Broadcasting, Gear, Equipment, Getting Started, Guide

A Full Guide to Microphones: Types & Uses in Radio

You can't have talk segments or live performances on your radio station without microphones to back you up. Problem is, there are so many different kinds of microphones on the market, it can be hard to know which type is best for you. There are so many different factors - like polar patterns, size, and connector types - to consider. The more you look, the more overwhelming it may seem.

That's why we've compiled this detailed guide into microphones: what types there are, how to differentiate between them, and which are higher quality than others. Finding a microphone for internet radio and podcasting can be a different search than looking for a microphone for music production, so it's good to know the basics before you buy. Here are some things to consider!

Polar Patterns

It's important to know how much sound a microphone is going to pick up before you use it. That way, if you have noise in the background while you're recording, you'll know if it's going to be heard or not.

A polar pattern defines how much of the signal will be picked up by the microphone from different directions. Some mics pick up sound from only one direction and block out everything behind them. Other microphones will record from multiple directions, allowing a "surround sound" experience in your recordings.

Below are different types of polar patterns you should know:

Unidirectional Microphones -

  • Cardioid Microphones: Cardioid mics capture everything in front of them and block out all noise from behind, making them a great choice for radio and podcasting. The front-focused pattern will let you point the mic to a sound source and isolate it from unwanted ambient sound. It's also ideal for live performances, and popular for events like concerts, karaoke, and even miking instruments like drum kits and guitar speakers. Something to note, however: because cardioid mics are fantastic at blocking out unwanted noise, microphone position is very important. If you don't have it right in front of your sound source, the sound may be quieter than needed.

  • Super/Hyper Cardioid Microphones: These mics have the same front directionality as a cardioid microphone, but have a narrower area of sensitivity. This means increased sound isolation and a higher resistance to feedback. However, there is one thing to note. To ensure you get the sound you want, you will have to position any unwanted sounds on the dead spot sides to the far left and right of the microphone's backside.

Omnidirectional Microphones - Omnidirectional microphones capture noise from all angles. They're great if you're trying to record soundscapes or if you're in a studio and want to capture a live performance. Obviously, these mics will pick up sound from all across the room. They don't have noise-cancelling abilities like cardioid microphones do, so they're not ideal for simple talk show segments or podcasting. They're also prone to audio feedback, so it's best not to use them in environments that get too noisy.

Figure-8 Microphones - The name of this polar pattern comes from its shape, which graphically looks like an eight. It will pick up everything from the front and back, but cancel out noise from the sides. These kinds of mics aren't very popular, but they are good for stereo recording or if you're trying to capture two sounds at once. The pattern is also known as "bidirectional," and it's commonly found on ribbon microphones (we'll talk about those later).

Shotgun Microphones - Shotgun mics feature a tube-like design that make their polar pattern even more directional than hyper cardioids. This allows them to pick up sound from farther away while also eliminating sounds from the side. While these are more popular for film and theatre, they can also be used as overhead mics. They're perfect for recording things on the louder side: like drum cymbals or choral performances.

Switchable/Multi-Pattern Microphones - These are microphones that can change between different polar patterns, allowing for whatever placement you'd like. Many of today's USB condenser microphones have this feature, letting you switch between multiple patterns by simply flicking a switch. Other switchable/multi-pattern mics let you switch between polar patterns by changing their mic head.

Diaphragm Sizes

How does a microphone actually work? It all depends on diaphragm size, which is a thin material that vibrates when it comes in to contact with sound. This vibration converts sonic energy into electrical energy, and that's how you get a recording!

How big or small a mic diaphragm is generally depends on the microphone's mass. Bigger mics have large diaphragms, while smaller mics have small diaphragms. You may think bigger is better, but there are a few advantages to smaller diaphragms. It all depends on what and where you're recording. Here are separate descriptions of each type of diaphragm so you can have a better understanding:

Small Diaphragm - Mics with small diaphragms are commonly called pencil mics due to their thin shapes. Because of their compact design, they are lighter, easier to position, and stiffer. They can handle higher sound pressure and have a wider dynamic range. However, they do have increased internal noise and low sensitivity. Shotgun mics typically have smaller diaphragms.

Large Diaphragm - This is the type of mic diaphragm you'll probably be looking for as a broadcaster. Unlike small diaphragms that are stiff, large diaphragms move easily, allowing them to detect even faint differences in sound pressure levels. Many USB mics now have large diaphragms.

Medium Diaphragm - These modern mics combine the characteristics of small and large diaphragms. They have a slightly fuller and warm sound similar to large diaphragms while retaining some of the high frequency content small diaphragms are known for. Medium diaphragms are a good alternative if you don't have a mic with a larger diaphragm for broadcasting.

Microphone Types

There are three types of microphones: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon. You can find all of these mics in radio broadcasting, but they have individual qualities. Here are the differences between them:

Condenser - Most mics used for talk radio and podcasting are condenser microphones. They have a thin conductive diaphragm that sits close to a metal backplate. This configuration means they often produce higher-quality sound. Condenser microphones require power though, so you'll need a mixer or direct box with phantom power (except in cases with batteries). Also, because of their size and quality, condenser mics need to be handled with a lot of care compared to other microphones.

Dynamic - Reliable and versatile, dynamic mics have a moving coil magnetic diaphragm. This means dynamic mics can capture sounds even at high pressure levels. You'll generally find these mics more for live performances. For example: singers hold dynamic microphones in their hands during concerts. However, many mics used for radio broadcasting these days are dynamic.

Ribbon - These types of mics are on the vintage side and technically out of style, but that doesn't mean you can't find or use them in radio! They're actually making a comeback these days. The light metal ribbon used in these mics allows it to pick up the velocity of the air and not just air displacement. This means ribbon mics have improved sensitivity to higher frequencies and can capture higher-pitched sounds without any harshness. Modern ribbon mics are now sturdier and more reliable than their old counterparts, making them ideal for live multi-sound recording in areas where noise level is manageable.

Connector Types - USB vs. XLR

We'll make a long story short. As a broadcaster, you'll most likely want to look for microphones with XLR connectors as opposed to USB connectors. It's not that USB connectors are bad, it's just that XLR connectors typically provide a higher-quality sound than their counterparts.

XLR microphones have 3 prongs in their connection cords. A mic with this connector will need to be connected to an interface - like a sound mixer - and then to your computer. USBs, on the other hand, connect directly to a USB port on your computer.

Ultimately, picking a USB or XLR mic all depends on personal preference and your budget. USB mics are less expensive (you don't need to buy a sound mixer either) and they are easier to use, so they might be a better option if you're just starting out with broadcasting and still learning the ropes.

Microphone Uses

Here are some different ways microphones can be used in the world of music and sound production. You probably know some ways already, but we'll also go over which mics work best for different kinds of sounds.

Vocals - The best mic for capturing vocals depends on the situation. For live vocal performances, dynamic cardioid mics work best. For recording vocal performances in a studio or for broadcasting and podcasting, you could also go with a dynamic mic, but a condenser mic is a better choice. If you're trying to get a vocal recording with a more vintage feel, try out a ribbon mic! And finally, if you're looking to capture multiple vocals at once (like a choir), your best bet would be a small diaphragm omnidirectional mic or an overhead shotgun mic.

Drums - Drums are punchy and loud, so picking the right microphone for them is very important. Go with dynamic cardioid mics for snare, bass, and tom drums. Small diaphragm microphones can then be used to capture the higher pressure of the hi-hat, ride, and cymbals. Believe it or not, there are specialized microphones on the market made specifically for capturing drum kits. You can either buy them individually or go for nifty drum kit mic bundles.

Electric Guitar Amplifiers - Amplifiers can occasionally be louder than drum kits, so again: you need to choose a microphone wisely. Mics that can handle a higher sound pressure level are ideal. Your best option is a dynamic cardioid or hyper cardioid mic that is well-positioned in front of the amp. You could also use a second condenser mic or even a ribbon mic, but set back at a distance. They're good backups if you are recording with multiple amps or if you want a warmer feel to the guitar.

Acoustic Guitars - Because acoustic guitars have a softer sound, large diaphragm condenser mics are optimal. You'll want to go for a well-positioned cardioid condenser mic, or figure-8 pattern ribbons also work depending on the situation and noise level. If you want a backup microphone for the acoustic guitar, an extra small diaphragm mic is a fantastic option. It will capture the higher frequencies that occasionally get lost when acoustics are plugged in or miked directly up front.

Brass and Woodwind Instruments - Like acoustic guitars, large diaphragm condenser mics also work well in capturing brass or woodwind instruments. Ribbon microphones are another good option. With brass and woodwind instruments, placement of the microphones is very important, so don't be afraid to move the mic around in recording sessions in order to get the best possible sound quality!

We hope this guide has helped you make a decision on what kind of microphone you'd like to purchase. If you're looking for some great microphones to help you get started with your broadcasting career, check out these these 5 top-rated mics for internet radio.

Thanks for reading, and happy broadcasting!

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Article Image: A gray microphone. (Michal Czyz via Unsplash.)

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About Kathryn Milewski

  • New Jersey