The Best Microphones For Home Recording
Microphones for the Home Studio
Today we’re talking basic microphone selection! It’s a sensitive subject, but we’ve got the right info to keep you feeling warm and safe inside.
What is a microphone?
A microphone is a common type of transducer. A transducer is a mechanism that changes one form of energy into another. In this case, air pressure (sound) is converted to an electrical signal. As you probably suspect, different types of microphones respond differently to various sources and, in turn, can sound very different! Some microphones are designed to reproduce the sound you hear in a space as accurately as possible, and others are designed to color the sound in a pleasing way.
Before we break down the different types of microphones, we need to touch on an important characteristic that varies from mic to mic—the microphone’s polar pattern(s). The polar pattern is a classification that describes the mic’s operation in a 3-dimensional space.
For example, the most common polar pattern is called cardioid. Despite how it sounds, it unfortunately isn’t an anthropomorphic cross between a car and an android. A cardioid mic will simply pick up, or hear, from one side of the mic’s diaphragm.
Super- and hyper-cardioid microphones operate the same way, but have much narrower physical ranges to increase the rejection of sound coming from the sides of the diaphragm. This can help isolate your source from other sounds in the room. If you think of the cardioid pattern as a sphere of recordable space in front of the mic, super- and hyper-cardioid squish the sphere into more of an elliptical shape.
An omnidirectional microphone picks up information equally from all sides.
A figure-8 (or bidirectional) pattern picks up equally from the front and back of microphone, but rejects sound from the sides (often called null points).
All microphones have a polar pattern, and some have more than one selectable or variable polar pattern. Different patterns have different advantages, but a mic that has at least a cardioid option is the best place to start recording.
Dynamic, Condenser and Ribbon
There are three main types of microphones on the market. While we have recommendations for what mics are best for your source, keep this in mind: THERE ARE NO RULES. You can make great recordings with only one microphone of one type, but the following is what you need to know:
A dynamic mic is probably what you think of first when someone says “microphone.” They’re often held in the hands of live performers and tend to be sturdy, reliable tools with high gain-before-feedback (meaning you can get a lot of signal before the stage monitors start ringing uncontrollably). Don’t let their live applications fool you, though—dynamic mics are just as useful in recording! Generally less expensive than condenser mics, dynamics excel on loud sources like individual drums (kick, snare, toms), guitar amplifiers and even vocals.
Here are a few affordable dynamic mics we love:
A true standard, the Shure 57 is probably the most-used mic in all of recording history. It’s perfect for amps, snare drum and whatever else you need it for, honestly.
Very similar to the 57, the 58 is more tailored for vocal performance and is great for singers who like to hold the microphone while recording. If you like the sound of the SM58, but want a slightly more “focused” sound, try the Shure Beta58a.
The e609 was designed to hang from a mic cable in front of loud guitar amps without a mic stand, but that’s not its only advantage. It has great transient response, which means it picks up the sharp attacks from percussion and drums extremely well.
We’ve included the EV RE-20, since it’s an extremely popular dynamic microphone for voice over (radio broadcasting, in particular) and for instruments with a ton of bottom end, like a kick drum or bass amp. If you’re a podcaster looking for that beefy radio sound, the RE-20 is your ticket! For a little less cash and similar flavor, try the Shure SM7b.
Generally, condenser microphones are much more sensitive than dynamic mics. They’re what you see hanging in front of iconic rappers or sitting idly on a talk show host’s desk. They come in two main varieties, small-diaphragm and large-diaphragm, and they require 48v phantom power to operate (most interfaces and preamps will have a 48v switch). We’re going to stick with large-diaphragm mics here, since it meets most home recording needs.
Large diaphragm condensers tend to capture all the nuances and dynamics of a performance and boast an extended frequency response over dynamic microphones.
The P420 is inexpensive and has 3 selectable polar patterns, making it extremely versatile for the price.
Blue Microphones Bluebird SL
The Bluebird has been a home studio staple since it was first introduced, and the new SL version adds a highpass filter and -20dB pad for use on loud sources.
Essentially half of the famous C414 capsule, the C214 is an affordable cardioid-only version of the classic AKG sound.
Neumann TLM 102
Neumann is arguably the most notable microphone manufacturer in history. While most of their products are priced too high for the average hobbyist, the TLM 102 is a wonderful mic that many can aspire to purchasing. It is a true workhorse that sounds great on just about anything, especially vocals and drums.
Ribbon microphones are considerably more delicate than dynamic or condenser mics, but have a special attribute: they sound exceptionally natural to human ears. Most ribbon designs have a fixed figure-8 polar pattern and are great for recording in stereo (requires two microphones). Ribbons are notoriously effective on cranked guitar amps. Just make sure your 48v phantom power is SWITCHED OFF when you use a ribbon mic! The voltage can damage the extremely thin metal membrane inside some designs.
Here are a couple affordable favorites:
Cascade Microphones Fat Head
The Fat Head is a favorite among engineers because of its expensive ribbon sound at such a reasonable price.
Avantone Pro CR-14
Avantone makes a lot of great products, but this one sticks out for its pleasing, unique smoothness.
What should I buy if I can only afford one mic?
Short on cash? Don’t fret! You can still make amazing recordings. If you’re going to be tracking various vocals and instruments one-at-a-time, we recommend a modest large-diaphragm condenser mic. Take a look at the following:
sE Electronics X1 A (under $100)
Audio-Technica AT2035 (under $150)
Blue Microphones Spark SL (under $175)
Rode NT1-A (under $230)
A word about Shock Mounts
Microphones have a tendency to pick up noise caused by vibrations travelling through the mic stand. Most dynamic mics are internally shock-mounted to combat this problem, but condenser mics often need an external shock mount to keep unwanted rumbles and taps out of your recording. If your mic comes with a shock mount, great! Use it! If it doesn’t and you’re having problems with vibrations, consider one of the following universal shock mounts:
Etubby 47-53mm Microphone Shock Mount
Weymic Black Universal Microphone Shock Mount
Rycote 44901 Invision USM Universal Studio Microphones Shock Mount
Hopefully you now have the all the tools you need to start recording! Microphones are a very subjective and personal topic, so we encourage you to use what you can afford and experiment as much as possible. Be sure to check out our other helpful articles about recording at home!
1. Blue Snowball iCE – condenser, under $50, no interface needed, podcast mic
2. Audio-Technica AT2020 – condenser, versatile, under $100
3. AKG C214 – condenser, high-quality, professional, versatile
4. Shure SM57 – dynamic, professional, under $100
5. Audix FP5 – dynamic 5-microphone bundle for drums, instruments
A microphone is only one piece needed for a home recording studio. Here are some other things you may need: