Thanks to consistent improvements in technology, the quality of microphones in the lower price sector has just been getting better and better.
Thirty years ago, there were far fewer options in terms of entry-level mics, and the quality was nowhere near what it now is. This means that, basically, there has never been a better time to buy a low-cost microphone to record your vocals.
There are one of two reasons that you’re reading this article, either you’re a singer on a budget and want the best microphone you can get for your money, or you’re a home studio owner who wants a few more microphones in the mic locker for use with different vocalists.
Whichever you are, I have lots of quality recommendations for you, including information on which famous singers have used the microphones.
So, I’ve decided to take a look at the 5 best cheap mics for recording studio-quality vocals and find the perfect one for your needs.
An all-time classic and one of the most affordable quality microphones on the market. You have seen this microphone countless times; basically, in nearly every live concert DVD or Youtube video, the singer will be using an SM58. They rule the roost in terms of live performance, but what are they like in the studio?
Well, as you will find out later in this article, for the right voice, such as Billy Corgan’s, they can beat a vintage Neumann. But not only that, they are the studio go-to of Bono from U2, Chris Martin from Coldplay, and are often used by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
And even though this tried and trusted microphone can handle just about everything, it was specifically designed for vocals. It features a metal ball grill for strength with a pop filter inside to eliminate plosives.
Being a cardioid polar pattern, it will reduce background noise and isolate the sound source, therefore reducing overspill. This is one of the reasons that it is so widely used for live performance. Another is the built-in shock-mount system which eliminates any handling noise.
And finally, it features the typical Shure rugged frame and will easily withstand the rough handling you expect while out on the road.
But don’t think of the SM58 as being only for vocals. It is also great for a number of other recording duties, including snare, toms, and electric guitar amps and cabinets.
It’s fair to say that the Shure Sm58 is the microphone by which others are judged, and there is no greater accolade than that. Affordable quality just doesn’t get better than this.
Frequency response: 50 to 15,000Hz
A word of warning
Being one of the most popular microphones in the world has also made it the most counterfeited microphone on the market. So always make sure you buy from a registered dealer. This also applies to all other popular Shure microphones.
- Specially designed for vocals.
- Built-in pop filter.
- Very little handling noise due to the Shock mount system.
- It can lack tonal quality at high volumes with certain voices.
Sticking with Shure for another classic, the SM57, which shares a lot of similarities with its brother, the SM58.
They are basically the exact same microphone apart from being a different shape and having a very slight difference in the frequency curve. Apart from that, they are the same rugged, versatile, and great-sounding workhorse microphone.
Firstly the shape difference, as you have seen, the SM58 features a ball at its end, while the SM57 is a long thin microphone. But if you unscrew the ball, the microphones basically look exactly the same. However, they are not; the difference in the shape and the frequency response make a sonic difference, and depending on the voice, one will sound better than the other.
The SM57 is the go-to mic of Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company; in fact, he won’t record his vocals through anything else. It was also used exclusively by Lemmy of Motorhead, as well as Zack De La Rocca for the first Rage Against the Machine record.
Even more versatile
The SM57 is by far the most useful microphone that you can own as a home, project, or even pro studio owner.
They are the most commonly used snare microphone in history, but can actually be used on just about anything. Check out Youtube for videos where they mic a whole drum kit with only SM57’s, and the results are incredibly impressive.
Frequency response 40 to 15,000 Hz.
- The most versatile microphone you can own.
- Built to last.
- Natural presence brings out the best in snares, and guitar amps/cabs.
- The SM58 is a better vocal microphone for most singers, but if you need versatility, the SM57 is the one!
We now move from dynamic microphones to condensers, but what’s the difference?
Well, a condenser works in a completely different way to a dynamic, but I’m not going to get into the technical details because there really is no need. But the main result is a microphone that produces a much more detailed sound.
Is a condenser mic better for vocals?
Condenser microphones capture the pure, highly detailed sound of a vocal which for some vocalists, such as Celine Dion, is exactly what you need. However, for others, there is just too much detail, and it doesn’t work with their voice. They also bring out the high-end of a vocalist’s range in a more flattering way, making them superb for most female vocalists.
Therefore, as is becoming a theme, a condenser microphone is better for recording some singers, but not others.
But what about the P120?
AKG is easily one of the most respected microphone makers in history, having produced the legendary C12 and C414. They are renowned for producing well-designed, great-sounding microphones. And even though the P120 is the cheapest condenser they produce, the quality is still there.
It’s true to say that it isn’t as good as the much more expensive microphones AKG produces, but for the money, it is one of the best condenser mics under $200 on the market. It’s also incredibly versatile and is a very good option for recording acoustic guitar, drum overheads, piano, and orchestral or acoustic instruments.
Frequency response: 20 to 20,000Hz
- AKG quality at a very affordable price.
- Good sonics.
- Very versatile.
- Unfortunately, the versatility means it is a jack of all trades but maybe a master of none.
Audio Technica AT2020
Moving slightly up in price, we have another excellent condenser, this time from Audio Technica.
The AT2020 is a cheap, versatile workhorse of a microphone that sounds incredible on a large number of singers. Most quality large-diaphragm condensers such as a Neumann or Telefunken are prohibitively expensive to home and small studio owners. But Audio Technica has designed a microphone that comes close sonically for a lot fewer dollars.
As mentioned, condenser microphones pick up far more detail than a dynamic, but they also have a few negatives. First, they are far more delicate, although not as bad as ribbon microphones, which are not a good option for vocalists, so there is no need to worry about them.
Needs some power
Next, they require phantom power to work. This is a +48 volt charge which is sent to the microphone down the mic cable. However, this isn’t normally an issue when recording because every audio interface includes this feature, but you will need to remember to switch it on for a condenser (or you will get no signal) and then off again before using another microphone.
And finally, due to their ability to capture sound in so much detail, they are much more sensitive to any background sound such as air conditioners, road-noise, your neighbor mowing his lawn, etc. So they need to be used in much quieter environments than dynamic mics.
But Audio Technica has taken this into consideration, and 2020 has a noise level of 20dB, which makes it a great choice for the home studio. This, along with the cardioid polar pattern, should remove most of the noise from behind and the sides of the capsule, giving you a clean and crisp vocal recording.
What is the best cheap condenser microphone for recording vocals?
Well, it’s more than likely the Audio Technica AT2020; the AKGP120 I just reviewed is excellent for the price tag, but the AT202 is just better. A superb sounding, highly versatile condenser microphone for an incredibly affordable price.
Frequency response: 20 to 20,000Hz
- Clear defined sound.
- Excellent Transient Response.
- Very versatile and sounds good on just about anything.
- Only features a single polar pattern – cardioid. More expensive microphones give you more options.
I’ll finish with the most expensive of the cheap studio mics I’ve reviewed, the Rode NT1A.
As with the last two condensers, this is once again an incredibly versatile microphone; however, unlike the other two, there is one thing that it excels at… recording vocals.
The difference in the clarity, the shimmer of the top end without ever being too bright, and the depth in the lower frequencies is instantly obvious. This makes it easily the best condenser microphone choice for anyone on a budget, but not an incredibly tight one.
Low self noise
One of the factors that help it stand out from the crowd is the incredibly low self-noise at 5 dB(A). Condenser microphones, due to the fact that they are ‘powered,’ create internal noise, which manufacturers obviously try to keep to a minimum with clever designs. But Rode has taken it to the next level and produce the best of the bunch, guaranteeing a crystal clear vocal take.
Other features such as the gold-sputtered membrane, 20-20k frequency response, and a dynamic range of 132dB also show why this is the best vocal microphone within its price range currently on the market.
It also comes with a range of great accessories, including an excellent shock mount and a ten-year warranty.
Frequency response: 20 to 20,000Hz
- More expensive than the other mics reviewed by still exceptional value for money.
- High-quality construction.
- Sounds superb.
Rode also produces some interesting USB microphones, such as the NT USB, which brings me to the question…
Are USB mics good for recording vocals?
Well, yes and no. The technology has advanced a lot from three or four years ago, and modern USB microphones are excellent compared with how they started out.
They are absolutely superb for podcasters and vloggers who need to quickly and effectively capture their spoken voice. They are also a great choice for anyone who does the narration for Youtube videos or voiceovers.
However, they are not the best option for vocals because they have not been designed for that. The main reason is the sonic quality which is nowhere near that of a ‘proper’ XLR microphone. Also, the majority will only let you record at a sample rate of 44.1kHz or 48kHz and a bit depth of 16K, which is a lot lower quality than you can achieve with a traditional microphone and a standard audio interface.
But, if you’re on an incredibly tight budget, remember that you don’t need an audio interface with a USB mic because they feature a built-in analog to digital convertor.
It’s now nearly time to reveal the winners of this run-down.
But before we get to that…
I just want to go over one thing that is often misunderstood when it comes to microphones, and it may shock you. It’s the fact that a higher price does not and, in fact, is OFTEN not, the best option for a lot of singers.
The reason for this is that the only thing that is important is getting a microphone that works best for your voice. That may be a $20,000 vintage Neumann U47, but on the other hand, it may well be something far more reasonable. Therefore, buying the best cheap vocal mic for your voice is the key to getting the vocal sound you’ve always wanted.
A great example of this is when Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins was doing vocal tests for one of their albums. Twenty microphones were all set up in the studio, and he sang half a verse and half a chorus of a song using all of them in turn. These were then blind tested in the control room by the producer, the engineers, and Billy to find the microphone that made his voice sound the way they wanted it to.
These microphones included a couple of the $20,000 vintage U47’s I mentioned in the introduction (none of them sound the same), a few later but still vintage Neumann U67’s and U87’s, an AKG C12, vintage AKG C414, etc., etc. all the way down to the more affordable microphones. In all, there was probably 60-70,000 dollars worth of mics being tested.
And the winner is…
From such an illustrious line-up of classic microphones, the winner and the one that was used on the majority of the album was a Shure SM58, which you can pick up nearly anywhere for around $100.
So, don’t think of buying a cheap microphone as a compromise; if you buy a quality mic, then it may end up being the best one that you will ever own.
Now that’s covered, let’s move on to find out…
What is the best cheap mic for recording vocals?
To be honest, it’s a difficult choice because all of the microphones reviewed are quality options, and as I mentioned, it does depend on your voice as to which option is the best one for you.
Having said that, if you’re looking for a dynamic microphone, the…
…is hard to beat and works well on both male and female voices for a variety of styles from rap to hardcore to pop ballads. In terms of vocal versatility, it’s the best microphone you can buy for the money.
However, if you want the clarity and brighter top end of a condenser microphone, then I would go for the…
It’s a great-sounding microphone, and the quality for the price makes it one of the best value for money vocal microphones on the market. If you sing in the higher registers and want to capture the pure tone of your voice, it’s the best option you can buy.