What Are Condenser Mics Best For?

Getting optimal sound for voice or instruments depends on numerous factors, including location, purpose, and yes, the microphone being used. There are several different microphone options out there, and condenser mics offer some of the best clarity.

That means condenser mics are best used for studio recording, home recording, live broadcasts, or any other situation where clarity is crucial. They can be used for vocal recording on a studio album, podcasts, video teleconferencing, and much more.

Defining a Condenser Mic

While the term ‘condenser’ in this sense is no longer utilized in the technical terminology of this recording component, it has been stubborn and continues to be used primarily to describe a specific type of microphone.

A ‘condenser’ mic uses a thin, stretched conductive diaphragm that is located close to a metal disk, commonly referred to as the ‘backplate.’ This combination results in what’s referred to as a capacitor that becomes hyper-responsive when an electrical charge is introduced.

When a person speaks, sings, plays a musical instrument like an acoustic guitar, or another source creates sound, the sound waves cause the diaphragm to vibrate, which in turn causes voltage variance and that produces the output of the microphone.

This may seem like a lot of technical jargon, but the bottom line is that for any project requiring high fidelity (meaning high quality, such as would be deemed necessary for recording vocal tracks with crisp sound), then condenser mics are the optimal choice.

These are the preferred mic for recording studios, vocal recording for CDs, and are the primary tool for many voiceover artists as well.

Do Condenser Mics Require External Power?

Contrary to dynamic mics, which will use the baseline power source provided by a powered mixer or amp, condenser mics require more power than this low voltage. Because of the way the capacitor works, more voltage is necessary and that means a condenser mic is not likely to work with a standard mixing console unless a separate power source is provided.

These external power sources may be provided using a battery, dedicated power supply, or what is called ‘phantom power.’

What Is Phantom Power?

This is simply a term describing a dedicated power source for condenser microphones. Some mixing boards (or consoles) and digital audio interfaces have their own ‘phantom power source’ or supply that can be tapped into, thus providing the necessary voltage to operate the condenser mic, as long as the microphone is plugged into the proper channels.

There are also separate ‘phantom power’ devices that can be connected to the microphone via an XLR cable. Some phantom power sources will be dedicated to just one condenser mic while others may offer the option to plug two or more condenser mics into the source.

In order to properly connect a condenser mic to a mixing console or directly into a recording system (computer-based or separate device), the XLR cable’s female end will be plugged into the mic base and the male end into the phantom power source (or mixing console with its own dedicated power supply).

From there, a second XLR cable will be needed to connect the phantom power supply directly to the mixing console or recording system.

Proper Setup for a Condenser Mic Used for Voice Recording

Whether the condenser mic will be used for voice or acoustic instruments (or other base sound sources), it is highly recommended that a shock mount be part of the setup. Shock mounts can vary in appearance, but they should essentially provide vibration absorption around the microphone itself.

Vibration can be caused by touching the microphone stand, a foot tapping on the floor and sending vibration into the base of the stand on up to the mic, or even a vehicle passing on the road outside. Because of the high sensitivity of condenser mics, they will pick up very slight vibrations, sending that to the recording track as any number of rumbles and background ‘noises.’

The condenser mic will be nestled in the shock mount, which will be directly connected to the microphone stand. It’s highly advisable to use a microphone stand that is properly supported on the ground as opposed to a desk or other structure as this will help minimize external noise from vibrations.

It may seem unbelievable at first, but a quality condenser mic can actually pick up the hum and whirl of a computer (laptop or desktop) used for home recording or desktop publishing, which is why a desk type stand is not ideal.

If you’re using a condenser mic to any sort of vocal recording, you will definitely want to be sure that you use a pop filter. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘popper stopper’ or ‘pop stopper’. This is a small circular device with a thin band of fabric that will be placed a few inches in front of the condenser mic.

A pop filter absorbs the harsh forces of air naturally emanating from the mouth when speaking or singing. ‘P’, ‘B’,’ ‘T’ and other ‘hard’ sounds become amplified when recording with a condenser mic and these pop filters smooth out and reduce the ‘popping’ sounds they create.

How Close Do You Have to Be When Recording Vocals with a Condenser Mic?

There are numerous myths and misconceptions about how close a person should be to a condenser mic for it to offer the best sound and recording. Some incorrectly assume the closer they are to the actual mic (like a singer on stage having the mic screen right on their lips) is better, but with a condenser mic, that is not true.

Proximity can be a liability with condenser mics, which is why the optimal distance will be between 6 to 12 inches away from the microphone itself. In order to reduce background noise, either record in a sound-controlled environment or make sure to do so at the quietest possible time in order to limit any external background noises from filtering in.

What you’ll discover if you begin speaking or singing within an inch or two of a condenser mic is distortion. The sound becomes so powerful and this still won’t reduce or eliminate background noises, if they are present.

Be Sure to Speak/Sing into the Correct Side of a Condenser Mic

Unlike most dynamic mics, a condenser mic is unidirectional. That means if you speak or sing into the wrong end of the mic, even though it will record, the sound will be muffled and quality diminished.

Depending on the microphone, the front of a condenser mic will often have the manufacturer logo just below the screen, or some other easily identifiable marking indicating which side is forward.

If in doubt, read the instructions/manual or look for a small round disk behind the screen. This disk may appear shiny, silver, brass, or even gold. That will be the direction the mic should face for the person speaking into it.

Are USB Mics Essentially Condenser Mics?

No.

USB microphones have become increasingly popular in recent years, but they do not offer anywhere close to the same benefit of sound quality condenser mics offer. They consist of the basic components of traditional microphones, including the capsule, diaphragm, and structure, but they also contain an onboard preamp.

This means they don’t need any external power source and derive whatever voltage is required via the USB connection (ie. the computer itself). They also contain an analog-to-digital converter (also referred to as an A/D converter) that allows the computer to read the data created by the microphone directly.

One of the main problems USB mics pose for home studios is a reduction in clarity and quality compared to condenser mics. If quality is important for recording or even live sessions, such as webinars, then a condenser mic connected to a traditional mixer or a digital audio interface through an XLR connection is a much better option. I realize it’s appealing to plugin a USB connection and be done with it but you just won’t get the quality you’re after. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Learn from my pain and save your money.

Get yourself a decent condenser mic with a simple mixer or audio interface, you’ll be much happier and that setup will be best suited for all sorts of different applications.