It’s no secret that audio and sound technology can be a little tricky for non-audiophiles and newbie musicians. When you’re listening to music online or live at a gig, you most likely barely pay any attention to the microphone system the musicians use. All you know is that the vocalists sound incredible and, while their natural voices are the primary reason for that, the decent and professional microphone they used is a huge help too.
Using a cheap microphone either for recording or for live performances could seriously affect your singing. No matter how beautiful your voice is, if your microphone does a terrible job at recording or amplifying, chances are you’re going to sound weak and amateurish. Simply put, don’t underestimate the value of a good microphone.
That being said, finding the right microphone for you can be a daunting task. While there aren’t as many brands that really stand out in the music industry, choosing the right model still needs a lot of thought and research. The thing you need to remember though is to focus on the microphone system’s specs instead of their price. It’s true that a microphone’s price generally reflects its quality, but you can’t just rely on that in most cases. Besides, if you’re on a tight budget, you can’t really go all out on a costly mic. Fortunately, there are plenty of decently priced microphones that are fully capable of reproducing or recording sound exceptionally well.
In this article, we’re going to get an in-depth look at what makes microphones work, the different types of mics commonly used, and the best models musicians and performers advise people to get.
Microphone Specs 101
When you’re going out to buy yourself a new mic, you’re going to be overloaded with so much technical jargon that will leave your head spinning. Now you don’t need to spend hours and hours memorizing every tiny detail about sound technology to be able to pick out the right mic but understanding the commonly used terms can help narrow down your choices.
Keep an eye out for these specs to find the right model that will give you the sound that you need.
Dynamic Range – this is the lowest level and the highest level of “noise floor” a microphone is built to withstand. The dynamic range is closely related to a mic’s sensitivity.
Sensitivity – this is the measure of the mic’s ability for converting acoustic pressure into electric voltage. While it’s true that the higher the sensitivity, the less amplification is required to bring the sound to a usable level, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the better mic. You’ll need different sensitivities for different uses. For instance, if you’re recording vocals or acoustics, you’ll need a more sensitive microphone. If you’re performing, on the other hand, a mic with lower sensitivity is the better choice to avoid distortions during your performance.
Signal-to-Noise Ratio – how much sound you want to be present in your recording as opposed to any outside noise or sound.
Sound Pressure Level – the highest level of sound pressure a microphone can resist before distortions start occurring. If you need a microphone that can withstand loud noises (for high pitched vocals, drums, loud instruments) go for mics that have a high SPL.
Frequency Response – Different microphones respond to different levels of frequencies. The frequency response is the range of frequencies (from low to high) that a mic can pick up. Some emphasize particular frequencies while other reduce them. There are also mics that don’t alter the response at all (for really accurate recording).
Transient Response – the mic’s ability to respond to short duration, high-level peaks (loud and sudden sounds).
Dynamic vs Condenser
Now that you have a good idea what specific microphone system terms mean let’s move on to the two main types of mics: dynamic and condenser. Before you can even go out to look for the perfect mic for you, you need to decide what type you’re going to need.
The dynamic type of microphone is the more popular of the two since it offers more versatile use. This is the type of mic you need for on-stage use since it’s built to be more rugged. To briefly explain, a dynamic mic’s internal build features an extremely thin diaphragm that’s connected to a coil of fine wire. This type favors mechanical resilience, cost-effectiveness, and a solid punch that produces beautiful sound even for loud instruments like drums and bass.
Take note that a dynamic microphone isn’t nearly as sensitive and accurate as a condenser, but when you’re using it live onstage, you’ll want a more dynamic sound. Besides musical performances, you can also use this type of mic for public speaking, interviews, even karaoke.
A condenser type of mic is quite accessible these days and even come at differing costs. They are built with a thin conductive diaphragm that’s placed near a metal plate, creating a capacitor. A condenser is better for recording in studios since they’re more heightened to a sensitivity of sounds and voices. They also have a better ability to deliver a high volume of output and large frequency response. Basically, if you’re looking for a recording mic, you’d do better with a condenser than a dynamic mic.
What makes a condenser mic so different from a dynamic mic is that the former requires an external power source because it’s so sensitive and can’t be connected to other equipment without distorting the sound.
Top 7 Best Microphones Money can Buy
Before we list our top microphones money can buy, if you’re a little short on budget but still want a quality microphone, there are plenty of resources online to find the best affordable mics on the market today.
Sennheiser MD 421 II Cardioid Dynamic Microphone
First up on our list is a mic from one of the top brands in audio technology, Sennheiser. Besides coming from a trustworthy brand, the MD 421 II has a gorgeous capsule design that people are gaga for. It looks stylish and functional too. Capable of handling high SPL and producing an impressive signal response, this dynamic mic is guaranteed to give you the best sound. As it should, if you are considering the relatively high cost of this beauty.
Rode NT1A Anniversary Vocal Condenser Microphone
Another mic from a beloved brand. This Rode model is specifically designed for top quality performance. Although it has a relatively simple design, it has high sensitivity and low self-noise that make up for it. The NT1A uses a standard diaphragm, weighs less than 330g, and has a stainless steel grill. This condenser mic is perfect for getting that professional studio recording sound.
This model is great for musicians and vocalists looking for a studio mic that’s more on the affordable side. The AT2020 is capable of handling a multitude of recording situations too. This mic is designed to produce an isolated pickup while capturing a dynamic spectrum of audio at the same time. However, the AT2020 is not a dynamic mic but a condenser mic so you can use this for recording but not for live performances. Beginners in the music industry will appreciate this mic as a starting point into the complicated world of audio technology. It’s relatively inexpensive, versatile, and high quality so you can’t go wrong with this model.
Shure SM58-LC Vocal Microphone
A lot of musicians and performers go for this model in particular since it delivers top quality sound while being lightweight and affordable. It has a standard design constructed for functionality. It’s sturdy, efficient, and comes with an impressive set of features. Moreover, the SM58-LC is easily maintainable since its parts can be replaced without too much of a cost. The sounds this mic delivers are warm and well-rounded, precisely what most singers want for their live performances.
Shure SM-57 Cardioid Dynamic Microphone
Another high-quality mic from Shure that professionals highly recommend. The SM-57 is excellent for both live performances and recording. Its contoured frequency response delivers clean instrumental reproduction and rich vocals. Whether it’s for vocals, instruments, or recording, this model is one of the most cherished microphones available.
AKG P170 Instrumental Microphone
If you’re a musician mostly focused on recording instruments like acoustic guitars, percussions, or string instruments, this model is ideal for you. The AKG P170 is a condenser mic that offers high sensitivity, wide frequency response, and a standard cardioid pattern. While that makes it not a very practical mic for recording vocals or for live performances, it does make it perfect for recording instrumentals.
Lastly, we’ve got another mic from Sennheiser, this time it’s a mic great for recording amplifiers. It’s pretty standard knowledge that recording amplifiers is no easy task. You can just use a regular old mic to record it and hope for the best. There are so many different types of sound that could come out of the amplifier, and it’s just impossible for a normal mic to handle such a complex task. The E609, however, is not your average mic. This mic is a large diaphragm dynamic microphone with a super-cardioid design. It’s constructed to deliver more directional response with a diaphragm that covers more space than normal.