Difference Between Condenser and Ribbon Microphones

Difference Between Condenser and Ribbon Microphones

There are different types of microphones in the market. Each type captures different sounds and can be used for different applications. The most popular among them are condenser and ribbon microphones. Musicians, engineers, and audiophiles use these in the studio. There are significant differences in how they work, particularly in how they convert sound to audio.

Ribbon microphones work on the principle of electromagnetic induction. It uses very thin aluminum foil. In contrast, condenser microphones work on the electrostatic principle. It uses two metal plates.

In this article, we look at the differences between condenser and ribbon microphones. After learning more about their differences, you will be able to make a better choice that works for your particular application.

Before we look at the differences between these microphones, let us define them.

Condenser Microphone

The condenser microphone converts sound into audio using electrostatic principles. The condenser microphone uses either a large diaphragm or a small diaphragm. It uses two metal plates for this. One plate can move in the diaphragm, while the backplate is stationary.

How do condenser mics work?

  • The condenser microphones use a capacitor. This converts sounds into electronic signals. The capacitor includes a thin gold-coated diaphragm in the front plate. It is suspended loosely to its backplate.
  • The capacitor needs a current to operate. The current is supplied through a battery or other power source. It is mainly used for professional mics.
  • When the sound waves touch the mic, the diaphragm moves back and forth with the sound. The backplate of the mic is stationery. The diaphragm moves between the two plates at a varied distance.
  • When the plates are far, the capacitance decreases. The change in the distance further changes the capacitance between the two plates.
  • The diaphragm in the condenser produces sound accurately. It is more natural and transparent.
  • Our article What is a Condender Microphone goes into more depth.

Ribbon Microphone

Ribbon microphones are dynamic. They work on electromagnetic induction. They use a thin aluminum foil, making them a lot more fragile than condenser mics. Our guide to ribbon microphones explains more thoroughly how they work and more. The thin aluminum foil is suspended between the two magnetic poles. It works as a diaphragm and as an electric conductor. It provides the same transient response and sensitivity you get from condenser mics.

Most passive ribbon mics do not have any active components or amplifiers. The current is important to the sound the mic produces. If it has low resistance, there will be a change in its frequency response.

For what applications is the Ribbon microphone good for?

The ribbon strip is extremely thin in ribbon mics. It vibrates much better with sound waves than a condenser mic. This results in more detailed sound quality.

If you want to record with accurate details, ribbon microphones are the best option. If you are struggling to get the natural sound of your instruments, a ribbon mic might be your solution. Ribbon microphones are great to use for miking acoustic guitars, horns, and other instruments. 

You will find the sound from the front and back produces equally. It avoids any sound coming from the sides through active components. The sound entering the back of the mic is much lower than in the front. This makes it perfect to use for choirs.

Any good quality microphones are not cheap. So if you have a budget or will be buying a mic for yourself for the first time, I would suggest you buy Ribbon mics only after you have tried a condenser mic.

Retro Ribbon Microphone

Condenser vs. Ribbon Microphones

Let us look at the differences between condenser and ribbon microphones.

#1 – Differences in Transducer

The main difference between the condenser and ribbon microphone is in how the transducer functions in them. A condenser converts sound into audio through the electrostatic principle. Ribbon microphones are dynamic transducers. They work on the principle of electromagnetic (EM) induction.

EM Induction

When you move a varying magnetic field near a conductor in a closed circuit, an electric current is produced. This principle is called EM induction, and was first discovered in 1831 by Michael Faraday. In ribbon microphones, the diaphragm is made of aluminum or any other conductive material laid out in a ribbon like fashion with a magnetic pole surrounding it.

The sound waves cause the ribbon strip to oscillate back and forth. This induces a small voltage. This voltage is passed on from the microphone through the electrical wire attached to the ribbon.

Electrostatic Principle

Condenser microphones work via the electrostatic principle. There are two plates in the diaphragm: a movable one and a stationary one. The movable one is the diaphragm. The stationary one is charged with a certain amount of charge using a DC voltage, a dielectric material (also known as an electret), and an external source or phantom power.

In this scenario, any movement in the diaphragm causes a change in the capacitance of the diaphragm (since capacitance is proportional to the distance between the plates). 

When sound falls on the diaphragm, it causes it to move and fall back. Concurrently, the capacitor starts producing an alternating current in the circuit which is inversely proportional to the amount that the diaphragm has moved.

#2 – Active vs. Passive

Active implies that the mic needs power to function, whereas passive mics do not need any power. Condenser mics are always active, because they need to maintain a charge in the backplate of the diaphragm. Ribbon mics are mostly passive, because all they need is a variable magnetic field.

Apart from the diaphragm itself, there are many other components that may need power as mentioned below.

Active Components

Let us look at the active components that need power to function properly.

  • Vacuum Tubes: The vacuum tubes act as amplifiers in tube condenser mics. Their circuitry is similar to a negative impedance converter. These tubes need external power for proper heating.
  • Impedance Converters: In tubeless mics, actual impedance converters are used to amplify sound. While these are made of solid state FETs and are consequently less power hungry, they still require a bit of power.
  • Capsules: The condenser mic’s backplate is charged either through a semi permanent charge provided by an electret like material or otherwise a permanent charge on their capsule.
  • Most condenser microphones work through external power. It helps charge their capsule well. The electret condensers generally have a permanent charge on their capsule through the electret material.
  • PCBs: If the mic has PCBs to run the internal circuitry, they might require a power source to function.

Passive components

Most ribbon microphones work on EM induction. They do not require power to function. They run through output transformers using passive components.

Most ribbon mics use a very simple circuit with ribbon baffles and a transformer. In some cases, ribbon microphones may use active components such as PCBs, vacuum tubes, and amplifiers to enhance their relatively weaker signal.

black condenser microphone

#3 – Difference in Frequency Response

Microphones handle different ranges of frequency response.

Condenser mics have an extended and flattish frequency response.They have higher sensitivity in the high frequency range. Most of the condenser microphones have a frequency range of 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. They can capture the entire range of human audio capability accurately. 

Large diaphragm mics have a bit of a roll-off in the upper frequency ranges. This helps increase the volume of the microphone signal, but might also cause it to become very loud.

An extended response with a more flattish end is a significant characteristic of small-diaphragm condensers.

In contrast, ribbon microphones have a flat frequency response. They give a natural sound even at a high-frequency level. The diaphragm of a ribbon mic is usually loose. The frequency is below the audible range. They typically lose sensitivity at a high-frequency level.

When analog tapes gained popularity, ribbon mics went out of favor because both the medium and the mic had an extended roll-off, causing the sound to come out very dull. Condensers became more popular in that era.

In contrast, the condenser microphone is very bright. It helps to compensate for the roll off at the high frequency end of analog equipment.

In the era of digital recording, we again find the resurgence of ribbon microphones. The roll-off of these mics sounds more natural and is fuller.

Condensers are very bright and loud while recording digitally. This is because of their high-end frequency response.

#4 – Difference in Sensitivity

Before looking at the difference in sensitivity between both the microphones, let us first understand what microphone sensitivity means.

The sensitivity of microphones is the strength of the microphone’s output signal at a certain sound pressure level.

You can measure the sound output rating as millivolts or decibels. It is relative to 1 volt per 1 pascal.

Ribbon microphones are less sensitive compared to condenser microphones.

Condenser microphones are much more sensitive.

In condenser microphones, its internal components amplify the mic signal. It helps boost its audio level. They generally conduct 8 to 32 millivolts per Pascal (-43 to -30dBV/Pa).

Condenser microphones don’t have a strong mic signal. The output AC voltage is at high frequency. Without it, it won’t be able to travel any specified length before degrading. Usually, condenser microphones are designed with PCBs that have amplifiers. This makes condenser microphones have higher sensitivity rating than their passive counterparts.

In contrast, ribbon microphones are not very sensitive.

Ribbon mics with a passive response have a rating between 0.5 to 6 mV/Pa. At the same time, active ribbon mics have a rating between 8 to 32mV/ pa.

This means passive ribbon microphones are the least sensitive. Ribbon mics have a more natural and clear sound than their moving, dynamic counterparts. They don’t have much voltage. This is because they move through a magnetic field to induce a mic signal. They do not produce a strong signal. They have a low sensitivity rating.

While some active ribbon microphones have internal amplifiers, they even work as condenser microphones. They use FETs, op-amps, or vacuum tubes to boost the low-level signal from its ribbon component.

#5 – Difference in Self-Noise

Most active microphones have a certain kind of self-noise. This noise comes from its active components, which generate noise on their own.

Condensers and active ribbon microphones both have some self-noise. In contrast, passive ribbon mics do not.

Condenser mics have a certain kind of self-noise.

The active components, namely the FETs, vacuum tubes, and PCBs, can all generate self-noise. Condensers with a large diaphragm have a lower self-noise than their small diaphragm counterparts. The large diaphragms generate energy from the sound waves relative to the noise generated by their active electronics.

Active ribbon microphones have self-noise. In contrast, passive ribbon microphones do not.

Passive ribbon microphones don’t have self-noise. This is because they don’t use any active components that produce noise.

#6 – Differences in transient response

The transient responses of both the mics are accurate and clear. The transient response tells you how fast or slow the mic responds to transients.

The condenser mics have a fast and accurate response. The diaphragm of the condenser is very thin. It reacts to sound pressure. 

The condenser with a large-diaphragm is much slower. This is due to its size and weight. At the same time, small-diaphragm condensers are much faster.

When a diaphragm reacts too fast and accentuates transients, it often overshoots. Overshooting may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your application.

Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone

SDCs are lightweight and attached tightly. The SDC condenser mic has accurate measurements and a very accurate transient response.

The Neumann KM 184 small-diaphragm condenser microphone, for instance, has a natural sound and a fast transient response.

Some SDCs that are not very expensive may overshoot. Their output may distort their transient response.

Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone

LDCs are pretty heavy and loose as compared to their SDCs counterparts. You will find a lot of LDC mics are accurate when they reproduce transients.

The AKG Pro C414 with a LDC produces fast transient responses. It is excellent for studio recording, broadcasts, and live recording.

On the other hand, ribbon microphones have a very natural and accurate transient response. Ribbon microphones have a loose and suspended diaphragm. They give a natural transient response and do not overshoot. They react slower than their actual sound transient.

The Royer R-121 dynamic ribbon mic is one that has a natural and accurate transient response.

black microphone on wooden table

#7 – Differences in Polar Patterns

The polar pattern of any mic tells you the variation in sensitivity as you move 360° around the microphone. There are different types of polar patterns. The most common ones are omnidirectional, unidirectional, and bidirectional.

The omnidirectional pattern allows a mic to respond equally at all angles. Unidirectional mics are very sensitive to sounds that come from a specific direction. Bidirectional mics respond fully at both 0° and 180°.

Condenser mics are versatile and move in multiple directions. 

Most of the condenser mics have an adjustable polar pattern. You can achieve a bidirectional pattern by using a dual-diaphragm condenser capsule. You can combine two capsules back-to-back. 

With a single-diaphragm condenser, you can achieve omni or unidirectional patterns. To achieve a shotgun or lobar pattern, you can place a long interference tube in front of the capsule.

Thus, you can achieve any pattern in the same microphone.

Ribbon microphones, on the other hand, use a bidirectional polar pattern. 

The Ribbon microphones are designed to create an actual pressure gradient on both sides of the diaphragm to sound pressure. The sides of ribbon mics have a magnetic structure. In other words, ribbon microphones capture sound from the front and back. They avoid sound coming from the sides. Because of this, ribbon microphones are perfect for a stereo miking technique or M/S miking, or where you need to reject any unwanted sound.

#8 – Differences in Maximum Sound Level

The maximum sound pressure level of a microphone tells us the point at which a microphone produces distortion. The distortion happens due to the sound pressure at its diaphragm.

Almost all condenser microphones have a max SPL rating. 

The maximum SPL of these microphones is easily attainable, so it’s easy to see when the internal circuits get overloaded. The microphone’s electronics rather than the mic’s diaphragm calculate the maximum SPL.

The Neumann TLM 102 condenser microphone has a high max SPL of 144dB. The sound level of this mic is high enough to capture sound sources. This is done without being overloaded and distorting the output signal.

Even active and passive ribbon microphones have a max SPL. Some passive ribbon mics may have a high SPL rating. The Royer R-121 has a maximum SPL rating of >135dB @ 20Hz. This means it can capture high SPL of sound sources at high frequency.

The point at which the ribbon diaphragm starts to behave non-linearly is when it achieves max SPL.

Mostly active ribbon mics get overloaded at high SPLs. 

This is because the internal circuits get overloaded. The max SPL depends on the internal circuits and the components used in active ribbon mics.

#9 – Differences in Durability

It is important to look for the durability and longevity of the microphone you are considering. Many condenser microphones are durable. In contrast, ribbon microphones tend to be a bit more fragile and should be handled with care.

Most condenser mics are durable. 

The capsules of most condenser mics are tough, with a grille protecting them.

A condenser with vacuum tube electronics tends to be much more delicate. The vacuum tubes are made of glass and are very fragile and delicate. They easily break if exposed to cold for a long time.

Some condenser mics have multi-patterns. They have a significant risk of getting damaged because they have many moving parts. You will find that FET condenser mics to be very durable.

Ribbon Microphones, on the other hand, are the least durable and can be fragile.

They will only last a long time if taken care of properly. Most passive ribbon mics are resistant to temperature. But their diaphragms may get stretched or may snap easily.

Ribbon mics are very sensitive to dust. If any dust particle gets it, it may break the diaphragm. You ought to keep the ribbon mics covered properly, even if you use them in a room.

#10 – Difference in Transformer

The transformers used in microphones are electromagnetic devices. It transfers electricity between two circuits via inductive coupling. Each circuit has a conductive wire. The wire surrounds itself with the magnetic core. This couples both the circuits.

These inductively coupled circuits are configured together so that any change in current from one circuit transfers the voltage across the end of the other circuit’s conductor.

An output transformer helps in balancing the audio signal. It adjusts the mic signal voltage before the mic’s signal is induced.

Some condenser microphones have transformers.

When condenser mics use active components like the vacuum tube, they use output transformers. It balances the audio well. It even adjusts the mic signal before output.

Lately, manufacturers have started using transformerless output design. The transformerless design helps to reduce noise and is a cost-effective solution, though transformers of high quality are still expensive. 

All ribbon mics also use transformers.

All passive ribbon mics use transformers. This helps to boost the signal from its diaphragm. It even protects the microphone from unwanted power. Some active ribbon mics use transformerless output circuitry.

#11 – Differences in Price

Both ribbon and condenser microphones come in a varied price range. Condenser microphones range from less than $10 (if ordered in bulk) to over $10000. In this wide range, you will find many different types of condenser microphones. 

Usually, tube condenser microphones are the most expensive ones.

Ribbon mics can be under $100 if you look at consumer-grade microphones. Better ones can go for over $500, though they are still generally more affordable than condenser microphones.

Which is the right microphone for you?

This will depend on your budget and the application. Most sound engineers use condenser mics in recording studios. Condenser mics are transparent and are able to pick up the natural voice of the singer. Artists use it as a mic for acoustic guitars and other instruments. If you want to record your voice or use your mic for any instrument, then a condenser mic is the best option for you. It may be expensive but will be worth the cost.

Ribbon microphones can be some of the cheapest mics available in the market. They are great to use for live performances. They are great to use for drum overheads and electric guitars.

Parting Words

It is essential to use the right type of microphone if you want your audio or music to be recorded with optimal quality. Choosing the right microphone can be difficult if you are recording for the first time, but by looking at the differences between ribbon and condenser microphones, I hope you will be able to choose the right one for your application.

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