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Autum Tesky

Feb 11th, 2022

Microphone Pickup Patterns and How They Affect Recording

One of the most important factors determining how a microphone will sound is its pickup pattern. All mics have microphone pickup patterns (also known as polar patterns) even if they’re not an advertised feature that you’re made aware of. Many modern microphones allow you to switch between several common polar patterns.
Learning the difference between microphone polar patterns and how to find the best pattern for your needs is crucial for giving yourself the highest audio quality possible. The basic differences are easy to spot and remember without being a recording engineer!

Read on to learn more about what makes mic pickup patterns different!

What Are Microphone Pickup Patterns?

When discussing microphone pickup patterns, we are discussing the directionality of a microphone. This refers to which direction a mic will record sounds from relative to itself.
Some microphones may require you to speak directly into them to capture audio. Others may use microphone pickup patterns that enable an entire room’s sound to be captured in high quality.

While there are a variety of different types of microphone pickup patterns available on the market today, many recording studios only focus on the most common and useful.

There are three main distinctions when it comes to the directionality of mics:

  • Unidirectional – recording audio from a single direction.
  • Bidirectional (or Figure 8) – recording audio from two directions.
  • Omnidirectional – recording audio from every direction.

Each type of pickup pattern has its own use cases where it will provide the highest quality.

Depending on the recording situation, one polar pattern might not sound equally as good as another. Some polar patterns might be more sensitive to sound with close miking. Other pickup patterns may be sensitive to a sound source further away, multiple sounds coming from various directions, or background noise.

In higher budget ranges, you can select mics that allow you to change between the three directional choices. This provides flexibility and freedom in the recording studio!

These microphone pickup patterns are a good indicator of which direction audio is recorded from, not the quality of your audio. Many mics will still require a pop filter, post-production audio tweaks, and personalization to reach maximum quality for your needs.

You may find that should have used different polar patterns. However, there is very little you can do in post-production to fix using the wrong pattern for your needs. This is why it’s essential to carefully consider each option against what you need your mic to accomplish.

How Microphone Polar Patterns Affect Recording

The type of pattern that is right for your project will depend on a variety of factors. For example, having a second person speaking will have the biggest impact on which pattern you may end up using. However, everything from the size of your room to the way you speak determines which polar pattern will best fit your needs.

  • Cardioid Microphones

    Polar pattern cardioid via Wikimedia
    A Unidirectional microphone works well for single-speakers, small rooms, sound coming from one direction, and recording studios with echo problems.
    The most common unidirectional pattern is a cardioid microphone pattern. When someone is referring to a unidirectional mic – it is safe to assume the mic uses a cardioid pattern.

    Cardioid pattern mics capture sound in the shape of a small heart-shaped circle in front of the mic. Popular dynamic mics like the Shure SM58 use a cardioid polar pattern.

    Recording from a single direction in a small circular pattern helps prevent sound bleed. The cardioid microphone pickup pattern is one of the most common and works perfectly as an all-around solution to voice recording.

    However, if you need to record more content than just your own voice behind the mic (such as instrumentals or background vocals) you may find that cardioid mics are not best suited to your needs.

    There are two additional types of cardioid pickup patterns that are common in video production: supercardioid and hypercardioid. These polar patterns are commonly used in shotgun mics.

    While similar to cardioid mics, hypercardioid mics capture a larger range of audio in front of the microphone. They also capture audio from behind the microphone as well. This makes it the perfect pickup pattern for documentaries or field recording.

    A supercardioid mic has a similar shape to a hypercardioid pattern but increased to capture audio over a much larger area. This means you’ll commonly find a supercardioid polar pattern in a mic that you would mount to a boom pole.

  • Bidirectional microphones

    Polar pattern figure eight via Wikimedia

    Bidirectional microphones pick up sound from two opposite directions, perfect for recording dialogue for a podcast where two hosts sit side by side.

    Bidirectional mics do not handle bleed nearly as well, so some ambient sound may come through in your recordings. A bidirectional microphone is also the preferred pattern for many home studio musicians who need to record singing and playing an acoustic guitar at the same time.

  • Omnidirectional microphones

    Polar pattern omnidirectional via Wikimedia
    Omnidirectional microphones are almost exclusively used in situations where you want to capture the “feeling” of sitting in the same room as where the action happens.
    When using an omnidirectional microphone, special care is taken to ensure that there is as little environmental and ambient noise as possible. Omnidirectional mics are especially sensitive to sound sources like echo, static, and compression techniques.

    If you want your recorded content to have an intimate and personal feel, an omnidirectional pattern is definitely one way to consider achieving that vibe. Although often you need a studio environment in order to get rid of unwanted sound sources.

  • Microphones with multiple pickup patterns

    A mic that allows you to switch between pickup patterns will most often default to a cardioid pattern. This means that your default will be equally sensitive for recording in solo situations. Yet, you’ll still have the option to switch microphone pickup patterns to capture multiple speakers, instruments, or ambient noise all in one microphone.
    If you plan on recording a variety of content and having the absolute highest quality is not your biggest concern, consider one of these multi-purpose mics for your needs. They can be extremely helpful.

Which Microphone Pickup Pattern is Best For Podcasting?

When recording a podcast or other home studio content, make sure you take the time to consider your studio as well as your content.
For many typical solo podcasts, a unidirectional pickup pattern will often provide the best results. However, creative and unique podcasts may benefit from another type of pickup pattern.

Consider if your content will regularly include any of the following pieces when making a choice of polar pattern:

  • In-studio guests
  • Live instrumentals
  • In-studio sound effects
  • Dramatic readings

Overall, your microphone’s pickup pattern is an essential part of your podcast. If you believe that you will make use of more than one directional pattern frequently, consider investing in a microphone that allows you to switch patterns (like a Blue Yeti). That amount of granular creative control over your audio quality can not be undersold!

For example, imagine you want to spend fifteen minutes introducing your topic and your guest before you start interviewing them. Capturing this intro with a unidirectional cardioid microphone keeps the focus where it matters – on your voice. Being able to switch to a bidirectional microphone pattern when you start interviewing your in-studio guest helps prevent confusion or loss of sound quality.

Although using two unidirectional cardioid microphones, one for the host and another for the guest would likely capture higher quality audio for both subjects. This way, you won’t need to worry about the speakers’ voices coming from different angles. Although now you have two different audio sources you’ll need to deal with in post.

Directional Patterns Greatly Affect Quality

In the end, it may seem like microphone directional pickup patterns do not play a large role in sound quality. However, this could not be further from the truth!
A microphone utilizing the right directional pattern for your needs helps ensure that every word you say is clearly recorded. The wrong mic pattern can cause half of your recording to sound muffled or fail to show up at all.

With a deeper understanding of how microphone pickup patterns work, you can make informed choices on which audio equipment and mics you’ll need to reach your goals.

While most of the time you will end up using a unidirectional microphone, there are many cases where the omnidirectional mics or bidirectional microphone pattern works better.

Knowing which pattern and the right mic to use when takes your audio game to another level. Many modern mics are multidirectional and often modern microphone technology features the ability to switch between patterns. Keep in mind that a dedicated microphone will have the highest quality. A microphone that tries to do it all at a low price point will fair worse than one designed for a specific pickup pattern.