Choosing a Microphone – 25 of the best!
There are easily hundreds, if not thousands of microphones available on the market right now. This guide should help you cut through the noise and pick your ideal mic for your needs and budget!
There are several types of mic; dynamic, large diaphragm condenser (LDC), small diaphragm condenser (SDC), and ribbon.
Dynamic microphones tend to be very directional; they record sound mainly from wherever you point them, using what is known as cardoid pattern. They are a great all round solution and as they aren’t as sensitive as condenser mics, they are a superb option for untreated recording spaces. They do not require external power and are relatively cheap. Here are some of the best:
1. Shure SM57
Perhaps the most famous studio mic ever! You would be hard pushed to find a studio that doesn’t several of them in their mic locker. Considering the price is accessible for most, I can highly recommend it. Ideal for snare drums, toms, guitar amps, as a second mic on bass amps and kick drums too. On vocals I find it to be susceptible to proximity effect (the closer you are to the mic, the more bassy your recording will sound. If you get too close it can sound a little flappy on the p’s and t’s). I don’t use it on vocals often but when I do, perfectly good recordings can be achieved by using a pop filter, and leaving a bit more distance between the singer and the mic than usual. It is a great multi purpose microphone for sure and I think everyone should have one, but there are definitely better choices for a vocal mic.
2. Shure SM58
As one of the most popular mics for live vocals, it’s no surprise that the 58 can also be used with great success in the studio. There is no need to spend double (or more) the money on a condenser when you have this at hand, especially if your space is untreated. Supposedly the capsule is the same as the SM57, so sometimes I take the cover off and use it on guitar amps with no problem at all. It’s quite a rugged mic too
3. EV PL 35
The highly regarded Electro Voice offer this budget conscious mic to the market. Considering it is cheaper than the 2 previous contenders, it’s not bad at all. It is highly regarded for snares and toms but can also be used on guitar amps. ZZ Top supposedly use some of these while touring, so they must be half decent! The clip makes it perfect for drums.
4. Audix i-5
People have been comparing this mic to the SM57. It is around the same price point and tends to be used for similar things like snares, toms, guitar amps and such. The reviews speak for themselves, some people even preferring it over the 57 which is surprising! Apparently it’s also fantastic for vocals. I may just have to get one for myself….
5. Sennheiser E604
Great mics for toms if you are on a budget. Also come as a 3 pack which can save you a bit of cash. The clips work perfectly too and are fairly adjustable. The ones at my studio have had regular beatings from heavy handed drummers, and I also know a few drummers who like using them on snares.
6. Sennheiser E906
Another great dynamic mic for snares, guitar amps and even wind instruments. It has a fast transient response and a supercardoid pickup pattern. The 3 way switch is very handy and allows you to boost the highs, leave the eq flat, or cut some low end out.
7. Sennheiser MD421
One of the more expensive mics on this list. It has a great reputation and is recommended for use on vocals, guitars, horns, wind instruments and especially on toms. Great for studio use or live. It picks up frequencies as low as 30hz, so the 5 way low cut switch can come in handy at times!
8. AKG D112
Designed for use on kick drums. As most kick drum mics are great for recording low end, they can also be used with success on bass amps, tubas, and other bass heavy instruments. This one has an intentional dip in the mids, the idea being that you will need to tweak less in the mix.
9. Shure Beta 52A
Another kick drum mic, this time from Shure. It has a supercardoid pickup pattern and as mentioned previously, most kick mics can be used on other bassy instruments perfectly. I have used it on bass amps, and even on a cajon for the low end!
10. Audix D6
Another option for a great kick drum mic. Doesn’t go as low as the other 2 kick mics (they go down to 20hz, this one goes down to 30hz), but this still doesn’t stop the Audix from having a superb low end response. It has been mentioned to have a slightly more coloured sound when compared to the other popular kick drum mics, which makes it a little less versatile. It also scooped mids like the AKG, so in theory should require less tweaking in the mix. Rammstein have used this on tour, so it’s well worth considering for rock/metal kicks or floor toms.
11. EV RE20
This mic is another industry standard popular with sound engineers and broadcasters all over the world. It features a variable – D true cardoid polar pattern which virtually eliminates the proximity effect that other mics suffer from. Electro Voice claim that it offers condenser like performance and a true cardoid design with zero coloration, even at 180 degrees of axis. The premium grade mic offers a pop filter and shock reduction, both internal. A fantastic microphone for pretty much anything you can throw at it!
Condenser microphones are generally more sensitive than dynamics so are more suited to treated spaces that don’t have a lot of reverb…unless that is the sound you are going for! LDCs are usually the first choice for vocal, string/piano/orchestral recordings due to their ability to capture more detail, and are often used as secondary mics for guitar amp and kick drum recordings. Overhead mics for a drum kick are usually a pair of LDCs or SDCs, and the smaller SDCs are often used for stereo recording acoustic guitars too. They require phantom power, and usually have the ability to switch between several pickup patterns.
1. AKG C414
Feature packed and a fantastic sound, the AKG 414 is a legendary microphone. 5 regular settings and 4 blend settings gives up to 9 different pickup patterns for you to play with. Multiple pad and low cut options add to this flexibility, and the lock button means you can sort of save your favorite setting too. It has a high end boost and comes with a shock mount and aluminum carry case for protection while not in use. Quite pricey, but well worth it. If not, the C214 is also a great option at less than half the price, but is nowhere near as flexible.
2. Audio Technica AT2020
Very highly rated in reviews, and one of the cheapest decent condenser mics available. It doesn’t really have many features, one pick up pattern (cardoid), and comes with a soft carry case and a mounting clip. Considering it sounds good, you can’t really ask for much more at such a low price.
3. Shure SM7B
The SM7B is an industry standard and a go to mic for many people. It’s integrated pop shield is of high quality, and makes it a great choice for vocals and voice over work but it has also been known to be used on guitar amps and hi hats to great effect. It features bass roll off and mid boost switches too, but tends to require a decent preamp or a booster like a Cloudlifter to power it properly.
4. Rode NT2-A
A super handy and relatively affordable condenser, the NT2-A has plenty of features like 3 different pickup patterns, 2 low cut and pad settings and comes with a suspension mount and pop shield too! I have personally used this mic for many instruments and have nothing but good things to say. The NT1-A is the cheaper alternative, delivering the same recording quality, but does not have any pattern/low cut/pad features.
5. Aston Spirit
Newcomers to the mic market, Aston is a British company making a name for themselves in the industry. Their affordable range of mics provide great quality recordings and are steadily gaining popularity. The Spirit has a high pass filter, built in pop shield, 3 way pattern switch and a couple of pad settings as well as internal shock absorption. The Aston Origin is the cheaper option, the only functional difference being the lack of multiple pickup patterns.
6. Warm Audio WA-47jr
Warm Audio’s clone of the classic and legendary Neumann U47 mic at a much more affordable price. With a double diapraghm design, 3 way pattern switch, low cut and pad, it’s a feature packed offering to the mic market that also comes with a shock mount. Not to be confused with its big brother, the WA-47, which is actually a tube mic like the original U47, an also offers 6 blend patterns to give more flexibility with the mics pickup patterns. The WA-47 also comes with a dedicated power supply, shock mount, cable, and carry box, but costs almost 3 times the amount of the more basic “jr” version.
7. Rode NT5 Matched Pair
The first pair of SDCs on the list. These usually come as matched pairs (although you can buy the individually), mainly because they are typically used for stereo recordings, either on acoustic instruments and as drum overheads. The NT5s have excellent reviews, and come with pop shields, mounts and a carry case. Rode, like with all their mics, offer a 10 year warranty if you register your product, which offers a whole load of peace of mind!
8. Oktave MK 012 Matched Pair
A direct contender to the NT5s but slightly more costly, they are an excellent choice in the SDC market. The curious design of the Russian Oktavas allows you to unscrew the top capsule to add various mods to the mic, the basic pack includes a -10db pad capsule, but you can get further additions to include different pickup patterns or even convert it to a large diaphragm mic too! A great sounding set of mics for stereo recordings. You can also just use one for a mono recording as they do sound lovely….no one will stop you 😉
Some other mic manufacturers that have worthy offerings to the condenser and tube mic world are Lewitt (affordable, and gaining rave reviews since launching in 2010), Blue (affordable), Schoeps, Brauner, Telefunken and Neumann. These last three tend to be excellent microphones just like many on this list, but their pricing is out of the range of most of us mere mortals. The chances are, if you can afford them, you already know plenty about microphones and probably wouldn’t even be reading this guide! Neumann have some products in their range which are more affordable than others, and they too are very, very good products, but don’t come close to the U47. Telefunken also offer a U47 mic, but for the price you could probably buy a nice car or put down a deposit on a house!
Ribbon mics were some of the first mics available! They are basically a dynamic mic, but instead of a traditional moving coil attached to a diaphragm, they have a thin strip of metal suspended in a magnetic field, acting as the diaphragm and transducer simultaneously. Sound like jibberish? 😀 Basically, due to all this, they allow you to capture a lot of detail and transient response of a condenser, but with a warmer, darker vibe. They do need a lot of gain, though.
All ribbon mics have a figure 8 pattern due to their design, and can be used on virtually anything you want. Have a sibilant vocalist with a lot of high end? Try a ribbon mic to tame the harshness. As with most things in the recording world, you have to understand your source and the sound you are aiming for to determine which type of mic you want to use to record it. Personally I like ribbons on certain vocal types, guitars (acoustic, and perhaps as a second, or 3rd mic on electric), as drum overheads, on hi hats (maybe a little unconventional!) and as a room mic. They work great on orchestral stuff too, so don’t hesitate to try one out! They can be a little sensitive to heat, humidity and/or being dropped due to their intricate design, so make sure you treat them right!. There aren’t as many ribbon mics on the market as dynamic or condenser, so choosing one should be a little bit easier
1. Royer Labs R121
This is possibly the best ribbon mic available, and the price reflects it. An industry standard and designed to be more resistant to heat and humidity when compared to others. Comes with a nice carry case, and if the price is too high, its little brother the R10 is another excellent choice at less than half the price.
2. The t.bone RB500
For the low price point, this mic has some great reviews. A double ribbon design offers a warm and natural sound, and t.bone actually have some even cheaper models on offer. A nice way to get yourself introduced to the world of ribbon microphones. The cable it comes with is attached and cannot be detached, which can be annoying at times but is a small compromise.
3. Golden Age Project R1
A lovely looking, retro style ribbon mic. GAP uses Large Ribbon Geometry and claim to deliver life like recordings with the realism of “being there”.
4. Beyerdynamic M160
This German made ribbon mic is famously known for having been used to record the drums on certain Led Zeppelin songs. Unlike pretty much every mic in its category, it has a hypercardoid pattern rather than a figure 8. It has folded double ribbon design allowing it to handle the loudest of sources, and while it is claimed to be primarily for strings and wind instruments, it reportedly sounds fantastic on guitar amps, vocals and drums too. It´s less than half the price of the Royer so not a bad purchase. There is also the M130 at around the same price point, which is a more typical ribbon mic with a figure 8 pattern. Another double ribbon design and a great all round mic, often used in conjunction with the M160 to capture fantastic Mid Side recordings.
5. Superlux R102
A great choice to get started with ribbon mics, as it is at the more affordable end of the spectrum. Many are loving it’s big warm sound for recording guitar amps and acoustic guitars, often in a Mid Side configuration too. It has an internal shock mount, an easy to replace ribbon capsule, comes with a carry case and an cable.
6. SE Electronics Voodoo VR1/VR2
The VR1 and VR2 have passive and active ribbon designs respectively. This prices the VR2 slightly higher than the VR1, but they are both great mics that boast an extended high end right upto 20khz, compared to other ribbons which can start rolling off even from 10khz. Considering they have been used by bands like Queens Of The Stone Age, Linkin Park and Black Sabbath, there is no reason to have any doubts about the quality of these microphones. The VR2 will be more sensitive due to its active design, but both sound quite similar. If they are too pricey, consider the SE Electronics X1R which is a fair bit cheaper but still draws from the technology used in the Voodoo models, although the high end does start rolling off a bit earlier. If you do have a huge budget, you could consider the RNR1, the first mic from audio legend Rupert Neve. It has 2 custom Neve transformers and discrete circuitry, and like the other SE Electronics ribbon mics, has an exntended higher end when compared to other ribbons. Unlike other ribbon mics it has a low cut switch too, and I can only assume it sounds as awesome as it looks (I won’t know for myself unless SE Electronics fancy sending me one to review…. 😉 )
I hope this guide has helped you at least narrow down your choices. These microphones are all great bits of kit and there are options for every budget.