small-vs-large-condenser-microphones

Large VS Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

What is the difference between large and small diaphragm microphones? As a beginner in recording music, you may not have the chance to try and experience recording with both the types.

In this post, I want to show you difference between both, when to get one over the other and if on a limited budget, which one should you go for first.

When I first started my recording studio, I bought the Wharfedale Pro KMD-7 drum microphone kit, which came with two pencil condenser microphones. And they were terrible. I initially thought of using the pencil condenser included in the set to record acoustic guitars, eventually getting a whole lot of microphones to start with. It sounded like a good deal at that time. However, upon doing a recording with it, the sound was low quality, not to mention, noisy.

wharfedale pro-kmd-7-review

Pretty terrible microphones. Best left for live set ups.

Eventually, I sold off that drum mic kit and bought the Samson CO2 pencil condenser microphones. They were a little better than the Wharfedale Pro. However, I still didn’t quite like the sound recording and felt it wasn’t good enough for clean broadcast quality recordings.

After the not-so-good experiences, I began to shy away from small condenser microphones, sometimes also known as pencil microphones.

Until I put my hands on a pair of mid-range small condenser microphone, the sE Electronics SE5. The sound was clean, natural and without any exaggeration in the low-end.

Advice #1: Never buy budget small condenser microphones

My first advice for you if you’re looking for small diaphragm condenser microphones is NEVER to buy cheap or budget small condenser microphones.

While you may get away with a good start with budget large-diaphragm condenser microphones like the Samson CO3, Audio Technica AT2035 or the Blue Spark Condenser, it isn’t the same with small diaphragm microphones.

This is also a reason why most home music producers buy large-diaphragm condenser microphones as their first studio microphone.

If you must get a small diaphragm condenser, get something priced from $200, such as the Rode M5 (pair), at a bare minimum. They sound decent and quite quiet in terms of floor noise. Rode is also known to make some of the world’s best microphones, so you won’t go wrong with them.

The Differences Between Large & Small Diaphragm Microphones

The main difference between large and small diaphragm microphones is actually the diaphragm size. *no brainer

But simply because of that, there are few differences between them you should be aware of.

Sound – Small diaphragm sounds more ‘natural’

Small diaphragm microphones are best when you want to capture a natural and pure sound, without exaggeration. Because of its sound, high-quality small diaphragm mics can be used for almost anything.

The pros to small diaphragms are:

  • Uncolored and neutral sound
  • Consistent pickup patterns
  • Wider frequency range

Generally, because of their smoother transient response, small diaphragms are preferred by sound engineers to record acoustic guitars, choirs, string ensemble, pianos.

Using a pair of the same small diaphragm microphones is also ideal for capturing stereo recordings.

Large diaphragm microphones are great when you want a big and warm sound. Usually favored for vocals, voice-overs, and some instruments as it adds that richness to the sound – the accentuation of the low frequencies.

The pros to a large diaphragm are:

  • High sensitivity – Records even the hum of your A/C or computer fans
  • Warmer sound around the low frequencies

Large diaphragms can always make you sound much nicer, giving you that ‘record’ quality, that many producers yearn for.

This is why many home producers start off with a large diaphragm as their first microphone in the studio.

Noise Level & Sensitivity

One advantage of large diaphragms over their small counterparts is that have lower self-noise levels. The large diaphragm is also easier to move, and this means sensitivity is higher, giving a louder output signal.

Even with the more modern state of the art components built into small diaphragms, which makes them really quiet, they generally have higher self-noise levels compared to large diaphragms.

Sound Pressure Level Handling

audio mentor drum miking

Small or large diaphragm mics for drums?

Supposed you are planning to record a drum. Which should you choose?

SPL or sound pressure level refers to the pressure within a sound wave that determines the loudness of the sound source. Generally, very loud instruments like the kick drum have very high sound pressure levels.

The small diaphragm microphone can handle higher SPLs because of its build where the distance between the diaphragm and backplate is longer, ensuring a longer movement of the diaphragm before it hits distortion.

That said, small or large diaphragm microphones are popularly used as overheads to record drums. At the end of the day, it comes down to experimentation and sound preference. For example, using a small diaphragm microphones as your drum overheads might capture a more natural sound but can sound thinner. Large diaphragms do not handle SPLs as well as small diaphragms, so they can be used as overhead mics.

Hear The Difference

Here’s a great video that shows you the sound difference between a multitude of mics, and particularly between a large and small diaphragm too.

Advice #2 – Experiment with mic placements & setup

Other than buying the correct microphone for your recording purpose, it’s also very important to think about your microphone setup.

Firstly, where are you recording in? The room you do your recording will relate to the type of sound you’ll get. Sometimes, with a home studio, your room will be good for a type of sound but not so good for another. For example, your home studio may sound good enough for vocal recordings, but when it comes to drums, it may totally fall apart.

So I’d suggest recording in different rooms. The idea here is to be able to record quietly enough. You’ll be surprised to find the difference in sound when you recording in different room setups.

Secondly, your microphone placement plays a big role in your sound. For example, if you’re recording a guitar and you find the recording a little dull, try moving the microphone away from the guitar. This enables the sound to breathe a little, and you’ll end up catching a more pronounced sound and also a little of the room sound.

Recommended Large & Small Diaphragm Microphones

Buying large or small diaphragm microphones comes down to the sound you’re after and the sound applications.

For example, go for a large diaphragm if you’re recording studio vocals, deep voice overs, recording drum overheads, warm jazz guitar leads & chops, etc.

Budget large diaphragms 

Premium large diaphragms 

As for small diaphragms, make sure to NOT buy the super cheap ones. Generally, small diaphragms that are usable in sound comes at a slightly higher price.

Budget small diaphragms 

Premium small diaphragms

Conclusion

There is no wrong or right for both large and small diaphragm microphones. Just choose the right one for the recording job.

Also, microphones generally last you a lifetime if taken care of properly. So think of them as investments to your sound and don’t skimp on buying cheap condensers. In fact, doing so might cost you more money in the long run as you’d find yourself constantly having to upgrade your mics.

More importantly, get a great starter microphone, learn how to place it for different sounds and recording scenarios till you grow out of it. The world of recording is a fascinating one filled with art and experimentations, so don’t be afraid to break the rules and experiment away!