The difference between condenser and dynamic mics


The difference between condenser and dynamic mics

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Although there are other types of microphone you can buy, the main ones for video production are condenser and dynamic mics. So what is the difference between condenser and dynamic mics and should you use one rather than the other?

In reality, both condenser and dynamic mics are used for video production, whether it is for creating YouTube videos or TV news and program production. To know which type of microphone to use in specific situations we need to know more how they work and their features.

Dynamic microphones

What is a dynamic microphone

The design of Dynamic microphones is more simple than that of condsenser microphones, with relatively few internal parts. For this reason, they tend to be robust, reliable, and resist a lot of rough handling.

However, modern solid-state electronic components have enabled condenser microphone design to rival the robustness of dynamic mics. For instance, if a microphone is dropped onto a hard floor the high acceleration forces may damage the suspended coil in a dynamic mic.

Those same forces may not affect the solid-state electronic components so severely. None-the-less, dynamic microphones are generally regarded as being better able to withstand rough handling.

Dynamic microphones can handle high Sound Pressure Levels (SPL), or what people commonly think of as loudness. Dynamics will accept higher levels before they start to distort. They produce a consistent sound quality across a wide range of situations.

Dynamic mics do not require power

Since dynamic microphones do not normally have electronic components they do not require any power, neither from your recording equipment nor from internal batteries. But this not always the case. There are some powered dynamic mics and they are usually referred to as active dynamic microphones.

An example is the Blue enCORE 200 that uses phantom power. It is a vocal mic that the makers claim will give you studio-grade quality while performing onstage. So it will take a degree of rough handling.

Dynamic mics are robust

Dynamic microphones are quite robust since there are few components that can fail. This is why dynamic mics are popular with touring bands and live musicians.

Normally rough handling involves the mic being dumped into a kit bag or swung around onstage by its cable but Shure Mike recorded a video to demonstrate how the Shure SM58, a dynamic mic, handles being thrown into the ocean, crushed by a pick-up truck and barbecued. Apart from some superficial damage the SM58 did pretty well.

How dynamic microphones work

Dynamic microphones use an electro-mechanical method to convert sound energy into electrical energy. The microphone capsule consists of a diaphragm linked to a coil of wire that is suspended within a magnetic field. Incoming sound waves cause the diaphragm and coil to vibrate. When a wire moves within a magnetic field a current is induced or generated.

However, the induced current is very small so the wire is wound into a coil, effectively magnifying the induced current. Since the sound waves cause a back-and-fore vibration in the coil, the electrical current is also a vibration that is manifested at the microphone’s output as a varying voltage that we use in a camera or recorder.

In the case of the mic capsule, the coil of wire vibrates back and fore in the magnetic field, which generates a vibrating electrical current. It is this electrical vibration can be recorded by a video camera or an external digital audio recorder.

Electronically most dynamic microphones are relatively simple since they do not use electronic components in their construction. This is the complete opposite of condenser microphones. One obvious difference between different types of dynamic microphones is the diaphragm size.

Generally, mic elements with larger diaphragms tend to produce deeper and smoother audio. This is why dynamic mics intended for voice or vocal work often have large diaphragms. These include the ElectroVoice RE20 and Shure SM7b.

What is a dynamic microphone used for

Dynamic microphones are used where you want to reduce the ambient sound relative to your voice level. However, it comes at the price of having the microphone visible in the shot. Typically you could use a handheld dynamic microphone for live vocal performance, reporting and public speaking.

Dynamic mics would also be good for recording voice-overs and podcasts, due to the rapid drop-off in sensitivity with distance. Dynamic mics are also suited to recording amplified or loud instruments, the Shure SM577 being such a mic.

You will see Dynamic microphones being used at live events, where their lower sensitivity makes them useful in loud environments. Handheld dynamic mics will frequently be seen being used by public speakers, reporters at red carpet events and sports arenas, as well as reporters covering news stories.

Since the sensitivity of a dynamic mic drops-off quickly with distance, they are suited to recording the human voice where there may be significant background noise. This may include recording voice-overs for videos and podcasts in an apartment with moderately noisy neighbors.

I demonstrate how a dynamic microphone’s sensitivity quickly drops off with distance in a video and article where I use an AudioTechnica PRO 31 in a noisy room. If you watch the video you will notice how my voice level drops significantly when the mic is moved from a few inches to 15 inches from my mouth.

Condenser microphones

What is a condenser microphone

Condenser microphones convert sound energy into electrical energy. In essence, they use a capacitor or condenser, to convert sound vibrations into electrical vibrations. Generally, one of the capacitor plates is fixed (the backplate) and the other (the diaphragm) is allowed to move. The diaphragm is often a thin layer of gold-sputtered mylar, and therefore conductive.

Because the plates can carry an electrical charge they will have a property known as capacitance. This capacitance will vary as the distance between the diaphragm and backplate changes. This small change in capacitance is translated into a varying voltage and a tiny current.

The current has to be amplified before it can usefully be output from the microphone. This requires the addition of some electronics and power. The power can come from an external source (phantom power supply or the camera) or from onboard batteries.

Although condenser microphones are more complicated than dynamic mics their moving parts are much less massive. Since there is less mass to move around condenser mics can follow the sound waves more accurately. Condenser mics are also more sensitive and offer the widest frequency response.

The large diaphragm condensers are good at picking up even smaller differences in sound pressure. This potentially allows them to be more accurate and detailed in their sound reproduction.

With so much going for condenser mics why don’t we see them used everywhere? In actual fact, they are. Where you have a small inexpensive microphone it’s likely to be a condenser mic. For instance, the microphone inside your smartphone will be a condenser. However, there are plenty of situations where you do not want to use a condenser microphone.

If windy conditions or where rough handling is likely then a dynamic microphone will be a better choice. Also, consider the cost. Although a $3,000+ Neumann U87 may be your dream studio microphone, you wouldn’t risk taking it on the road.

For touring, the Shure SM58 dynamic mic would do a brilliant job for just $100. Plus, you just know it would survive any amount of rough handling, including being run over by a pickup truck.

Popular condenser microphones for recording voiceovers include the Rode NT1A, Audio-Technica AT2035, SE Electronics sE2200, and Neumann TLM 102. For recording dialogue with a boom mic, the Samson CO2  supercardioid mic represents great value for money. If you want to go for a higher quality condenser microphone consider the Rode NTG4+.

Condenser microphones require power

One important way that condenser microphones differ from dynamic microphones is that they require electrical power. This can be power from your video camera or recorder, battery power or USB power.

Battery and phantom condenser mic power

External electrical power is usually referred to as phantom power and can range from 12 volts to 48 volts. Phantom power is provided by professional video cameras, as can be seen in the image above. However, mixers, sound interfaces and digital recorders, such as the Zoom H55, can also supply phantom power to condenser microphones.

Often Phantom power is supplied to the microphone by the video camera or sound interface via the microphone cable. On-camera condenser microphones for DSLRs, like the RODE VideoMic Pro plus, usually use internal battery power. Some condenser microphones, such as the Sennheiser ME66 and RODE NTG4+, can work with either phantom or battery power.

What is a condenser microphone used for

Condenser microphones tend to be more sensitive than dynamics, so can capture sounds at a distance. Examples would be shotgun mics and supercardioid mics for ENG news, TV production, and filmmaking. Smartphones and small recording devices will use condenser mics. The ability to be small means they are used as lavalier microphones.

Because the transducer on a condenser microphone is very light it can react quickly and accurately to sound vibrations. This is ideal for recording acoustic instruments, like classical guitar, and vocals in the studio where you want to record the subtleties in the sound. Although large diaphragm condenser microphones are fantastic in the recording studio they are also excellent for voiceover work and podcasts.

To be honest, what’s not to love about a good condenser microphone? Especially since they tend to give a broader frequency response along with that higher sensitivity! However, large diaphragm condenser microphones are generally not suited for use on location shoots.

Microphone Sensitivity

The sensitivity of a microphone is the amount of output produced for a given sound input, or sound pressure level (SPL) input. It is often quoted in one or two ways. The figure may be in decibels relative to 1 volt per 1 pascal (dB re 1 V at 1 Pa) or millivolt per pascal (mV/Pa).

If the sensitivity is quoted in dB (a logarithmic scale) then the figure will be a negative number, where numbers closer to zero represent higher sensitivities. Meanwhile, in the millivolt per pascal system the higher the output number the higher the sensitivity.

When using a high sensitivity microphone you will be able to turn down the input level on your video camera or digital audio recorder. Whereas lower sensitivity microphones may require turning your input gain almost to maximum. In the latter situation, you may end up making the internal noise from your mic preamps more audible.

If this is the case you might want to consider using a different microphone or include an in-line microphone preamplifier between your microphone and camera/recorder. Two such preamps are the Cloudlifterr or FetHead.

The FetHead is less expensive than the Cloudlifter but if you opt for the FetHead make sure you get the correct one for your microphone. For dynamic mics, you will need a normal FetHead but for Condenser mics, you will need the FetHead Phantom.

You may think that you might always want to opt for the most sensitive microphone you can afford, however, this might not be wise. Consider how loud your sound source will be and how close it will be to your microphone.

If you look at the Microphone Sensitivity Comparison graphic below you will notice the MOVO LV1 lavalier microphone is at the bottom of my list of ten microphones. However, I have used the MOVO LV1 on many YouTube and online training videos with great success.

Because the microphone capsule is usually placed 6 – 12 inches from the speaker’s mouth the apparent lower sensitivity of the lavalier mic is not a problem since the voice will appear to be quite loud at such a close distance. Consequently, the input gain on the recorder or mic preamp does not need to be turned up too high, so the internal noise of the recorder/preamp should not be too noticeable.

Generally, the closer you are to the mic the better since the level of the voice decreases by 6 dB (it’s reduced by one-half) when the mouth to microphone distance is doubled.

Be aware that the sensitivity of your microphone can vary slightly due to environmental conditions. This is more true of dynamic microphones, whose sensitivity will normally vary more due to variation in humidity and temperature.

I have only really noticed this when performing tests at a VERY warm and humid swimming pool. For the actual shoot, I used a condenser shotgun mic for poolside audio and a lavalier microphone on the swimming instructor in the pool. Both microphones were protected from the excessive humidity and water by using unlubricated condoms and sealed with amalgamating tape.

In the following graphic, I compare ten popular low to mid-price microphones used by YouTubers and budget professionals. The most sensitive microphones are condensers, no surprise there. Budget lavalier microphones, which are a type of condenser microphone, fall further down the list amongst the dynamic microphones.

Microphones for video recording - Microphone sensitivity

Can you get too close to a condenser or dynamic microphone

It depends on what you are trying to achieve, whether you want the microphone to appear in the shot and what type of microphone you are using. Some microphones exhibit what is known as a proximity effect. This is where low frequencies are accentuated when you get very close to the microphone. This is exploited by radio announcers and vocalists to make the voice appear big, fat and sexy.

But the proximity effect does not necessarily make the voice sound natural. Furthermore, the necessary close-mic technique can look very odd on camera. Unless you are exploiting the proximity effect in a voiceover session, it is unlikely to feature in normal videos. This is because the microphone is unlikely to be close enough to your talent’s mouth.

The proximity effect is most often a feature of directional microphones. However, microphones like the Electro-Voice RE20 can compensate for the proximity effect. The RE20 achieves this through the use of their Variable-D™ technology. Essentially this uses multiple slots cut into the side of the microphone body. Apparently high frequencies enter nearest to the microphone’s diaphragm. Mid frequencies enter about halfway down the microphone body. Finally, lower frequencies enter farthest from the diaphragm. The overall result is that the proximity effect is eliminated.

Some mics tackle the proximity effect by including a high pass switch that rolls off bass frequencies. This can also help reduce low-frequency rumble from nearby sound sources, such as roads and industrial plants.

Self-Noise or equivalent noise level

If you turn up the level on your mic preamp you will probably hear some hiss or electrical noise. Some of that noise will be generated by the pre-amp but some will come from the microphone. That proportion of noise has nothing to do with ambient sound but is the noise produced by the microphone itself. It is known as the equivalent noise level but is most commonly referred to as self-noise. The equivalent sound level is the level of sound that would create the same output voltage in a sound free environment.

In the specifications for a condenser microphone, the self-noise is given in dB-A. The “A” indicates that the figure relates to the way that the human ear perceives sound. Essentially the lower the self-noise the better. But if you are recording a loud sound a microphone with a slightly higher self-noise figure may be OK. In such a case you are unlikely to hear the noise in relation to the much louder voice.

Neumann gives what it regards as ultra-quiet to noisy microphone self-noise figures on its website. In practice, microphones with higher self-noise figures are likely to be OK for video. That is because ambient noise levels are likely to be higher the self-noise of quiet (and expensive) microphones. So do not worry if your mic does not

Dynamic microphones do not specify a self-noise figure. They generally do not contain any electronic components since the mic capsule essentially consists of a wire coil and magnet. Because the sensitivity of a dynamic mic is lower than that of a condenser microphone the noise depends more on the quality of the mic preamp and how high you turn the gain.

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