Condenser vs Dynamic Microphones: When to Use Each - Careers in Music
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Condenser vs Dynamic Microphones: When to Use Each

Author: Caleb J. Murphy

Date: August 15, 2019

Reads: 5,414

Caleb J. Murphy is a Songwriter/Producer based in Austin, TX. He is the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog to help part-time musicians succeed. He is also a contributor to CD Baby's DIY Musician blog, Sonicbids, and Bandzoogle. His work has been shared by ASCAP, Hypebot, and Music Think Tank.

Choosing a new mic is a big deal.

It’s a substantial amount of money that you don’t want to waste on the wrong mic. So when you look at condenser vs. dynamic microphones, it’s important to know the difference — when it’s better to use one over the other.

You want to be capturing the best possible sound with the right type of mic.

Here’s what we’ll cover in our look at condenser vs. dynamic mics:

  • The difference between condenser and dynamic mics
  • When to use a condenser microphone
  • When to use a dynamic microphone
  • The best condenser microphones
  • The best dynamic microphones
  • Condenser vs. dynamic: which is better?

The Difference Between Condenser and Dynamic Mics

To understand the difference between condenser mics and dynamic mics1, we first have to talk about this thing called a transducer.

A transducer is a device inside a microphone that picks ups the actual acoustic sound waves and converts them into an electrical signal.

The way in which the transducer works determines whether it’s a condenser mic or a dynamic mic.

Condenser Microphones

A condenser mic has a diaphragm that’s electrically charged. This means that sound waves vibrate a thin piece of metal (or plastic coated in metal), which then gets converted into an electrical signal.

Because of the way they’re built, they’re much more fragile than dynamic mics. If you were to drop a condenser mic, try to record something too loud, or store it in extreme weather conditions, it could break the electrical circuitry.

Because of that complex circuitry, it requires power, either from batteries or from phantom power (a lot of audio interfaces have a phantom power switch). Their complexity also means they’re more expensive than dynamic mics.

However, they’re sensitive and precise, so they can record high-quality sounds that sound more natural than what a dynamic mic would pick up.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones use a combo of a voice coil and magnet to form a small electrical generator. Sound waves hit the plastic diaphragm, it vibrates, which then vibrates a coil of wire (i.e. the voice coil). Surrounding the voice coil is a magnetic field. So when the coil vibrates within this magnetic field, it creates an electrical signal.

Because of this construction that has less electrical circuitry, dynamic mics are much more rugged than condensers while still giving you great sound quality. Whether it’s high volumes, extreme weather, or if you accidentally drop one, a dynamic mic can handle it. Also, they’re usually more affordable than condensers.

Alright, so now that we’ve gotten the technical stuff out of the way, it’s time to talk about when to use which type of microphone.

When to Use a Condenser Microphone

Condenser mics usually work best recording high-frequency instruments that aren’t too loud, like acoustic guitar, cymbals, and live piano.

The reason they’re better with high frequencies is because of the smaller diaphragm. You see, higher frequencies have less energy than lower frequencies, so there’s not as much to vibrate through the diaphragm. This is also why condenser mics produce less self-noise than dynamic mics.2

So condenser mics have a wider dynamic range and a better frequency response. In other words, they can record at a higher gain and pick up softer sounds3.

Like I mentioned earlier, the diaphragms of condenser mics are more fragile (and sensitive to humidity changes), so they can be damaged if you record a source with a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) that’s too high. That’s why you should use a condenser mic only on instruments with low-to-mid SPLs.

So condenser mics are best used in the recording studio on things like vocals and acoustic guitars, not during a live performance.

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When to Use a Dynamic Microphone

Dynamic mics usually work better on low-to-mid frequency instruments, like drums and electric guitar amps.

They have a much higher tolerance for high SPLs (loud instruments), so that’s why they’re perfect for drums or a horn section. They’re typically warmer than condensers, which also makes them good for spoken word recordings.4

Because they don’t have as many electronic guts, they are more durable and withstand humidity changes (and even condensation) better than condensers, making them perfect for live performances. They also will allow a higher gain before getting feedback, which is a super important quality to have in a mic when performing.

Keep in mind, they’re not as sensitive as condensers, so you do have to be close to the mic (or just really loud) to get a decent recording.

So if you’re performing on stage, recording a loud instrument like drums or horns, or you want to get a really warm sound, try a dynamic mic.

Now that we’ve talked about the difference between a condenser and a dynamic mic, let’s look at some of the best microphones in each category.

The Best Condenser Microphones

Here are three of the best condenser mics for your home studio.

BLUE Bluebird

Because of the Bluebird’s neutral frequency response5 and wide dynamic range, it can handle a lot of different types of instruments. It delivers a smooth and beautiful sound and has low self-noise.

For a home studio Producer, it may seem a bit pricey. It is, but the sound it delivers makes it totally worth it.

Shure SM81

Shure makes some of the best mics around, and the SM81 could probably be considered a classic6. It works best on hi-hats, but it can really work on any instrument any other condenser can handle, thanks in part to its high-pass filter with three positions and 20dB pad.

If you could only choose one condenser, this may be the one you’d want to pick.

AKG Perception 170

The AKG P170 is perfect for bedroom Producers. It’s very affordable — surprisingly affordable once you hear how it sounds. Considered one of the best condensers in its price range for acoustic guitar7, it can also handle more instruments than any other condenser can handle.

So if you’re looking for your first or second condenser mic that won’t drain your bank account, the P170 is a great option.

The Best Dynamic Microphones

Alright, now let’s take a look at three of the best dynamic microphones on the market.

Shure SM58

The Shure SM58 is the industry standard for dynamic mics. Go to any concert and you’ll probably see the singer holding one of these. They’re extremely durable and they sound great.

They’re a classic, so much that people like Sheryl Crow, Luke Bryan, and Iggy Pop love the SM58.8

Shure SM57

The Shure SM58 and the SM57 share the same internal mic element, something called the Unidyne III. The main difference between these two is the grill design. The grill design of the SM57 allows for more of a proximity effect (the increase in bass the closer the source is). This is because the diaphragm is closer to the grill.

Besides that, they’re pretty much the same awesome mic. So if you want more bass the closer you record your source, then go with the SM57.

Electrovoice RE20

The Electrovoice RE20 is more for recording spoken word, mainly because it has a built-in windscreen (it’s behind the grill), which cuts down on plosives, and it has no proximity effect.

And even though people mainly use it for podcasting or making YouTube videos, it can work really well on vocals in a home studio.

Condenser vs. Dynamic: Which Is Better?

As you can probably guess, when comparing condenser and dynamic mics, no one can say one is better than the other. They’re different and work differently in different contexts.

But here are some contexts in which one may work better than the other.

If you’re recording acoustic guitar, vocals, cymbals, claps, or any instrument with a low SPL, a condenser mic will probably do better.

If you’re recording kick drum, toms, an electric guitar amp, or if you’re performing live, a dynamic mic will perform better.

Now you know when to use each kind of mic.

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  1. 1Rochman, Davida. "Mic Basics: What Are Transducers?". Shure. published: 6 July 2017. retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  2. 2. "Difference between a dynamic and condenser microphone". Shure. published: 29 August 2017. retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  3. 3. "10 Reasons to Use a Condenser Microphone". Cinema Sound. published: 4 October 2017. retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  4. 4. "10 Reasons to Use a Dynamic Microphone". Cinema Sound. published: 20 August 2017. retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  5. 5Robojohns, Hugh. "BLUE Bluebird". Sound on Sound. published: April 2005. retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  6. 6. "The Ultimate Guide to Condenser Microphones for Home Recording". E-Home Recording Studio. published: . retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  7. 7. "The 6 Best Dynamic Microphones of ALL-TIME". E-Home Recording Studio. published: . retrieved on: 26 July 2019
  8. 8. "Famous SM58 Fans". Shure. published: . retrieved on: 26 July 2019
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