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What is a microphone polar pattern?

A microphone’s polar pattern is the sensitivity of how well the microphone receives sound relative to the direction of the sound source.

In simpler terms, a microphone’s polar pattern is how well the microphone can capture sound from various directions.

Polar patterns are essentially directionality presets with cardioid, supercardioid and omnidirectional patterns being the most common types of directionality.

Cardioid polar pattern

A cardioid microphone is designed to have the most sensitivity in front and the least sensitivity at the back. This makes them awesome microphones for ASMR. Cardioid patterns also are ideal in streaming microphones.

A cardioid microphone effectively isolates unwanted ambient sound and focuses on the main source – this is suitable for loud stages. However, it also makes it much more susceptible to live feedback than other polar-patterned microphones.

SupercardioidSupercardioid microphones are as the name implies – the super version of cardioid microphones. A supercardioid focuses a lot more on the main voice feed than a cardioid and has an even greater rejection of surround or ambient sound.

Unlike the cardioid microphone, the supercardioid can pick up some sound directly at the back. With supercardioids, studio monitor placement must be correct to avoid feedback.

omnidirectional polar pattern, microphone polar patternAn omnidirectional microphone or ‘omni’ can capture sound from any angle – this is because omnis have equal sensitivity at every angle. A microphone with an omnidirectional polar pattern does not have to be positioned in a certain way to capture sound. This is designed to capture both the direct feed and the ambient sound thus making it incredibly useful in many situations.
A downside to omni, however, is that they cannot be aimed away from undesired sources like PA speakers and this would cause feedback.
Omnis are used a lot for podcast microphones whereby the format is a conversation where sound is sourced from various angles. This is also the same for YouTube mics.

A downside to omni, however, is that they cannot be aimed away from undesired sources like PA speakers and this would cause feedback.

A microphone designed with a figure of eight polar pattern picks up sound from the front and the rear of the microphone but isolates sound to its sides.

Examples of microphones with this polar pattern are typically large diaphragm or ribbon microphones.

Proximity effect

All directional microphones have a proximity effect. When the microphone moves closer to the source of the sound, there is an increase in bass response which means a warmer sound is released – this is the proximity effect. In simpler terms, the proximity effect is the change in sound that we experience when we bring the microphone closer to our lips.

Now that we have all these definitions and descriptions out of the way, the next thing to do would be to talk about when and how each polar pattern would be most effective.

When should I use Cardioid?

It’s a no-brainer to see why cardioid mics are best suited for vocals – it records a specific location, and isolates everything else. There are also some not so obvious instances where using a cardioid mic might be useful:

  • Micing a drum kit – A drum kit has so many sources of sound in close proximity to each other and this makes isolation of sound challenging. With a selection of cardioid microphones positioned correctly, you can try and avoid as much audio spill as you can.
  • Live performances – During on-stage performances, there is almost no controlling the sounds coming from multiple directions at the same time. Cardioid mics are superb in times like this as they isolate sound and potentially prevent feedback.

Having said all this, cardioid mics also have their shortcomings. The two most obvious issues with cardioids mics would be:

  • Off-axis coloration – Moving a cardioid microphone off-axis causes a significant drop in its sensitivity to the main sound source. In simpler terms, if a cardioid mic is moved too far from the singer’s lips, the mic picks up less of their voice and more of whatever it is pointed at. Inexperienced singers, who are unconscious of their head movements during a take, might lose a lot of their vocal audio using cardioid mics.
  • Proximity effect – As defined above, the proximity effect is an increase in bass frequencies as a result of close-micing. If an inexperienced singer brings a cardioid microphone too close to their lips, this can be an issue when recording and eventually a problem when mixing.

While hypercardioid and supercardioid patterns are efficient for filmmaking and off-site recording, they are not exactly suitable for use in a home or professional recording studio.

When should I use omnidirectional polarity?

Prior to the invention of cardioid mics, omnidirectional mics had existed but soon lost their popularity to the cardioids because they “picked up” too much ambient sound or room spill. There are certain situations where omnidirectional mics are a lot more preferable to cardioid mics. For example:

·       When you want to record the sound of the room for ambiance – often referred to as a room mic.

·       When you need to record from a wide stereo sound source such as a choir, grand piano, or orchestra.

·       When you need to record a moving sound source like a brass player or a performing acoustic guitarist.

Omnidirectional mics have:

  • More immunity to the proximity effect when compared to cardioid mics
  • Lower self-noise than cardioid mics
  • Less coloration of any off-axis sounds than cardioid mics

When should I use figure-8 polar pattern microphones?

The most common misconception with figure-8 microphones is that they are most suitable for recording a duet of singers when they are facing each other. This may have worked decades ago but it doesn’t happen as much these days.

So when would a figure-8 polar pattern microphone be of use?

  • Stereo recording: Figure-8 mics are most suitable for performing mid/side stereo recording techniques, which are appropriate for a number of different instruments. Especially acoustic guitar.
  • Isolation: As stated above, figure-8 mics tend to isolate sounds from their sides, hence they are also ideal for recording sound from instruments in close proximity.
  • Singer-Songwriters: This polar pattern is perfect for recording singer-songwriters that perform acoustic guitar and sing as if positioned correctly, can maximize the sound captured whilst minimizing spill.

Select your polar pattern wisely

Now that you have more information on polar patterns, you will be better placed in the future to decide on what works best for you and in what recording situation you would need a specific selection of microphone.

Choose your weapon.

For more definitions of audio terms, read this article.

Polar pattern images are from Shure.

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