What Is the Difference Between A Condenser and A Dynamic Microphone?

Dynamic-vs-Condenser-MicrophonesThe whole home recording equipment thing can be confusing. There isn't just one kind of microphone. To add to the confusion, they have scary-sounding names like "large-diaphragm condenser," and are often differentiated from each other by more strange and intimidating terms like "transformerless" or "field-effect transistor." To heck with that! I just want to know what mic to use and how it will sound.

Welcome to the world of jargon. Computer geeks have their jargon and so do audio geeks. At the end of the day I think we're stuck with some of these terms. But I'll try to clue you in to the things you should know, and the general rules-of-thumb for use. That should give you a starting point at least, without having to earn a degree in electrical engineering (although if you have one of those, it can be VERY handy in understanding microphones).

There are two main styles of mic, the condenser, and the dynamic. Don't worry about WHY they are called these things for now. Just remember that they are. All mics need to convert sound into electricity so it can be plugged into amplifiers and speakers and stuff. The main difference is how the mics do that conversion.

Condenser mics

These mics need an electrical charge in order to work. That charge usually comes from "phantom power" (yeah, I know...remember what I said about the terms) that is available from mixers or amplifiers. Once it's powered up, a condenser mic uses a bunch of EE (electrical engineering) formulas to turn the changing distance between two "plates" ("sound" makes one of the plates move back-and-forth) into the needed electrical signal. Condensers are more sensitive and quieter (and usually more expensive) than dynamic mics. They are typically used in the studio as opposed to the stage. The big ones (where you speak into the side instead of the end) are great for vocals and sometimes acoustic guitar (obviously other things too, but those are the biggies). The small ones (sometimes called cigars or pencil-mics) are best on acoustic guitars, other acoustic string instruments.

Dynamic mics

These mics don't need phantom power since they use a moving coil and a magnet to turn sound into the needed electrical signal. In fact, dynamic mics are really just loud-speakers in reverse. You know that film that make up the cone of your woofers? The one you can see bouncing back and forth when music comes out of it? There's a small, flat one of those attached to a spring (coil) inside a dynamic mic. In the middle of the spring is a magnet. When you scream into the end of a dynamic mic on stage, it makes the spring bounce up and down. That bouncing results in changes in the magnetic field, which makes the spring feel all funny inside (something about how magnets can "induce" some sort of sickness in coils of metal nearby. Some folks call it "induction," but I think it's just magic). Once the spring starts feeling odd, it sends out an electrical signal, kinda like "spring-puke." And voila, an electrical signal that can be sent to an amplifier. Dynamic mics are rugged and can stand up to lots of loudness and abuse, which is why they are preferred for live performances. Also, they can be used in the studio for drums and electric guitar amps.

I hope my glib, and rather juvenile explanation was at least a little bit useful. If nothing else, I hope you got a chuckle out of it.

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Toodles!

Ken

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