Can I Use A Dynamic Microphone For Studio Recording – And How Do They Differ From Condenser Microphones
With condenser microphones being the new darling of the recording studio, dynamic microphones are increasingly bring treated as second-class citizens in commercial studios. Many home studios don't even consider using dynamic microphones. Have dynamic microphones become redundant in the modern day recording studio?
Not so long ago, dynamic microphones were the mainstay of the stage and studio. Some models like the Shure SM58 reached iconic status, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. With such a rich history and still used by world famous bands and vocalists on stages the world over, how can the dynamic microphone possibly be shunned in anyway?
The main argument and criticism against the dynamic microphone is not its role as the microphone of choice for the stage and live events, but its place in the recording studio.
There are a variety of reasons artists and sound engineers in recording studios are increasingly moving away from the dynamic microphone. When looking more closely though, two main reasons are emerging. They are the emergence of new technology and current limitations. Let me explain.
New Technology And Current Limitations
The emergence and growing popularity of the condenser microphone is the "new technology" that is playing a big part in the decreased use of the dynamic microphone in the recording studio environment.
To be honest, the condenser microphone is hardly new technology. Microphone manufacturer Neumann, has been producing condenser microphones since 1928! It is only during recent years that advances in technology allowed condenser microphones to produce the level of audio quality and sensitivity we are seeing today.
What is really making a condenser microphone so popular and suitable for studio use is way it is constructed. Unlike a dynamic microphone which is passive (unpowered),condenser microphones require an electrical current to operate.
What makes a condenser microphone operate is a powered capacitor consisting of two plates placed closely together. The front plate is made of a very thin material and act as as the diaphragm. As sound waves hits the diaphragm, it vibrates and cause the distances to the back plate to contract and expand, creating an electrical charge and the corresponding signal is then interpreted and carried through down the cable.
The electrical current needed to power the capacitor in condenser microphones can be provided by either an internal battery, or externally through phantom power. Phantom power is provided via the microphone cable.
(When connected through a XLR cable to an audio interface, the audio interface provides 48 volts of phantom power to the condenser microphone through the XLR cable. When connected via USB, power is supplied via the USB cable to the microphone.)
It is the thin and extremely responsive diaphragm of the condenser microphone that sets it apart. It is extremely sensitive and therefore able to pick up very low sound levels and the smallest variations in sound. This enable the microphone to pick a lot more sound detail over a much wider dynamic range.
This ability of condenser microphones to capture more detail makes them ideal for studio use where their full potential can be exploited. (Their sensitive nature also makes them prone to pick up a lot more background noise, which is why recording studios, where acoustic treatment has been used to cancel out as much noise and reverberation as possible, provide the perfect environment for their use.)
This advantage of the condenser microphone highlights the limitation of the dynamic microphone. Due to its construction, a much bigger sound volume is required to move the diaphragm enough to produce a signal, causing lower sound volumes not to be picked up at all by a dynamic microphone.
To better understand this, we need to look more closely at how a dynamic microphone operates and captures sound.
The Make-Up Of A Dynamic Microphone
The dynamic microphone has much more mechanical make-up than the condenser microphone. It basically consists of the diaphagm, magnet and a metal coil surrounding the magnet. (As previously stated this does not require any electrical current/power source).
As the sound waves hit the diaphragm, it vibrates and moves the coil that is attached to the back of it. It is this movement of the coil (in the magnetic field created by the magnet) that creates the electrical signal that travels through the cable to be interpreted and converted to an analogue signal by the audio interface.
This mechanical make-up of the dynamic, makes it very robust and durable. This produces distinctly different advantages as well as drawbacks, which is the next important topic our the next session.
Both A Strength And a Weakness
At this point you might be wondering what all of this has to do with the ability to record high-quality vocals in the studio. Well, by explaining all these characteristics of dynamic (and condenser) microphones, the case for or against dynamic microphones are being made clear. This will make drawing conclusions at the end of the article that much easier to understand.
As already mentioned, its mechanical design and build make dynamic microphones very robust and durable. As the diaphragm is not nearly as sensitive as the one used in condenser microphones, it requires a much larger sound volume to move the diaphragm and picks up a sound. (Which limits its sensitivity and ability to pick up the smallest sound wave.) With this apparent drawback come a variety of benefits though.
This feature of the dynamic microphone to not be very sensitive to lower sound levels, gives it a very big advantage, especially in noisy environments. It is much less prone to picking up background noise.
Even in the controlled studio environment, noise can be still be generated by a variety of sources. From the sound of clothes rubbing together or against instruments, to the movement of fellow band members - all of them generates noise that can surprisingly loud in a very quiet studio.
Where a condenser microphone will pick up almost every possibly sound generated, the dynamic microphone will be able to isolate itself from these smaller background noises.
This lack of over-sensitivity can be huge advantage for dynamic microphones as it allows them to handle very loud sound volumes. Their robust construction allows them not be overloaded no matter how loud the sound source, unlike the much more sensitive condenser microphone.
(Condenser microphones on the other hand are very prone to loud volumes and can easily be overloaded which will result in clipping and a distorted recorded sound. The diaphragm of the capacitor can actually be physically damaged by a very loud sound which may lead to permanent failure and a destroyed condenser microphone.)
This is just one of a multiple of benefits where a dynamic microphone's ability to handle loud sounds sets it apart. When it comes to physical handling and the environment, there are even more benefits...
Taking knocks and bumps are just part of the territory when it comes to microphones. It doesn't matter whether it is being placed on a stand, held in the hand, mounted on a microphone boom or even in a shockmount.
Knocks and vibrations in the studio will affect all microphones, directly or indirectly. Here too, the solid and less sensitive nature of the dynamic microphone will make it less susceptible to pick up these disturbances.
Durability and robustness is what makes dynamic microphones so popular for live performances or outdoor events. This helps in the studio as well, as accidents happen all the time and microphones can get dropped or accidentally knocked over. Where this will have almost not effect on a dynamic microphone, it can seriously damage a condenser mic.
Another standout feature of the dynamic microphone, is its ability to operate in extreme weather conditions. It can handle a wide range of temperatures and are even able to withstand a fair amount of moisture. Naturally, this is not really applicable in a studio where every aspect is controlled.
(Although in some studios which have more variable atmospheric conditions, this can have an effect on more sensitive condenser microphones in the long run, where dynamic microphones will remain immune to these conditions)
We will concentrate on the more specific advantages of dynamic microphones for studio and vocal use later on in this post. We first need to address another criticism that is often leveled against the dynamic microphone.
Amplifying The Signal
One disadvantage of dynamic microphones, are the fairly weak signal they produce. This mainly due to its construction and lack of internal amplification.
The diaphragm of the dynamic microphone not being as sensitive as that of the condenser microphone. The result is that sound waves hitting the diaphragm does not provide as much movement, which in turn produces a much weaker signal.
A dynamic microphone is also not assisted by any electrical current, which provides no form of internal amplification to the microphone. (The electrified capacitor inside a condenser microphone allows much more movement of the diaphragm against the backplate. Combined with the amplification of the capacitor, it is able to provide a much stronger signal.)
The problem is that the signal produced by the dynamic microphone is much lower than the required line level signal strength for a preamp. (Line level is the strongest signal strength/volume that must be obtained before amplification).
Luckily, this disadvantage has been recognized and addressed by the recording industry during recent years. Although its still relatively new and not adopted by many big players in the industry, the mic activator is proving to be a very important solution for the weak signal produced by dynamic microphones.
The mic activator is a compact device that is slotted in between the dynamic microphone and the audio interface. It uses phantom power to boost the weak signal by up to 25dB of gain, bringing it up to line level which allow the dynamic microphone to be directly connected to a preamp or audio interface.
(Before Mic Activators started making their appearance, dynamic microphones and other instruments producing a very weak signal needed high-gain preamps to provide a sufficient signal strength boost. This was and still is quite an expensive exercise.)
One of the most well-known mic activators, is the popular Cloudlifter CL-1. Other companies like Radial Engineering and TritonAudio are also providing competing products. I am sure these are just a few of many companies that will adopt this new technology in the future.
(Just note that mic activators need phantom power to operate, so make sure your audio interface have this function. Fortunately most interfaces come standard with phantom power build-in. Just look for the "Phantom Power" or "48V" labeled switch.)
To summarize this section, one can safely say that dynamic microphones definitely have some drawbacks compared to condenser microphones when it comes to studio use. But with the same amount of certainty, this section has proved that many of these disadvantages has mostly been addressed and eliminated.
Still Very Relevant With Advantages In The Studio
By now it should become pretty evident that dynamic microphones has some distinct advantages over condenser microphones, and not just on stage or during live events. Sometimes there are specific circumstances and scenarios in the studio that require the unique features of dynamic microphones.
It is time to look at 6 specific advantages of dynamic microphones when used in the studio.
1. Background Noise Elimination
This point was already made earlier in this article, but is so important it needs to be examined in more detail. In many ways seen as a disadvantage, the dynamic microphone's limited capacity to pick up very low sound levels has some distinct advantages.
To best understand this, we need to look at background noise and reverberation, and the length studios go to to reduce or eliminate these sound interferences. To start with, commercial studios get designed from the ground up not to reverberate sound, That is why you will very seldom find a square commercial studio, as the parallel opposing walls are prone to producing a lot of reverberation.
Further efforts to eliminate reverberation are taken by applying acoustic treatment all around the studio and even against the ceiling. Care is also taken when placing equipment like studio monitors and the microphones to further enhance the studio's acoustics.
I haven't touched on sound insulation yet to isolate the studio from external sounds, but you get the idea. Unwanted noise needs to avoided at all costs. Yet, despite all these efforts you still are not able to eliminate all unwanted noise. I already mentioned how the slightest noise from clothes rubbing against each other or against instruments, as well as movement from other band members can easily be picked up the microphone, especially a sensitive condenser microphone.
This is where the perceived weakness of the dynamic microphone comes into play. It's ability to not pick up these soft but intrusive and troublesome sounds can prove invaluable. As all the important sounds in the dynamic range still gets recorded, the few notes at the lower frequencies that falls away with the unwanted noises, fades in comparison with the amount of noise that will have to cleaned up post-production in the DAW software if a sensitive condenser microphone was used.
2. Getting Rid Of The Ultra High's
On the opposite side of the scale, you get the the unpleasant harsh sound and distortion caused by the prominence of sibilant consonants which takes place in the upper-high frequencies. Unnecessary emphasis on S's and T's (Ch's and Sh's can also be very problematic) by vocalists causes this distortion in the upper frequencies to take place.
This can be taken care of by the sound engineer who can manually turn down the level of the vocal signal whenever sibilance occurs on the track, using the tools in the DAW. This can be quite an arduous task though.
Luckily many most high-end DAW software have automated functions for this task. A host of plugins are also available with specific de-essing functionality.
Most often though, the biggest culprit is the condenser. Especially "bright sounding" microphones have the tendency to overemphasize the sibilant consonants. Sometimes the resulting unpleasant and distorted sound is just too severe to be rectified.
More practical and known solutions like the use of a pop filter and a microphone windscreen can be used and do have some effect, but not nearly enough to make much of a difference in most cases.
The more limited dynamic range of the dynamic microphone also allows it to help out in this regard. It is not so sensitive to the effects of sibilant consonants, and are able to "soften" the effect. The result is that the recorded track do not have that harsh edge to it, an not so much work have to be done post-production.
3. Absorbing Vibration And Knocks
Another topic we already briefly touched on, but also needs more attention and elaboration.
We already discussed the lengths studio owners go to to ensure the studio is made as quiet as possible. And when done correctly, most commercial and home studios are well insulated and protected from unwanted reverberation. This does not make the studio and recording immune from whatever happens within the studio though.
Vibrations and knocks can have an effect in two ways. Firstly, unplanned knocks and bumps against the microphone, desk or any solid object, will create some kind of audible vibration that will definitely be picked up by a sensitive microphone.
Even the normal and expected "vibrations" produced by a set of drums or the tapping of feet to a beat on the floor, can still be strong enough to influence a recording, especially in a room where noise and reverberation may still be a problem.
As you know by now, condenser microphones pick up every little detail. Although it will not be completely immune to the bigger vibrations and knocks, dynamic microphones will be able to minimize the effects of shocks and vibrations.
The second effect of knocks and vibrations is a physical one. Some studios are just very busy by nature. Equipment and people get moved around a lot. Some rough treatment and the occasional microphone drop can occur. Along with constant vibrations and knocks that are part of every day studio life, this can have an effect on the health and lifespan of a microphone.
As condenser microphones are very sensitive and susceptible to loud sounds, knocks and bumps, the chances of damage and ultimate failure are very good. The nearly indestructible nature of a dynamic microphone will make them a very good choice to use in an environment where you know rough treatment and the occasional knock will occur.
4. When You Are On A Tight Budget
To be honest, I was a bit hesitant to bring the issue of price up, as this can be more confusing than anything else. I will explain in a moment.
First, there is no denying the fact that a good quality dynamic microphone is much cheaper than the equivalent condenser microphone. This is mainly due to to the construction of each the two different microphones.
The dynamic microphone has a fairly simple mechanical design, where a condenser microphone is much more complex and also house some electronic components within the microphone itself. This makes the condenser more expensive to manufacture.
Where things become a bit more complex though, is the extra component you need to make a dynamic microphone function properly. Where a condenser microphone comes wit its build-in amplifier and can be plugged directly into a preamp, a dynamic microphone needs an active DI Box in most cases to strengthen the signal enough to be connected to a preamp.
The combined price of the dynamic microphone with its DI Box will actually be pretty much on par with that of an equivalent condenser microphone.
Where its value for money advantage comes into play, is if you budget only allow for the purchase of one microphone. If you intend to use your microphone not just in the studio, but on stage and during live events as well, going for a dynamic microphone will solve the problem as it is just as home in the studio as it is on stage.
(This way you can get your recording studio up and running, and you can start thinking about a studio only condenser microphone once your budget allows it.)
5. Take A Cue From The Artists
Sometimes the microphone you use to performing on stage with, is the one you may be most comfortable with in the studio as well. You are already familiar with all the characteristics of the microphone and know how to get the best from it.
Some very iconic artists have done just that. Michael Jackson for example, recorded his famous Thriller Album in the studio, using the Shure SM7B dynamic microphone.
Similarly, Freddy Mercury, loved the his Shure SM58 dynamic mic so much, he used it in the studio for his recordings as well.
(And did I mention Prince used The SM57 dynamic microphone to record purple rain? I rest my case.)
I never heard anyone ever complain about the quality of any of Michael Jackson's or Queen's songs. And if it is good enough for these iconic stars, well....
6. Recording Loud Sounds
The huge sound volumes produced by snare drums and guitar amps can be very problematic during a recording session in the studio.
As condenser microphones dominate the majority of recording studios, their inability to handle very loud sounds will definitely result in quite few permanently broken microphones when trying to record these instruments with condenser microphones during a rock performance in the studio.
The dynamic microphone's ability to handle very loud sounds makes them ideal to cope with these very loud instruments. The same applies to artists with very loud vocal performances. Even they have their upper limits where clipping can occur if these limits are exceeded, but at least the microphone will not be physically damaged.
Any good sound engineer will be the first to quickly correct you should you even attempt to try and record these sounds with a condenser microphone at a commercial recording studio. As a home studio user, always keep this mind, especially when you expand and start recording bands and a wider range of instruments.
(It may not be an affordable option at first, but as soon as you are able to get a second microphone for your setup, you should seriously consider a dynamic microphone, especially if one of the scenarios mentioned here will apply to you.)
If you have reading just this article, and no other article on this website or anywhere else, I won't blame you for thinking the dynamic microphone is the best thing since sliced bread.
I know I've been singing the praises of this microphone and all its benefits throughout this post. I you don't know any better you will be wondering why you should even consider any other type of microphone.
Let me just be very clear and point out that the ideal microphone for studio use, especially vocal performances, is the condenser microphone. Most studios are acoustically prepared to provide optimal conditions for these microphones to deliver the best possible audio quality. They have a dynamic range much wider than any dynamic microphone and are able to pick up the smallest possible detail in a vocal performance.
The reason for this "pro dynamic microphone" argument, is to address the topic and main issue of this article as to whether the dynamic microphone still has any place in the recording studio, specifically when recording vocals.
What this article aimed to do is debunk the misconception that dynamic microphones are only meant for live or outdoor event, and has no real place or function in the studio anymore. And I think its fair to say that more than enough evidence was provided to succeed in this endeavor.
I would still recommend choosing a good condenser microphone for you first home recording setup. When it comes to upgrading and choosing a second microphone, don't be too quick to dismiss the idea of a dynamic microphone. Depending on your own unique circumstances, it may be just the thing you need to compliment the rest of your setup.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.
Catch you in the next article and happy recording!