How to Choose the Right Microphone Polar Pattern

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When you step up to the mic, it's not just amplifying you; it's also picking up sound from the front, back, sides, or from multiple directions at once. This is what's known as a microphone's polar pattern, and since your sound quality depends heavily on these patterns, choosing the right one for your project—whether it's a singer showcase or recording lines for a voiceover—is critical.

What are microphone polar patterns?

Polar patterns refer to the ways that microphones pick up sound, how sensitive they are to sound, and the kinds and locations of sounds they can or cannot pick up well. You can visualize these patterns by imagining the 360 degrees of three-dimensional space surrounding a mic. The main polar pattern types—cardioid, supercardioid, hypercardioid, subcardioid, omnidirectional, figure 8, and shotgun—are distinguished by where in that three-dimensional space sound can be picked up most easily.

Cardioid polar pattern

The commonly used cardioid pattern is most sensitive to sound in front of the mic and least sensitive to sound in the back. All cardioid microphone patterns, including supercardioid and hypercardioid, experience what’s known as the proximity effect: Lower frequencies are amplified when the mic is moved closer to the source of sound. 

Supercardioid polar pattern

A supercardioid polar pattern is similar to a cardioid pattern, only it picks up more sound from the sides of the microphone and can pick up a small amount of sound from the back. Compared to a cardioid mic, a supercardioid mic is slightly less sensitive to sound in the front and slightly more sensitive to sound from behind.

Hypercardioid polar pattern

A hypercardioid polar pattern is a more exaggerated version of a supercardioid pattern; even more sound can be picked up from the sides and back. 

Subcardioid polar pattern

Subcardioid microphones can pick up sound more evenly from the back than their cardioid counterparts. A subcardioid microphone can pick up sound in a perfect 180-degree semicircle from the front of the mic, and the back semicircle is only slightly imperfect. 

The back 180 degrees of a cardioid polar pattern, meanwhile, form a curved W shape rather than a semicircle, making the areas of sensitivity in the back more localized and less even. 

Omnidirectional polar pattern 

An omnidirectional polar pattern means that the microphone can pick up the same level of sound from any direction. Its sensitivity to sound is the same across all 360 degrees surrounding it, making it the least adept at handling background noise. 

Figure 8 polar pattern

Also referred to as a bidirectional pattern, the figure 8 pattern picks up the same amount of sound from the front and back, but does not pick up sound well from the sides. 

Shotgun polar pattern

Sound direction matters most with a shotgun pattern. Microphones with a shotgun pattern pick up sound intensely from the front center and back center, with very little sensitivity on the sides.

What microphone pickup pattern should I use?

Woman recording mic

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Each type of microphone and pattern creates a distinct sound, so the kind of performance you're doing will determine your choice.

The best mic pattern for voice actors

Whether you’re speaking or singing, a cardioid mic is the optimal mic choice for voice acting. It lets you record clear vocals with minimal background noise. 

The best mic pattern for singers

For live singing, any patterns in the cardioid family—cardioid, subcardioid, supercardioid, or hypercardioid—will produce quality sound.

For recordings, though, use a standard cardioid microphone to minimize background noise. 

The best mic pattern for live performers

As noted above, the best mic patterns for performing live are cardioid, subcardioid, supercardioid, or hypercardioid. 

Recall, though, that supercardioid and hypercardioid microphones are more sensitive to noise from the sides or back, so place them away from any monitors to ensure the sound is balanced.  

The best mic pattern for podcasting

If you’re podcasting solo, a cardioid pattern will produce the clearest sound. 

For a podcast interview with just a single mic, go with either a figure 8 pattern or an omnidirectional pattern to capture sound from multiple directions. But if you want each podcaster to hold their own mic, cardioid is still the way to go.