Every acoustic sound source, be it a piano, violin, guitar, speaker cabinet, or the human voice, requires a microphone to capture that sound. That makes the microphone the first interface with the vibrating air and the first link in the audio chain. Like any endeavor, you want to have a solid foundation. The microphone is that foundation. Choose the right one and your life just got easier. Choose the wrong one and you’ll be fighting an uphill battle all the way through the signal path. And nobody wants that.In our new Buyer's Guide for microphones, you’ll find some useful information to help you make the right choice, based on your needs, budget, and artistic goals.

Choosing A Microphone

Three main considerations, regardless of your applications, are versatility, how it complements your existing collection and vintage vs. new.

VERSATILITY: How useful is this mic going to be? How does it fit into both my current and future needs? Do I need a specialist tool or a multi-tasker?

COMPLEMENTARY: How does this mic fit into my collection? Does it complement or duplicate what I already have? Is it a need or a want?

VINTAGE vs. NEW: Do I want the classic sound of a vintage mic? Or do I want to capture something just kind of similar, and I can therefore find a modern alternative? Am I ready to make an investment or do I just need something that will do for right now?

The good thing is there are no wrong answers to these questions. Particularly with new models and vintage microphones that have been serviced by the Vintage King Tech Shop, you can rest assured knowing that you will have something that will work perfectly in your workflow.

Types Of Microphones

There are four main types of microphones: dynamic, condenser, ribbon, and modeling microphones. Each style of microphone, i.e, transducer, captures the acoustic waves and translates them into electrical signals in a different way; those differences are part of what determines which mic is best for your application. Let’s start with the simplest and most common type: the dynamic microphone.

Aston Microphones Stealth

Dynamic Microphones

A dynamic microphone gets its name from the fact that it converts sound waves into electricity by the dynamic action of a membrane connected to a voice coil in a permanent magnetic field. This is why they’re also known as moving coil microphones. The magnetic field is provided by a magnet in the capsule of the mic, and oscillations of the conductor within this field create changes in voltage (technically called electromagnetic induction). The circuitry in the mic then amplifies this current enough to send a strong signal to the amplifier or preamplifier.

Dynamic microphones need no external power source, and their design is inherently rugged, so they have become a staple of live sound reinforcement. Dropping a mic like a Shure SM58 off a mic stand onto solid concrete will hardly do more than dent the grille. It will still work just fine. Not that we recommend ever doing that on purpose! Mic drops like that are only for comic effect. But the point is that dynamics are very sturdy and can handle a level of abuse that would destroy more delicate microphones.

But all that heavy-duty armor and rugged individualism comes at a price. The design of a dynamic is inherently less sensitive than a condenser due to its more massive diaphragm, so it’s not the best choice for capturing the nuances of complex sound waves. That doesn’t mean it should be kept out of the studio! Dynamics like the Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD 421 are long-time favorites for drum mics, especially hi-hat and snare. (And let’s face it, even the best drummer misses a hit once in a while, landing on the mic grille instead of the snare. These dynamics just laugh it off and keep on going!)

Fortunately, the audio world is full of very high-quality choices in dynamic microphones, and they tend to be very cost-effective. The aforementioned Shure and Sennheiser have been leaders in the field for decades, concentrating primarily on dynamics and building a reputation for reliability and ruggedness. AKG, Electro-Voice, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic are other major players.

In the history of audio recording, probably more sound has been captured for less money with dynamics than any other method. There is zero chance you’ve never heard a dynamic in action on records from every genre and every era. While not as glamorous as their tube and transistor condenser cousins, they are extremely reliable.

Suggested Dynamic Microphones: Aston Stealth, AKG D 112 MKII, Electro Voice RE20, Placid Audio Copperphone, Sennheiser MD 421 II, Shure SM7B, Shure SM57-LC, Shure SM58-LC, beyerdynamic M 88 TG, beyerdynamic M 201 TG, sE Electronics V Kick Drum Mic, sE Electronics V Beat Drum Mic, Audio-Technica ATM 250, Telefunken Eletroakustik M80

Neumann U67 Reissue Microphone

Condenser Microphones

If dynamics are known as more straightforward microphones, condensers are known for their character. Lots of sizzle to be found here, but that kind of action requires power, something every condenser microphone needs, whether tube or transistor.

A condenser mic is also known as a capacitor mic, and for good reason. The metallized diaphragm of the mic is in close proximity to a metal backplate; this makes the duo a capacitor. But for this to work in creating a real transducer, the diaphragm and backplate must have voltages applied to them, so they crave electricity. In tube microphones, this is provided by a power supply unit, or PSU. In transistor microphones, it’s provided by 48 volt ‘phantom power,’ supplied through the same cabling that sends the signals back to the amplifier or recording device.

Condenser mics come in two main varieties, the large diaphragm condenser microphones [LDC] and small diaphragm condenser microphones [SDC], each of which has its advantages. The rule of thumb is that a diaphragm of about 1 inch is large and about a half-inch is small, but there are variations above and below these limits. The typical LDC, such as a Neumann U87, has a diaphragm of slightly more than an inch, say 27 mm, while a typical SDC will be about half that size, but can be up to 22 mm (25.4 mm = 1”). What these measurements point out is that the differences between the two types of condensers is all relative. Each is great at capturing complex signals over a wide frequency range, but they do it in different ways that are inherent in the physics of their design.

Seven keys to a microphone’s capabilities are frequency response, self-noise, sensitivity, SPL handling, dynamic range, transient response, and polar pattern. Each model of microphone is different, but some generalities can be stated with confidence.

It’s often thought that an SDC is not good at capturing the low end, but this is patently false. A high-quality SDC can capture plenty of lows. But they are so much better at capturing highs that it makes the lows seems weak in comparison. Again, it’s all relative. The LDC, on the other hand, is definitely not as great on the high-end due to its larger mass, which limits its upper frequency range. But the LDC can provide lots of lows for the same reason – that higher mass translates into a lower resonance frequency.

Speaking of the low end, another feature of the LDC is the "proximity effect:" a distinct rise in low end response when used close to a source. Great vocalists can take advantage of this effect to "work" the LDC to their advantage, bringing a deeper and warmer tone to their performance when it’s needed. An SDC also has a proximity effect, but it’s geared more toward the low mids. Since SDCs are not used as much by vocalists, this effect is not exploited as much as with LDCs. Proximity effect is highly reliant on polar pattern: the figure-8 pattern gives the strongest effect, cardioid less so, and omnidirectional pattern has no effect at all.

Another consideration in comparing condensers is self-noise. The LDC has inherently less self-noise because its diaphragm is bigger and thus generates more voltage with each fluctuation, masking whatever noise the mic amplifier itself is generating. This is directly related to the sensitivity of the mic. Being more sensitive makes it quieter, and vice versa. The SDC has a tighter diaphragm, which acts more like a solid surface, so the motion of air molecules against it transmits more energy. Without any actual acoustic waves around to mask that, it creates more noise than the less taut, and therefore softer, diaphragm of the LDC.

One of the benefits of that stiffer diaphragm is that the SDC can handle higher SPLs. Because it offers a bit more resistance, the SDC can take a bigger hit before getting too close to the backplate and creating distortion. Here again there is a connection between characteristics: a stiffer diaphragm means more self-noise but better SPL handling, and vice versa – another case of relativity. The higher SPL ability gives the SDC a larger dynamic range as well.

What the SDC loses in mass, it gains in transient response. Transients are those really fast-approaching wave fronts of air caused by the rapid attack of a drum hit or guitar pluck. The smaller mass of the SDC can respond more quickly to these changes than the higher mass of the LDC. The smaller size of the SDC also provides a more accurate polar pattern across all frequencies, and better off-axis response due to smaller phase shifts on the physically smaller surface.

It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of these comparisons imply all things being equal, which they rarely are. A very well-made SDC versus a cheaply made LDC (or vice versa) might not conform to all these “rules.” But if you stick with reputable, quality gear, these comparisons should generally hold true.

Frequency Response Self-Noise Sensitivity SPL Handling Dynamic Range Transient Response Polar Pattern
Larger Diaphragm Narrower Lower Higher Lower Narrower Slower Looser
Smaller Diaphragm Wider Higher Lower Higher Wider Faster Tighter

How does this translate into actual mic purchase and usage decisions?

Opt for the large diaphragm condenser if:

  • You’re not capturing very loud sources (like guitar cabs)
  • You are capturing distant or quiet sources (like room mics)
  • You’re not capturing transient sources (like snares and cymbals)
  • You are capturing more on-axis sources (like vocalists)
  • You want to look as cool as possible

Opt for the small diaphragm condenser if:

  • You are capturing spread-out sources (like orchestras and choirs)
  • You’re not capturing very quiet sources (like pianissimo effects)
  • You are capturing high-end sources (like pianos and strings)
  • You’re not capturing very low-end sources (like kick drums)
  • You want to sound as natural as possible

Suggested Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones: Neumann U67 Reissue, Neumann U87 Ai, Sony C-100, Sony C800G Pac, Wunder Audio CM7 Fet, Aston Spirit, Aston Origin, Soyuz 017, Flea Microphones 47, Telefunken Elektroakustik ELA M 251E, Manley Reference Cardioid Mic, AKG C 414 XL II, Peluso Microphone Lab P-87

Suggested Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones: Josephson e22s, Sennheiser e614, Soyuz 013 Fet-M, Gefell M 300, Sennheiser MKH 40-P48, Neumann KMS 104, Gefell M 310, Neumann KM 184 NI, Lauten Audio Black LA120

Coles 4038 Microphone

Ribbon Microphones

The most venerable of microphones is the ribbon, highly prized for its ability to translate a sound source with fidelity and warmth. Technically a ribbon is really a dynamic microphone, needing no power and using a magnetic field to crate voltages. But since it does this in its own inimitable way, it has a category of its own. Where a dynamic has a voice coil hovering in a magnetic field while attached to a diaphragm, the ‘ribbon’ – actually a very thin piece of aluminum – is both the diaphragm and voice coil in one. This slender piece of metal is attached to two ends of a large magnet and floats between the poles, being vibrated by the sound waves from front and back and creating voltage fluctuations in the process.

This arrangement works well in principle, but having only one conductor (the ribbon) instead of a coil of wire means that the output is much lower than a regular dynamic.; As such, the ribbon needs quite a bit of gain from the preamplifier – think 60 dB minimum. Preamps that provide a lot more than this, in the 70-80 dB gain range, are a step above the typical mic preamp in complexity and cost, but luckily there are a number of great preamps made just for ribbons that can handle this task.

Ribbons are allegedly very fragile. They aren’t quite as delicate as you think, but still, don’t blow directly into one. Don’t run phantom power to them, either. Although a well-made and properly grounded example might not be damaged, chances are good that the surge of electricity will cause great harm. However, though traditionally needing no power supply (like all dynamics), some modern ribbon mics DO require phantom power; these are known as active ribbon mics. This design is meant to overcome the very low output of a traditional ribbon by including an amplification stage. Be sure you know which type you’re using before hitting that 48V button!

Ribbon mics have their die-hard enthusiasts; vintage examples of classics from RCA such as the 44-BX and 77-DX can fetch a premium price. But they deliver a premium sound that makes them worth it. Being so well made, good examples rarely need much more than a new ribbon and maybe a new silk inside the grille. Ribbon mics were the mainstay of radio broadcasting for decades, and many engineers will settle for nothing less on sources that need a little softening. Brass instruments are especially good candidates for ribbon mic use, but so are drum overheads and guitar cabs. The Coles 4038 (a favorite on drums) has never been out of production for decades and Royer Labs provides several excellent models to choose from.

Suggested Ribbon Microphones: AEA R84, AEA R88 MK2, AEA KU5A, beyerdynamic M 160, Coles 4038, Royer Labs R-121, Royer Labs R-10, Cascade Microphones Fat Head, Mesanovic Microphones Model 2A


Modeling Microphones

Modeling microphones are the newest kid to the block and they provide a whole host of benefits for those looking to having a variety of sounds in their studio. Essentially, you're getting a large number of digital microphones via one physical microphone at a pretty friendly price.

How does it work? The microphone itself captures audio in a pristine manner with no color or character at all. The modeling software does the heavy lifting, allowing you to take advantage of the characteristics of classic microphones like the Neumann U47, Neumann U67, and Coles 4038, just to name a few.

Suggested Modeling Microphones: Antelope Audio Edge Solo, Antelope Audio Edge Duo, Antelope Audio Edge Quadro, Antelope Audio Edge Go USB, Slate Digital VMS One, Slate Digital VMS ML-2, Townsend Labs Sphere L22

Different Types Of Polar Patterns

Polar pattern is simply a graphical description of the direction(s) from which a microphone will pick up sound waves. To keep in mind that these patterns work in all three dimensions, imagine the microphone is at the center of a sphere. The patterns range over a spectrum from omnidirectional (picking up sound from every direction) to cardioid (picking up sound primarily from one direction, directly in front of the mic). Halfway between these extremes is the figure-8 (picking up from both front and rear but not the sides). Modern microphones can have up to nine polar patterns; some are even continuously variable from omni to cardioid, with those nine patterns merely convenient stopping points along the way. Let’s briefly run down the major patterns and their uses.


As the name indicates, this pattern picks up sound from all over the sphere. This is helpful when trying to capture the sound of an entire room. In some cases, an omnidirectional mic can become more directional at higher frequencies, in part due to the physics of microphone construction. Neumann famously attempted to overcome this difficulty by placing its diaphragm in a lucite sphere for the classic M50 tube microphone. Numerous fabulous classical music recordings attest to the success of this approach.


This pattern takes its name from the twin lobes of its pattern – the mic captures sound from both the front and the rear, but rejects it very effectively from the sides. The classic stereo miking techniques of Blumlein and Mid-Side (MS) both rely on a pair of figure-8 microphones. In practical terms, combinations of figure-8 and omni can produce all other polar patterns.


This pattern captures sound from only one direction, although we’re not talking pinpoint accuracy. The field of capture tapers off slowly to a large dip in the rear, creating a heart-shaped pattern, thus the name ‘cardioid.. This is one of the most common patterns, and many microphones, especially LDC mics for vocals, will be set to only have this pattern. It’s always good to have one or two cardioid-only mics in the locker.


This pattern tightens the typical cardioid and makes it even less sensitive from the side. But, like squeezing a balloon, making it tighter on the sides expands the sensitivity to the rear, though not to the extent that it becomes figure-8.


Squeezing that balloon even more gets you the hypercardioid: even less pickup from the side, but even more from the rear. Great for tight instrument placement to cut out bleed, especially when room reflections or sounds from the rear are not an issue.


As the name suggests, this goes in the other direction and makes the pattern even wider than the typical cardioid, going about halfway to omnidirectional. A good choice when you don’t want to go full omni due to rear sound sources or reflections.

If you’re interested in learning more about microphones or finding the one right for your studio, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.