Choosing the right microphone for your at-home studio
If you’re kitting out a home studio, having the right equipment is essential. And the most fundamental staple for any good home-recording studio is the microphone.
Simply put, having the right microphone for recording music can make or break your recordings. Because of this, choosing the right microphone when you’re starting out feels daunting—and with so many options, it’s easy to get downright lost in the noise.
So how do you find the right mic to take your music production to the next level? We’ll take a look at the basics of what a microphone does, the types of microphones out there, and some of the most popular options available out there.
How does a microphone work?
If you’re just starting to make music, it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how these recording devices work before diving into the options out there.
The job of a microphone is to capture, as accurately as possible, the sound and personality of an instrument. At a basic level, a microphone captures sound waves and turns those waves into an electrical signal. However, that signal is usually too quiet to hear, so you have to send it to a preamp to bring the audio level up. Preamps are generally either run directly through your microphone or via an audio interface.
While it sounds pretty straightforward, each type of mic, and how it’s implemented, is going to give a different type of recording. In many cases, sound engineers will often use different types of microphones and preamps to add certain characteristics to the recording, or manipulate audio to sound a specific way.
Choosing the right microphone
There are literally hundreds of microphones available online—making it easy to get overwhelmed with all the options at your fingertips. While finding the perfect mic will depend on your style and studio setup, there are some things you should know to make sure you’re choosing the right microphone for your needs.
Start with your budget
How much do microphones cost? The answer is: it depends. Starter microphones can be as cheap as $50, while professional high-end mics easily climb into the thousands.
Because there are so many microphones available, it’s important to set a budget before doing your research. After all, there’s no point comparing the specs for a $20 mic to one that’s well over $500.
To give you a rough idea, the general price for a mid-range mic is between $100-$200. However, there are a variety of options available at every price point. Once you set your price range, it’s easier to narrow your search down enough so you’re not considering every microphone under the sun.
Understanding the different types of microphones
If you’re building your first home recording studio, chances are you’ll be looking at a condenser mic.
Condenser microphones are the most popular type of microphone out there. If you only want to invest in a single microphone, this is probably the one you should get. These mics are very accurate and highly sensitive, allowing you to record a wide frequency range. Fact: most vocal recordings today are recorded using these types of microphones.
If you’ve ever emceed an event, then you’ve probably used a dynamic microphone. Dynamic mics are great at recording sound at a very high volume, which is why they are often used to record drums and guitar amps. For that same reason, they’re also the mic of choice for a lot of rock or metal musicians.
The downside is that they aren’t as good as condenser microphones at recording instruments with higher frequencies and harmonics, like a violin or a flute.
Ribbon microphones are less popular than the other types of microphones today—and in fact, they had their heyday back in the 1950s. Ribbon mics can be expensive and quite fragile, but they provide a silky-smooth recording and are some of the best microphones for recording music. In line with the ribbon mic’s glory days, producers and musicians often use these microphones when they want a vintage sound.
Ribbon microphones get their name from the thin metal (often aluminum) film suspended between two magnetic poles. It’s different from the traditional moving-coil mics, like dynamic and condensers, in that it captures high frequencies at great detail, and those frequencies are recorded very softly.
These microphones also do a great job of picking up the details of the sound close to the mic, while isolating noise from other parts of the room. This makes them superior to condenser mics, which are notorious for picking up background noise.
With more people recording music using a computer, USB microphones are quickly gaining in popularity. USB mics are portable and easy to use, and work on any computer – Windows or Mac.
What’s more, they have built-in preamp and analog-to-digital converter (ADC) and don’t require music interfaces, meaning they are the perfect option for musicians on a limited budget or those who are just getting started and don’t have a lot of equipment.
These mics are affordable and extremely popular with podcasters, which is why you’ll find a ton of models focusing on vocal recording. However, there are also plenty of quality USB mics on Amazon for recording music.
The best music recording microphones for your DIY studio
With endless microphones available out there, it’s tough to know which to choose. To help you out, we’ve rounded up some of the top-rated microphones out there for recording music.
Probably one of the most famous microphones, if not the most famous microphone around today, the Shure SM58 is one of the most popular dynamic mics on the market. Primarily used for stage vocals, the Shure SM58 has been around for decades and is often regarded as the “workhorse” of the music world.
Affordable and robust, the Shure SM58’s basic, minimalist design is simple and gets the job done. Thanks to its popularity, replacement parts are easily available (not that you would need them, because this microphone is super durable). While it’s definitely not top-of-the-line, it’s a great all-rounder that can be used for recording vocals, instruments and live performances.
It’s hard to find a better reviewed microphone on Amazon at such a low price point. Great for beginners, the USB microphone is plug-and-play on both Windows and Mac, with automatic driver installation. Equally sensitive to lows, mids, and highs, its customized integrated circuit allows a low level of self-noise. Plus, the Fifine condenser mic features all metal design, making it a durable mic that will stand the test of time.
This one’s another solid option for musicians looking for their first microphone. The Tonor Pro is actually a recording set that comes with the mic, cables, and a phantom power supply. It has a universal XLR input and its cable is compatible with all kinds of wired microphones, allowing it to deliver stable 48V phantom power to other electric condenser microphones.
On top of that, the Tonor Pro comes with a metal shock mount that reduces the trill caused by vibration. And if you’re looking to isolate sound sources, this is a great pick: the Tonor’s cardioid polar pattern reduces sound being picked up from the background.
The Cascade FAT HEAD houses a hand-tuned ribbon that incorporates the classic symmetrical ribbon design, offering a true figure 8 pattern just like the classic ribbon microphones. The corrugated aluminum casing, positioned in the center from front to back, produces a balanced audio input signal to both sides of the ribbon assembly.
The FAT HEAD’s warm, full-bodied sound and increased sensitivity is exactly what you’d expect from a professional ribbon microphone – making it perfectly suited for indie bands with guitar cabinets, drum overheads, vocals, piano, horns, and strings.
Like the name suggests, the Sennheiser E609 is designed for guitar cabinets and live drums. Based on the Sennheiser MD 409, the e609’s flat profile allows for extremely close miking of guitar cabinets and precise drum miking, particularly for toms.
Made from durable metals, the mic’s super-cardioid design improves isolation while its increased output and wider frequency response improves performance. The other great thing about the Sennheiser Evolution e609 Silver is its hum compensating coil, which reduces electrical interference and keeps the mic stable regardless of the surroundings.
With a smooth, flat, wide-range frequency response, the SM7B dynamic microphone is the perfect choice if you’re looking to record music and speech. It features excellent shielding against electromagnetic hum generated by computer monitors, neon lights, and other electrical devices. Plus, the SM7B has been updated from earlier models for greater stability.
The MXL R144 ribbon microphone offers the classic ribbon microphone sound with a rich and smooth midrange. Featuring the figure-8 polar, this mic is perfect for recording guitars, vocals, brass, and any source material that benefits from the warm, silky characteristics of a ribbon mic.
The MXL also has high SPL capability, which makes it ideal for recording horns and electric guitars. And if you’re tight on space, don’t worry: Its compact design makes finding the ideal mic placement easy.
With a completely different design than most microphones, the Aston Spirit is a unique mic that features a raw stainless-steel chassis and a grille made of tightly woven metallic mesh that sits inside a rustic metal cage.
From a recording perspective, the Spirit offers the definition, warmth, and clarity you’re looking for in a condenser mic and does a great job at capturing the midrange, as well as capturing highs without any harshness. Because it features an attenuation pad, the Spirit also excels at recording instruments, including drums. Finally, the mic integrates a pop filter and shock mount in the chassis, meaning it’s ready to go right out of the box.
One of the best condenser microphones at the $100 price point, this mic is made of a durable metal and features a fairly standard design. The AT2020 is a great studio mic for recording vocals; however, it does have enough versatility to be able to record instruments, as it does a good job of handling high volumes. Audio-Technica are known for making quality audio equipment, and the AT2020 is no different: It’s a versatile condenser mic that sounds a lot more expensive than it actually is.
The AKG C636 vocal microphone is a handheld vocal condenser microphone based on AKG’s legendary C535 handheld microphone. The C636 is one of the best stage mics out there today, but it more than holds its own in terms of studio quality. It provides a very soft and natural frequency response, delivering the pure studio sound you want from a vocal condenser microphone. But where the C636 really stands out is in the way it handles noise. With a proprietary double shock suspension system and a multi-layer pop rejection, the mic eliminates noise and feedback at almost an unparalleled level.
Blue has a number of great microphone options available, and the Bluebird SL is one of their most popular. The Bluebird SL was made to be as versatile as possible, and is the go-to mic for many home-studios. It features an old-school sounding capsule, which adds less high-end frequency responses than other budget counterparts – leading to a fuller, more vintage sound.
The Blue SL has a fantastic mid-range that is great for both vocal and guitars, but also offers crystal clear highs. While it works best with vocals, this mic also works surprisingly well with just about everything, from guitars and pianos to drums. On top of the great recording quality, you also get a pretty slick, unique-looking mic that adds a bit of character to your studio. With its clear tone and precise audio reproduction, this one’s a must-have if you’re a musician that’s after quality and aesthetics.
Wrapping it up
There are options galore when it comes to microphones. However, the ones we’ve outlined above are some of the best available for aspiring indie musicians.
Whether you’re after the hassle-free experience of recording with a USB condenser mic or you’re chasing that smooth, silky ribbon mic sound, there are plenty of mics on Amazon to choose from.
And if you’re stressed out about buying the right mic, don’t be. Remember: you can always add to your mic collection down the line.