Are you a bit overwhelmed by the multitude of microphone options available in the market? Are you unsure which one to choose for your first studio setup? Should it be a condenser or dynamic microphone, USB or XLR, large diaphragm or small diaphragm?
Don’t worry; I’ve got you covered!
In this guide, I will walk you through the key factors to consider when choosing your first studio microphone and help you make an informed decision.
Why the Microphone Matters
You can have the best audio interface, converters, and studio monitors in the world, but your recordings will suffer if you don’t have a decent microphone. The microphone is the first point in the signal chain where sound hits, so getting a good, clean signal here is crucial.
While production techniques and processing plug-ins can help polish your tracks, they can’t fix issues that originate from a low-quality microphone.
So, if your budget is limited, it’s wise to invest more in mics and maybe even just start with one high-quality, versatile microphone rather than a handful of budget mics.
As the producer, the microphone is one of your main creative tools. Different mics have different characteristics that you can use to shape the sound in your production.
Choosing a mic that matches the source and your sonic goals will pay off in better raw tracks to work with.
Understanding the Different Types of Microphones
The three main mic categories you’ll encounter are Dynamic, Condenser, and Ribbon microphones. Each type has its unique characteristics, making them suitable for different recording situations.
Dynamic microphones are the workhorses of the audio world. They are robust, durable, and handle high sound pressure levels well, making them perfect for loud sources like drum kits or guitar amplifiers.
They work by moving a coil of wire attached to the diaphragm through a magnetic field, inducing a small electric current.
Their sound is often described as “warm”, and they’re less sensitive to subtle nuances compared to condenser microphones. This makes dynamic microphones a great choice for live performances.
Condenser mics use an electrically charged backplate and diaphragm, which alter capacitance when vibrated by sound.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive and accurate than their dynamic counterparts. They require an external power source (often provided by ‘phantom power’ from your audio interface or mixer) and can capture a broader range of frequencies.
This sensitivity makes them ideal for capturing vocals and acoustic instruments in the studio, where detail and clarity are paramount.
Condenser mics come in large and small diaphragm varieties. A large diaphragm (~1 inch or more) reproduces deep low frequencies well. A small diaphragm (~0.5 inches) is better for transient detail and high frequencies.
Tube mics are a subtype of condenser mic featuring a vacuum tube amplifier. This gives them added warmth and richness through subtle, “musical” distortion.
Tube mics are prized for vocals, strings, wind instruments, and smoothing out edgy sounds. High-end tube mics are some of the most sought-after vintage models.
Ribbon mics capture sound using a thin aluminum ribbon suspended in a magnetic field. The ribbon vibrates when hit by sound waves, generating an electric current.
Ribbons have an excellent transient response and a brighter tone. They are useful for acoustic instruments, room ambiance, and vocals requiring very high detail.
However, their delicate nature might not make them the best choice for a first studio microphone unless you’re prepared to handle them with extreme care.
Ribbon mics are also quite expensive compared to dynamic and condenser microphones, making them a more specialized and higher-end option.
Understanding Microphone Polar Patterns
The polar pattern indicates how sensitive a microphone is to sounds coming from different directions. The polar pattern is represented visually on a circular graph called a polar plot.
There are several common polar patterns for microphones:
An omnidirectional mic picks up sound evenly from all directions. On a polar plot, its sensitivity is a perfect circle.
Omnis provide a natural sound but also capture more ambient noise. They’re great for musical instruments and choruses.
A cardioid mic is most sensitive to sounds directly in front and gradually less sensitive to sounds coming from the sides and rear. Its polar plot resembles a heart shape, hence the name cardioid (meaning “heart-shaped”).
Cardioids reduce picked up ambient noise and isolate the sound source. They are ideal for studio vocals, speech, and radio broadcasting.
A hypercardioid is a tighter version of the cardioid pattern, with the sides even less sensitive. The polar plot looks like a narrower cardioid heart shape.
A hypercardioid maximizes isolation directly in front of the mic, which is useful for live settings and miking loud instruments.
Figure-8 or bi-directional mics pick up equally from the front and rear, with the sides being largely dead zones. Their polar plot looks like the number 8.
The tight front and back pickup makes them popular for miking two sound sources simultaneously, like a speaker facing another speaker or a duet vocalist scenario.
Shotgun mics have an extremely tight polar pattern that focuses on sounds far in front of the mic. Their hypercardioid-style polar plots visually look like narrow shotgun blasts, hence the name.
Shotguns provide extremely focused long-range sound pickup, making them ideal for film, TV, and field recording.
Knowing the polar pattern is crucial for choosing the right mic for the job and placing it correctly.
For example, using an Omni mic up close on a loud guitar amp would capture distorted sound from all directions.
A cardioid mic placed similarly would isolate just the guitar amp sound directly in front. Pay attention to how directional your first mic is!
USB or XLR Microphone?
A USB microphone has a built-in audio interface and connects directly to your computer’s USB port. This makes setup as easy as plugging in a USB cable.
USB mics convert the audio signal to digital directly in the microphone. This allows you to record into your DAW software without needing a separate audio interface.
Common uses for USB mics include podcasting, streaming, video calls, and basic home recording. They provide an affordable and convenient option for basic setups.
XLR microphones use a standard 3-pin XLR cable to connect to audio interfaces, mixers, or preamps via an XLR input.
The mic signal remains in the analog domain until reaching the interface, where it is then converted to digital for recording on your DAW.
XLR mics are used widely in professional studio recording and live sound. They can connect to higher-quality preamps and converters compared to those built into USB mics.
Which is Better?
For professional-grade sound quality, XLR microphones are generally better. They deliver a clean, strong signal with minimal interference when paired with a quality audio interface. This provides more flexibility compared to being limited to a USB mic’s built-in conversion.
However, USB microphones offer a super simple setup that can produce decent home studio results.
USB mics are a good entry point for beginners before upgrading to an XLR mic and interface. For paid gigs, use XLR.
So consider USB mics for hobbyists and XLR mics for pro recording quality. Let your needs and budget guide you between convenience and top-tier sound.
First Studio Mic Recommendations
Now that you know the different types of mics and their polar patterns, it’s time to offer some microphone recommendations based on specific recording situations.
The SM57 is a studio staple found in hit studios worldwide. As a durable, quality, dynamic mic, it can handle very loud guitar amps, drums, and more while capturing instruments with great detail.
It provides a tight cardioid pattern to isolate sound sources and reduce bleed. The SM57 excels on guitar amps and snare drums while also working well on vocals in less intense live settings.
Costing around $100, it’s affordable while providing pro-level performance that will take you far.
The SM7B is another outstanding dynamic cardioid mic from Shure, but it has a smoother, more full-bodied tone compared to the SM57.
It’s one of the best dynamic mics for vocals thanks to its warm tone and ability to tame plosives and sibilance. It also isolates the vocal from other instruments to minimize bleed.
With its clean yet robust sound and built-in pop filter, the SM7B allows you to capture professional studio vocals without breaking the bank.
Expect to spend around $350-400.
For an affordable large diaphragm condenser mic, the AT2020 delivers impressive quality and versatility.
With a crisp, neutral sound, smooth response across the frequency spectrum, and low noise, it captures acoustic guitars, pianos, and especially vocals (including rap/hip-hop) very nicely.
The cardioid pickup pattern minimizes bleed from other instruments. It provides a lot of value at around $100-150. It is considered one of the best budget mics for vocals.
I’d pair it with a pop filter and shock mount for best results.
The P420 is a flexible multi-pattern condenser that allows switching between cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure eight patterns.
This allows it to handle everything from percussion to acoustic instruments to vocals. It has a well-balanced tone comparable to more expensive condensers.
With a shock mount and windscreen included, the P420 gives you pro studio quality in one versatile, moderately priced package around $200-250.
SE Electronics SE2200
For more serious home recordists looking to invest in a condenser mic that could last a career, the SE2200 is an excellent choice.
The large diaphragm cardioid mic has an open, airy sound with silky highs and tight lows. It excels on acoustic guitar and vocals.
With its Class A discrete electronics, the SE2200 can be run through high-end preamps and converters without bottlenecking the signal. It’s a great long-term investment at around $300.
Those are my top microphone recommendations for home studios starting out. There are certainly many other great mics out there, but purchasing one of the models above will give you an extremely solid foundation that can grow with you over the years.
Pair your new mic with a decent audio interface, studio monitors, and mic accessories, learn your gear, experiment with placement, and, most importantly – start recording!
Creating your own studio is an incremental process. Be patient, focus on quality over quantity, and get to know each piece of gear intimately. And above all, have fun making music!
The technical details will come together in time. The most important thing is to get started recording your musical ideas. That creativity is what it’s all about.
Let me know if you have any other questions! I’m happy to offer guidance as you continue your home recording journey.
Now, get out there and make some great music!