We’ve been running through the various microphone options for starting your voice acting and voice-over career—and we’re on the home stretch! Previously, we covered the choices of USB vs XLR and dynamic vs condenser. The next choice sounds a little more technical, but don’t stress, it’s really very simple. Cardioid or Shotgun microphone?
Microphone Polar Patterns
“Polar pattern” comes from some techie geometry, which we’ll skip! All we need to know is polar pattern simply means the directions from which a microphone will pick up sound.
Take my Neumann mic (pronounced Noi-Man, but I call him Newman). He’s got an omnidirectional polar pattern, meaning he picks up sound from every direction. This is ideal for recording orchestras—or for recording ambient sounds if you’re making your own noise bank. Newman can hear you just as well from the front as from the back or the sides.
Bi-directional (Figure 8)
The next polar pattern is bi-directional, also called figure 8. A figure 8 mic pics up sound equally well from two directions: from the front and from the back. The mic won’t pick up sounds that come directly from the sides. This area of pickup makes a shape roughly like the number eight. It’s ideal if you’re singing a duet with someone on the opposite side of the microphone—you can hear the other person clearly, and the mic picks up both of you equally well and makes you both sound amazing. A figure 8 mic is also useful for recording two speakers (people) with a single mic.
The next polar pattern is cardioid, which has a rounded heart shape. This means the microphone picks up sound very well in front of the mic, a little bit on the sides, but nothing directly behind the mic. Cardioid mics give you a generous angle. You can move between about 60° on the right and 60° on the left without your voice cutting out. It’s ideal if you like to get animated and move your head around freely as you speak.
Supercardioids are often referred to as shotgun mics. These give you the same general shape as a cardioid, but with two differences: they have a little tighter angle in front, and they can pick up noises from directly behind the mic. This pickup pattern is extremely directional. Move your head just a little and your voice will cut out.
Now, technically this is not a great voice acting mic because it inhibits so much movement. But because it cuts out a lot of ambient sound, it is often used in less-than-ideal recording settings, making it a great mic for recording on the road (in cars), and in hotels. They also sound a bit hollow, in my opinion. For some odd reason, this mic became an industry standard for recording movie trailers and TV promos (movie trailers for TV). It may be that these scripts were always needed in a rush (typical of that voice sector) and announcers had to record on the road or on set. Either way, one shotgun mic became a favorite for TV promo announcers.
Hypercardioid is also often referred to as a shotgun mic and is just like the supercardioid, but it focuses the area of pickup even more tightly. They also pick up a bit more sound from the back.
Shotgun Mics & the Lobar Pattern
The truth is, shotgun mics typically use a combination of patterns. Either the supercardioid/lobar or the hypercardioid/lobar. The lobar pattern is the narrowest polar pattern of all—even more directional than the supercardioid and hypercardioid patterns. Having such a narrow angle makes it ideal for film and video where the mic is held out of frame. In this case, the shotgun mic is usually attached to a camera or a pole, with the boom operator actively making sure it’s pointed directly at the person who’s speaking.
The Best Pattern for Voice-Overs
Usually, we use cardioid mics for recording voice acting and voice-overs in a studio. These patterns are ideal for our work because they focus only on what’s in front of the mic. They aren’t going to pick up your husband making weird noises or your dog snoring (unless they’re right in front of the mic, of course).
While supercardioids have become popular with TV promo announcers, they significantly restrict your movement because the area of pickup is much smaller. They do work well for narrations or e-learning or voicemails—anytime you’re speaking straight on. But move your head too far to the side and you’ll have to redo the recording. If you’re an animated person or if you’re a beginner, this may be a challenge. You’ll have to spend more energy focusing on your microphone technique. That said, supercardioids can work in less-than-ideal settings, such as a makeshift studio that isn’t completely soundproof.
Cardioid mics, on the other hand, are more forgiving, and they’re a better match for voice acting overall—especially for animation and video games. That’s why I recommend beginners buy a cardioid mic.
Multi-Pattern Mics Are Also Good
Some omnidirectional mics have a button that allows you to switch between multiple pickup patterns. Need a figure 8 or cardioid? No problem, just select the pattern you need and start recording. If you’re a musician or you like to work with other kinds of sound, an omnidirectional mic can give you flexibility. When it’s time to record voice-overs, select cardioid and you’re ready to go.
If you’re only ever going to do voice-overs, keep it simple and stick with the basic cardioid microphone. It’ll be easier on your wallet than buying a good adjustable omni.
That finishes up my little series on how to choose a microphone for voice acting and voice-over work. If you missed the other articles, you can find them here:
If you’d like some actual gear recommendations, check out this comprehensive article that has studio tests in it. To learn about recording voice overs from home, read Part 2 of the Get Clever Series, called Recording & Editing Voice Overs.
Want some VO advice you can hang your hat on and act on TODAY? Don’t do it alone, piggy back on my success by joining my “Everyday VO” newsletter here to get exclusive tips from me, so you can do VO the Clever Way, Right Away. My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author.