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.
That might sound really complicated, and the diagram might look a bit like a psychiatrists wall chart, but it's actually all really straightforward.
Take a look at each pattern 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 which can't be changed.
Let's take a look at each of the polar patterns found in the diagram above, and see which one you might want to use when recording audio.
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 polar pattern is also the best for recording environments or ambience for documentary or audio drama-style shows.
The cardioid polar pattern looks to pick up sound from the front of the microphone, whilst minimising any sound coming from behind it. The cardioid pattern, and its variations, are known as ‘directional' patterns because they can be pointed in the direction of sound sources.
The traditional cardioid polar pattern is perfect for a solo presenter talking into a mic.
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).
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 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.
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.
This pattern is ideal if you are using a single mic for face to face interviews.
As you've probably concluded yourself, a lot of this is much more relevant to music and sound production than it is to podcasting. Out of the 7 patterns in the diagram above, it's likely you'll only need to consider 3 of them when deciding which one to use.
Use cardioid if you're the only person talking into the mic. This could be recording a monologue show, conducting an interview on Skype, or recording with a co-host/interviewee who has their own mic set up.
Use omnidirectional if you are recording multiple voices at one time. If you have 3+ people round a table and only one mic, then this is the setting for you.
Use bi-directional if you are recording an on-location co-host or interviewee and using only one mic.
Remember, different mics have different polar pattern settings. Some have multiple, whilst others have only one. It's always a good idea to research the capabilities of a mic before buying one. If you're in the market for a new microphone, check out our best podcasting mics article as well as our podcast equipment directory.
Get Better Interviews with our Skype Checklist for Guests
Download our pro-designed checklist for interview guests. It makes you look great & side-steps interview disasters.