, we can review common examples of applications for them in a band context. However, there are no hard and fast rules, and in certain situations a different microphone than expected may do the job better. Experimentation is always the best advice.
For live vocals, a dynamic microphone is ideal, preferably one with a built in windscreen like Carvin Audio’s M68. Having this helps to reduce popping, breathing, and wind noises that may hamper a live performance. Because the sensitivity is lower and the pickup pattern is very narrow, the singer can get right on the microphone, reducing external noises and instruments being picked up. This still sounds natural enough as long as the ball or head of the microphone is not cupped in the hand of the singer holding the microphone. It may look cool when the rap stars do it, but it sounds really bad causing a nasally peak and nearly eliminating the low frequency air movement of the diaphragm in the microphone.
For studio vocals, a large diaphragm condenser microphone is ideal, like Carvin Audio’s CTM100. The warm tube tone and wide coverage will capture the full tone of the vocals on the recording. Typically these are mounted on a shock mount holder and the singer is a little further back from the microphone than they would be live with a handheld dynamic microphone. The idea is to capture a little more area for the voice to open up and sound more natural. Otherwise the recording would sound like they were singing directly into your ear. If you are a classic thrash punk band, your recording would probably benefit from a live handheld style method to capture that in-your-face intensity.
Guitars and Amplified Instruments:
A dynamic microphone is also an ideal fit for an amplified guitar. Carvin Audio’s M67 has a frequency response of 45Hz to 15kHz, which is perfect to accommodate the range of the guitar. In live performance this is almost always true - narrower patterned dynamic microphones help to not pick up the amplifier next to the one you are trying to isolate in the mix. In the studio, it is common to have both a narrow dynamic microphone up close and a condenser “room” microphone recorded. The “room” condenser is usually further back from a few feet to 10 feet or more to capture the speaker’s full sound filling the room. When up very close to a speaker the tone from the center to the outside surround of the speaker can produce different peaks and tones. The dynamic microphone is usually placed closer to the outside of the speaker’s face to reduce the intense high frequencies produced near the center of the speaker. As you move back from the speaker the intense high frequencies are not as wide nor are they as loud, so they fade into the rest of the speaker’s output tone. This is where the “room” microphone does its work.
It can get a little more complicated when it comes to drums, but the same basics still work. Dynamic microphones are great for the snare, kick drum, and toms, due to their punchy response and ability to handle transients well. There are many made specifically for drums and many of these are similar microphones with special sizing and mounting hardware to fit in tight to the drums. Condenser microphones like the Carvin Audio CTM100 are used to capture the room sounds and overall ambience of the drums by placing it overhead. This placement is great for an overall stereo mix of the drums especially when recording. Overheads are also where most of the cymbals are picked up, so you can usually turn down the bass EQ on these microphones in live performances. This will help reduce extra kick drum in the mix. Also, is it best to mount them with a shock mount, like the one that comes with the CTM100, which is useful in reducing rumble from the kick drum and bass guitar amps that may cause the mic stands to vibrate.
Using the right microphone for the job is essential to achieving great tone. As with any other musical equipment, don’t be afraid to test out different things!