Dynamic vs. Condenser Microphones - A Beginner's Guide

Whether you’re setting up a recording studio, micing a garage band, or mixing sound in 3D, you’re sure to come across these two umbrella types of microphones. They both have their respective pros and cons, so let’s take a look at the two categories of microphones and explore the uses for each mic type.

 

The Shure SM58, one of the most popular dynamic microphones.

The Shure SM58, one of the most popular dynamic microphones.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones are most commonly used at live shows and micing loud, high sound-pressure instruments, such as drums and guitar amplifiers.

Sound Pressure

Dynamic microphones are generally less sensitive in comparison to condenser mics, but in most practical applications, are able to deal with higher sound pressure without distorting. The industry standard Shure SM58’s sound pressure limit (SPL) is rated at 150 dB at 100 Hz before distorting, and for reference, 140 dB is the accepted threshold of pain for the human ear. At 10 kHz, the measured MAX SPL of the SM58 is 180 dB, which what NASA estimates is close to the dB rating of a space shuttle launch. In normal recording applications, the SM58 will be able to handle anything you throw at it.

Durability

The durability of dynamic microphones is also typically much better than condenser microphones—condenser mics often have sensitive electronics that are prone to breaking from drops and spills, whereas venues might be able to use the same SM58’s onstage for 20 years or more, even after taking a beating night after night.

Price

In general, dynamic microphones are less expensive than condenser microphones. Typical dynamic microphones range between $100-$400, but condenser microphones often run upwards of $700-1000. Many studios use the popular Neumann U87, which is a $3000 condenser microphone.

Sound Sensitivity

Sound sensitivity is the area of trade-off for dynamic microphones. Dynamic microphones are excellent at dealing with high sound pressure sources, but by the nature of how they are constructed, it can be more difficult to capture detail and subtlety than with condenser microphones. You’ll also have to place most dynamic microphones in very close proximity to the sound source in order to register an isolated signal.

 

The AKG c414 is a high-quality microphone commonly used in studio recording.

The AKG c414 is a high-quality microphone commonly used in studio recording.

Condenser Microphones

Usually found in studios, condenser microphones have the widest frequency response and best transient response as well.

Studio Quality

Because condenser microphones are very responsive, they do well in recording vocals, strings, acoustic guitar, woodwinds, and other sources with high detail output. In comparison to dynamic microphones, the diaphragm of a condenser microphone has much less mass, and is therefore able to track sound waves much more accurately. Of the two types, condenser microphones produce more accurate and detail-laden sound, but come with some drawbacks and inconveniences of their own.

External Power

For starters, condenser microphones require an external power source, typically 48V phantom power. These days, most mixing decks and studios will be able to provide a phantom power source. In some cases, vacuum tubes are used to power condenser mics, but usually only with boutique or vintage microphones. The need for an external power source can be inconvenient, although most do not require a separate power supply box any longer.

Fragility

Condenser microphones are also often fragile, and cannot take the same kind of abuse that dynamic microphones are able to withstand. For this reason, it is uncommon to see condenser mics onstage at live music performances, except for the occasional orchestral or choral performance, and sometimes as drum overheads. Some condenser microphones are so sensitive that even weather and humidity changes can make them perform differently or generate noise.

Price

As mentioned above, the price of condenser microphones can hurt—while there are affordable options available, the low end microphones will not offer the same kind of sound quality that high-end, and even mid-range options will. For home recording, a Rode NT1-A might do the trick at $229, but most professionals will step up to mid-range microphones such as the Rode NTK or Neumann TLM 102, which retail for around $700. A professional live music venue can stock up on Shure SM58’s at $99 a pop, but professional recording studios are not able to do the same.

In Comparison

Though they come with their share of quirks and drawbacks, a quality condenser microphone will produce the most accurate and high-fidelity sound recording. Dynamic microphones have great versatility, but for sheer sound quality, condenser microphones are second to none. If you'd like to check out a technical description of the difference between the two microphone types, click here for a detailed analysis and diagram from Shure.


How to Pick the Best Microphone 

Like most things in audio, choosing the microphone that’s right for you is always going to be subjective. Everyone has individual preferences when it comes to gear, but there are a few common uses for each microphone type.

 

Dynamic microphones

  • Live sound

  • Guitar amplifiers

  • Snare drums

  • Outdoor mic situations

  • When durability is necessary

 

Condenser Microphones

  • Studio use

  • Vocals

  • Strings

  • Woodwinds

  • Acoustic guitar

  • Drum overheads

 

Having trouble deciding? Here are some of our top picks.

 

Dynamic Microphones

Shure SM57/SM58 - $99

Sennheiser e935 - $169

Shure SM7B - $399

Electro Voice RE-20 - $449

Sennheiser MD 441-U - $899

 

Condenser Microphones

Rode NT1-A - $229

AKG C214 - $399

Rode NTK - $529

Neumann TLM 102 - $699

AKG C414 - $899

Neumann U87 - $3199
 

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