Buy the Best Mic: The Ultimate Guide to Vocal Microphones
I have a guest post today from Dave Tudor, owner of https://makingmusicpro.com. He gives us an incredible, in-depth look at vocal microphones today and I’m happy to have him! As a session singer, I use pretty much exclusively vocal microphones. Whatever type of musician you are, vocal microphones are sure to come across your path at some point. I think you’ll love this post, whether you’re looking for a new vocal mic or just curious about them.
In a world of virtual instruments, digital audio workstations and plugins, it’s easy to overlook one of the most important pieces of audio equipment in the signal chain – particularly if you’re a vocalist – and that’s the humble microphone.
Actually, describing a microphone as humble is doing it a great injustice. Choosing the right microphone – or microphones – is a crucial decision for any studio owner or home recording enthusiast because it directly affects the quality of the finished recording. Fortunately for us, there’s some great quality microphones out there that won’t break the bank!
But how do you choose which type you need with so much choice available in the marketplace? Well it’s important to realise that you can literally use any kind of microphone for recording vocals because the old adage ‘if it sounds good then it is good’ definitely applies here.
A great vocal recording performance is dependent on many things: the mic you use; room acoustics; effects; the timbre and character of the singer’s voice and of course the style of the song.
But speaking in general terms, different microphones – and specifically microphone types – have their individual strengths and weaknesses so the first thing to bring under the microscope are the different flavors of microphone available.
Note: I’m a big fan of Graham Cochrane over at Recording Revolution. This video gives a really good overview of using microphones in a home recording studio environment.
OK. There’s literally tons of brands and different variants out there but at the end of the day, there’s only about four different types. Let’s look at those in detail.
Dynamic Vocal Microphones
In any discussion about dynamic mics, it won’t be too long before someone mentions the iconic Shure SM58 or its equally famous sibling the SM57.
These can definitely be used in a recording environment, but without question they’re best-known as being live performance stage microphones, particularly the SM58. The SM57 is probably best known as the go to microphone for mic’ing up guitar amplifiers.
Dynamic vocal microphones are workhorses. They’re rugged, built to last and can withstand all the rigors associated with live performance. They’re not particularly sensitive, but they can take a whopping dollop of sonic abuse – which is why they’re excellent for rock and aggressive rap.
This also applies in the studio. Probably not the weapon of choice for a folk singer or soft, melodic crooner, but perfect if face melting metal vocals or aggressive rapping is your thing. They’re also generally pretty cheap if you’re strapped for cash in comparison to other mic types.
Their lack of sensitivity can actually work in your favor. If you’re recording at home and it’s a noisy environment or your room has somewhat dodgy acoustics, a condenser microphone will pick up every bit of background noise. Dynamic mics are a lot more forgiving.
Virtually all dynamic microphones have what’s called a cardioid polar response pattern. We’ll look at this aspect of microphone design later.
In terms of their sound, dynamic mics tend to sound warm rather than bright. They’re not renowned for their sensitivity or their sonic detail but they can add warmth and character to a vocal performance. Frequency response wise they tend to have a roll-off in the bass/lower mids department at 50-100Hz and prominence in the upper mids to compensate. In the higher frequencies, it’s common to see a roll-off from 10-20kHz
Dynamic Vocal Mics Overview
Advantages: Simple design means they’re rugged, bulletproof and versatile – you can plug them in to virtually anything – audio interface, PA system, mixer or an amplifier. Ideal for rockier genres and they don’t need phantom power (we’ll explain later). Relatively cheap and can handle high SPLs (sound pressure levels).
Disadvantages: Lacking in detail which won’t suit some vocal styles. Generally, best for live rather than studio use – but there are exceptions; not as loud as condenser mics so you may have to crank up the gain in your recording software. This can introduce unwanted noise.
Conclusion: If you can only afford ONE mic for recording vocals then probably best not to go for a dynamic microphone; get a large diaphragm condenser instead which we’ll discuss next. Otherwise always good to have a decent dynamic mic in your locker.
Condenser Vocal Microphones
In an ideal world, it’s good practice to have an array of different microphones at your disposal in the home studio but this utopian scenario may be beyond the budgets of some budding vocalists.
As I mentioned above, I would say that if you can only afford ONE microphone, go for a large diaphragm condenser. They can be used on a variety of instruments as well as vocals – like acoustic guitar, electric guitar and even drum overheads.
A great, really affordable example of a large diaphragm condenser is the Rode NT1-A (image courtesy of Rode Microphones). This is a 1” diameter cardioid mic with a really wide frequency response of 20Hz – 20kHz. It has an impressively low self-noise level of 5dBA which means virtually no noise is generated by the mic itself for really quiet recordings.
But whilst it’s a really sensitive microphone, it can also handle some serious volumes: 137dB in fact!
There is a caveat with condenser vocal microphones. The internal circuitry needs 48v of external (phantom) power to operate which is usually provided by your audio interface or mixer. Make sure your equipment has this functionality otherwise your mic just won’t work.
Also, it’s best to use a cradle mount with condenser mics to keep them well-supported. Fortunately, with products like the Rode NT1-A, accessories like pop shields and cradles are often provided but make sure you check.
There are loads of condenser microphones available in the marketplace. Look for brands like Aston, Rode, MXL, Audio Technica, Sennheiser, AKG and Neumann.
Condenser Vocal Mics Overview
Advantages: if you have a relatively quiet recording space – preferably acoustically treated – condenser microphones are hard to beat in terms of sound quality and sensitivity. They’ll capture every detail and nuance of your vocal performance; affordable and versatile.
They also handle transients better (transients are the short burst of energy that you hear at the start of any sound).
Disadvantages: Fragile (unlike dynamic mics). Drop one at your peril; require phantom power to operate; may be over-sensitive in noisier environments.
Conclusion: With their wide frequency response, large diaphragm condensers are great for home studios – particularly on vocals and acoustic guitar. Generally, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Small Diaphragm Condensers and Ribbon Vocal Microphones
For home studios, we’re getting into arguably less common territory here, but it’s worth discussing both types of microphone.
Not surprisingly, small diaphragm condensers share a lot of the characteristics of their larger siblings but the main difference is the size of that diaphragm. Simply put, the coils in large diaphragm condensers have more mass and therefore need more energy (sound to move).
Conversely, small diaphragm condensers require less energy to move the coil. What does this mean? Well, in a nutshell it means they’re more responsive to transients and so can capture more dynamic sound.
Think of a ride cymbal. As it’s struck with a stick, there’s a wide range of dynamics as the drummer applies varying degrees of force. A small diaphragm condenser will pick those transients up more accurately.
For vocals, small diaphragm condensers can be a little harsh and bright. Some would disagree, but in my opinion, large diaphragm types make better, all-round vocal microphones. They’re warmer and more natural sounding.
Ribbon microphones are common in pro studios but less so in home setups.
Fundamentally, they’re a special kind of dynamic microphones that have been around forever (since the 1920s anyway). Instead of having a moving coil attached to a diaphragm (as with conventional dynamic mics), ribbon mics have a thin strip of metal which acts as both the diaphragm and the transducer.
Getting a bit too technical here, I know, but the truth is it’s hard to define the sound. Essentially, they have the sensitivity of a condenser mic but with a sound that’s quite dark and full of character – almost vintage sounding; detailed without being oversensitive. Naturally the sound can be tweaked via Eq in your recording software or mixer.
If you get the opportunity, definitely give one a try.
A Word (or Several) About Vocal Microphone Polar Patterns
When you’re looking at microphone specifications, you’ll see polar patterns mentioned often. Whilst the jargon can be confusing – cardioid, omnidirectional, figure of eight – the principle is relatively straightforward: it’s how the microphone responds to sound coming from different directions.
The ability to customize how the microphone receives (and conversely rejects) sound is a useful feature. It can be used to isolate sound, reduce feedback and allow you to focus on what needs to be recorded rather than the stuff that doesn’t.
Also, a mic’s polar pattern directly influences a factor called proximity effect. In simple terms, this is the phenomenon that occurs when you move the mic closer to the source. With vocals, if you get up close and personal to the microphone, this results in a bass boost. Whether this is something you want or something you don’t, depends on what you’re trying to do – and different polar patterns produce different proximity effect characteristics.
If you’re after that Barry White-esque sultry, close, intimate, breathy vocal style then getting up close to the microphone will help. Alternatively, moving further away from the mic will bring more of the room’s natural ambience into play and generally product a ‘thinner’ vocal. The mic’s polar pattern is a primary consideration here. In terms of the bass boost, the proximity effect will affect male voices more than female.
Here’s an excellent video that explains microphone positioning really well:
Broadly, the main polar pattern types are: omnidirectional; unidirectional; and bidirectional. Let’s look at each a bit deeper.
As the name suggests, an omnidirectional microphone picks up sound equally from all directions. So, if you’re recording a group of musicians, you could put the mic in the center and it would capture everything equally. This also means they’re more prone to feedback.
A unidirectional mic is most sensitive to sound coming from one direction and there are several different types:
The name is derived from its resemblance to a heart shape. A cardioid mic is most sensitive to sounds coming from the front and to a much lesser degree, sound from the rear. This is probably the most common type in home studios for recording vocals. They are pretty resistant to feedback as well.
Often known as ‘wide cardioids’, they kind of sit in between omnidirectional and cardioid. Generally speaking, their rear sensitivity is 3-10db lower than the front and they have quite a wide pickup area. Prone to feedback but good for capturing groups of musicians.
Supercardioids have a tighter pickup angle than a cardioid but offer more side sound rejection. Good isolation from room noise but not so good for over enthusiastic vocalists that move around a bit. You need to maintain a pretty consistent position when recording your vocal masterpieces!
Hypercardioids have some sensitivity to sound coming from the rear but virtually none from sound emanating from the sides. Because they’re so directional, the ‘sweet spot’ for the vocalist is relatively narrow. Good rejection of ambient sound.
Bidirectional or Figure-of-Eight Microphones
You’ll be getting the hang of this now. A bidirectional mic, also called a figure-of-eight, is equally sensitive to sounds coming from the front and rear of the mic but least sensitive to sounds coming from the sides.
In noisier environments, they’re useful for isolating a single sound source as long as there’s nothing coming from the rear of the mic which they’ll pick up. The most obvious application for bidirectional mics would be recording two musicians or sound sources facing each other.
Making sense of it all
As I’ve already noted, if you have the budget, buy a selection of different polar pattern microphones and you can’t go wrong. In a home studio situation, the reason why mics like the Rode NT1-A and Shure SM58 are popular is that they’re versatile – and they just happen to be cardioids. For the solo performer, a large diaphragm condenser is probably the best option if you can only afford one microphone.
It’s worth mentioning that some microphones, like the Rode NT2-A feature variable pickup patterns so you can switch between figure of 8, omnidirectional and cardioid. That could be a cost-effective option if you only want to buy one mic.
Other bits and bobs for consideration
Other than a mic stand (for dynamic mics) or a stand/cradle/shockmount arrangement for condenser microphones, I’d definitely recommend getting a decent popshield. ‘P’ sounds (plosives) and ‘S’ sounds (sibilance) during your performance can be a real nightmare when recording vocals because they can add all kinds of unwanted dynamics to the recording.
In this regard a popshield is your friend. It sits between you and the mic and helps to keep everything under control. Definitely a worthwhile investment.
I should mention something about studio acoustics. I won’t attempt to fry your brain because there’s a real science behind all this but your recording environment is really, really important in determining the quality of the finished product.
You should aim at making your environment as acoustically neutral as possible. Reflections from walls, doors, desks and other hard surfaces can detrimentally affect not only the room’s ambience during the recording process, but also what you hear through your speakers at mixdown.
Acoustic panels and bass traps are relatively cheap or if you’re a bit of a DIYer, have a go at making your own. They’ll make all the difference to the quality of your recordings. Do some research; there’s tons of really good information on the internet. In this article about recording equipment, there’s a section on acoustic treatment.
I’d always recommend connecting your microphone to your mixer or audio interface via an XLR connection so make sure you invest in decent quality cables to minimise interference and hum.
There are a however other microphone connectivity methods such as USB. Check out my article which offers advice on which brands to go for. USB mics have their merits and shouldn’t be overlooked. Take a look!
Choosing a vocal microphone can be an absolute minefield, simply because of the vast choice of products available. Hopefully, this article has at least provided some food for thought.
I’m sure by now you’ve seen that large diaphragm condenser microphones are particularly recommended for home studios because of their inherent versatility – not only on vocals but practically everything else.
If you’d like to find out more about my specific recommendations when it comes to choosing the right vocal microphone, I’ve documented my shortlist here.
Dave Tudor has been playing guitar and bass for 40 years and has owned his own home recording studio for more than 30 years.
He has an unhealthy (expensive) passion for music gear and equipment and learning how to use it better. With this in mind, he started makingmusicpro.com with the objective of sharing his experiences and recommendations with others.