Microphone Polar Patterns: At-a-glance
- Microphone polar patterns are settings that determine the area a mic will focus on when recording sound.
- Each polar pattern has its own specialised use cases. For example, Omnidirectional records all around the mic, whilst Shotgun is laser-focused towards a specific point.
- The most common microphone polar pattern for podcasters (or anyone talking into a mic) is Cardioid.
- Other common polar patterns are Subcardioid, Supercardioid, Hypercardioid, and Bi-directional.
- Read on to get the full lowdown on microphone polar patterns, and why they matter…
Before buying or using a mic, it's a good idea to find out if it's the best tool for the job. There are loads of great microphones on the market these days – but the perfect model for a touring musician is going to be a lot different for, say, someone who narrates audiobooks.
There are various factors to weigh up when deciding if a particular mic is an ideal choice for you or not. An obvious one is budget. Another is whether it's a dynamic or condenser build. A third notable factor is the microphone's polar pattern options, and that's what we're going to help you with in this handy guide.
Microphone Polar Patterns
Microphone polar (or pickup) patterns are settings that determine the area a mic will focus on when recording sound.
In this article we're going to take a look at 7 different polar patterns, and the uses of each one.
These patterns are Omnidirectional, Subcardioid, Cardioid, Supercardioid, Hypercardioid, Bi-directional, and Shotgun.
Take a look at these polar patterns and imagine each circle is the birds-eye view of a round room. The small circles in the centre of each pattern represent the microphone in the room, and the lighter shapes represent the areas the microphone is ‘hearing' sound from.
Some microphones have the option of selecting two or more polar patterns, whilst others simply have one. A common multi-pattern USB mic is the Blue Yeti.
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Let's take a closer look at each of these microphone polar patterns.
The first pattern is omnidirectional. This means that sound is being picked up equally right around the mic. Omnidirectional polar patterns are usually the default setting in lavalier mics because of the way they pin to the clothing and aren't directly in front of the mouth.
You might choose the omnidirectional setting on a mic if you were recording with a few people around a table, and sitting the mic in the middle of everyone. This setup won't give you the audio quality of having a mic for each person, but if it's your only option for now, then it'll get you by in the short-term.
The cardioid polar pattern looks to pick up sound from the front of the microphone, whilst minimising any sound coming from behind it. Cardioid and its variations are known as ‘directional' patterns because they can be pointed in the direction of sound sources.
The traditional cardioid pattern is perfect for a solo presenter talking into a mic. It's the most common microphone polar pattern you're likely to find in your search for a mic.
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Cardioid Pros & Cons
One big plus of using a cardioid pattern setting is that they're pretty good at minimising the effects of reverb if you're recording in a room that isn't sound-treated/dampened.
One negative is that they suffer from something called “the proximity effect” which means that the low bass frequencies in a recording are increased when the mic is moved closer to the sound source (your voice).
Supercardioid & Hypercardioid
If you wanted to narrow the area where sound is being picked up in front of the mic then you could switch to supercardiod. The trade-off here is that you'll now have an area of greater sensitivity to sound behind the mic. Switching from supercardioid to hypercardioid will further narrow the area of sensitivity at the front, but also further increase the area of sensitivity to the rear.
The shotgun setting is the most directional of the microphone polar patterns. Shotgun mics are commonly used in film sound to record actor dialogue. They are long, thin mics designed to be pointed at a sound source from a distance away. A good example of a shotgun mic is the Zoom SSH-6.
This is another variation of the cardioid pattern. It looks like a cross between cardioid and omnidirectional. The subcardioid pattern is better suited to picking up a sound source that might be moving around a lot, whilst still remaining at the front of the mic.
The bi-directional polar pattern picks up sound equally from both the front and back, whilst rejecting sound from either side of the mic. It is also known as a ‘figure eight' pattern.
This pattern is ideal if you are using a single mic for face to face interviews.
Which Microphone Polar Pattern Should I Use?
Although we've covered seven different microphone polar patterns and their use cases, it's unlikely you'll be presented with a multitude of options when buying a mic.
Most of the mics you'll come across will be cardioid. There are few situations where cardioid mics would be unsuitable. They're ideal for folks recording solo/monologue podcasts, or running online interviews. You can also use them to record local conversations – just make sure each participant has their own mic.
If you're on a very tight budget, you might consider using an omnidirectional mic if you want to gather folks round a table to have a conversation. Likewise, you could use a bi-directional mic to record a conversation with one other person.
Sharing a mic will drastically lower your audio quality. If it gets you by in the early days though, then go for it. Longer-term, you'll want to consider getting a digital recorder or audio interface so you can mic each person up independently.
Remember to check out our best podcast microphones guide, and also our wider podcast equipment guide when shopping around for your gear. Also, we run weekly live Q&A sessions inside The Podcast Host Academy if you'd like more tailored help with any aspect of podcasting. You'll find all of our courses, resources, and downloadable checklists in there, too!