Originally Posted by emusician.com|May 13, 2015
Selecting a mic for any recording application is a subjective decision that takes into account such intangibles as personal preferences, the demands of the voice or instrument you’re recording, the musical style, and the vibe of your song. In case you were wondering why pro studios have so many different products in their mic closets, now you know: They need to be ready for whatever the music and client demands.
Home studio owners, on the other hand, need only think about their own musical needs, so their mic collection will be more personal and less extensive, though that doesn’t mean it has to be overly specific: Mics that work well in one application often sound great on others. So, although the mics in this roundup are categorized by their intended purpose, most of them are equally suitable for covering other sound sources. The ability to do double or triple duty increases a mic’s value if you’re considering its cost-to-performance ratio.
Another thing to take into consideration when considering a mic is the environment in which you record. Some microphones capture more room tone than others, and if your space use doesn’t sound that great, you’ll want to consider transducers that offer more isolation. For example, using a figure-8 ribbon mic as a drum overhead in a room with a low ceiling covered in sound tiles won’t give you the same results as using it in a space with a high, wood-framed ceiling.
In this article, we will examine practical mics for common home-studio applications. We’ll focus on microphones that are currently in production. Unless otherwise noted, all price quotes are street price.
THE WELL-TEMPERED MIC CLOSET
|The MK8 offers five polar patterns||Sennheiser MK8|
While a professional engineer will have access to a wide array of mics, the musician’s mic selection is usually a bit more austere by comparison. But depending on what you plan to record (for example, a solo artist tracking acoustic guitar and voice, or perhaps a small rock band), there are some types of transducers that no studio should be without, simply because they can be used in just about any situation that comes up. (See “A Musician’s Basic Mic Cabinet”)
For example, a dynamic microphone and a multi-pattern large-diaphragm condenser are considered by many to be the minimum requirements for anyone doing songwriting demos. Better yet, the pair is suitable for use with nearly any low-to mid-priced audio interface. A wide variety of companies offer affordable, desktop-friendly interfaces for singer/songwriters who need only one or two mic preamps (and an instrument input or two). These companies include ART, Apogee, Arturia, Focusrite, M-Audio, Mackie, MOTU, Native Instruments, PreSonus, Roland, Steinberg, Tascam, Universal Audio, and Zoom—whew! With that much competition, you are likely to find a high-quality interface within your budget that matches your computer setup (USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt) and offers exactly the I/O and features that make sense for your recording needs.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few common recording applications and the types of mics that are often used.
Choosing a vocal mic is a surprisingly personal thing for a singer, and you’ll know right away whether or not it suits your voice. The keeper is the one that enhances the best aspects rather than the unpleasant ones. Your singing technique and style of music are also determining factors.
|Samson C03U||AKG Perception Series P420||Audio- Technica AT2050|
Large-diaphragm condensers (LDC) are frequently the mics of choice for vocalists. They are one of the most common transducers produced for the studio today, with models to fit nearly every budget. However, modern LDCs tend to have a presence boost that makes vocalized sibilants harsh and unpleasant. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you try out any mic you are considering to see how it matches your particular vocal timbre. (See the “Pro Tip: Auditioning Vocal Mics”)
Some LDCs provide multiple polar patterns—typically cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8—and include switches for a pad (to lower the input level) and a highpass filter (to reduce the bass boost that results from the proximity effect). These are useful options for the vocalist as well as the engineer recording a vocalist. For example, the omni pattern is not only great for recording several singers positioned around a mic, but because the pattern doesn’t exhibit the proximity effect, you can cheat the mic closer to a singer without boosting the voice’s low end.
|ADK Custom Berlin-47T||AKG P220||Blue Microphones Bluebird|
Budget-friendly multi-pattern LDCs include the Samson C03U ($99.99), the AKG Perception Series P420 ($179), and the Audio-Technica AT2050 ($229).
Mid-priced models include the sE Electronics sE2200a II ($399), the Sennheiser MK8 ($699.95), the Audio-Technica AT4050 ($699) and AT-4047MP ($849), the Shure KSM44a ($999), the AKG C 414 XLII ($1,099, and featuring 9 polar patterns), and the ADK Custom Berlin-47T ($1,299), which includes a slow-saturation/soft-clip circuit and a British transformer in addition to its three polar patterns.
By sticking with a fixed pattern, you can often get a higher-quality transducer for the same amount you’d spend for a feature-laden mic. A good example is the Blue Microphones Bluebird, which has a street price of $299.99, but sounds like a more expensive mic—smooth on male and female voices (not to mention any acoustic instrument you put in front of it). Other single-pattern LDC options for vocal recording in the same price range (some of which do have a pad and low-cut switch) include the Audix CX112B ($299), the Audio-Technica AT4040 ($299), the RØDE NT1-A ($229), the sE Electronics sE2200a II C ($299), and the Shure SM27 ($299).
When price is a major consideration, budget single-pattern models worth investigating include the Sterling ST51 ($79.99), the Samson C01 ($79.99) and MTR101A ($119.99), the Blue Microphones Spark ($199.99), the AKG P220 ($134), the Audio-Technica AT2035 ($149), and the Shure PG27 ($149).
|sE Electronics sE2200a II||Shure KSM44a||Audio-Technica AT4050|
At the next price tier, you’ll find the Blue Microphones Baby Bottle ($399.99), the Neumann TLM-102 ($699.95), the Shure KSM42/SG ($799), the Mojave Audio MA-301fet ($895), the Blue Dragonfly ($999), and the Sterling ST6050 FET Ocean Way Edition ($1,059.99).
Many singers prefer the creamier sound that tube microphones impart. Price-friendly versions include the MXL 9000 ($199.95), the Sterling ST66 ($399.99), the M-Audio Sputnik ($499), the RØDE NTK ($529) and K2 ($699), the AKG P820 ($699), and the sE Electronics Z5600a II ($999). Moving above a grand, you find the Audio-Technica AT4060 ($1,449), the cardioid Mojave Audio MA-200 ($1,095) and multipattern MA-300 ($1,295), and the cardioid Telefunken CU-29 Copperhead ($1,295).
|AEA Nuvo N22||Cloud Microphones 44-A|
Two recent active-ribbon mic releases that are designed with vocalists in mind are the AEA Nuvo N22 ($899), designed for close-miking (with more top-end than a passive ribbon and less low-end boost from the proximity effect), and the Cloud Microphones 44-A ($1,899), with switchable proximity-effect reduction; the Voice setting reduces low-frequency build-up when close miking. (We will examine other powered ribbon mics later in this article because they are well suited for other uses.)
|MXL Microphones R144||sE Electronics X1R||Avantone Audio CR-14|
Low-priced options for ribbon mics include several passive models—the MXL R144 ($99.99), the sE Electronics X1R ($199) and the Avantone Audio CR-14 ($259). Designed for the stage, though suitable for the studio, the Beyerdynamic TG V90r ($499) is a passive cardioid ribbon mic that is great for tracking live in the studio with other musicians because it provides the side and rear rejection you don’t get from a figure-8 pattern. The hyper-cardioid pattern of the Beyerdynamic M160 ($699) provides even greater side rejection, while the mic itself has a distinctive pedigree—it was the model used to record Jimi Hendrix’s voice and amp.
It’s worth noting that active ribbon mics have a hotter output than passive ribbons, so they work well in conjunction with inexpensive audio interfaces. Passive ribbon mics, on the other hand, require preamps with a lot of gain (as well as the appropriate impedance): Many USB interfaces, for example, only offer 55 to 60 dB of gain—not an ideal situation for the passive ribbon. If you have one of these types of interfaces, you have some options.
|Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-2|
One is to use an external preamp designed to power passive ribbon mics, such as the 2-channel AEA Ribbon Pre ($895) which is tailor-made for this application. A less expensive option is to use the Cloud Microphones Cloud-lifter CL-1 ($149), a phantom-powered device that adds 25 dB of gain to your ribbon mic before it hits your audio interface’s preamp. If you have more than one ribbon mic, Cloud makes a two-channel version—the Cloud-lifter CL-2 ($249)—and the CL-Z ($299), with variable impedance, as well as the 4-channel CL-4 ($499). Best of all, these AEA and Cloud products will bring out the best in your dynamics mics, as well.
|Audix OM3||Shure Beta 58A||Electro-Voice N/D967|
Aggressive vocal parts in rock or rap often benefit from a dynamic mic. While the Shure SM58 ($99) is found in nearly every mic closet (and on nearly every stage), it doesn’t necessarily complement the tone of every vocalist. At that $99 price point you’ll find several great-sounding options—the AKG D5, the Audio-Technica ATM510, the Audix OM2, the Blue enCore 100, the RØDE M1, and the Sennheiser e835 S. All of these are built for handheld use on stage, but are equally useful in the studio when a little attitude is needed on the vocal part.
Add $20 to $60 to the price and you move into mics with a smoother sound and, in some cases, a hotter output. A sampling of these include the Audix OM3 ($129), the Electro-Voice N/D967 ($149), and the Shure Beta 58A ($159).
In pro studios, it’s not uncommon for engineers to grab large-element dynamic mics for the voice, such as the Sennheiser 421 MD II ($379.95), which has a five-position low-cut switch, and the Shure SM7B ($349), which includes switches for bass roll-off and presence boost.
ELECTRIC GUITAR AMP
For years, the rough-and-ready moving-coil dynamic mic has been the choice for recording electric guitar in the personal studio. But in the past 15 years, the ribbon mic has come into favor in home studios as low-cost products have become more available. One of the best things about having a 2-channel interface with a pair of mic inputs is that you can simultaneously record both transducer types—dynamic and ribbon—just like the pros do, and blend to the two tracks to suit the needs of the song.
|Shure SM 57||Audix i5||Sennheiser e609|
While the Shure SM57 ($99) has been a common go-to dynamic for recording an electric guitar amp, other models have become popular for their guitar-friendly sound and robust build quality. We’ve seen the Audix i5 ($99) gain popularly in this regard, thanks to its particularly chunky tone. (And be sure to check out the Audix CabGrabber, a spring-loaded clamp that attaches to your amp and puts the mic right where it’s needed.) Other dynamic-mic favorites are the side-address Sennheiser e609 ($109.95) with its supercardioid pattern, and the high-output, supercardioid Shure Beta 57A ($139).
Large-element dynamic mics are also highly prized for amps. Perennial favorites in this category are the ubiquitous Sennheiser MD 421 II and the Shure SM7B.
|Royer R-101||Shure KSM313/NE|
The ability to capture a more nuanced sound has made the ribbon mic very popular among guitarists and engineers. Cascade Microphones offers a variety of ribbon mics—in active and passive varieties—that sound great on guitar cabs as well as voice and other instruments. We’ve been particularly fond of the Fat Head ($195) and Fat Head II ($229) when it comes to budget-priced passive ribbon mics.
Royer Labs paved the way for the ribbon mic renaissance, and its passive R-101 ($895) is well suited for tracking electric guitar, not to mention drums and percussion. Another notable passive design can be found in the dual-voice Shure KSM313/NE ($1,295). Here, each side of the figure-8 pattern sounds different—one side darker sounding than the other. The result is a bit more timbral flexibility, whether you use it on a guitar amp, for vocals, or on percussion.
Guitarists with low-or mid-priced interfaces that don’t have enough gain to drive a passive ribbon mic will get excellent results using a phantom-powered ribbon. The list of high-quality, yet still affordable, active ribbon mics includes the Audio-Technica AT-4081 ($699) and AT4080 ($999), the Blue Microphones Woodpecker ($999), the AEA A840 ($1,553), and the Royer R-122 ($1,750).
|Audio-Technica AT5045||Oktava MK-012|
Like the voice, an acoustic guitar has a wide dynamic range, but it has a varying impulse response depending on the way it’s played (finger picking vs. flat picking). The majority of the LDCs and ribbon mics mentioned earlier are perfectly suited for capturing high-quality acoustic guitar tones. However, small-diaphragm condensers, with their fast transient response, are prized for recording plucked-string instruments.
Pencil condensers that are commonly used to track acoustic guitar include the Shure KSM137 ($299), the Audio-Technica AT4051 ($599), the Josephson C42 ($455), the AKG C 451 B ($499), the Mojave Audio MA-101fet ($595), the Neumann KM184 ($849.95), the Earthworks SR30 ($869), and the Audio-Technica AT5045 ($1,399), a sideaddress condenser that can handle high SPLs.
Affordable omnidirectional condensers worth exploring include the DPA 4090 ($569.95) and the Earthworks QTC30 ($799). The recordist on a tight budget will want to check out the Audix f9, the Shure PG81-XLR, and the Audio-Technica Pro 37, all of which street for $129.
Mics that have interchangeable capsules are well suited to guitar and other home-studio applications, particularly when the choices include an omni capsule—perfect for close-miking an acoustic without getting the proximity effect. The RØDE NT55 ($369) is an affordable solution that provides both cardioid and omni capsules. The Oktava MK-012 is another favorite, and it can be purchased with one, two, or three capsules, as well as in a matched pair.
Many musicians and younger engineers are surprised to hear that dynamic mics are also used to record acoustic guitar, particularly in rock and country music settings, where the resulting sound (with slightly compressed dynamics and a midrange-y tone) fits easily into a busy mix. Consequently, many of the dynamic mics mentioned earlier, such as the Audix i5, and Shure SM57 and SM7B are well suited for aggressively strummed guitars.
A drum kit is one of the toughest things to record, especially if you are limited to a 2-channel interface. Obviously, having only two inputs limits your options: You can record only two mics, or run several mics into a mixer and submix them to a stereo output that you send to your interface.
Nonetheless, the drums on many classic songs were cut using only two mics—a single overhead supplemented by a kick mic, a stereo pair over the set, or dedicated mics on the snare and bass drum (with the snare mic picking up a useful bit of hi-hat bleed, to boot). Let’s start by looking at transducers for the main parts of the kit.
|Granelli Audio Labs G5790||Beyerdynamic M 201 TG|
The Shure SM57 is one of the most commonly used dynamic mics on snare, providing a meaty sound that is well suited to rock music. An interesting option for SM57 fans is the Granelli Audio Labs G5790 ($149.99), which remounts an SM57 in an angled (90-degree) aluminum case—perfect for situations in which the space around the snare drum is at a premium.
Musicians and engineers looking for an alternative sound can find it in the similarly priced, yet beefy-sounding Audix i5, as well as the slightly more expensive Shure Beta 57A. With its hyper-cardioid pattern, the Beyerdynamic M 201 TG ($299) makes a great choice for snare mic, not only for its tone but for its increased side rejection. In addition, many of the small-diaphragm condensers mentioned above are suitable for use on the snare.
|Audix D6||Shure Beta 52A|
The sound of the bass drum can easily define a song, so it’s important to pick a mic that captures the vibe you’re after. That’s right: Not all bass drum mics sound the same. In fact, many people are surprised at how different the various models actually sound from one another. Some compress the tone, others add low-end in different ways—hearing is believing. But price doesn’t necessarily predict the winning kick tone for a song; sometimes a funky mic will give you a really funky sound.
Among the most popular dynamic mics for kick drum are the Audix D6 ($199), the Shure Beta 52A ($189), the AKG D112 ($149), and the Sennheiser e 602 II ($159). Low-cost mics, capable of capturing a great tone on the right drum, include the CAD D12 and the AKG P2 ($99 each).
|AKG D112||Sennheiser e 602 II|
At the upper end of scale is the AKG D12 VR ($499), a cardioid dynamic mic with a built-in C 414 transformer that works well as a passive mic. However, apply phantom power and you get three filter modes—a bass boost, a midrange cut, and a combination of the two—that allow you to tailor the sound.
Another pair of mics that have passive and active components include the Audio-Technica AT-M250DE ($299), a dual-element mic with hyper-cardioid dynamic and cardioid condenser components, as well as a bass rolloff switch; and the Lewitt DTP 640 REX ($329), a similar dual-element cardioid mic with a pad and a three-position switch for altering the frequency response.
Good drummers don’t just play the groove in the pocket, they continually create a balanced mix between the various instruments in the kit. By using one or two overhead mics, you capture these dynamics and the drummer’s perspective as he or she orchestrates the tune.
You can capture this overhead perspective in mono or stereo, depending on the kind of drum sound you are after. Many early rock recordings were captured with a single mic above the drummer, often supplemented with one on the bass drum—a perfect combination for the 2-channel audio interface.
|Coles 4038||Cascade Microphones Fat Head|
A classic setup is to use a well-placed ribbon overhead. If you’re dead set on re-creating the classic Beatles sound, a single Coles 4038 ($1,563) is your ribbon of choice (though it was replaced by the brighter and more directional cardioid-patterned AKG D19c dynamic mic and paired with an AKG D20 on the kick drum; both mics are no longer in production, though you can simulate that sound with modern dynamic mics).
Of course, the Coles 4038 is not the only ribbon mic suitable for overhead use. If you’re on a very tight budget, the lower-priced ribbon mics mentioned earlier will work.
For a stereo recording with ribbon mics, place two mics of the same make and model in an x/y configuration facing down, toward the drums. Here, the combined figure-8 patterns capture the kit from the front lobes, and pick up the sound reflected off the ceiling from the rear lobes. This is called the Blumlein technique; this is a great way to get real ambience when you’re tracking in a room with a pleasing sonic character. The budget conscious should check out the Cascade Microphones Fat Head stereo pair ($399), which includes the stereo bar with shockmounts in a metal case. The Coles 4038 is also available as a matched stereo pair.
A more convenient way to get Blumlein stereo is to use a stereo ribbon mic, such as the AEA R88 ($1,795) and the Royer Labs SF-12 ($2,695). In both instances, only one stand is required (albeit a sturdy one) and positioning is made much easier because both transducers are already configured and phase-coherent.
|Samson C02||RØDE M5|
Small-diaphragm condenser mics are typically used in pairs overhead, either in an x/y configuration or as a spaced pair depending on the type of stereo sound you’re after. Inexpensive models available in pairs include the Samson C02 ($139/pair) and the RØDE M5 ($199/pair).
Higher-quality pencil condenser stereo pairs include the Shure KSM141 ($870/pair), the RØDE NT5 ($219/pair), the Josephson C42MP ($1,015/pair), and the Oktava MK-012 ($695/pair with cardioid capsules and pads). The Mojave Audio MA-100 stereo pair ($1,595) are small-diaphragm tube condensers with interchangeable omni and cardioid capsules. Also worth considering is the AKG C414 XLS/ST ($2,199), a matched pair of large-diaphragm, multi-pattern mics that can also be used individually for vocals, piano, and as room mics.
In addition to being used in a stereo configuration, sometimes the pencil condenser can supplement an overhead as a spot mic. A classic example would be to augment an overhead ribbon, which would tend to have a darker sound and subdue the upper register where the cymbals sit. A common choice for such spot-mic placements is the Shure SM81 ($349), where one is positioned over the ride cymbal and another over the hi-hat and crash. The SM81’s cardioid pattern becomes more of a hyper-cardioid pattern with high-frequency sounds, giving you a bit of extra isolation between the cymbals, depending on their proximity to the instruments.
When you have the option of using several mics to track drums, a cost-effective and convenient way to get enough transducers is with a drum-mic pack. These all-in-one collections (including mic clips and mounts) come in a variety of configurations to match the number of drums in the kit you use. Surprisingly, the higher-end kids have just a few mics and focus on sound quality over mic quantity. At the lower end of the price spectrum is the CAD Touring7 ($299), designed to support a 7-piece kit, and the Samson 8Kit($299.99), which can mike a 5-piece kit with three condensers for overhead and hi-hat use.
|Shure PGDMK6-XLR drum mic kit|
The next level up is the Shure PGDMK6 ($399), which packages enough of the company’s PG Series mics to cover a four-piece kit, including a pair of electret condensers for overheads. For the same price, you can get the Shure DKM57-52 ($399) that assembles three SM57s and a Beta 52A in one case.
Lewitt Audio offers two drum mic kits. The DTP Beat Kit 6 ($699) is designed for a four-piece, with three DTP 340 TT dynamic mics for the snare and toms, a DTP 340 REX for the kick, and a pair of LCT 140 condensers for overheads. The DTP Beat Kit Pro 7 adds the DTP 640 REX dual-element kick, the MTP 440 DM for the snare, and the higher-end LCT 340 with its interchangeable capsules.
In the e600 Mic Pack ($999.95), Sennheiser assembled enough of its evolution 600 Series mics to cover a five-piece kit. These include four e 604s for snare and toms, an e 602-II for the kick, and two e 614 supercardioid condensers for use overhead.
|Audix DP7 Drum Mic Pack|
Audix has several mic pack configurations. The DP4 ($449) puts the DP6 kick mic together with three i5 dynamics to cover the snare and toms, while the FP7 ($499) provides enough of the company’s F Series mics to cover a seven-piece kit. Other D-series mic packs include the DP5A ($659) for a five-piece kit without overheads, and the DP7, ($899), which adds a pair of ADX51 condensers.
At the upper end from Audix is the STE8 ($2,499), which packages enough D Series mics to cover a five-piece kit supplemented by an SCX1-HC hyper-cardioid pencil condenser for the hi-hat and a pair of the outstanding SCX25A large-diaphragm condensers for overheads. While the price of this kit may give many home-studio owners sticker-shock, consider that this deal gives you three excellent condenser mics, all of which can be used for other recording tasks—voice, acoustic guitar, piano, or as room mics.
A different approach to the drum-mic pack comes from Earthworks and Blue Microphones, both of which provide a three-mic solution using high-end condensers—two as overheads and one for the bass drum. The Earthworks DK25/L ($1,649) includes three SR25 mics and a KickPad passive inline attenuator/EQ for use with whichever mic is put in front of the kick. The DK25/R ($1,549), by comparison, provides a pair of omnidirectional TC25s for use as overheads and an SR25 with KickPad for the bass drum.
The Blue Microphones Pro Drum Kit Kit ($2,499) comes with a matched pair of Dragonfly large-diaphragm condensers for use overhead, and the Mouse for placement in front of the kick. (For more detailed information about the various kits mentioned here, check out the article “8 Drum Mic Kits Tested” atemusician.com.)
Professional engineers are known to scour flea markets and surplus stores looking for old mics that can be used to provide a unusual textures. Some of the most colorful vintage mics were never intended for studio use, but were designed to improve speech intelligibility over the primitive public-address systems of the mid 20th century. As a result of their band-limited designs, these mics often favor a frequency range that gives them an old-timey sound, as if you were listening to a sound source playing from a wax cylinder or 78RPM disc.
A number of manufacturers have designed products that provide similarly colorful timbres, but without the hassles that come with ancient transducers. And the unusual casings used for these modern lowfimics are not just for show; they have a major impact on each microphone’s sound quality and pickup pattern. Overall, these mics work well on just about anything—voice, guitar, piano, and full bands. And they are surprisingly well-suited for use onstage.
The UK-based company Wasaphone offers several low-fi mics. The Wasaphone MkII (£42.50) is based around a dynamic mic element taken from a vintage British telephone that focuses on a frequency range from 200 Hz to 2 kHz. The element is sealed in a salt shaker with an XLR connector attached to the rear. The mic comes with a brass ring that fits around the canister and mounts to any mic stand.
The Wasarocket (£130), by contrast, places a “NATO-issue CB radio capsule” into a 50mm brass artillery shell and provides a frequency range from 200 Hz to 3 kHz. It also includes a brass bracket for mounting.
Harmonica players will want to check out Wasaphone’s Greasy Jack (£130). Shaped like a cider apple and made of wood for easy hand-held use, it has a flat copper top and favors the 200 Hz to 2 kHz range.
Among the most popular companies making band-limited mics is Placid Audio, whose products have been used by dozens of well-known engineers. The mics are housed within a copper case, built in the USA and come with a lifetime warranty.
The Copperphone ($259.99) is a moving-coil dynamic mic with a cardioid pattern and a 200Hz to 3kHz frequency response. The tuned, ported chamber is attached to a mounting bracket made from aircraft aluminum, which also allows for horizontal positioning.
Slightly smaller in size and cradled in a vintage-looking shockmount, the Copperphone Mini ($299.99) has a slightly reduced frequency range (200 Hz to 1.4 kHz). When removed from the shockmount, its diminutive size makes is suitable for handheld use by harmonica players.
|Placid Carbonphone and Tone Box|
The newest mic in the line is the Carbonphone ($399.99), which utilizes a carbon-granule capsule as the transducer and copper for the housing and parts, and includes a Hammond output transformer, an XLR jack, and an aluminum mounting bracket. The mic comes with a 9V-powered, variable-filter Tone Box to shape the timbre of the mic. Although the Carbonphone›s frequency response is stated as 500 Hz to 10 kHz, the Tone Box narrows it further to bring out different tonal characteristics from your sound source. The Tone Box also provides phantom power and can be used with other microphones, as well.
The convenience that a USB mic offers is appealing to many musicians: There’s no need to get out the mic preamp, interface, and XLR cable when inspiration strikes—just plug in and play.
Over the years, mic makers have begun adapting their USB mics to the needs of musicians, adding features that both improve the recording quality and the user experience. As a result, today’s USB mics sound better than ever and are no longer relegated to the world of demos: In the right hands and circumstances, this class of transducer can capture sounds that are suitable for release.
When it comes to price vs. performance, the more you pay for a USB mic, the more features you get—not to mention an increase in digital resolution. Basic models costing well under $100 might not have all the bells and whistles, but they are perfectly fine for capturing musical ideas quickly, though they often have lower bit depths and sample rates.
A few examples of budget-friendly USB mics for musicians include the Samson Q1U ($39.99) handheld dynamic mic and the Meteor ($69.99) condenser, both of which offer 16-bit/48kHz resolution (though the latter includes a built-in 1/8″ headphone jack for no-latency monitoring). In that same price range, the Blue Microphones Snowball ($69.99) offers cardioid and omni patterns and a -10dB pad, and is available in three colors.
Moving up in price by $10 increments, features are added, along with accessories such as a stand, basic DAW software, and a pop-screen (depending on which model you get). Here you find Samson’s traditional-looking large-diaphragm cardioid condenser, the C01U ($79.99), while the hyper-cardioid C01U Pro ($89.99) adds a built-in headphone amp. The C03U ($99.99) is another step up, providing multiple patterns—supercardioid, omni, and figure-8. At the $99 level, your choices also include the Audio-Technica AT2005USB (sporting an XLR output so you can also use it as a traditional mic) and the Blue Microphones Nessie (with built-in adaptive DSP processing such as a de-esser, EQ, and auto-level control).
Things start to get really interesting, in terms of features, with the Samson G-Track ($119.99). This large-diaphragm, supercardioid condenser sports a mini-jack input that accepts stereo line-level signals from keyboards or audio players as well as mono instrument-level signals from electric guitar or bass. As a result, you can record voice along with a mono instrument, track two mono instruments simultaneously, or capture a stereo sound source. Onboard level controls and a headphone jack with direct monitoring capabilities are also included.
The Blue Microphones Yeti ($129.99) not only has its own stand but includes a traditional, threaded mic-stand mount. This mic offers three polar patterns (cardioid, omni, and figure-8) and has a built-in level control and headphone jack.
|Audio-Technica AT2020USB+||Shure PG27USB|
As you cross the $150 threshold, you find the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ ($169) and Shure PG27USB ($199), both of which adapted their studio mics to the USB format with good results.
Blue Microphones steps things up considerably with its Yeti Pro ($249) by adding 24-bit/96kHz resolution, an XLR jack, and a stereo pickup pattern. Another mic that stands out in that price range is the Apogee MiC 96k ($229), a cardioid condenser that boasts 24-bit, 96kHz Apogee converters, all-metal housing, and Mac and iOS compatibility. An iOS Lightning cable and tripod stand are included.
A MUSICIAN’S BASIC MIC CABINET
Even the simplest home studio must have the tools to capture vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, drums and percussion, and standard bass instruments. Yet, only a handful of essential transducers are necessary to tackle these jobs.
1. A large-diaphragm condenser, particularly one that offers multiple patterns, a pad, and a lowcut switch. However, if you find an affordable LDC that sounds great on your voice but doesn’t have all those features, nab it: You can always pick up a second mic with those bells and whistles when the need arises.
2. Two dynamic mics—one suitable for use on snare, hand percussion, and guitar amps; another designed to track low-end instruments, such as kick drum and bass-amp cabinets.
3. A matched pair of small diaphragm condensers for use as drum overheads, for capturing room sound, and for close miking—together or individually—guitar, piano, and other acoustic instruments. Mics that have interchangeable capsules offering different polar patterns are a plus.
4. A ribbon microphone that you can use for alternative color on amps, drum overheads, voice, and other instruments. Consider getting a powered ribbon mic if you’re using a budget-priced interface. If you buy a passive transducer, supplement it with a suitable external preamp.
PRO TIP: AUDITIONING VOCAL MICS
Serious about buying the right vocal mic the first time? Here’s a novel, yet obvious tip suggested by a colleague: Simply book some time in a professional studio and collect sound files of yourself singing through the contenders.
Looking at the online gear lists of local studios, my colleague picked two that had the majority of mics she wanted to hear. She explained what she wanted when she booked the session; a good-quality recording of herself singing through each of the mics on her list. Later she could listen back to each sound file and compare the results in the privacy of her own studio.
This process took two rounds of studio time, because neither place had all the transducers she was considering. However, both studios had mics she hadn’t thought of, so she gave those a try, as well. (In each case, the signal path when tracking was direct, using uncolored preamps and leaving out dynamics and EQ processing.)
Total investment in research: $150 for studio time and approximately 4 hours of singing and listening. And because she claims her music-based income on her taxes, she was able to write off the sessions and the eventual purchase of her favorite microphone. Win-win!