I recorded my first album in high school. At least I called it an “album.”

My gear list included:

  • A basic home PC
  • A “free” version of Cakewalk Guitar Tracks I got from a friend.
  • That skinny little dictation microphone that used to come with home computers. (Remember those? It was a skinny little microphone about eight inches long, mounted to a cheap little plastic stand, plugged into the sound card at the back of the computer. See pic at the end of this article.)

This was my first foray into recording. If you’re wondering, I shan’t be re-releasing that album. Whew, it was awful.

However, I learned a lot of things back then. I had no idea I was using sub-par equipment, and I worked really hard to make the recordings sound good. Most of all, I had fun.

Perhaps you’re in the same place. You’re having fun writing songs and perhaps even recording a little bit. The fact that you’re reading this series of articles shows that you’re wanting to step things up a bit.

We’ve been through computers, DAW software, audio interfaces, and now let’s look at microphones.

One Good Mic

If you’re like me, the majority of your plans for recording involve one microphone. You’ll record the acoustic guitar first, then vocals, then some additional parts.

To do this, you’ll probably want to get a good large-diaphragm condenser microphone.

There are basically two types of microphones – dynamic mics and condenser mics. Dynamics are usually used primarily in a live sound setting. In the studio, they’re often used to record drums and guitar amps. (I’m speaking in very general terms, since there are no hard and fast rules. In fact, you should check out a great shoot-out I did between the Shure SM7B and SM58. Both are dynamic mics. A dynamic mic can sometimes sound FANTASTIC on vocals.)

Condensers are generally used more in recording studios. They are powered via phantom power. (You’ll need to make sure your audio interface can supply phantom power. It will usually be marked “+48V.” The phantom power is sent to the microphone through the microphone cable.)

Condensers are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, so they tend to pick up more detail. There are large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm condenser mics. Small-diaphragm mics are great for recording various instruments or drum overheads. They usually don’t work well for vocals (in my experience).

If you’re just starting out, get one good large diaphragm condenser. Then add a dynamic. Then maybe a small-diaphragm condenser.

What’s Your Budget?

I know, I know. It seems like such a “salesman” type of question, but it’s a really important question to ask yourself when dealing with microphones.

You can spend anywhere from $50-$10,000 on a single microphone. In my experience, with microphones – especially ones under $1,000 – you really get what you pay for. What I mean is that if you compare a $500 mic with a $1,000 one, you’ll definitely hear a difference.

For me the breaking point is around $250. If you spend less than that, you’ll most likely need to buy a new mic in a year or so. If you can swing $300 for a microphone, you’ll be happy. I’m a big fan of Rode microphones for anyone who wants good quality but doesn’t want to spend a ton of money.

Now if you’ve got a big chunk of cash laid aside for your dream studio, then you can seriously consider some of the higher-end microphones out there. Brands like Neumann, Blue, and AKG come to mind.

Why do big studios have mic lockers full of microphones? Because no one microphone works well in every situation. It’s like painting. If you give a painter one or two colors to work with, they’ll only be able to create a handful of paintings.

In the same way, microphones can add a lot of color and character to your recordings. One mic that sounds great on my vocals may sound awful on another guy’s voice. If you’re aiming for a professional studio, you’ll need to eventually look into investing in several microphones. That way you can cover whatever situations you come across during a recording session.

BUT PLEASE REMEMBER… a great microphone won’t guarantee a great recording. You still need to do the hard work of getting it right at the source.

What Do I Use?

As I update this article (in July 2013), my two favorite mics right now are the Earthworks SR25 (small diaphragm condenser) and the Shure SM7B (dynamic):

What you choose is certainly up to you. Learn how to get the best sound you can out of the gear you own, and upgrade when you can.

  • Subhav

    An after thought – What do you think about Shure SM58 and/or AKG D5

    My utility is to record Voiceovers only.

    Thanks!

    • I love the D5, but to answer your first question I wonder if these “sound leaks” you’re talking about are really a problem. I would record a bunch of great songs and focus on making music. I seriously doubt the extra noise is that big of a deal if you’re recording amazing musicians playing amazing songs.
      Joe

  • Subhav

    Problem: I have a home studio but unfortunately there are a lot of sound leaks. Currently, I use AT2020 via a Focusrite 2i2 Sound Card (Phantom Power) and my recordings get muddled with a whole lot of background noise when I normalize the audiio.

    I have been toying with the idea of going from a Condenser Mic to a Dynamic Mic (preferably SM7B) but not sure if it will help the situation. Also, the problem is I have never recorded using a Dynamic Mic and trying a Shure SM7B will cost me $700 (in India). I need to be very sure before I have my uncle get me one from the US

    Please help

  • David Hillshafer

    I disagree on the “you get what you pay for” line, I own two AKG C414 (one XLS and one XLII) and a Blue Kiwi among many other mics that cost less. Often I find myself hooking up an SM7B or Baby Bottle instead (both under $500). As you pointed out several times, it’s all about the source you’re recording not the price of the mic.
    Sometimes the SM57 is the best mic for the job, sometimes it’s a Neumann.
    One thing that is for sure: Paying clients think they will sound better on expensive mics. It’s actually difficult sometimes to convince them a no-frills mic is the way to go!

  • Volkan Mustafa

    i’m gonna buy AKG C414 XLS Large-diaphragm Con. Mic. for my home studio.. what do you think about it? is that too much or i have to get it ? and also what if i will buy used AKG C414 xls mic.

  • SANDEEP G

    Hi
    I have a rode m2 with Focusrite saffire 6 usb. M2 is good but does not suit my baritone voice. I have 3 Options in mind .
    The at 2035, mxl v 67G and akg p220.

    Which of the 3 you think will suit my
    voice as i want the full warm round bass in my voice.

  • Quesoman

    Blue Microphones never let you down!

  • Gabe

    An article by Graham Cochrane on mice that’s really helpful: http://therecordingrevolution.com/2009/10/26/the-best-100-you-will-spend/

  • Mushmellow

    I really like those microphones: Lauten Audio Clarion and Lewitt LCT 640. Check them out.

  • Krazeboi10

     what do you think of the Rode NTK Tube Condenser Microphone

    • Great mic. I’ve used it on vocals and acoustic guitar. Nice, big sound.

  • Pablo

    how about Shure microphones? people tell me they are the best in quality/price

    • Yep, Shure make great mics, as do lots of mic manufacturers. As long as you’re not buying super cheap equipment, you’ll be able to get good recordings.

      • Pablo

        ok, thanks!

    • Crankcase08

      The Behringer XM8500 is now having a reputation equal (if not, a little better) than the Shure SM57/SM58, and at about a quarter of the price. It is actually a clone of the SM58. Alternatively, the AKG D5 is better than both, and often at little more than half the price of an SM58.

      I’ve found that these dynamic mics reproduce the lower harmonics of a male voice (I’m a baritone) better than a lot of condensers, especially the two I currently own, a Behringer B-1, and the very highly rated (and far more expensive) Audio Technica AT2035. I find that the dynamic mics help better reproduce the power of the voice, particularly with rock vocals. Consequently, the AKG D5 is my studio microphone of choice for power-rock vocals.

  • Saso Alauf

    I recently bought a Samson G Track (USB) and I can’t begin to explain how happy I am about it…the first mic where I don’t hate my voice, lol

  • Scott

    I am really digging your advice, fantastic. I just purchased an M-audio Luna for $90 from eBay tonight based on your article. I can’t wait to give this one a try!

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  • Hey Joe – what are your thoughts on MXL microphones? They have some really good looking products, but are very inexpensive… but that could also mean for the price they’re exactly what I’m looking for. I’m experimenting with buying some nicer mics and trying to learn all I can. Have you had any experience with these? Thanks!

    • Hey Jason. I’ve not used them myself, but I’ve heard good things about them. My go-to inexpensive brands are Rode, M-Audio, Audio-Technica, etc.

  • Cesar

    What do u think of the Audio Technica at2020 or the akg perception series.

  • Darrin

    I had a NT1 and it wasnt a good one I guess, I bought a Studio Projects C1, and it blew it out of the water…now Im using a Shure KSM32 and KSM44 as work horses…and for most vocals an AT4047.

    In a lucky auction win I aquired 42 dynamic mics in a suitcase which had 12 SM57s…2 MD421…an M88 and a M69…amoung other mics…for a little over $100….so Im pretty stocked up…I actually made enough from selling the mics I didnt want to get the KSM44 and AT4047.

  • Ron Ball

    I’m in agreement with the Rode mics. I use the Rode K2 Tube mic for my vocals and I’m blown away every time I hear a recorded performance with this mic.

  • LOL!! That’s the 1st mic me and my group were working with over a year ago as well! Just looks like a different color but definitely the same mic (wonder where that is now, a piece of history for us indeed). now we’re upgrading, i got an mxl 4000, a group member got a neumann believe it on not, and another member is currently working towards a genesis. goes to show how people who get into recording knowing next to nothing go through a huge learning process by personal experience. Then can look back on great times where recording was more for fun and out of interest than anything else. ha

  • QUAZ

    The rode brand of mics is great. Not gonna cost a arm and leg and you still get quality. Great stuff

    • Agreed. Even their least expensive mic, the NT1A, sounds great. I’m always impressed when I use it.