If you find this Microphone Buyers Guide even a little helpful, pass it along! Alright, let’s dive in.
Microphones come in many different colors, not visually, but sonically. Think of microphones as audio lenses. There are lenses that are good for wide-angle shots, narrow, macro and there are those that have a vintage look.
The same is true with microphones. There are different pick up patterns, colors, and tones, etc. No mic/pattern combination works for everything.
Before buying a mic, there are a few things you need to consider. Your budget, what you plan on recording, and your current setup.
Mic Specifications, Understanding the Lingo
Having a basic understanding of the lingo is good when looking for a mic. Most people look at other studio’s gear lists or blow $1,000 on a mic without understanding what they’re buying into.
Let’s jump into some of the lingo
Frequency Response: Meaning the range of frequencies a microphone can pick up. A microphone with a frequency response of 80hz – 15khz wouldn’t be ideal for recording a bass drum but would be good for recording vocals.
Response Curve: This is how the mic performs based on the frequency response. When you look at the curve, there will be peaks and dips in certain ranges indicating what the mic specializes in.
For example, vocals mics may peak a little more in the high-mid range frequencies, thus giving more presence to the vocal recording.
Sound Pressure Level: On the back of the mic packaging you’ll see this as SPL. The SPL is how quiet and loud of a signal the mic can capture and accurately reproduce. It is possible to ruin a microphone by overloading it, so pay attention to these numbers.
Understanding Mic Polar Patterns
Cardioid: Mics with this pattern capture sound best when positioned directly in front of them while rejecting sounds coming from the sides and rear. This is the most popular pattern you’ll run into while shopping.
Omni: Omnidirectional mics equally capture sounds from all directions. Great for capturing room tones and ambiances.
Figure 8: This pattern allows for equal capture from both the front and rear positions of the mic. Also good for capturing background and ambient sounds, much like the Omni pattern.
Super/Hyper Cardioid: Very similar to a cardioid mic, but more directional. It’s as if they zoom into the subject you’re pointing them at while rejecting sound from the sides.
Also, unlike the regular cardioid, it doesn’t reject as much sound from behind making them a little difficult to work with if you’re not used to them.
Different Type Of Microphones
Dynamic Mics: Good for loud sounds and stage performances. They’re inexpensive, require no additional power, and are generally built like tanks (especially the SM58).
Dynamic mics do sound good but they aren’t as detailed as condenser mics, so that’s one thing to keep in mind.
Shotgun Microphones: Typically hyper-cardioid and super-cardioid patterned. Excellent for voiceovers and field recording. These mics work similarly to a telescope by focusing on the sound in front of them and rejecting unwanted sounds behind and on the sides.
Condenser Microphones: Excellent for capturing detail in recordings. There was a time when condenser mics were too expensive for home studio musicians, but these days, they’re more affordable.
Side note – must be powered via phantom power
USB Microphones: Not ideal to a lot of professionals, but one can’t deny their growing popularity and ease of use. I find these microphones great for quick recording projects, podcasts, VO work, etc.
If you’re lucky to not have USB noise and you’re in an isolated area you can lay vocals over a track with a USB microphone.
Microphone Diaphragm Sizes
Condenser microphones come in two sizes; large and small diaphragms. Both are capable of capturing great recordings but differently.
Large Diaphragm: Lower self-noise, high sensitivity, lower dynamic range, a narrow frequency range and they produce an overall bigger, warmer, and fuller sound.
Small Diaphragm: Higher self-noise, low sensitivity, and higher dynamic range. Where it shines is recording sounds with sharp transients, but depending on the mic, can sound great on vocals.
Why Does All This Matter?
The more you understand about mics, the better decisions you’ll make when shopping for a microphone, and ultimately the better your recordings will be when using them. Too often I see people with a budget of $1000, and they spend most of it on a microphone.
I’m not saying the microphone isn’t worth the price, but it is worthless in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand it or have the proper gear to get the most out of it.
What You’re Recording Matters
If you’re recording ambiance, you’d want to use an Omni patterned microphone. If you’re recording sounds with sharp transients, you’d use a small diaphragm condenser microphone.
If you’re recording VO, you could use a small condenser mic, but a large-diaphragm could be better. Sometimes neither will be fit for the job and you’ll need a shotgun mic.
Don’t get caught up in the more money = better quality. A good preamp with a decent mic will be a better investment than a cheap preamp (or interface) and a really expensive mic.
Here’s a good example, you purchase a C800 ($10,000 mic) and use it with a cheap noisy preamp. That’s going to suck… a lot!
Rode, Audio Technica, AKG…Do Brands Matter?
To an extent. Some brands are known for making great-sounding equipment others are known for just the opposite. Then you have brands that are known for creating quality gear at cheap prices.
This is where your budget and time come into play. Some brands make great-sounding microphones by mistake because there’s no quality control. If you’re willing to purchase, test and exchange until you get a good model it might be worth your time.
This happened to me with a Behringer condenser mic. It had a sound extremely close to U87. So, I purchased 5 more, and to my surprise, they all sound different – lack of quality control.
The same happened with a small condenser mic I purchased one from MXL. It had a really good sound to it, very close to my friend’s Rode NT5 at a fraction of the cost. Again, purchased more, this time, they all sound good.
Quick List Of My Favorite Budget Microphones
Large Diaphragm Mics
Behringer B2: I know some of you were saying “blah Behringer”, but the B2 is the mic I was talking about that sounds very similar to the U87. I’ve owned it for 16+ years, and it still sounds wonderful.
Studio Projects B3: The B3 is quite versatile because it comes with three polar patterns Cardioid, Omni, and Figure 8. I use this for all sorts of recordings; VO, drums, and SFX.
AT2020: Not much can be said about the AT2020, its a quality mic, both in build and sound quality. Only sports 1 pattern (cardioid). I love the AT2020 for voice-overs and hip-hop/Rnb Vocals (male/female). The AT20200 is also a good mic for podcasting. If you’re going it, I would suggest going with an option that includes a cable and mic stand.
Also, keep in mind, the AT2020 needs phantom power, unlike the AT2020 USB version.
Rode NTG1: My first shotgun mic, not the best, but it does get the job done, and it’s relatively inexpensive. Especially when compared to other shotgun microphones.
ATR2100 USB: This mic made it on my list because it’s a USB mic that can be powered via USB and 48v meaning it has an XLR input. I like it mic because of the sound quality, it’s very similar to the rode podcaster and it’s under $60.
There are a lot of sites that offer great reviews on microphones so do a little research. You can also rent time in a studio… One or two hours would be adequate time to test out different types of microphones.
There are also services out there that will allow you to rent music gear for dirt cheap. From there you can again, test and decide if the mic is something you want long-term.