Mic Pickup Patterns
Whether you’re an amateur, semi-professional, or a seasoned pro, you’ll definitely want to have at least one type of microphone in your arsenal. Even if you’re recording an instrument, no digital simulation or piezo pickup will be able to replicate the genuine feel of an actual microphone. If we’re talking about film recording, then multiple microphone types are a must. With this in mind, we’ve decided to write a guide explaining all of the different types of mic pickup patterns.
If you’re just getting your feet wet in audio, you’ve probably stumbled upon talks here and there about mic pickup patterns. To put it simply, the microphone pickup pattern presents the way your microphone reacts to sound in 3D space. It shows how sensitive microphones are in picking up sound waves from various directions. You’ll also hear the term “polar pattern” which means essentially the same thing.
Knowing the different mic pickup patterns will help you narrow down the type of microphone you need for a given situation. We’ve sorted microphones into different categories based on their polar patterns, and we’ll explain them as briefly and as simply as possible. Each of these categories serves its own unique purpose, and by the end of this guide, you’ll know which ones will suit your own recording needs.
The word “cardioid” stems from the Greek word “kardia,” which means “heart.” All cardioid microphones have a heart-shaped pickup pattern and are considered to be unidirectional. This means they mostly capture sound coming from the front of the microphone. At the same time, they also manage to pick up some of the noise on the sides and yet a smaller amount from the back. Cardioid mics have many applications and usually fall under the “general use” category. They’re studio workhorses used for vocals, drums, and a variety of other instruments.
Most of the vocal handheld and studio condenser microphones have cardioid patterns. Despite picking up on some of the side noise, these are usually the best solution for unidirectional recording. They’re great at rejecting most of the sound and noise that’s not coming directly from the front.
Cardioid microphone examples:
- Rode NT1-A
- Audio-Technica AT2035
- Rode M5
Supercardioid pickup patterns are similar to cardioid pickup patterns. However, supercardioid mic pickup patterns manage to exclude more side noise when compared to cardioid mics, and they are more sensitive from the rear of the mic. Nonetheless, they are excellent at directional recording because they’re very focused on sound and noise in front of them. Use a supercardioid mic when you need to really focus in on a single sound source. They can be tricky to work with due to the rear lobe, though.
Supercardioid mic examples:
- Shure Beta 87A
- Shure Super 55
- Neumann KMS 105
Hypercardioid mic pickup patterns are similar to supercardiod patterns. They have a larger rear lobe and an even tighter front lobe, more closely resembling the figure-8 pattern we’ll cover further down. They can be used for recording dialogue on set, but because of their highly directional patterns, the lack of side noise can make the audio feel somewhat unnatural. The presence of the rear lobes in the hypercardioid pattern makes them challenging to work with.
Hypercardioid mic examples:
- Audix OM7
- Beyerdynamic M88 TG
- Audio-Technica AE6100
- Neumann BCM 705
The shotgun mic is the king of directional recording. For this reason, they’re the go-to choice for film and video production applications. Their elongated design allows them to record at a distance, ideal for film and theater where the mics and recording gear needs to be hidden from the shot. Their pickup patterns are interesting, to say the least. They can pick up sound from all 4 directions, but in a very focused way for each. The front of the mic is the most sensitive.
Shotgun mics examples:
- Rode NTG-1
- Audio-Technica AT8035
- Sennheiser MKH8060
Subcardioid mics can also be called “wide cardioid” mics. They are somewhere in between the cardioid and omnidirectional mic pickup patterns. This means that they’ll focus heavily on what’s in front of them but will also pick up what’s going on around them with more clarity than the cardioid pattern. These mics have no null points but are also not particularly sensitive to the noise coming from the back.
Subcardioids are rarely used in practice. They might come in handy if you want to pick up a wider environment. They might even be useful for one single source in an isolation booth, but they are more susceptible to feedback.
Subcardioid mic examples:
- Audio-Technica AT808G
- Sennheiser MKH 8090
- Schoeps Open Cardioid ST
The “figure-8” name comes from this pattern’s overall shape. It picks up the sounds from the front and rear, and completely ignores the sides. The graphical representation of the coverage area looks like the number eight. This means that they’re equally sensitive on both sides. The pattern is also referred to as bidirectional.
You probably won’t use these that often, but they can be pretty useful if you’re recording two speakers standing one in front of another and want to ignore all of the noise coming from the sides. However, the uses for these are pretty rare as it is practical to have two mics with directed patterns instead. Ribbon mics are commonly known to have this pattern due to the nature of their design, and they work well when recording in stereo using a Blumlein pair.
Figure-8/Bidirectional mic examples:
- Warm Audio WA-251
- Aston Microphones Spirit
- Cascade Fathead
Next, we have omnidirectional microphones. Compared to all the other mic pickup patterns, they’re sensitive to sound equally from all directions. The graphical representation of this pattern looks like a circle with the microphone in the center. Roughly speaking, every microphone is omnidirectional at first. When additionally engineered and tampered with, you can produce any of the other patterns.
There are many uses for omnidirectional microphones. The most obvious application is when you need to record sound in an entire room. This especially has value when recording instruments. You can add more life to the overall output by using an omnidirectional microphone to pick up the room’s acoustics. Just like subcardioids, they can also be used for isolation booth recordings. Outside of music, omnidirectional mics are also useful for recording moving targets, large conference calls, or moving reporters.
Omnidirectional mic examples:
- Neumann M 150
- Audio-Technica AT4022
- Rode Reporter
- Neumann KM 183
The last mic pickup pattern we’ll cover is the variable pattern. As the name suggests, this pattern is not fixed, but can change depending on the situation at hand. Some mics have a switch that can change the polar pattern between several different presets. Some are continuously-variable, meaning there is a wheel on the mic that changes the shape of the polar pattern continuously as the wheel rotates, as opposed to discrete settings changed by a switch.
Variable mics are very versatile due to their ability to change patterns. One mic can have several different duties depending on it’s polar pattern setting at the time.
Variable mic examples:
- CAD Audio Equitek M179
- Neumann M 149
- Rode K2