Shopping for the Best Microphones for Vocals? These Are the 4 Key Factors to Consider

by | Apr 24, 2023

Best microphones for vocals

Are you looking for the best microphones for vocals? When you make a song with lyrics, finding the best microphones for vocals can be a daunting task based on all the technical differences and number of available options. 

Choosing the best microphones for vocals is not straightforward since there are four factors to consider. These primary factors are the microphone’s transducer, polar pattern, frequency range, and sensitivity.

In this article, I will review each of those factors so you can understand why they matter for recording vocals. There will also be recommendations for the best microphones for vocals.



Microphone Types and their Transducers

What is a Transducer?

A transducer is a device that converts one form of energy into another. In the case of a microphone, a transducer is the part of the microphone that converts sound waves (vibrations in the air) into electrical signals that can be recorded, amplified, or transmitted.

Why Microphone Transducers Matter

The type of transducer in a microphone determines the sensitivity of the microphone and the sound frequencies that can be captured.

When choosing the best microphones for vocals, there are three popular transducers to consider: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon. Let’s go over the characteristics of these three transducer types to understand the differences between them.

Three Types of Transducers in Microphones

1. Condenser Microphones

Condenser microphones have transducers that are known for their high sensitivity and ability of its capsule to pick up even the slightest sounds. They can also capture a very wide frequency range.

The sensitivity is due to its diaphragm, which is made of a very thin film made of plastic known as BoPET. Larger diaphragms are more sensitive than smaller diaphragms, which are stiffer. 

Due to their high sensitivity, condenser microphones with large diaphragm condensers are generally more popular in professional recording studios.

These types of microphones work best when recording in quiet environments that have acoustic treatment. Rooms that do not have acoustic treatment allow sounds to reflect off walls, which can be picked up by condenser microphones.

Condenser transducers get their name because they use a capacitor, which was previously known as a “condenser” as they compress electricity. 

Keep in mind that condenser microphones require an external power source because they use capacitors. The external power is known as phantom power, which is fed through an XLR cable.

2. Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones have transducers that are durable and require more pressure to generate an electrical signal. They are more suited for recording in untreated rooms as they do not easily capture room noise. 

These microphones are flexible since they do not require external power, and they are also incredibly durable and can handle very high sound pressure levels.

Dynamic microphones are used in recording studios, particularly for capturing louder sound sources such as drums or electric guitars. They are often used for recording vocals that require a high level of volume.

Dynamic microphones get their name since it is similar to a dynamo, a machine that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy. A dynamic microphone transducer is a metal coil that surrounds a magnetic pole. When sound waves strike the microphone’s diaphragm, the coil moves and causes electrical energy to be produced. 

Dynamic microphones are less sensitive since it takes a higher sound pressure level to move the coil.

A video showing how dynamic transducers work

3. Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon microphones are mainly used for instruments and are less commonly used for vocals. They are associated with a vintage sound and have the ability to produce warmer mid frequencies and softer high frequencies.

The transducer in a ribbon microphone has a thin ribbon made of a corrugated non-magnetic metal foil set between two magnets. The thin ribbon moves from sound vibrations, which cause electricity to be produced.

A video of ribbon transducers and how they are made

Polar Patterns

What is a Microphone’s Polar Pattern?

A microphone’s polar pattern, as known as directional or pickup pattern, refers to the microphone’s sensitivity to sounds coming from different directions. The pickup area in front of the microphone is considered to be “on axis”.

Why Polar Patterns are Important

Different polar patterns are used to achieve various sound capture techniques and produce a desired effect in recordings. Understanding the different polar patterns is important for achieving high-quality recordings in different environments and applications.

These are the three most common polar patterns are cardioid, figure-8 (bidirectional), and omnidirectional.

Three Types of Polar Patterns in Microphones

1. Cardioid Microphone

The most common type of microphone is the cardioid microphone, which has a polar pattern that resembles the shape of a heart, hence the name. There are three cardioid microphones each with different areas that pick up sound waves in the front of the microphone.

The cardioid microphone, in general, has a narrow on-axis pickup pattern. This polar pattern is the best to avoid any noises from the sides and back of the microphone.

A supercardioid microphone has a narrower on-axis pickup pattern than the basic cardioid microphone, which further reduces sound pick up on the sides. However, the supercardioid microphone’s polar partner has a small pickup in the rear, so some noise from that area will be captured.

Finally, a hypercardioid microphone has an even narrower polar pattern in the front compared to the supercardioid. However, the polar pattern in the back of a hypercardioid microphone is larger than a supercardioid microphone.

Each cardioid microphone is ideal for recording vocals directly in front of the microphone and reducing any other noises to the side of the vocalists. The supercardioid microphone and  hypercardioid microphone are suited for vocalists who need to further reduce capturing noise that may be next to or behind them.

2. Figure 8 Microphone

A figure 8 microphone, also known as a bidirectional microphone, has a polar pattern that is ideal for recording vocalists on each side of the microphone. This is useful when recording multiple musicians in the same room.

This microphone has a polar pattern with the most narrow on-axis pickup area, which is more narrow than a cardioid. Additionally, there are also null points on the sides where sound is not picked up based on the design of the figure 8 microphone polar pattern.

It is important for vocalists to avoid moving side-to-side or there will be noticeable changes in the characteristics of the vocals.

3. Omnidirectional Microphone

An omnidirectional microphone has a polar pattern that captures sound equally from all directions. This polar pattern is ideal for recording group vocals. The downside of using an omnidirectional microphone is picking up unwanted sounds in the background.

Below is a video that demonstrates the different polar patterns using the AKG C414 condenser microphone.

A video of different microphone polar patterns

Frequency Range

What is a Microphone’s Frequency Range?

A microphone’s frequency range refers to the frequencies, a sound’s pitch, that the microphone can detect and accurately reproduce. It refers to the lowest and highest frequencies that the microphone can pick up and is typically measured in Hertz (Hz).

Why Frequency Range is Important

It makes logical sense to believe the best microphones for vocals will have the ability to capture the widest frequency range possible. However, that is not necessarily true. The best microphones for vocals depends on the source of the sound, and the frequencies intended to be captured and reproduced.

Notably, the human ear can hear frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz (20kHz). Below are examples of frequencies that go below and above that range to understand what they sound like.

The person who holds the world’s record for singing the lowest note is Tim Storms. He is able to make his voice produce a frequency that is only 15Hz, which is an extremely low pitch that most speakers cannot reproduce. Here is a video of Tim Storms singing that frequency.

On the other end of the spectrum, a Brazilian singer known as Georgia Brown holds the world record for reaching the highest pitch when singing. She has the incredible ability to reach the extremely high frequency of 25,100Hz. If you have speakers or headphones that can reproduce sounds beyond 25,000, here is a video of Georgia Brown singing extremely high notes. Make sure you turn down the volume before playing the video.

As you can (or cannot) hear from the videos above, the lowest and highest frequencies are not commonly found in music. A microphone that is able to capture the full frequency range audible by the human ear does not necessarily make it better than one that does not. 

When it comes to frequency range, the best microphones for vocals will be able to accurately capture the intended frequencies and reproduce them most accurately in the desired tone. 

Sensitivity

What is Microphone Sensitivity?

Microphone sensitivity refers to how efficiently a microphone converts sound waves into electrical signals. It is usually measured in decibels (dB) or millivolts (mV) per pascal (Pa).

Why Microphone Sensitivity Is Important

The sensitivity of a microphone is an important factor to consider when choosing the best microphones for vocals. In different settings, the sensitivity will affect the quality and clarity of the recorded sound.

A highly sensitive microphone will pick up sounds with a lower sound pressure level (SPL), or in other words, quieter sounds. This is best suited in a quiet room, such as a professional studio with acoustic treatment.

On the other hand, less sensitive microphones require a higher SPL, or louder sounds, to produce an electrical signal. A less sensitive microphone is ideal for environments that are not quiet, rooms that have not received acoustic treatment, or on a stage.

1. Sensitivity of Condenser Microphones

In general, condenser microphones are more sensitive than dynamic or ribbon microphones. They have a more delicate diaphragm and require less physical force to move. Due to their low sensitivity, it is also important for the microphone itself to produce very low noise.

2. Sensitivity of Dynamic Microphones

By design, dynamic microphones have diaphragms that can handle higher SPLs and are the least sensitive to small changes in sound. This makes them ideal for recording in noisy environments and loud instruments like drums and electric guitars.

3. Sensitivity of Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon microphones are slightly more sensitive than dynamic microphones. These microphones have diaphragms made of a very thin piece of corrugated metal, which is typically aluminum.


What Are the Best Microphones for Vocals?

If you are recording in a quiet room, or want to pick up subtle nuances or softer singing, a condenser microphone will be the best microphones for vocals. For environments that are not silent, dynamic microphones would be the best microphones for vocals to ensure you are able to eliminate background noise as much as possible. If want to the microphone to sound more natural and warm, a ribbon microphone will be the best microphones for vocals.

Click here for a list of the best microphones for recording vocals, which includes reviews for each type.

About the Author

Jon Chen
Jon is a lawyer with more than 15 years of experience practicing law. His passion for music began when he was a child, which led him to learn how to play the piano, saxophone, trombone, and guitar. He enjoys analyzing music and helping others succeed and live a better life.