Logo for Pc-Mus Near Silent DAWs ( Digital Audio Workstations )
Logo for Pc-Mus Professional Quiet Music Computers.

Tips: Condenser Recording Mics

This article gives unbiased advice and tips on what to look for when your about to purchase some recording mics for a home or project studio. It will take you through each level of condenser mics, from the budget, to the high end mics and what to expect from each. Its very difficult today choosing the best mics as their are so many to choose from, and half of the mics look similar. This guide will help anyone to choose the right mic from the selection offered by their local music store. This guide was written not to recommend mics made in a certain factory, country or brand but to clearly state the differences between mics so that you can quickly decide yourself armed with the correct knowledge on which condenser microphones are worth purchasing for your recording studio.



The two types of condenser microphones

This article mainly concentrates on condenser mics for recording as dynamic mics are no where near as versatile as a budget condenser mic. I wont cover the types of mics and how they work as that has already been covered in this article. Almost the only dynamic mics used in recordings, are mics that need to handle loud signals like a kick drum mic for example, or in situations where the recording is of a live performance on stage and background noise and feedback are considerations.

Generally speaking almost any carefully chosen budget condenser mics will sound better for recording then a dynamic mic. There are good reasons why this is the case as the diaphragm which captures the sound waves do not have a heavy magnet attached impeding the movement of the diaphragm This allows a condenser to react to smaller sound waves and capture more detail and truer to the original sound your trying to record. More on the types of microphones and how they work HERE.

There are two types of condenser mics, the electret and gold diaphragm types. The manual or spec sheet that the mic comes with will indicate what type of capsule that the microphone uses. Below the two types are discussed.

Electret condensers

The lowest end condenser microphones will be using an electret capsule like the one in the picture to the right. These capsules are normally used in lapel, headset and reference testing mics where a small head is required. They are also very efficient and run on low voltages hence why they are commonly found in computer mics and older hearing aids. Some, but not all pencil (small diaphragm) condensers use these capsules as they are cheap and have a good flat frequency response. If your looking for a good sounding pencil condenser then try to find a suiatable mic with a gold diaphragm. In electret condensers the diaphragm is enclosed in metal and generally speaking these mics don't sound as good as a mic with a gold diaphragm which I'll discuss in the next section. This does not mean that all electret and microphones that take a single AA battery sound bad, this could not be further from the truth. However gold diaphragm mics will nearly always sound better especially when looking at budget mics in the sub US$500 range.

Picture: Electret Recording Condenser Mics


Gold diaphragm condensers

Picture of Gold Diaphragm Recording Mics

The gold Diaphragms are pictured to the left and are found in all high end professional recording mics. The diaphragm is normally open (behind a mesh grill) and not enclosed in metal like the electret which gives a much better open and clearer sound. Some of these mics can be powered on batteries, however they normally require a 9 volt battery to run or the full 48 volt phantom power.

The diaphragm in all higher end mics use a mylar material with a gold vapour coating. Gold is used for one major reason. It does not rust and the resistance of gold is fairly constant, unlike copper and silver which whilst they are better conductors, they rust and corrode which causes the performance to drop. The cheaper mics under US$600 will normally have a cheaper plastic diaphragm with the gold splattered coating, which does not perform as good as mylar which is used in the famous M7 capsule. Only the very high end mics use mylar and many chinese mics claim to have mylar when in fact they are only plastic. There are very subtle differences between the plastic and mylar materials which depending on your budget you may not condsider worth the jump in price. There are only a few factories world wide that can produce a gold diaphragm so you quite often find that lots of mics share the same parts and sound and look very similar. Quite often the same factory produces both brands which is the case with most chinese made mics in the market.


Large VS Small condensers

The size of the Diaphragm in a recording mic actually has less of a bearing on the sound than most people think. Whilst the last sentence is true most large diaphragm mics are designed to pick up lower bass and/or have a wider frequency range. The advantage of all large diaphragm mics over small diaphragms are that they generally have a louder output and need less gain. This means less spill between mics and less noise from your pre amps as your not driving them as hard. More on diaphragm size here.

What to look for in each price range

When choosing a mic look carefully at what type of capsule it uses, more so when its a pencil condenser (called this because of its long thin shape). Mics which use a single AA battery are normally an electret and whilst they are sometimes convient they sound inferior (in general) to a gold diaphragm microphone. Some brands make battery powered gold diaphragm mics, however these tend to use 9 volt batteries to run on. Chinese made large diaphragm mics are flooding the market, and as so many brands are made in the same factory just re-badged, this has lowered the price of good sounding recording mics to very affordable price ranges.

The first microphone a home studio requires is a versatile mic that can cover as many situations as possible. Its main role in most cases would be for recording vocals and guitar so an excellent sound for these are normally a high priority for small studio owners. When I was working in a music store selling microphones, 80% of people would come in looking for a shure sm57 or 58 planning on using it for recording vocals. Whilst these two mics are good mics in certain situations, if your looking for your first microphone a large diaphragm mic will sound better on more things and may even cost less if its made in China. Give the two mics a listen in the store and you'll hear the difference instantly.

More to consider

These tips are worth remembering when looking to purchase good recording mics.

  1. Always try the mic out in the store, or if possible out at home or in your studio. Take some headphones you know well with you if their speakers are not very good or your not familiar with their sound.
  2. Try to stick to gold diaphragm mics as much as possible unless another type of mic suits the situation better.
  3. Purchase at least one large and one small diaphragm condenser microphones for your collection. The large diaphragm mic will most likely end up being your favorite and most used mic, so purchase one first before all other mics.
  4. Use your ears and only your ears to decide. Ignore everything you've read or been told if your ears are telling you differently.
  5. Valve mics if you can afford them are worth the extra money as they warm up the sound and also compress the sound which may save you money in the long run as you wont need a compressor for vocals and most instruments.
  6. Chinese mics sound excellent for the money, but they are not as good as very high end mics (close but not the same). More on what to look for here if your looking for a premium mic and are tempted to only purchase chinese mics.
  7. Brand name mics help sell your studio over the competition.



    Related articles on this site