What is a Condenser Microphone, its Types and Polar Patterns

what is a condenser microphone - inpost featured image

To be honest:

There's a big confusion when it comes to choosing a condenser microphone.

You get a condenser mic under every budget from as low as $20 to as high as $3500.

They are available in a size as small as a strawberry and as big as ​it can get.

Hence there's plenty of confusion when it comes to choosing an ideal condenser microphone, and to answer people question of 'What is a Condenser Microphone?'​...

...I've created this article​ to help you get started with 'What is a Condenser Microphohe', how it works and how to use it, comparison with other microphone types, different types of condenser microphones and its polar patterns

Are you ready to get educated?

Let's start! 

What is a Condenser Mic and How it Works?

Condenser microphone, also known as ‘Capacitor Microphone’; consists of two metal plates in close proximity that vibrates when hit by sound energy and converts sound energy into electrical energy.

condenser capsule of a Neumann Microphone

Image Source: Neumann

The condenser capsules are delicate, and need to be handled with care; hence no matter how sturdy the microphone built, the components inside it happen to be tender.

Here’s how it works

A condenser microphone setup consists of two metal plates that are very close to each other: one is a thin membrane called as diaphragm (electrically conductive), while the other is a solid metal plate.

When sound waves (either your voice or sound from musical instrument) hit the thin membrane (diaphragm), it starts to vibrate back and forth causing a change in Capacitance and thus converting sound energy into electrical energy.

To know more about the science behind condenser microphones, click here, or you can check the video below for a graphic representation.


How to use a Condenser Mic?

Now that we’ve talked about the technicalities of condenser mic, let me mention that condenser microphones are the most widely used microphones in home, studios and while recording audio instruments.

Due to their small size and ability to capture even the slightest of sound, makes them the best recording microphone for any instrument.

(Most of the) Professionally recorded videos on Youtube or different podcast channels use Condenser microphone, due to its modest size, easy maintenance and they’re quick to setup as well.

best condenser mic Blue Yeti Mic

Condenser microphones are available in two connection types: either an XLR connection or a USB connection.

A USB condenser microphone is an easy to setup microphone that can be connected to PC/Laptop via USB cable and is effortless to get started with.

While for professionals; who need more control over how they want to use their mic, XLR condenser microphone is a straightforward.

Note of Concern: XLR condenser microphone requires a 48V ‘Phantom Power’ to make it usable. Beginners can go with a simple Phantom Power box like Blue Icicle or Shure X2U XLR-to-USB Mic Converter to connect your XLR mic to PC.

blue icicle - xlr to usb mic converter

Here’s a video on how to use the Blue Icicle:

Professionals, who want to do live customization (to their voice) on-the-go can choose between an Audio Interface like Focusrite Solo 2 or a channel mixer like Behringer XENYX502.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo 2 - best audio interface usb

Video embedded below gives a glimpse on how to connect an XLR microphone to PC via a Channel Mixer.

USB Condenser Microphones on the other hand can be connected directly to your PC/Mac with the provided USB Cable

Note: Depending on your use, go for a USB Mic; if your main purpose is to do podcasting or record voice for Youtube videos, because they are easy to get started and you can modify your voice using different software tools like Image Line FL Studio 12 or Presonus Studio One, however if you plan on doing live podcasting or will use it in studio for recording vocals or musical instruments, XLR microphones are your best bet.

Comparison with Two other Microphone Types

MXL R144 - Best Ribbon Microphone

MXL R144 is a popular Ribbon Mic

Two microphone types other than condenser microphone are Dynamic Mics and Ribbon mics.

Each of these mic types has various purposes and used accordingly.

Due to ribbon microphone being delicate and not durable enough compared to other two mic types, they aren’t used extensively and only find niche uses.

Hence the biggest comparison condenser mic have is with Dynamic microphones.

On the price front, condenser microphone are costlier compared to dynamic microphone, while on the other hand cheaper priced dynamic microphones are sturdy and rigid compared to condenser microphones delicate infrastructure.

Shure SM57 is the best dynamic mic

Shure SM57 is a popular Dynamic Mic

As mentioned earlier, since condenser mics are sensitive than dynamic microphones; they find great application in studios and home-use where external noise can be controlled or minimized…

…whereas dynamic mic find great use on stage shows and live concerts due to its durability and being less sensitive to background noise.

Popular example of a dynamic mic is Shure SM57.

Moreover a condenser mic is sensitive enough to record intricate details in our voice or musical instruments that dynamic mics aren’t efficient to capture.

Note: Use pop filter along with Condenser mic because ‘P’ and ‘S’ sound cause hissing sound that in-turn causes distortion.

Now that you know the difference between Condenser mic and other two types of mic, let’s move on the different types of Condenser mics


Different Types of Condenser Mics

Condenser microphones are available in three different types:

  • Large Diaphragm Mic
  • Small Diaphragm Mic
  • Medium Diaphragm Mic

1. Large Diaphragm Microphone

Large Diaphragm Mic (LDM) make a great pair when recording vocals or singing, since they have a large diaphragm (1 inch), they can capture the lower frequencies (from voice or instruments) efficiently compared to other two types of condenser mics.

AKG Perception 420 - Best Large Diaphragm Condenser Mic

AKG Perception 420 is popular example of Large Diaphragm Mic

Large Diaphragm Microphones, as the name suggests are large in size and weigh somewhere around 0.3-1kg making them a little difficult to carry around.

Popular examples of microphones under LDM badge are AKG Perception 420 and Blue Spark.

shure ksm141 - best small condenser mic

Shure KSM141 is the best SDM

2. Small Diaphragm Microphone

Small Diaphragm Microphone (SDM) compared to LDM is lightweight in size and portable as well, making them easy-to-fit in your pocket as well.

Popular examples of Small Diaphragm microphones are AKG Perception 170 and Shure KSM141.

As you can see from the image, Small Diaphragm Microphones are small in size and pocketable as well.

Compared to Large Diaphragm Mics, they are fast and responsive, and can easily capture sound coming off of stringed instruments like acoustic guitars, cello, ukulele and so on, making them best microphone for recording.

3. Medium Diaphragm Microphone

Samson G-Track - Best Medium Diaphragm Mic

Earlier there were only Small Diaphragm Microphone and Large Diaphragm microphone, however changes in consumer needs carved out another category as medium diaphragm microphones.

Microphones between 0.75 inches to 0.5 inches can be roughly termed as Medium Diaphragm microphones.

They can also be coined as Multi-purpose microphones as they offer the fast response of small condenser mics and low frequency sensitivity like the Large Diaphragm mics.

Examples of Medium Diaphragm microphones are Blue Yeti and Samson G-Track Mics.

Moving on… we’ll talk about Different Condenser Microphone Polar Patterns in general.


Condenser Microphone Polar Patterns

What are Polar Patterns?

Polar Patterns in mic indicates the direction from which a microphone can record voice depending on its placement and requirement.

This direction relates to sensitivity of the microphone for sound coming from different angles.

A condenser microphone is capable of recording sound from 360*, however depending on our requirements we can manipulate it to record sound only from a particular direction depending on its Polar Patterns.

There are 5 main Polar Patterns available that condenser mics support:

  • Cardioid
  • Omnidirectional
  • Bidirectional (Figure 8)
  • Super/Hyper Cardioid
  • Stereo

1) Cardioid Polar Pattern: This is the most commonly available polar pattern in all condenser microphones.

Since condenser microphones are used for near-field recording, a cardioid polar pattern makes sense because it records voice only from the front of the mic.

Cardioid_Polar_Pattern

As you can see in the above image, a cardioid polar pattern looks just like a rounded heart-shaped pattern.

Consider the mic is placed at the center of sphere and the rounded heart-shaped pattern indicates the direction or area from which the mic will capture sound.

Cardioid polar pattern is highly efficient if you want to use the mic for single-person podcasting, voice-over, Youtube video or recording single instrument in front of the mic.

Almost all condenser mic come with Cardioid polar pattern as default, while few microphones like the Audio Technica AT2035 come only with Cardioid polar pattern, there are plenty of other microphones that with multi-patterns as explained below.

2) Omnidirectional Polar Pattern: Omnidirectional is a no-frills polar pattern and can record sound from any direction.

Though most people despise omnidirectional polar pattern and never use it, however if used correctly; a single band can record an entire instrumental using a single Condenser mic with omnidirectional polar pattern.

Omnidirectional_Polar_Pattern

As you can see in the image above, an omnidirectional polar pattern mic can record sound from 360 degrees and in 3 dimensions, it can also capture even the slightest of sound and happens to be high on sensitivity.

Omnidirectional pattern is suitable only for certain purposes and if used correctly can work like a charm, for example if you want to record group discussion of people sitting in a small room, an omnidirectional pattern will capture sound even from the person sitting farthest.

3) Bidirectional (Figure 8) Polar Pattern: As you can see in the image below, a microphone using bidirectional pattern can record sound from the front as well as its back.

Bidirectional_Polar_Pattern

Such types of microphones are suitable when recording interview of a person sitting at your front.

This makes it very easy to record both the person’s voice at same time without much fidgeting or recording surrounding noise.

It is useful for two singers collaborating on single song to use a Bidirectional mic and stand in front of each other without the need of any other mic as well.

Same goes while recording couple of instruments at the same time.

4) Super/Hyper Cardioid Polar Pattern: Supercardioid or Hypercardioid though slightly different; have almost similar application.

Both Supercardioid and Hypercardioid polar patterns are only available in premium microphones costing well over $500 and more.

Hypercardioid_Polar_Pattern

As the image above shows, this mic polar pattern is somewhat similar to Bidirectional pattern just it records little less sound from its back.

Such type of microphones find great application in live TV shows where a person stands with a Boom Pole to record other people’s voice.

5) Stereo Polar Pattern: Stereo Polar Pattern is similar to design with Bidirectional Polar Pattern, however instead of recording from Front to Back, it records using Left and Right mic channels.

As we know, we can record sound using Left and Right audio channels; Stereo Polar Pattern offers just that.

Though it can be used for creative purposes, musicians can use this type of polar pattern to add creativity while recording songs.

In this way you can use different possibilities to record audio in Left and Right channels.

Conclusion

Hope this article helped you in knowing about what condenser microphone is and how it works as well.

If you do have confusion regarding this topic, do not hesitate to leave a comment below.

Please do consider sharing it on social networking sites like Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

Thank You! Have a great day ahead.​

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