Are You Finding The Best Mic For Your Home Recording Studio? Tips For Selecting A Microphone 2021: Tip 1


One of the most common questions I get when talking with musicians, friends, and home recording enthusiasts involves selecting the best microphone. The question usually goes something like this:

What’s the best microphone for vocals? …Guitars? …Drums?  etc…

The insinuation here is that there is a single magical microphone out there that is somehow going to be the difference between someone liking your song or not. Being a professional recording engineer for the last 25 years I can truly appreciate the intention of capturing a performance in its best light. However, this raises questions about what is “best”? Who decides what is best? And can that definition be watered down to something as simple as frequencies?

When selecting a microphone to record any instrument or vocalist, I always look for the mic that best suits the sound we are trying to capture for that performance. To make my point abundantly clear…

THERE IS NO ONE MIC OR SOUND THAT SUITS EVERY ARTIST AND EVERY SONG !!!

Sorry for yelling, but understanding this point is critical to finding the right microphone. To help lead you in the right direction, I’d like to lend a bit of advice and guidance with my Top 5 Tips for Selecting A Microphone. I think the best way to start is with a quick primer on microphones

Learn the Basics

There are basically 4 types of microphones that are currently being used in the recording world.

  1. Dynamic
  2. Condenser
  3. Tube
  4. Ribbon

There are many other designs including piezoelectric, electret condenser, and carbon to name a few, but they are less frequently used in recording situations than the 4 listed above. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each:

The Dynamic Mic

A Dynamic mic is basically a small speaker designed to vibrate with air pressure fluctuations. Dynamic mikes are very durable, can handle high sound pressure levels, and are relatively insensitive to the environment. Although dynamic mikes are generally less sensitive to high frequencies they play a very important role in the recording studio and serve well for close miking situations with drums, percussion, and guitar/bass amps. When used with vocals they can add warmth and a dry presence to a voice.

The Condenser Mic 

Condenser mikes have a more sophisticated design that frees the diaphragm from a coil as used in a dynamic mic. The benefit is a heightened sensitivity to high frequencies that gives it a presence sometimes lacking in dynamic mikes. Condenser microphones are also the mainstay of any recording studio and can be used well with most instruments. They are usually broken down into 2 categories, small and large diaphragm.

Small diaphragm condenser mikes are less sensitive to low frequencies and work well in situations where you want to limit low-frequency boomy-ness like an acoustic guitar. When padded they can also work well to give your snare drum extra snap and are great for recording cymbals and percussion. Large-diaphragm condenser mikes are more sensitive to lower frequencies and serve well when a full frequency sound is desired. For vocals they are typically used at a very close distance (1-6 inches) For most other instruments, a medium distance (1-4 feet) from the sound source is required to prevent overload unless the mic has a pad switch.

Condenser mikes require external power (usually 48v) typically provided by the mic preamp. They are very sensitive to the quality of the power source and do not work well with interfaces that run on USB power.

The Tube Mic 

A tube mic is essentially a condenser mic with a tube amplification stage. All tube mikes require an external power source which is a separate box provided by the manufacturer and plugged into your wall socket. Tube mikes use unique XLR pin configurations to make sure there is only one way (the correct way!) to connect the mic to the power supply. Tube mikes are very sensitive to the environment and can be quite noisy. They typically need to be turned on an hour before recording so that the tube is in a stable saturation state.

Tube mikes are known for their deep low-end warmth and a high-end sizzle that makes them a perfect match for recording vocals. They generally do not perform well at high sound pressure levels and are often used at a distance when recording loud instruments like drums. Because of all the extra power supplies, cables, and design issues, a tube mic is going to cost quite a bit more than a condenser mic will. Avoid cheap tube mikes, they will be more of a headache than what they are worth.

Ribbon

The ribbon mic is the most sensitive and unique sounding of all mikes used in the studio. A good ribbon mic will give you unparalleled detail. Up until recently, this detail had come with the issue of added sensitivity to the environment, and additional noise. Ribbon mikes are best used with a dedicated preamp specifically designed for use with ribbons.

Modern ribbon mikes are much more rugged than the vintage ones and are not susceptible to being blown up by an accidental supply of 48v (phantom power) designed for use with condenser mikes. Traditionally ribbon mikes were always used at a distance from the sound source due to their delicate design. Modern ribbon mikes can handle the higher sound pressure levels and are amazing on guitar amps.

Some Bonus Mic Terminology:

  • Diaphragm: This is the part of the mic that captures the changes in air pressure, AKA sound.
  • Polar Pattern: The direction that a microphone will best receive signals. This ranges from being most sensitive directly in front (Cardioid) to being sensitive from all directions (Omni). The figure 8 pattern is most sensitive from and back but rejects signals from the side.
  • Pad: A pad is an attenuation used to help prevent sensitive mikes from distorting when subjected to loud sound sources.
  • Phantom Power: A power feed (typically 48v) from mic preamp designed for condenser mikes to power the amplification electronics that allow it to pass audio.

I hope you have found this mic primer tip helpful. In the next tip, I will discuss how musical style plays an important role in the mikes that you select.

For more tips on music production and engineering, please visit my website, music-production-guide.com.

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Michael White to our blog. Mike has graciously agreed to guest post occasionally and I’m sure you’ll find his posts truly informative. Mike has real-world experience in the recorded music industry everything from engineering to production to the teaching of the art of audio recording. I’m excited to have him on board! Be sure to read more about Mike at music-production-guide.com.

Check out the microphone tips collection here!
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