Microphones: What Is A Condenser Microphone? - Musician Nerd

Updated on Dec 14, 2020

Today we’re going to talk about Condenser microphones. What they are, what they’re used for, why they may be the right choice, and more.

The two most commonly found microphones these days are either Dynamic or Condenser. Prior to the popularity of condenser microphones, people would use ribbon mics, and while not often seen, it’s still possible to acquire vintage ribbon microphones, but they will cost you a pretty penny.

So out of the two common choices, what is the difference?

Dynamic microphones are commonly used as live performance microphones, and the condenser mics for studio recording. But in actuality, their use cases will vary, and you may sometimes find a dynamic mic in the studio, and a condenser mic on stage.

So why are condenser microphones primarily found in recording studios? This really comes down to the engineering behind them. For starters, condenser microphones are highly sensitive to noise, due to the remarkably light diaphragm within the condenser capsule.

Condenser Microphone With Metal Pop filter
Condenser Microphone With Metal Pop Filter

When you’re recording audio through a condenser mic, the diaphragm moves in relation to the backplate component, creating an electrical signal, which will be your audio input. Imagine you suspended a piece of tissue-paper from the ceiling. And now imagine that every time the tissue-paper moves, no matter how small the movement, it’s recording audio.

That’s similar to the sensitivity of a condenser microphone. And because of this, it’s a common problem in home studios to pick up a lot of white noise.

I often tell people that before you go with a condenser microphone, consider any background noise your home may have, the reverberance (echo) in the room you’re choosing to record in, and assess whether you’ll be able to shell out any extra cash to mitigate those issues.

It’s by no-means a deal breaker, and I don’t wish to discourage anybody from looking into condenser microphones, because there is a ton of reasons for their popularity, and more ways than one to handle the noise.

Granted, if you’re using high end condenser microphones, noise will become less of an issue. The engineering behind the capsule, capacitor, and diaphragm will play a major role in how noise is generated and recorded, and it’s important to keep that in mind when picking out your first microphone.

When you can’t afford to buy a decent model condenser microphone, it can be more worthwhile to use a dynamic, however, this truly depends on your cicrumstances.

So what else is it used for?

While very popular in the studio, condenser microphones can be pretty versatile. Some of the more popular gaming mics, podcast mics, and desktop mics in general are condensers, such as the Blue Yeti USB or the AKG Project Studio series.

Dual Condenser Microphone Setup Suspended
Dual Condenser Microphone Setup Suspended

Due to the light-weight diaphragm, as mentioned above, condenser microphones have a superior transient response to them, which allows for extreme precision on picking up sound waves. Transient response is reference to how the microphone picks up large bursts of energy, allowing it to follow & capture these sound waves with superior quality.

Imagine you’re playing the guitar, and every time you’re strumming, it fires off millions of waves. If you’re recording on your phone, it won’t have the same transient response, and so it will only pick up what it can, resulting in a scrappy recording.

This also applies to wide frequency audio. Condensers are very well known for their wide & flat frequency response, resulting in a large-bodied & warm sound. When compared to similar-quality dynamic mics, the recorded input is going to sound full and circular, almost perfect, whereas the dynamic audio is going to sound more narrowed in.

This allows you to capture the full picture of your audio, especially when recording vocals. Beyond that, the advantages of this response hold tremendous value on the production side.

When working with mastering and applying affects, it’s essential to be making these applications to every frequency possible. This will make for a major increase in the quality and reduce any “mushiness” on the effect.

I like to use the analogy of editing a low-resolution photo & one that’s in 4k. When you apply certain filters and effects to low resolution images, it can potentially make it worse, granular, or just blurry. You wouldn’t treat it the same way as you would the 4k.

Audio is really similar in this aspect. Except instead of pixels, we have frequencies.

So what’s going on inside of the condenser microphone?

You may hear condenser mics referred to as capacitor microphones. To understand the meaning behind this, you’ll need to know what a capacitor is.

The basic principle behind it is, when you have two metal plates within a short distance of each other, the space between creates capacitance, which increases the closer they are.

This is exactly what happens with the Diaphragm and the metal plate found within the condenser capsule.

Remember the tissue-paper analogy earlier?

Imagine there is now a wall behind it. Every time you sing into the paper, the sound waves from your voice push this paper in an extremely unique manner, so the way the capacitance changes is completely relative to your sound waves. So the electric signals being generated are a true conversion of the audio you’re singing into this paper.

In reality, this won’t work with paper, as we’ll need some sort of current to create this capacitance.

Most often, condenser mics are built with gold-sputtered mylar on the surface of the diaphragm. This metal can then conduct enough electricity to create the signal-conversion of our sound waves.

Condenser Microphone Sitting On Desk
Condenser Microphone Sitting On Desk

As cool as all of that is, it doesn’t create enough current to be noticeable. The capacitor is not large enough to hold the energy required to generate noticeable output, and so it requires an impedance converter. What this does is offers more signal to the outside world, enough for us to capture the audio input and record our sound.

The world-wide standard for powering condenser microphones is a Neumann invention known as P48 Phantom Power (+48V, as you may often see on preamps).

Phantom power is found in most preamps, and this requirement is a key difference between dynamic microphones and condenser microphones.

That being said, not every condenser microphone requires phantom power. Particularly when talking about desktop & gaming microphones.

The Blue Yeti Pro, for example, is able to capture the required voltage from the USB port of your computer. However, it’s worth noting that this is not the type of microphone you’ll find in a quality recording studio.

Posted on Sep 14, 2020


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