recording studio microphones

Recording Studio Microphones: Good, Better, and Wow!

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Before you go microphone shopping for your home recording set up, your first consideration – besides budget – should be, “What will you be recording?” For a budding heavy metal band, the number and type of microphones will be dramatically different from the needs of a singer/songwriter, jazz musician, or classical instrumentalist.

Whatever your intentions or budget, assembling an arsenal of quality mics can be one element of your studio that defines your work. Microphones are not always a one-size-fits-all deal, and some pro audio dealers will let you try out a mic in your studio if you provide security or purchase it with a 7-day return option. There’s really no better way of knowing how a microphone will work for you than hearing it used in its home environment.

And while assembling the world’s greatest mic collection is not something that’s done overnight – even if you DID just hit the lottery – here are some recommendations for where to begin. We’ve gone to three industry veterans and asked them for their picks for mics they couldn’t do without in a variety of price ranges: $0-500, $500-$1,000, and “lottery day.” Here’s what they came up with.

Under $500

Shure SM57 & SM58
When looking to outfit your studio with some meat-and-potato, multi-purpose mics that are easy on the wallet, Shure’s SM57 and SM58 mics still top the list. Jeff Briss, sales engineer at San Francisco-based Cutting Edge Audio Group, says “The Shure SM57 and 58 are the fundamental place to start for any home recording setup. These mics work on so many different instruments and applications; their versatility is a big plus. They’re also very rugged and dependable, and with a retail price of $99, they’re incredibly affordable, too.”

Shure Beta 57A & Beta 58A
“The SM57 and 58 are a bit like a Swiss Army knife,” echoes David Dow of Modesto, CA-based Aurora Music Productions. Dow, who has been performing, recording, composing, and producing music for more than thirty years, adds that these mics “deliver all-purpose functionality for all types of recording situations. Shure also offers the Beta 57A and Beta 58A for a slightly higher price ($139 and $159), but delivering a slightly brighter sound and higher output level. So it makes sense to have a few of those Shures handy, too.”

Shure KSM141
For $399, you can step up to the more detailed and accurate sound reproduction of Shure’s KSM141. The KSM141 is a classy-sounding, dual pattern, small diaphragm condenser microphone perfect for any acoustic instrument. If your budget allows, buying condenser mics such as the 141s in “matched pairs” (consecutive serial numbers with identical response) ensures accurate sound capture if you decide to do stereo recording.

Sennheiser MD 421 II
Among dynamic mics, Dow’s first choice is the legendary Sennheiser MD 421 II studio microphone. It’s a single pattern, cardioid mic with a five-position roll off switch allowing you to fine tune its response to enhance or reduce the proximity effect. “I like the 421s because they are warm and responsive,” says Dow. “They’re great for both a saxophone and a kick drum. That’s real versatility. The 421s have also earned a sterling reputation as both the ideal tom mic, as well as delivering exceptional quality for voice narration.” They also perform beautifully on brass instruments such as trumpet, trombone, French horn, etc, and you can stick it in front of a guitar cabinet as an alternative to the SM57. They retail for $380, offer greater flexibility than a 57, and are exceptionally durable.

Under $1,000

Shure KSM44A
Another excellent multi-purpose mic is the Shure KSM44A large diaphragm multi-pattern condenser mic. The KSM44A sells for $999 and works well on just about any sound source. “While there are dozens of options in the under $1,000 price range,” says Briss, “the KSM44 offers great value for the money. Plus, it’s made by a company with decades of experience and it’s built like a tank.”

At our campus studio at University of the Pacific, we had the use of a pair of KSM44s for a few months. When it came to recording acoustic instruments such as grand piano, acoustic guitar, and strings, the 44’s broad frequency range delivered exquisite clarity and brilliance. The tracks we recorded were almost indistinguishable from the original sound.

Dow also recommends a classic, high-quality, multi-pattern condenser mic from AKG, the AKG C414 XLII, which also retails for $999. “The 414s are an excellent mic for acoustic instruments, but I also like using it to carefully mic amplifiers, since it gives you a bright sound that really cuts through the mix. The C414 can take high pressure levels (152dB, louder than a jet flying overhead) and features five pickup patterns: cardioid, hypercardioid, wide cardioid, figure 8, and omni; plus the ability to set four more intermediate pickup patterns, say between wide cardioid and omni for an ‘even wider’ cardioid.” The XLII version of this mic has a presence boost to emulate the sound of the legendary AKG C12 mic, one of the most storied mics in the history of recording (which retails for $5,000). In contrast, the C414 XLS variant offers totally linear (flat) response, adding no coloration of any kind. For that reason, the XLS is favored for orchestral or instrument recording where the microphone should sound invisible.

The C414 provides additional features, such as an attenuator with -6, -12 or -18 dB cut; as well as various bass roll off options. The 414s are equally at home on vocals or instrument recordings and add a nice airy presence to just about any sound source. All in all, this mic has become a studio standard because, like the 421, it offers a great deal of flexibility. For instance, Dow mentioned that he likes to use it to record background vocal tracks, as it really distinguishes the sound of the background singers, allowing them to be present, without having to boost their volume as you tailor your final mix.

Shooting the Moon

Neumann U 87 Ai
“For someone ready to reach a little higher in the mic universe,” says Briss, “the Neumann U 87 is a classic, professional-studio, multi-pattern condenser mic that delivers unparalleled detail and dynamic sound. The U 87’s sonic signature can be heard on many hit records.” Amazingly, since its introduction in 1967, the 87 has only undergone one update in its design, proving the genius of its original form and function.

Today’s current model, the U 87 Ai, offers three pickup patterns: cardioid, figure 8, and omnidirectional, which gives it a great deal of flexibility in any recording environment. Doing a vocal duet? Try the figure 8 pattern so the singers can stand face to face to communicate better while harmonizing; need to capture a lot of room tone with a handclap track? Try the omni setting and move the mic up and away from the sound source to capture all the reflections and decay patterns.

The U 87 is so widely known and respected that a recent poll of Sound on Sound magazine readers resulted in the U 87 being selected as “the best microphone” period. This singular distinction results largely from the fact that no matter what you use the 87 to record, it will sound accurate, natural, and present. That’s why you’ll see them used to record everything from orchestras to rap moguls. The large, gold sputtered diaphragm is built for a lifetime of studio usage.

If you’re ready to lay down the $3,200 to invest in the U 87, be sure to also purchase a shockmount, a good quality pop filter, and a guard dog to keep your new investment safe. OK, the guard dog may be overkill, but a case to protect this mic is a must. Just as there’s a difference in the total ownership cost between a Honda and a Mercedes-Benz, the Neumann is a more expensive investment up front – and will also be more costly if you need repair service or replacement parts. This mic won’t suffer the abuse that a stage mic can take, so careful handling, use, and storage are required if you expect to receive the years of service the U 87 is designed to deliver.

Royer R-121 & R-101
“One mic company you may want to check out is Royer,” says Paul Klingberg, an LA-based Grammy-winning engineer with credits that range from Earth, Wind, and Fire, to Jonathan Butler, Loreena McKennitt, and The Simpsons. “The Royer R-121 is a really great ribbon mic that many professionals in the LA studio scene use every day. They are so clean and warm and can take a huge amount of SPL. I’ve used them on everything from vocals to drums to horns. You have to take care of them (don’t expose them to wind), but I would highly recommend giving this mic a listen.”

The Royer R-121 has earned its reputation as one of the finest recording mics in the world, and for those home studio owners that can afford its $1,295 price, it represents an excellent investment in making high-quality recordings. The Royer product page has a number of sound clips, allowing you to hear the 121 and the R-101 (a less expensive ribbon mic at $799 that delivers similarly jaw-dropping results) in action. Using a ribbon mic, which features a figure-8 pickup pattern, requires adjusting your ideas about mic placement a bit, but once you get the hang of it, they can deliver a warm “you are there” sound that dynamics or condensers just can’t match.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Echoes, author of two books on the music industry and directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific. Jeff Crawford is a recording engineer and producer with more than 30 years industry experience. He also teaches music technology at Pacific.

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76 thoughts on “Recording Studio Microphones: Good, Better, and Wow!

  1. When a microphone has been used by the king of pop Michael Jackson for the recording of the Thriller EP, there is no room to doubt it’s quality. Shure SM7B is probably the best studio microphone for male-vocal recording in that price range..

    AKG C414 is a skillful workhorse microphone that will handle everything in your recording studio.

  2. It is good to have multiple different kinds of microphones. We use multiple kinds of Shure mics as well as condenser mics and different brand drum mics. No studio is complete without at least one Shure SM57 and or SM58. At our Modesto recording studio we have about five SM57s alone. We probably have around 20 microphones total.

  3. I’ve tried many mikes and unfortunatly it’s impossible to try all of them in the same environment. Also factored in is the application for what the mike will be used. I use a Royer Active Ribon with a Bose L1 Mode II for my concerts, but often use a dynamic mike with a Peavey Soundsystem because the environment’s demands are different. There is no substitute for understanding your equipment to get the best results. This is a great article about mikes…but the best mike won’t convert garbage into something memorable.

    Jane Rosenbohm
    Guitar Extraordinaire®

  4. Oh and BTW… 
    I’ll stick with my Audix for live apps!
    Has a bigger “sweet” spot than a SM58!
    As a vocalist, you can use it like a instrument!

  5. Talk about some glaring omissions: MXL 2003A, MXL 990/603/991 with simple capacitor swap (search Ebay for “MXL Mod Kit”), Oktava MK012, Shure SM7B

  6. A good microphone is a good microphone–which is another way of saying, over the years, certain microphone designs have proved to work well in studio situations. This is so because getting a good recorded sound depends on intelligent use of the laws of physics–we are not talking about a totally subjective art where anything goes.  

    One of the first really good microphones was the RCA 44BX, a ribbon mic design from the mid-1930’s.  Guess what–place a 44BX properly and put it through a good preamp that has enough gain and it still sounds good.  Harry Olsen, who designed the 44BX, knew what he was doing, and you can still hear that today.  

    As to all of the alternative mic designs on the market, some of them are very good and some are not. If you find an alternative design that is within your budget and you like the way it sounds, fine.  But it really is useful to return to the various classic microphone designs for comparison.  This article is not “BS”–there really are microphones that have been proven to work in a wide variety of situations over time, and this article covers some of them.

  7. I’m sorry. While I appreciate your efforts in this article, there are so a few other great and affordable mics – such as the Rode NT 1000 (under $400) which sounds GREAT on many types of voices and musical genres!

  8. I know there is a BIG difference in how you end up sounding based on what mic you use, but the digital world has made it possible to record with a LESS expensive mic and still sound pretty terrific!

  9. The way this article started out, I thougth it was going to discuss the differences between the mics you would use for acoustics vs. heavy metal.  But in the article, all they mentioned were mics well suited for acoustic sounds, where are the metal mics? Which ones are best for amplified instruments and “basher” drumers? And screaming vocalists? Disappointed

  10. Wow. I read through the post and saw a few mics I am not
    familiar with and some I have used. I’ll mention a couple left out of the mix
    in a second but first here was a rather shocking and stunning test we “accidently”


    We treated a room with some acoustic panels. I found after a
    great deal of research and looking at frequency response charts that Owens
    Corning 701, 703 and 705 really got the results. Four inch thick for bass traps
    and two inch thick for walls. At Acousticmac they also use Mineral Wool which
    matches or betters Owens Coring.


    Okay, to the story. We had just treated the room with the
    panels; not every square inch but they covered fairly well. We were trying to
    test a converter and so I grabbed a Samson R11 mic (you can buy 3 for $60 – do the
    math, $20 a piece) and we put some vocals through it. Well, we finally got the
    converter working and were able to lay down a track. We were happy that the
    converter was functioning as it should when one person asked what mic we used.
    We listened to the track again for the quality of the vocal and were blown away
    by what we heard from what usually sounded like a crappy mic. The point here is
    spend a few hundred bucks on treating the room and you’ll be amazed at the
    improvement regardless of what mic you use. And no, all mics are definitely not
    the same under the same conditions.


    A primary point with me is that I will read reviews and
    opinions but I really like to hear A/B test myself and preferably blind test so
    there is no bias to skew the results. As fars as mics go. Michael Joly is one
    of the few engineers that will put A/B test on his site to compare his modified
    mics up against the Neumann U47, U67 and U87 as well as he compares his condenser
    mods up against the KM 184s. I own one of his mods as well as a Peluso P12
    which we previously tested in a million dollar studio with excellent results.  I talked to John Peluso and he told me he own
    a dozen or so AKG C12s for comparison.


    And last but not least, my all time favorite video – “Audio Myths




  11. I tried a couple of inexpensive Marshall condenser mic’s which perform like my AKG’s for half the price, don’t be a mic snob give them a try and remember the best mic’s in the world sound awful with cheap cables or bad placement!

  12. AKG…used one of those in the mid 1990’s…probably best pristine I have ever encountered.

  13. i have PANAVOX studio recording, the best result for me are my AKG C12 A tube nuvistor mic,the Neuman U-67.also tube mic,AKG C414 EB condenser and the Ribbon shure model 300

  14. I can vouch for the awesomeness of the AKG 414s. A pair of these are great on everything. I use them on my grand piano and other piano work and they sound good on there as well as on vocals and percussion. A nice workhorse mic that’s great as a long-term investment, for not too much money.

  15. I can’t believe that Blue didn’t get a shout out in this! For the “Lottery” category, I believe that the Blue Bottle with the interchangeable capsules is a winner. Every time a client uses the bottle, we get over the top raves. We actually charge a special mic fee for the usage of our few high-end mics.

  16. Though they are in a cheap body, I’ve found that $50 Radio Shack mics work just as well as most $500 studio-brand mics . . . definitely for gentle studio use, I wouldn’t take the Shack mics on the rough road ever.

  17. U missed the best mic for your buck any Rode. even the NT1 but the NT2 or the Tube are far superior to any mic’s i have used & I have had/used a matched set of Neuman 87’s plus almost every Neuman made & Royer & I still have a 1950’s UM57. For the money you will never get a better all around mic as the RODE NT2.
    Steve Hill, song writer performer-for Stevie Nicks-Waylon Jennings just to name a few of the hundreds.

    1. @Steve Hill… Rode mics sound so similar to Neuman 87. Very happy with my Rodes for stereo work. Reply from budget minded musician!

  18. As a former Live show producer and chief engineer for recoding studios, Nothing beats the SM58 for live show work & durability and nothing beats the Neuman series for studio work. There’s lots of other mics being “brushes” in the artists tool kit for close miking of drums, string etc. But overall, if you could only have one, I would go with the SM 58

  19. Microtech Gefell is the real Neumann, run by the original Neumann family. The Neumann Company is owned by Sennheiser. I have put my MG UM70 against two 60s era U87s and the group of us–music tech students and professors–could not hear a difference.

  20. We had a U67 in the studio and bought an AT4033 as another vocal mic. Over a few months we cut lead vocals with both and asked vocalists which mic they preferred. Far and away they chose the AT. We use the U67 for V/O work only now.

    1. The 4033 was one of my first mics and continues to be my go to mic for many different applications in my studio. Glad you mentioned it, the author of this article barely scratched the surface in his choices. 

  21. lots of great affordable mics have been left out like another poster said: the Studio Projects C1 large diaphram condenser for around $200 (street) and the Audio Technica Pro37 small diaphram mic for about $130 (street). I have an MXL 992 large diaphram mic I paid $60 for and it does a nearly comparable job to the SP C1. There are some really inexpensive gems out there… do your homework and research whose using what microphone for what application

    1. I agree!  Our group has fair amount of equipment with a significant number of classic stuff i.e. 60’s Fender tube amps, and guitars, Ludwigs shure mics space echo settc., along with updated stuff such as Fostex, Mackie, Sonar Producer X1, etc.  We do all of our vocals on MXL mics and are exceptionally pleased with their performance despite their very competitive price.  They deliver supprisingly good dynamics. 

    2. I agree.  I accidentally stubbled on to the MXL mics. The sound is so good i almost thought I was in the studio of my dreams.  I have the 993 condenser and the 144 ribblon mics.  And the price is super low in comparison to the sound.  Just Fantastic!

  22. My experience is one that even the Chinese made “K-67” based Mics (Marshall MXL-900 Series, Sterling Audio ST51 – among others). They use the “Class A FET” and large diaphragm design of the Neumann U-87, and also also sound pretty good. They are not Neumann mics – but “knock-offs”. Since these are usually sold around $100 (street price) you get a better frequency response and sound than a similar priced “name brand” mic. They are fragile, like the Neumann, but bang for buck in a small home studio they do very well.

    If you want the real deal – buy the Neumann – you can’t beat the sound. You want something that you can beat to death – Shure is perhaps a better choice. But for folks on a budget, the Marshall-MXL’s and Sterling Audio mics I own seem to do very well. That is just my opinion, but 24 matched mics for less than the price of one good Neumann…that’s just good thinking.   

    1. If you have some time to look online, the old SONY C-10 is an exceptional all round mic. Although not a mighty road warrior like the Shure, or a sultry voiced Neumann (or Telefunken), they are a good classic mic that if you can find one is a great investment.

  23. Gene Lawson makes some amazing microphones outside Nashville. He has two capsules: the L47 sounds like a Neumann 47 and the L251 which sounds like a Telefunken ELAM 251. Both quick change capsules can be paired with Gene’s Tube or FET electronics. If you buy 2 mics you effectively get 4 mics because they can be interchanged. I like the L47 better than a Neumann 47 because there are infinite patterns.

    1. I’ve owned a Lawson L47 mp since 1999 and absolutely love it!!!  It sounds great on almost everything, and well worth the $2000 that I paid for it.  Actually so much so that 13 years later I’m buying TH L 251.  Can’t wait for it’s arrival!

  24. One of our artists plays acoustic and sings in her live performances. While the speaker system is great, the mike pick up can be improved. What is the best quality mike for such performances so that we can better show her how  her to take control of the room? Close as well as slightly away from the mike has to be accommodated because her singing style is such.

    1.  As a rule you get the technique from experience. Live performances are all different, the size of the room, the audience noise factor, the mic you’re using, and especially your sound man. A good experienced performer does the best that he can with what he has to work with. You can give a good performer middle of the road equipment and he will entertain, but a not so good entertainer will struggle no matter what equipment you give them. Live performances sometimes can be a head ache and you just do the best that you can with what you have to work with. I prefer a good Shure 58 for vocals, but if I’m given a Radio Shack special I just do the best I can. If I am playing an acoustic guitar I like a Shure SM57, but you do with what you have. Have your performer try different mics and see what she likes. With the guitar mic I like to place it on the 12th fret or by the body behind the bridge. As a sound man I struggle with musicians that place the mic right on the sound hole. It makes more work for me. If you have a sound man talk to him and see what he is used to working with.

  25. Good job, great article. Good to know what the need is for the application. Keep up the good work.

  26. I use the Shure SM58 (cordless version) when I sing live but in the studio, I use the Shure SM27 large diaphram condenser.  The SM27 is about $300 and I’ve had excellent results on my recordings using this mic.  When I first started out my studio rig, I had a SM58 (with cord). It got me through my baby steps sort to speak but my vocal recordings really took off when I got the SM27.

  27. There are a lot of mics not even touched here…SM7B is an obvious one, but on the higher end, how about the Wunder CM7 Fet or CM7GT (U47 clones).

    One thing to consider with all of these is what Mic Pre you’re using and on what source.

  28. Remember you can make a 3′ transistor radio speaker on a rubber band sound good with correct placement.  So don’t buy any super duper mics untill ya lkearn how to place them..Just sayin….

    1. Excellent point! Best not to buy a fancy/expensive microphone until you have some experience/practice. In fact if you live on a modest budget then I would recommend you not spend over roughly $150 US on a microphone ever. Save your hard earned dollars for other things.

  29. I have used the U87 a lot in a voice-over studio setting.  It is certainly a very fine microphone, but it does have a couple of limitations: 1) If used on a speaker or singer who has excessive sibilance, the U87 will tend to emphasize the sibilance due to a peak in the top octave. 2) The U87 does not have as much headroom for dealing with loud sound sources as some other condenser mics–I would not use it for close miking a trumpet or trombone, for example, as they could cause it to clip.  And, it is very expensive.

    For most uses the Shure KSM-44A sounds very similar, has more headroom (it will handle close-miked brass) and costs less than a third the price.

  30. Try the Audio Technica AT 4050…this mic was suggested to me by a professional studio owner/engineer.  At $500 it’s a great mic.  It has cardioid, figure 8 and omni settings plus a low end roll off and db cut.  I’ve used it for several years now and sounds good on everything. 

  31. An AKG D112 definitely deserves mention on this list.  I love using them on the resonant side of a kick drum (with a 421 on the batter side) a deep floor tom, micing a bass cab and even when multi-micing a guitar cab to get some nice low-end.

    I know it’s not technically a “mic” per se, but the Yamaha Sub Kick (SKRM 100) is a really great way that’s not too expensive (I paid $350 CAD for mine) to REALLY bring the low end out of any instrument.

    The EV (Electrovoice) RE320 is a really nice, versatile studio mic that isn’t out of these price ranges, and if you can get a hold of some EV 308 or 408 mics (discontinued for some reason), they’re some of the best “high tom” mics I’ve ever worked with.

    Let’s also not discount some of AudioTechnica’s large diaphragm vocal condensers either, I have an AT2020 that I LOVE on Hi Hats, and an AT4050 that is nice for vocals, and not too pricy (got mine used for $450 CAD)

  32. How about a follow-up post for those of us with Neumann tastes and Peavey/Samson pocketbooks.  How do mics from Audio Technica (40 series), Rode, Milab, etc. compare?

    1.  Bob M, for your peavey/samson budget I would get a pair of Rode NT1 condenser mics.With extremely low self noise, these large diaphragm cardioid condenser are the most natural sounding and quietest mics for about $200 I’ve ever had the pleasure to use! For dynamic mics, at $99 or less stick with the Shure SM57s and 58s and don’t waste money on over inflated list price package mic sets that get discounted from “199.95 for 2 to 49.95 for the pair” as you get just what u pay for ( a pair of 25$ mics ) Ohhh…was that your M40000s series???? Just take it easy, build up your mic cabinet as money allows. Your gonna find out sooner or later just how addictive buying mics can be.

      1. re: …Your gonna find out sooner or later just how addictive buying mics can be.Ohhhh, yeahhhhhhh!  😉  My mic closet currently holds more mics than my studio can physically plug in at one time – doesn’t deter me from checking out more mics at any and every opportunity.

  33. I make professional sounding stuff in my bedroom Mbox studio – the Neumann TLM 103 was the best purchase I ever made.  Great on vocals and 
    all my tracking.  Acoustic guitars, Bass Amp… vastly improved the sound of my
    recordings.  Worth the dough at around $1000 bucks.

  34. 10 years ago I picked up the Groove Tubes MD1b Studio FET, great on vocals, piano and brass. I don’t think its still in production, but was under $300 at the time. Thought it sounded (and still does) better than the BLUE mics of that period. I’ve seen them popping up on ebay and craigslist for around $200 from time to time… Also makes a a great live/field recording mic when ya find the sweet spot in the room. Single mic (mono) almosts sounds stereo at times…

  35. And no Heil Sound??? Are you kidding me? The PR30 sounds great on everything! This article has been brought to you by the people from Shure, I think.

  36. I just saw Tim’s comment and have to agree. The SM-7 is a workhorse. Noticably absent were the Shure SM-81, Electrovoice RE/PL-20 and Coles 3048 that somehow sounds so clear with so little high frequencies. It’s my go-to for getting tone out of hissy, noisy, over-distorted guitar when I can’t get the player to go with a better sound out of the amp (Dude,that’s my sound). My friend borrows them as drum overheads all the time

  37. I realize there is limited space in the article, but all the more reason to mix up the mic gear locker with some varied options. The only negative here is the article appears to have been written by Shure sales people. It may be these writers love Shure, but with so many project studio and high-end mics in the market place now, I found the article limited. Mojave Audio’s MA-200, BLUE’s Kiwi, Nuemann’s TLM-103, AKG’s C 451-B cardioid condenser for shimmering acoustic guitar, Rode, sE Electronics – with so many beautiful options available, the array of choices is vast and endless.

  38. Studio Projects C1 for vocals and acoustic guitars ….at $250 , a wonderful mic for your studio.

    1. Absolutely!!!  For the money this mike is an absolute monster.  I bought one used for $120.  The best $120 in my studio budget.  I love it!

  39. sherman oaks makes great mics…also you an get great sounds on a cheap $300 mic on a great pre-amp

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