FAQ: condenser vs dynamic microphones – what’s the difference?

Microphones are pretty important things to have on the stage or in the studio. There are plenty of types from which to choose but, basically, there are two main flavours. Time to take a quick look at condenser vs dynamic microphones!

Microphones as transducers

The job of a microphone is to turn one type of energy into another. This makes microphones a type of transducer. In this case, a microphone converts the energy of the moving air into electrical energy, that can be amplified, processed, recorded, vocoded and anything else you want to do it.

The way they go about converting the lyrics of your latest math/folk emo ballad into an electrical signal is quite straightforward, and leads us onto the main difference between dynamic and condenser microphones.

Condenser vs dynamic mics: how does a dynamic microphone work?How does a dynamic microphone work?

With a coil of wire and a magnet. A dynamic microphone works like a loudspeaker in reverse. A diaphragm is moved by the air movements and moves a coil of wire inside a magnetic field. This generates the current that is then amplified by your microphone preamplifier.

This design means that dynamic microphones are not the most sensitive of microphones, as those air movements have to move a heavy coil of wire about. Also, dynamic microphones aren’t as sensitive to the higher frequencies.

On the plus side, this design of microphone is relatively inexpensive and durable. Dynamic microphones are much less delicate than most condenser models, so are ideally suited to live use and situations where they can get hit by drumsticks.

Dynamic mics are also good at coping with loud sources, hence the old standby of putting a Shure SM57 in front of a guitar cabinet!

Condenser vs dynamic microphones: how does a condenser microphone work?How does a condenser microphone work?

Condenser microphones work using the electrical principle of capacitance. For this reason, condenser microphones are also known as capacitor mics. Instead of attaching a heavy metal coil to the diaphragm, a condenser microphone places the diaphragm a small distance away from a fixed plate to form an electrical capacitor.

As the diaphragm moves in response to the air pressure changes, the distance between the diaphragm and the back plate changes, changing the capacitance and leading to a change in voltage across the diaphragm and the back plate.

As the capacitor system needs a ‘plate voltage’ across it, condenser microphones require phantom power. This is usually 48V and is supplied by the microphone preamplifier. The phantom power also powers other parts of the microphone electronics that are required in condenser microphones.

This type of design is more delicate than the construction of dynamic microphones, and the greater number of components makes condenser microphones more expensive than dynamic models.

However, the fact that the diaphragm isn’t moving a large amount of metal about makes condenser microphones more sensitive than dynamic mics, and they also offer a better response at higher frequencies.

These attributes make condenser microphones great for the majority of studio tasks. In particular, the design of condenser microphone capsules means that some condenser microphones are engineered to offer different polar patterns- being able to pick up sound more or less selectively from different directions.

All that said though, there is an ever-increasing choice of condenser microphones designed for live use, for people who want the sensitivity and frequency response of a condenser microphone, with the rugged reliability of a dynamic.

Condenser vs dynamic mics – the verdict

If you just want one microphone for the studio, a large diaphragm condenser is the most versatile. Vocals, acoustic guitars, amplifiers, percussion, a condenser mic will do the job.

If you want a mics for the stage, dynamics remain the go-to choice. Shure SM58 for the vocals, SM57 for the amps and the snare, AKG D112 on the kick drum… Condensers are generally used as drum overheads – to catch those high frequencies – but they’re generally far out of the way of flailing sticks!

And we still have ribbon mics to cover, but that’s for another day!

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Fynn Callum

producer, guitarist, engineer & dj
From indie guitarist to deep house producer via Northern Soul dj; mix engineer, producer and gear enthusiast. Jaffa Cake aficionado.

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