Let’s discuss microphones for a moment. Specifically, what’s the difference between a condenser and a dynamic microphone?
First, here’s an example of a fine condenser microphone – a Rode NT2A.
This is a microphone that is good for doing most kinds of recording projects, not to mention any sort of podcasting or broadcasting tasks. You can record almost any instrument with it, and it’s just a really solid mic of the condenser variety!
Then we have the Shure SM58 dynamic mic, which is a rough and rugged microphone that could probably survive being run over by a tractor (don’t try it though).
The Shure SM58 can record instruments as well, but it is also a go-to live performance mic for many performers, including and especially rock performers.
Of course, everyone is a fan of different mics by different manufacturers, and so these are just being used as examples for the sake of our comparison here.
Ok, so now you have a visual reference for each type of microphone, both condenser and dynamic. So, what’s the difference?
Similarities Between Condenser and Dynamic Mics
First, what’s the same? Both types of microphones have transducers that change the vibrations they encounter into energy that is recorded as electrical energy. That energy goes from an instrument, to the mic, along the chord, and into your computer or a mixing board. Microphones are designed a lot like speakers, actually, but a speaker is built almost like a microphone but it does the opposite job!
While some people believe that the main difference between condenser mics versus dynamic mics comes from the direction(s) of the sound being captured (eg. omnidirectional or unidirectional), but that isn’t the case.
The main difference comes from the way in which the mic captures the sound and translates it into energy, not the way that the sound enters the microphone itself.
How Does A Dynamic Microphone Work?
A dynamic microphone has a diaphragm, coil, and magnet inside that will vibrate as sound waves hit it. The waves of sound hit the diaphragm first, which causes it to move. The voice coil or wire coil is what will generate the electrical signal within the magnet.
This simple construction of dynamic mics means that they have the ability to handle abuse from rough handling as well as high sound levels. A typical dynamic mic can be exposed to highs and lows in temperature without a serious impact on the mechanics inside. I’ve tested this accidentally by leaving my dynamic mics in my car in the winter overnight and they still work!
The construction of these mics will often lead to cheaper microphones compared to condensers, but that will depend on the manufacturer more than anything else. Some dynamic mics are pricy, and rightly so.
How Does A Condenser Microphone Work?
A condenser microphone also has a diaphragm, but it’s attached to a sensitive capacitor that will capture the sound waves. These sound waves charge the capacitor, or condenser, and create an electrical field within the mic between the diaphragm and the backplate.
There has to be a way for the microphone to keep the electrical charge going, which is why condenser microphones need power to work correctly. The power can be provided by battery or phantom power.
The addition of all the electronics inside the microphone means that it can’t take abuse like a dynamic microphone can, generally speaking. There’s also a signal level that the condenser mic can’t exceed.
Condenser microphones are a bit more expensive than their dynamic counterparts, on the whole. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.
Here’s a video that explains the differences fairly well.
Now it’s time to bust some myths regarding supposed differences between each microphone, and why one type of mic is said to be better than the other.
Dynamic Mics Can Take a Ton of Abuse
Dynamic microphones can certainly take a bit more abuse than condenser mics, but you can’t drop the mic and expect it to work well. It doesn’t matter what kind of mic you have. They can only handle so much damage before the mechanism inside is knocked out of alignment. The mechanism inside the dynamic mic relies less on intricate electronic parts, so it can handle moisture and temperature changes better than a condenser microphone. Unless the manufacturer explicitly says that the mic you’ve purchased is practically invincible, don’t treat it as such!
Shure is one such company that makes claims that you can literally run over their dynamic mics and it’s no big deal.
Condenser Mics are Louder
There’s no microphone that is louder than another, whether it is a condenser or dynamic mic. That’s not the way microphones work. They have different sensitivities, not loudness. Dynamic mics are able to capture louder sounds compared to a condenser. That’s why people like to scream into dynamic mics, or mic their drums and proceed to beat on them mercilessly. On the opposite side, the condenser will register low sounds. This is why they’re both used for different types of situations.
For instance, here is a video showing how to record drums with 4 mics, including both dynamic mics and condenser mics. This is a strategy for getting the best sound possible, by knowing which mics pick up which sounds the best.
Dynamic Mics Can Do It All!
Dynamic mics have a reputation of being totally all-purpose, and manufacturers will say you can use them for anything and everything. While it might be cheaper to purchase more than one dynamic microphone, the choice of which mic(s) you should purchase should depend more on what you need to record or amplify with the mic.
Evaluate the recording situation at hand and decide whether you should have all dynamic, all condenser, or a mixture of the two based on the instrument.
For voice overs, lectures, and other voice needs, you’ll have to do your research to find the best choice. It won’t always be based on price, and having a mic that can do every job adequately might not be as good as a mic that specifically does one thing excellently.
As you can see in the following anime voiceover video for Kiki’s delivery service, a condenser mic is used. It is used for a reason. With voiceover work, you want your voice to be clear and detailed to pick up all the nuances. Most dynamic mics couldn’t be used for this task.
Condensers are More Expensive, Which Makes Them the Better Choice
This is a problem with many people. They’ll buy a product because it’s more expensive believing that alone makes it better. In fact, you should purchase the microphone, condenser or dynamic, based on the needs of the situation. Many producers and audio engineers will research their purchases and land on something that will fit many situations while being within their budget. At the same time, as with most things, you do generally get what you pay for.
Here is some wisdom by recording artist 2 Chainz, reacting to some of the world’s most expensive products. Perhaps this will convey the lesson that just because it’s expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what you really need.
You’ve taken the first step towards deciding whether to purchase a condenser mic or a dynamic mic, which is to do your research. Take your budget into account as well as the environment and event, too. The mic that you use for a concert will be different than the one used for a lecture. You can get some crossover from a good, quality mic, but you want the best one for the situation to get a fantastic recording.
For an outdoor event that has the chance to be extremely hot, cold, or damp, you want to use a dynamic microphone because they handle the environment better. For an element-controlled space like a studio or office, you can use a condenser microphone.