Microphones are among the most important things in a studio’s arsenal — but don’t get caught up in the “more money equals better quality” syndrome when purchasing a home studio microphone.
Microphones come in many different colors: not visually, but sonically. Like a camera lens, there are microphones that are good for wide angles, others for narrow focus, and there are those that have a vintage feel to them. Different types of mics have different pick-up patterns, colors, and tones etc. No mic/pattern combination works for everything.
Before buying a home studio microphone, there are a few things you need to consider, including your budget, what you plan on recording, and your current set-up.
Mic specifications — understanding the lingo
Having a basic understanding on the lingo is necessary when looking for a mic. Don’t just look at other studios’ gear lists or blow $1,000 on a mic without understanding what you’re buying.
Frequency response. This refers to the range of frequencies a microphone can pick up. For example, a microphone with a frequency response of 80 Hz — 15 kHz wouldn’t be ideal for recording a bass drum, but would be good for recording vocals.
Response curve. This is how the mic performs based on the frequency response. When you look at the curve, there with be peaks and dips in certain ranges indicating what the mic specializes in. Therefore, if you’re looking for a microphone ideal for vocal production, you’ll want to focus on a mic that peaks in the high- to mid-range frequencies.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL). The SPL refers to how quiet and how loud of a signal the mic can capture and accurately reproduce.
Microphone polar patterns
Polar patterns relate to the microphone’s field of view. (Polar Pattern images © Galak76)
Cardioid. Mics with this pattern capture sound best when positioned directly in front of whatever’s producing the sound and will reject sounds coming from the sides and rear. This is the most popular pattern you’ll run into while shopping.
Omni. Omnidirectional mics capture sounds equally from all directions. Great for capturing room tone and ambience.
Figure 8. This pattern allows for equal capture from both the front and rear positions of the mic. Also good for capturing background and ambient sounds, much like the omni pattern
Super/Hyper Cardioid. Very similar to a cardioid mic, but even more directional — it’s as if they zoom into the subject you’re pointing them at while rejecting sound from the side. But, unlike the regular cardioid pattern, it doesn’t reject as much sound from behind, making them a little more difficult to work with.
Different type of microphones
Dynamic mics. Good for loud sounds and stage performances. They’re inexpensive, require no additional power, and are built like tanks
Shotgun mics. Typically hyper-cardioid and super-cardioid patterned, these are excellent for voice overs and field recording. These mics work similar to a telescope by focusing on the sound in front of them and rejecting unwanted sound behind and on the side of them.
Condenser Microphones. Excellent for capturing detail in recordings. There was a time when condenser mics were too expensive for home studio musicians, but these days, they’re more affordable. Side note — condensers must be powered via phantom power.
USB Microphones. Not ideal to a lot of professionals, but you can’t deny their ease of use. I find these microphones great for quick recording projects.
Microphone diaphragm sizes
Mics come in two basic sizes: large and small diaphragm. Both are capable of capturing great recordings.
Large diaphragm mics have a lower self noise, high sensitivity, lower dynamic range, a narrow frequency range, and they produce an overall warmer sound.
Small diaphragm mics have a higher self noise, low sensitivity, and higher dynamic range. Where these shine is recording sounds with sharp transients (cymbals, acoustic guitar).
Why does all this matter?
The more you understand about mics, the better decisions you’ll make when using them, and the better choices you make when shopping for a microphone. Too often I see people spend $1,000 on a mic, and they waste $800 making the purchase. I’m not saying that the microphone isn’t worth the price, but it’s not worth putting it in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand what it is or how to use it.
If you’re recording ambience, you’ll want to use a omni patterned microphone. If you’re recording sounds with sharp transients, you’d use a small diaphragm condenser microphone. If you’re recording voice overs, you wouldn’t use a small condenser mic — go for the large diaphragm, it’ll sound much better. And don’t get caught up in the “more money equals better quality” syndrome. It makes no sense to spend top dollar on a microphone if you won’t be recording in a top-dollar environment with top-notch gear.
Rode, Audio Technica, AKG… do brands matter?
Brands matter, to an extent. Some brands are known for making great sounding equipment, others are known for being just plain cheap, and some brands are known for creating quality gear at low prices. This is where your budget and time come into play. Some brands make great sounding microphones almost by mistake because there’s no quality control. If you have the time and are willing to purchase, test, and exchange until you get the right microphone, it might be worth your time.
This happened to me with a Behringer B2 condenser mic. I bought one that had a sound extremely close to Neumann U87 (industry leader that retails for over $3,500). So, I purchased five more, and to my surprise, they all sound different. The same happened with a small condenser mic I purchased from MXL. It had a really good sound to it, very close to my friend’s Rode NT5 ($200) at a fraction of the cost. Again, I purchased more, and this time they all sounded good.
Quick list of my favorite microphones
Behringer B2. This is mic I was talking about that sounds very similar to the U87. I‘ve had this mic for 16 years, and it sounds wonderful.
Studio Projects B3. This is a really versatile mic. It comes with three polar patterns cardioid, omni and figure 8. I use this for all sorts of recordings: voice overs, drums, and sfx.
Rode NTG1. My first shotgun mic, not the best on the market, but it gets the job done and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other shotgun microphones.
Audio Technica ATR2100-USB. This mic made it on my list because it’s a USB mic that can be powered via usb and 48v, meaning it has an XLR input. I like this mic because of the sound quality, it’s very similar to the Rode Podcaster and it’s under $60.
If you’re shopping for a new microphone, make sure you do your research. There are a lot of sites that offer great reviews, and you can also rent time in a studio… one hour just to do a test out the different types of microphones. There are also services that will allow you to rent music gear for dirt cheap. From there you can test to decide if the mic is something you want to invest in for the long term.
Greg Savage is an entrepreneur from California who makes a living producing music and sound designing for various companies without the use of a record label or manager. He started DIY Music Biz because he wanted to create a reliable resource for musicians, producers, composers, and artists that would be useful regardless of their success or skill level. Topics covered on DIY Music Biz include: Marketing Music, Music Licensing, Sound Design, Gear Reviews, Personal Experiences, Income Generation, Case Studies, and much more.
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11 thoughts on “A quick buyer’s guide for your home studio microphone”
Good article! Choosing a microphone is really not easy if you are a layman in this business. I agree that you first need to experiment with different microphones and understand which one suits you best. A lot of details and characteristics should be taken in mind. And of course, read the reviews about this or that model before buying.
I’ll have to admit, I was skeptical when music companies began making USB microphones. I thought it was a quick way to make money in the USB market, but there are quality ones out there and they’re getting better as time goes on.
– Greg Savage
Good feedback on Microphones .I found USB Mikes very practical for a quick set up.
Great article. Very informative, well written, and helpful. Thanks 🙂
Thanks a lot Rahkua. What genre of music do you specialize in?
– Greg Savage
I sentiments exactly. Bigger (prices) is not always better. I have used an old realistic dynamic mic for recording guitar, it works as good as an audio technica; and I found it cleaning an old house.
I’ve always been a fan of cheaper alternatives as well as underdog companies. Sometimes with the bigger brand (mics) the differences can be fixed with EQ.
This is a very interesting microphone coverage.
Hey thanks a lot Walter. Which microphones are you currently using?