Trying to find your first recording studio microphone can be a bit of a minefield. There are literally hundreds of microphones you can buy. What type should you go for? How much should you spend? What instruments can you record with what microphone? How many microphones do i need for my home recording studio?
These are all questions that people have when starting their own home studio. The first thing to remember is a microphone is just a tool for you to use to create and produce music. By reading through this guide on studio microphones, you’ll understand the basics necessary to buy your first microphone.
Microphone Cardioid Polar Patterns
First, a quick word about cardioid patterns. There are 5 cardioid patterns that you will hear of when discussing microphones, and they are figure of 8/bi-directional, omnidirectional, cardioid, super cardioid, and hypercardioid. It is important to understand what these patterns are and how it will affect your recording.
Omnidirectional microphones pick up sound from every direction equally. This usually results in a general and unfocused recording. Typically, these are great to record room ambiance or group vocals.
Figure of 8/Bi-Directional
Figure of 8, or bi-directional microphones pick up sounds equally well from the front and the rear, but not the sides. This is great for recording an instrument and its ambiance, and rejecting all sound that comes in from the sides.
Cardioid microphones are your typical go-to. They will pick up sound from the front only, and reject sound from the back. They will also pick up sound from the sides, but to a lesser extent. An extremely versatile microphone that has many different uses.
This is like cardioid, but has a tighter pickup area to help better eliminate sound from the sides and enhance sound from the front. Supercardioid will have a small pickup ‘bulb’ at the rear.
Hyper cardioid is like super cardioid but tighter still. It has a very narrow, focused pickup area at the front. This eliminates much of the noise from the sides, but has a slightly larger ‘bulb’ at the rear.
Types of Microphones
In the music world, there are 3 main types of microphones that are used. Each type is based on the different method that each uses to pick up sound.
These 3 types of microphones will be used through the entirety of your music production journey. However it is important to understand the different characteristics of each type of microphone so you can better understand the different uses.
The frequency response of the microphone is the way the microphone responds to different frequencies. Every microphone will have frequencies that are exaggerated, and others that are attenuated. It us your job as a music producer to understand how to use this to your advantage!
Dynamic microphones are generally not very good at recording quiet sounds, or high frequencies. This is due to the size of the diaphragm. Dynamic microphones have heavy diaphragms that require a lot of energy to move. Quiet noises and high frequency sound just doesn’t have enough energy to effectively move the diaphragm. However, this makes it perfect for close miking, and recording loud sounds with lots of energy. They are able to record loud noises with high sound pressure, without distorting.
Condenser microphones on the other hand, are great at recording quieter sounds and high frequencies. This is because they have a lighter diaphragm, which is more sensitive to quieter sounds. The lighter, more sensitive diaphragm however, makes them more susceptible to damage if exposed to too loud a noise. Having a wider frequency response makes condenser microphones more accurate than dynamic microphones. This makes them a lot more versatile giving them a wide range of applications.
Ribbon microphones work almost the same as dynamic microphones except for one major difference. Instead of a diaphragm to generate voltage, it uses a strip (or ribbon) of aluminium suspended inside a magnetic field. When sound waves hit the ribbon, it moves inside the magnetic field, generating a voltage. Typically, ribbon microphones are great a low and mid-range frequencies. They are also a lot more sensitive to sound and will pick up a much clearer, better quality recording than either dynamic or condenser. However, because they are so sensitive, they often require a low noise preamp to boost the output to a satisfactory level.
What is phantom power? Phantom power is essential to understand if you want to buying microphones for your home recording studio. Phantom power is supplied by your mixing console, preamp, or audio interface, and is often labeled +48V.
Out of the three types of microphones I’ve listed above, the only one to use phantom power is the condenser microphone. The reason for this is simple, but long to explain.
Dynamic microphones use a diaphragm that is attached to a coil, which sits around a magnet. When the diaphragm moves, this coil moves over the magnet and generates an electric charge. This is how a dynamic microphone works and transmits its audio signal. It doesn’t need any external power, as it generates its own!
Ribbon microphones use a strip of aluminium suspended in a magnetic field. The incoming sound waves move this strip in the magnetic field, which generates a charge just like in the dynamic microphone. Again, it does not need power to function as the moving metal in the magnetic field induces a voltage.
Condenser microphones however, work slightly differently to this. A condenser mic has two plates inside it. A back plate, and front plate, which acts as the diaphragm. The two plates are charged opposite to each other, one being positive and one being negative. When the diaphragm moves, it changes the potential difference (voltage) between the two plates. This circuitry is how a condenser microphone generates its audio signal. The thing is, unlike a dynamic microphone and a ribbon microphone, it requires an external power source to charge these plates. This is the reason that a condenser microphone needs phantom power.
If you buy a condenser microphone, make sure you also buy the necessary equipment to supply it with its +48V of power!
So… What’s the BEST Studio Microphone for Recording Music?
Choose a Dynamic Mic If…
Dynamic mics are able to take a beating. Both in sound level and they are very physically rugged. They are best utilised when close to a loud sound source, and when low frequency sound needs recording. They have so many different applications. A dynamic microphone is the perfect choice for; live vocal performance, electric guitar, kik drum, and snare drum. These just cover the basic uses that a home recording studio would want to cover.
Choose a Condenser Mic If…
Condenser mics are built to pick up detail. They can pick up the quieter, softer sounds, and the higher acoustic frequencies. Most music tracks that you listen to will have been recorded using mostly condenser mics, due to the different diaphragm size, different cardioid patterns, and flexibility of use.
Large diaphragm condenser microphones tend to be less accurate when recording an acoustic signal, so are used to record vocals. They are however great at producing warm and more unique sound recordings.
Small diaphragm condenser microphones conversely are more accurate at recording an acoustic signal. This makes them perfect for recording instruments such as acoustic guitar, and drum overheads to capture all that detail.
Choose a Ribbon Mic If…
Ribbon mics are rarely used by the beginner music producer, but they do have their place. They deliver excellent sound quality and are starting to be used in many more applications than they used to. The ribbon mics you can pick up nowadays deliver a full-bodied, rich sound that will beat out the dynamic mic and condenser mic. The figure of 8 cardioid pattern also delivers a natural ambience to the recording. Just bear in mind they are expensive, not as durable as dynamic or condenser mics, and will require a decent preamp.
Ribbon microphones are great at recording acoustic guitar, horns, and piano too. They are also being used to record over head drums and even electric guitar cabs.
Check out this other article if you want to see the differences between dynamic microphones vs condenser microphones.
Recording Studio Microphone Recommendations
So you either read all of the above (well done!), or skipped straight here. Either way, here are my top professional recording studio microphone recommendations and what you’d use them for.
I consider these recording microphones to be affordable, professional recording studio microphones for beginners. While buying a microphone is an investment, you don’t have to break the bank to pick up some real gems.
All Purpose Dynamic Microphone – Shure SM57
The Shure SM57, an industry standard, It can do it all. It is probably the most used microphone in the recording industry, and for good reason; it is extremely versatile, and very affordable. It’s currently sitting at $99 on Amazon!
This studio condenser microphone is a lot of people’s first microphone, and is definitely a must-have if you don’t own one. It’s perfect for recording guitar amps, snare drums, and even as a vocal mic if used correctly.
If you’re more into live performances, then a great alternative is the Shure SM58 model. Very rugged with a built in windscreen, every vocal musician should have one.
Vocal Microphone – Audio-Technica AT2035
The Audio-Technica AT2035 is a large diaphragm condenser microphone is a very pleasing vocal recording microphone. It has superb voice clarity, a great dynamic range, and cuts out any unwanted noise. This is easily one of the best vocal microphones under $200. You can often find it bundled with a shock mount for added value. Pair it with a good pop filter and you’re good to go!
Acoustic Guitar – Audio-Technica AT2020
Another Audio-Technica microphone? There’s a reason why; they just make awesome products that are perfect for a home studio setup.
The Audio-Technica AT2020 is a rugged, cardioid condenser microphone that is really, really affordable. This microphone handles fairly loud sound well. It is great at picking up the high end frequencies made by an acoustic guitar, without sacrificing any of the low end, and is able to produce a nice bright sound which is perfect for recording acoustic guitar.
It comes in two versions; one is an XLR microphone, the other is a USB microphone. The USB condenser microphone version is slightly more expensive, but it means that you don’t have to buy a phantom power source if you don’t already have one.
Electric Guitar – Sennheiser e906
For the electric guitar, a Shure SM57 will work brilliantly for this purpose. It has a great sound, and will be exactly what you want.
However, if you want something a bit different, then take a look at the Sennheiser e906. This is a microphone that was specifically designed to be used to record electric guitar. It’s size and shape make it perfect for close miking guitar cabs. Due to the design of this mic, many people are able to mount it without using a microphone stand. It is able to withstand high sound pressure levels without distorting, combined with a flat frequency response, allows your amp to deliver its intended sound. With a super cardioid pickup pattern, it does an excellent job in recording the sound you want, and dismissing the sound you don’t.
Kick Drum and Bass Amp – AKG D112
The AKG D112 is the industry standard for bass and kick drum recording. It’s a dynamic microphone with a large diaphragm, and a built it windshield to protect against popping. Since it’s a mic designed for low frequency recording, its frequency response is tailored for bass amps and kick drums. You really can’t go wrong with this, at all.
Miking up a room might not seem like something you’d naturally do, but it can really open up the instrument you’re recording. If you can layer a room mic underneath an instrument mic just right, it can make your sound appear deep and wide.
So there you are! A beginners guide to recording studio microphones that should help you in your first purchase and use of studio microphones. With my recommendations above, you should be able to find any mic or combination of mics that will be perfect for your first music recording!