We’re big fans of condenser microphones, and prefer them to all other microphone types for all except specialty applications. We still use dynamic mics on drums and insanely loud guitar amps, but use small and large diaphragm condensers for just about anything else. In an age where ribbon mics, RE-20s, and SM-7Bs are all the rage, you might be wondering we still prefer condensers for just about everything.
The key is about the width of frequency response from low-end to high-end. Condenser microphones capture a far wider range of frequencies than dynamics or ribbon mics. Capturing a full frequency range then reducing it is preferable to capturing an incomplete frequency range, to begin with. Even inexpensive LDCs that come bundled with recording equipment, like the M-Audio Nova, sound superior to an SM-58 or an MD-421. An M-Audio Nova can be purchased used for about $80, whereas the inferior SM-58s retail for $99!
That said, not all condenser microphones are built equally. The previously mentioned M-Audio Nova sounds better than an SM-58, but we wouldn’t recommend it as a go-to mic. That said, the difference between microphones is more trivial than it may seem. The tone of a microphone can be corrected to some degree with EQ, as demonstrated by Ethan Winer (see our audio resources article). A few minutes in post-production could potentially make a relatively inexpensive microphone sound like a far more expensive one.
Better still, condensers have become increasingly more robust in the past few decades, not falling apart over minor bumps or drops. Cheap integrated chips imported from overseas have dramatically reduced manufacturing costs as well. Smaller, made-in-USA brands like Audix can compete closely with the boutique, more well-established German manufacturers like Neumann and Telefunken. The Audix CX-112B offers about 95% of the sound quality of $3,300 U-47 FET. Good small-diaphragm condensers like the Audix SCX-1 are nearly as good as the classic KM84 and slightly preferable to the newer KM184s.
The point of this article isn’t to be dogmatic, as dynamic mics and ribbon mics certainly have their places. For any screamingly loud instruments, like snare drums or Marshall stacks cranked all the way up, go for a dynamic mic. Ditto for recording in noisy environments like concerts. For isolated studio recordings, good condensers simply can’t be beaten. Doubtful? Put your condenser mics in a head-to-head shootout against your dynamic or ribbon mics, then let us know what you find in the comments.
Photo by Eryk Thompson. Instagram: @ErykThompson, Vero: @ErykThompson