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When someone talks about a dynamic or condenser microphone, what do they mean?

How do these classes microphones differ, and are they used for different things?

Are there any more subdivisions of microphones within the spectrum of dynamic and condenser mics?

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Hopefully the new and improved microphone tag wiki (avp.stackexchange.com/tags/microphone/info) reflects all the information in this thread, plus a little more of my own. (Once it gets approved, of course.) –  WLPhoenix Oct 1 '12 at 2:37
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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The quick and dirty explanation.

Dynamic:

  • Usually but not always cheaper
  • more rugged and less likely to be damaged so a lot of stage work is done with dynamics
  • Used for high sound pressure work like on snare drum or instrument amp
  • Sometimes used in studio work though usually vocals and acoustic instruments will need condensers
  • typical example Shure SM58

Condenser:

  • Generally considered to be more sensitive, thus usually used in studios for vocals
  • Generally more expensive. Some condensers cost a lot
  • Can be easily damaged so not usually used on stage
  • Require Phantom power
  • Typcial example AKG C414

There are many other types of mic eg electret, ribbon, capacitor etc but these are not generally considered part of the condenser or dynamic divisions even though for instance elecret is actually a type of condenser mic. In stereotypical terms when we say dynamic we tend to mean a standard stage mic and when we say condenser we usually mean a high quality studio mic, though in truth it's a bit more complex.

Edit: Also should have mentioned that there are both large diaphragm and small diaphragm condensers.

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As Dr Mayhem says a dynamic mic moves a coil in a magnetic field to generate the electrical output, and condensers are based around changing capacitance of the transducer. Condensers require a pre-amp and power. The power for this can either be supplied by an internal battery or by 'phantom power' a DC voltage (usually between 9 and 48V) output by the mixer or whatever the mic is plugged into.

Dynamic mics are cheaper and more robust than condensers but are generally less sensitive and not as good at reproducing high frequencies. I would happily use a either type for vocals for example, but for a flute I would if at all possible use a condenser. There are other types such a PZM, but dynamic and condenser are the most common.

Both dynamic and condenser mics can be purchased with different pick up patterns. These patterns describe which direction the microphone is most sensitive in. The most common ones are (in no particular order): cardioid, hyper-cardioid and omni-directional.

Omnidirectional is the simplest to explain as it is equally sensitive to sounds from all directions. So would be good for recording general ambience for instance.

A cardioid mic is most sensitive to the front and sides as described by the cardioid shape shown below, and is a good general purpose mic.

A cardioid pick up pattern.

A hyper-cardioid pickup patten isn't as wide and has a rear lobe. Good when lots of instruments are close together and you want to mic them separately.

a super cardioid pickup pattern

Super-cardioid (similar to hyper-cardioid, shotgun (good for long range) and figure of 8 (good for 2 people sharing a mic) are also common. Most mics have a set pickup patten but mics such as the AKG C414 allow the pickup pattern to be changed using a switch. This change is managed by using 2 diaphragms and changing the ratio of each one in the final output.

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the cardioid pattern stuff is not really relevant to this question. –  naught101 Sep 29 '12 at 2:38
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The question ends with "Are there any more subdivisions of microphones within the spectrum of dynamic and condenser mics?" cardioid etc are such sub divisions. –  Phil Sep 29 '12 at 10:09
    
I dunno.. pick up pattern is pretty orthogonal to mic type, but it is ambiguous, I'll give you that. –  naught101 Sep 29 '12 at 11:30
    
Really, I was thinking more along sub-divisions such as diaphragm and ribbon being subsets of dynamic mics, but pickup patters are a reasonable dividing line. Most microphones of a similar transduction device tend to have similar sets of pickup patterns though. –  WLPhoenix Sep 30 '12 at 0:23
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Dynamic microphones are basically loudspeakers in reverse - instead of a voltage in an electromagnet moving a cone, sound waves move a magnetic material in and out of a coil, generating electricity. They are robust and have high gain so are used on stage a lot.

Condenser microphones are a capacitor where one of the two plates moves with the sound waves. These usually need a preamp but are cheap and have a good frequency response.

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coil, not cool :) –  naught101 Sep 29 '12 at 2:39
    
thanks- autocomplete is often amusing –  Rory Alsop Sep 29 '12 at 10:56
    
+1, short and to the point. However, dynamic microphones need a preamp as well... in fact, because condenser microphones usually have a preamp-stage built in already, the quality of the main mic preamp is rather more important for dynamic microphones than it is for condensers. –  leftaroundabout Sep 30 '12 at 20:50
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