In this article, let's take a look at microphone pickup patterns -- called "polar" patterns -- and what they mean, how you can use them when recording, and how to decide what you'll need for your studio or live recording setup. Every microphone is different; it takes understanding their function and how they function acoustically to use them properly.
CardioidThe most common microphone pickup pattern you'll encounter is the cardioid pattern. Cardioid means "heart-shaped", from the Greek root word "cardi". A cardioid pickup pattern means pickup to the front of the microphone, and to a lesser extent the sides, with good rejection of sound to the back of the microphone.
Cardioid microphones are recommended for vocal applications, live taping/recording, and most other situations where the acoustics of the recording environment are good, but not perfect.
HypercardioidA hypercardioid microphone (commonly referred to as "hyper") takes the cardioid concept a step further. A hypercardioid microphone records from the front, a lesser extent to the sides, and rejects everything around 120 degrees to the back of the microphone. Hypercardioid microphones work especially well for on-stage vocal applications (to help with monitor feedback) and live recording in far-away or difficult acoustic situations.
OmnidirectionalAn omnidirectional microphone picks up sound equally 360 degrees around the microphone capsule. Omnidirectional microphones sound very open and natural, and are best suited for good acoustic environments, or in a recording situation where an open, natural sound is desired.
Omnidirectional microphones can make some of the best recordings of acoustic instruments, given a good recording room. Their natural, open sound also makes binaural recording possible, if mounted properly. Omnidirectional microphones are not preferred for live sound, as they tend to be prone to feedback if amplified, but really shine for recording.
Figure-8 (or "Bidirectional")A figure-8 (or "bidirectional") microphone picks up sound equally from both sides of the mic's diaphragm. It rejects sound from the sides, as a cardioid pattern would, but picks up sound equally well from the rear as it does the side.
Most ribbon microphones are in figure-8 configurations. Ribbon microphones sound fantastic on acoustic instruments, in stereo configurations for live recording of acoustic and jazz groups, and as drum overheads. Due to their sensitivity, ribbon microphones aren't recommended for harsh, high-SPL environments. Figure-8 microphones are commonly used in "mid-side" recording setups.