As a music teacher or ensemble director, microphones play an important role in your work. Whether you need to amplify musicians for a large performance, you’re recording an ensemble to enter a competition, or you’re outfitting a music lab, you’ll need to select microphones and audio equipment.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be a music technology expert to choose a microphone that meets your unique needs! In this guide, we’ll discuss the ways different types of microphones pick up sound (known as microphone polar patterns), then cover some of the basic types of microphones and the scenarios in which you should choose each one. This guide is not exhaustive: it is intended to serve as a general overview.
Microphone Polar Patterns
Polar patterns, also known as pickup patterns, have to do with the directionality of sound that a microphone captures. Cardioid, supercardioid, and omnidirectional microphones have varying levels of sensitivity to sound waves coming from different areas of a space, so each is appropriate for different scenarios.
Cardioid microphones are designed to pick up the sounds coming from directly in front of the microphone. Graphically, their polar response resembles a heart:
Cardioid mics are ideal for amplifying a specific instrument in a setting where you cannot isolate that performer. This polar pattern picks up the audio from a specific instrument while keeping ambient noise—think the hum of an air conditioner or the sound of audience members shuffling in their seats—out of the audio mix. Cardioid microphones work best in situations when you are capturing the sound from one specific performer rather than a group of performers.
Compared to cardioid patterns, supercardioid polar patterns are even more pointed or narrow on the front side. As you can see in the graph, they are also sensitive to sound that’s coming from behind the performer.
Supercardioid microphones can be trickier to use in a live setting than cardioid mics. While they’re good for picking up a specific instrument or vocalist in crowded or noisy settings, it’s important to be wary of any room noise or other sound coming from behind the microphone that could interfere with your recording.
Omnidirectional microphones pick up sound from all directions around the microphone. These are great choices for capturing room sound in a recording situation. You may want to opt for an omnidirectional microphone when recording an a cappella group or small ensemble, especially in controlled spaces or situations where there is not much outside noise for the mic to pick up.
Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
When choosing between the two most prevalent types of microphones—dynamic and condenser mics—consider the type of music that you will record and the number of performers involved. Are you working with vocalists, woodwinds, brass, or string players? Are you recording a solo player or singer, a small group, or a full ensemble?
Less sensitive than condenser microphones, dynamic microphones are great choices for recording drums, guitar players, and solo instrumentalists. Many dynamic microphones have a cardioid polar pattern, which—as discussed above—means that they will effectively pick up the sound in front of them without including noise from behind. Dynamic microphones work well for live sound and studio recordings, since their lower noise floor makes them better for capturing loud sounds.
We recommend the Shure SM57, widely considered an industry standard, for miking drums, amps, and instrumentalists. For live vocal performances, go with the Shure SM58.
More sensitive to soundwaves than their dynamic counterparts, condenser microphones have a higher noise floor and require either a battery, connection to a power supply, or 48v phantom power from a mixer. Many condenser microphones have a supercardioid polar pattern. They are more effective than dynamic microphones when it comes to capturing quieter sounds and higher frequencies. Condenser mics work well for both live performances and studio recording sessions.
The Samson C02 Pencil Condenser Mics (which come in a pair) are an excellent and affordable option for live performance scenarios. They come equipped with shock mounts to reduce interference from vibrations. Check out our product review to learn how you can get pro results using these mics!
How will you set up your microphone? Before making a purchase, it’s important to consider the way that you and/or your performers will interface with the mic.
Lavalier microphones (which attach to a lapel or shirt collar), headset microphones, or microphones that can attach to a stand are all viable options for hands-free amplification and recording. For instrumentalists, it usually makes the most sense to set up a microphone on a stand, while vocalists may prefer either a mic on a stand or a handheld microphone. For speakers or presenters, consider opting for a lavalier mic, a headset, or a microphone on a stand.
To produce sound, you’ll need to connect your microphone to an output device. Whether that device is a PA system, a computer, a mixing board, an audio recorder, a camera, or even your smartphone, make sure that the microphone you select features the type of connection you need.
XLR, which stands for “ground, left, right,” is a three-prong connection point that you’ll find on the bottom of a microphone. The Shure SM57 is an example of a microphone with an XLR connection. If you plan to use a PA system or recording device with a three-pin XLR input, you’ll need a microphone with an XLR connection.
Just like flash drives and other common types of hardware, USB microphones plug directly into a computer’s USB port. When you plug in a USB microphone, you’ll select it as an input device, overriding the computer’s built-in sound card (which, in the absence of external equipment, functions as a built-in speaker and microphone). Like XLR connections, you’ll find USB connections on the bottom of your microphone. USB microphones also feature a 3.5mm headphone jack which allows the user to monitor audio. The Shure MV7 is both an XLR and a USB microphone.
USB mics don’t require an external preamp, audio interface or mixer to be connected, making them a great choice for recording on the go or equipping a home office or school music lab. They transmit audio as digital data rather than as an analog signal and are often used for voice recording. We recommend the Neom USB Microphone, which features shock mounts to reduce interference from tabletop and room vibrations.
Microphones with this type of connection plug into any device that features a 3.5mm input, including many cameras and laptops. Some require batteries (typically AA). The Rode VideoMic GO is a good example of a 3.5mm microphone.
Top Picks for Recording Musicians
Now that we’ve covered many of the basic components, we’ll share our recommended equipment for each recording scenario.
If you’re capturing audio from a solo woodwind, brass, percussion, or string player, the Shure SM57 will deliver outstanding results. We’d go as far as to call it the Swiss Army knife of all microphones: for years, the SM57 has been the most versatile and widely used instrument mic available. If you’re going to buy one microphone to record instrumentalists, it should be this one.
Solo Vocalist or Speaking Voice
For recording a solo vocalist or speaker, go with the Shure SM58. Its frequency response is tailored to both singing and speech.
Instrumental or Vocal Ensemble
For a choir, band, or orchestra, we suggest the Samson C02 Pencil Mics (discussed above). These condenser microphones are sensitive enough to pick up all the nuances of your ensemble’s performance, and their extended frequency response range guarantees clear, crisp sound.
If you’re miking a drum kit, Samson’s five-piece DK700 Series Drum Mic Kit is well worth the investment. The collection includes a kick drum mic and four instrument mics for high-quality, well-balanced sound.
Mic placement is everything! If you’re unhappy with the sound coming from a microphone, the first thing you should try is moving it. Even two feet of adjustment forward, backward, or to the left or right can make a huge difference.
Another quick troubleshooting tip: always check your microphone cable. If you’re experiencing a sound issue, chances are high that the cable is the culprit. Microphones tend to be quite hardy, and it’s unlikely that one would be damaged enough to cause a recording issue. Cables, meanwhile, are much more fragile and easier to damage. Always use high-quality cables and make sure to carry a backup (or two!)
Finally, if you plan to use a PA system, be wary of feedback (the screeching sound that you hear when the system reproduces the sound entering the microphone, the microphone amplifies that sound, and so on, creating a loop). If you place an input device directly in front of an output device, you may be especially prone to feedback.
Thanks for reading our quick guide to choosing a microphone! We hope that this overview is helpful. Shop the J.W. Pepper site for microphones, stands, and other accessories. We’d love to hear from you—don’t hesitate to reach out to us or leave a comment below!