-This post was updated in January 2019.
Definition: Microphone — or mic — converts acoustic energy into electrical energy, resulting in an audio signal.
Rather than going into the scientific details, I am going to outline the different types of microphones and what they’re used for:
Dynamic Microphone: Most commonly used for live sound and known for its durability – It’s also the best choice for the high volume levels of bass guitar, bass drums and amplifiers. For optimal performance, this mic should not be placed any more than one foot away from the sound source. Otherwise, the result could be a thin sound with less color and clarity. Some popular dynamic microphone choices are: Shure SM57 and SM58; and the SM58 Handheld Wireless Mic System.
Condenser Microphone: Most commonly used for recording lead vocal tracks, acoustic guitars, pianos, and live strings, the condenser is known for its ability to capture the smaller nuances of sound. It has a very quick, accurate response as well as a clarity that cannot be achieved by other types of microphones. While not as rugged as a dynamic, this mic is capable of capturing a broader range of frequencies from a greater distance than any other type. Popular condenser microphones include: Shure PG 81 and the Samson CO2 Pencil Condenser Mics (Pair).
Ribbon Microphone: Known as the most fragile of the different microphone types, some sound engineers are hesitant to utilize this mic in any live setting for fear of damaging it. Despite its lack of ruggedness, the effects and quality of sound from a ribbon microphone are very similar to those of a dynamic in that they tend to enhance the higher frequencies of the sound and perform best when placed within close proximity of the sound source.
As you can probably tell, dynamic and condenser mics are the most common and will likely be what you and/or your engineer are working with. An excellent resource for learning about microphones and microphone technique is the Hal Leonard Recording Method Book/DVD Volume 1 – Microphones & Mixers.