As with anything else in the audio world, there are very definite rules about which microphones you should use in different circumstances. There are particular mics regarded as the best. Like rules everywhere, the definitive ones are just easy to break, and “best of” lists that don’t consider budget simply aren’t practical.
In this article, we will look at some applications and suggest some microphones to improve your knowledge and, hopefully, help you find the mic that is your soulmate. There is nothing written here, however, that should be more authoritative than your own ears. Listen to the music you love, absorb the way things sound and apply it to yourself. Critical self-listening isn’t easy, but as with anything difficult, practice will help. A good mic makes things easier, but expect your tastes to change with time, perhaps even day-to-day or song-to-song.
Developing as a singer is a process that requires specialized knowledge about performance, breath control and a million other things. Here’s what you need to know about microphones, and how to find the best microphone for vocals.
For a more in-depth discussion of mic types, see my article here describing the Different Types of Microphones. It’s more of a technical discussion of mic types, so we’ll try to stick to practical matters here.
For practical vocal purposes, the mics we will examine fall into one of two broad categories:
- Dynamic mics – this design has some sort of conducting element suspended in a magnetic field. Sound waves cause this element to move within that magnetic field, creating small variations in the field. These variations create a tiny electrical charge which represents the sound that the mic “heard.” We will look at two subtypes of dynamic mic: moving coil and ribbon designs.
- Condenser mics – there are no magnets in this design. Instead of electromagnetism, the property of capacitance creates the electrical signal. Two conducting plates, one fixed and one a moving diaphragm, are held in a close parallel arrangement. When sound hits the diaphragm, the space between the conducting plates changes. This in turn creates a variation in an electrical charge within the plates. This variation is called capacitance. That electrical charge must either be provided to the plates, as in a standard condenser mic design, or imparted by a charge in the materials of the mic itself, called electret mic design.
Further refining things for our purposes, we will look mostly at moving coil and standard condenser mics. While ribbon mics can be used for vocals, they suit only some voices and some situations. Electret mics are all over the place, in smartphones, tablets, inexpensive computer mics, etc. There aren’t a lot of this design made to be plugged into a mixer or recording interface, though they do exist.
We will stick also with conventional mics that connect via XLR cables. There are many very good USB mics out there for home recording. I don’t know of anyone who uses these to sing live though, nor do I see any reason to try.
Another reason we will only look at these two mics is this: if you were dropped into the studio or onstage with an experienced engineer who didn’t know a thing about you other than you sang, it’s pretty much guaranteed the first mic they reach for will be one of these two designs. Why make life complicated, right?
Oh, about those general rules. Usually dynamic mics are used live. They’re durable and comparatively not that sensitive, so less prone to feedback. Usually condenser mics are studio beasts. They can be more delicate. They’re sensitive, so too many of these on stage and there will be squeals galore.
However, as you will read, there are dynamic mics that are some engineers’ go-to vocal mics in the studio. Less common are condensers onstage for vocals, but it can happen, and it does. There are some hand-held condenser mics that look like their dynamic cousins cosmetically.
The best general rule is, if it sounds good, use it.
Even narrowed to two classes, there are still a ton of mics to wade through. Any list is going to miss naming some really good mics, and the perfect match for your voice may not be one that’s discussed here.
What I will do, though, is include mics that meet these touchpoints:
- Commonly used for vocals
- Well-regarded by professionals in the audio industry
- Easily available in new and/or used markets
Further, I will select mics in different budget categories:
- $50.00 to $250.00 – Budget Mic
- $250.00 to $500.00 – Mid-Level
- Over $500.00 – Professional
and with one further category:
- Mojo – call it what you will, these are mics with cool factor. This is the music biz. Sometimes image does take a back seat to quality.
I’ll select one can’t-go-wrong mic in each category, with a few “runners-up,” but to be sure in a list of this nature, there are no losers.
Moving Coil Dynamic Mics
Shure SM57/58 ($99 street price) – Quite simply, if you meet someone who calls himself an audio engineer but who doesn’t know what an SM57 or SM58 is, check that you still have your wallet and run like hell. These are essentially the same microphone, but with different grilles. The big ball is the SM58, the classic vocal mic look and performance. In live music settings, there is no mic used more than this because it’s that good. You can use an SM57 for vocals also, but it has no integral pop filter, so you may want a foam ball for it. These are workhorses, very hard to kill. I went years before I encountered an SM58 that didn’t have a flat spot. Some engineers claim these guys don’t even work right until you drop them on the floor a few times.
IN A NUTSHELL: If live gigging is a regular event for you, own an SM58. (Read My Full Review Here)
- Electrovoice N/D767a ($79 street) Read My Full Review Here
- Audix f5 ($79 street) Read My Full Review Here
- Rode M1 ($99 street) Read My Full Review Here
Shure SM7B ($349 street) – Another Shure? Well, yes. It’s what they do and they do it well. The SM7B is a broadcast mic that happens to be very at home in the studio capturing rock vocals. If you need an indication of its success, the 1982 Thriller album by Michael Jackson uses the SM7 for almost all of MJ’s vocals. The 7B designation, introduced in 2001, has a larger windscreen, but is of the same lineage as the original SM7. This thriller is a killer. (Read My Full Review Here)
The Quick Story: While it’s a broadcast and studio mic, it can make the transition to live stage use.
- Sennheiser MD421 II ($380 street) Read My Full Review Here
- Beyerdynamic M88 TG ($399 street) Read My Full Review Here
- Telefunken M81 ($249 street) Read My Full Review Here
Electrovoice RE-20 (List $765, street $449) – Here’s some great news. I knew before I started that the RE-20 was my pick of the over $500 dynamics. I was wrong. It’s now under $500. However, since the upper level on dynamic mics doesn’t go much higher, I’ve decided to keep it as my professional pick. This is another mic with broadcast gravitas that also works well in a number of applications. This is a big mic, with an integrated pop filter that goes easy on a lot of vocal flaws. So singers know instinctively how to work a mic, moving closer and back to balance overall vocal levels or turning slightly away to reduce the impact of “p” pops and other plosive sounds. Other singers need to learn these techniques. Throw up an RE-20 and it doesn’t matter. It’s forgiving, deep without boom and clear without stridency. I have seen these onstage, but not as vocal mics. This is more for singing in the studio. (Read My Full Review Here)
Long Story Short: A million monster truck announcers can’t be wrong.
- Sennheiser MD441U ($900 street)
- Sennheiser MD431 II ($569 list, $450 street) Read My Full Review Here
Shure Super 55 Deluxe
($249 street) – Want an instant honky tonk or rockabilly vibe without opening your mouth? Mount up a Super 55 Deluxe and heads will turn. The blue foam takes the winning design over the top. And what do you know? It sounds good too. It has sound qualities that make it an excellent stage mic along with its showmanship. This mic really is too cool for school. (Read My Full Review Here)
Honorable Mention: Heil The Fin ($220 street) – Packing a similar vibe to the Super 55, The Fin adds an LED to the 50s hood ornament style to give the mic a righteous glow. I found this mic a bit noisy, but I only had my hands on one, so can’t say if it was an isolated problem or not. (Read My Full Review Here)
Samson C01 ($80 street price) – At one time, the idea that a quality condenser mic could be bought 20 bucks cheaper than an SM58 would be laughable. Not only is that time less than 20 years ago, but now there are a gazillion mics in this class under $100. The C01 is one of the first low-budget, big-capsule condensers to snuggle its way into home studios, and it’s still here a decade later. This is the first condenser mic that a lot of people have owned, I’d imagine, and it gives a great representation of what the large diaphragm condenser mic concept is about. (Read My Full Review Here)
The Flash News: At this price, buy two.
- Audio-Technica AT2020 ($99 street) (Read My Full Review Here)
- Behringer B-1 ($100 street) (Read My Full Review Here)
- Shure Beta 87A ($249 street) handheld condenser (Read My Full Review Here)
BLUE Baby Bottle ($400 street) – This thing looked a bit silly when I first saw it. It’s a studio mic, no question. However, it might be the most affordable, genuine Swiss Army mic out there. It is just a hard mic to get a bad sound from. If there is one challenge for this mic, it’s acoustic guitars, but the challenge extends only to finding where to place it. Once it’s there, sweet goodness, it’s there. It still looks weird, but you’ll grow to love it. (Read My Full Review Here)
If You Were Stranded On An Island With One Mic: This is it.
- Rode NT1000 ($329 street) (Read My Full Review Here)
- Shure Beta 27 ($399 street) (Read My Full Review Here)
- Audio-Technica AT4040 ($299 street) (Read My Full Review Here)
AKG C414 XLII ($1099 street) – This is the other desert island mic. The C414 has a long history as a go-to mic in studios, not to mention on the Tonight Show desk in front of Johnny Carson. Like the baby bottle, this is simply a great-sounding and versatile mic, from vocals right on down. It has features galore from nine selectable polar patterns to three-position bass cut settings and three more attenuation pads. It’s made, quite simply, to mic everything in pretty much any situation. (Read My Full Review Here)
Were You Not Paying Attention? Here’s Johnny, man!
- Telefunken U47 ($9000 street) Yes. Nine. Thousand. And worth every cent to its fans.
- BLUE Bottle ($6000 street) Baby Bottle’s mama.
- Neumann U87 ($3600 street) What every large diaphragm mic wants to be when it grows up. (Read My Full Review Here)
Neumann TLM 103 ($1300 street) – Condenser mic mojo is decidedly geekier than the Super 55, however once you’re into the larger-than-life world of large capsule condensers, there is an aesthetic that begins to grow. The U47 and U87 are certainly iconic for those steeped in condenser mic lore, but, for me, the sexiest large-diaphragm look belongs to the TLM 103. Not only is it descended from the U87, it oozes quality. It’s a wonderful mic to just hold. Read My Full Review Here
As I scan lists of mics, I see so many that I could have added here, mics for which I have fond memories and great affection. There are also many, many mics that I haven’t even been in the same room with yet, perhaps good friends waiting to meet me.
Your experience in finding the best microphone for vocals will be different than mine, and everyone else’s. There really aren’t rules to good sound, despite what I said in the intro. True, it’s hard to go wrong with a Baby Bottle or an SM7B. At first, when you don’t know any better, all mics sound alike. As your ear tunes in, you start to notice. Is the sound of a U47 $8,900 better than an SM58? Perhaps, but I promise your reaction will be different when someone pours beer over both of them. Values need context, and there has never been a better time to experiment with mics. So much quality and so affordable. I envy those of you starting your home recording journey.
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