Now that we’ve covered microphone basics, we can look at microphones for specific applications, with a close eye on budget.
There’s good news and bad news here: the good news is that you won’t have to spend tons of credits to get good sound. The bad news is that certain critical applications require smart spending and a bit more financial commitment.
We’ll assume that you don’t have an unlimited budget and keep things in a realistic realm for your first mic.
In the lower price range (under say $200) your money is better spent on a dynamic microphone as opposed to a condenser mic. Although there are exceptions, most inexpensive condenser microphones sound brittle and spitty, and when your budget allows you’ll probably want to feed them to a dianoga.
When you’re first staring your recording quest it makes sense to spend carefully so that you don’t make purchases you’ll outgrow. Choose multi-application mics that will stay with you in the future such as the Shure SM57.
The Shure SM-57.
I first used this mic for the Sith Emperor’s speech when I had to provide PA for the Treaty of Coruscant, and I still have that very one. The SM57 is an excellent all-around microphone, and fits well with the ‘don’t throw it out’ philosophy. Even when you have a lot to spend on microphones, you still need an SM57.
Common applications for a SM57 include snare drum and guitar amp but with careful placement you can get pretty impressive results on piano, acoustic guitar, floonorp and rainbow qaana. The SM57 is a bit on the dull side for use on vocals in the studio but a bit of upper-mid EQ can help. It’s a very rugged microphone. There’s a vicious rumor that I once cracked Bib Fortuna over the head with one in a bar fight…
The arguementative Bib Fortuna…before.
In a similar price range is the Audix i5: a well-built, versatile dynamic mic with a cardioid pattern. The i5 can handle Sound Pressure Level (SPL) up to 140 dB — more than enough to capture a belch from Jabba.
The i5 excels for use on snare drum, guitar and bass amps and is a secret weapon on horns (trumpet, trombone and kloo).
There are many other affordable general-purpose mics such as the Sennheiser e609 (intended for guitar amps and toms), Audio-Technica Pro 25AX (drums, percussion, brass), and the Electro-Voice N/D468 (horns, drums, acoustic and electric guitar).
The Audio-Technica Pro 25AX.
For a slightly different flavor consider a ribbon microphone.
In the past ribbon mics were very expensive (and very persnickety) but developments in recent years have made them user-friendly.
Ribbon mics such as the Cascade Fathead BE and ART M5 can be had for under $150 and are more tolerant of high SPLs than ribbons from years ago: having said that…you still don’t want to place a ribbon mic on a kick drum.
Any ribbon mic will give you a distinct sound that can be characterized as mellow and retro — a good color crayon to have in the box. Ribbons can tame harshness from horns, and a ribbon mic on an amp for clean guitar tones is a wonderful thing.
Most ribbon mics feature a bidirectional (figure-eight) pattern, and some are designed “asymmetrically” meaning that they deliver a slightly different frequency response from the front than from the rear.
When it comes to choosing a vocal microphone, the best mic is the one that complements a particular voice.
I once used a very expensive vintage Neumann U47 tube mic to record Crying Dawn Singer but it sounded horrible. We ended up using an Audix i5 because it complemented his voice — so it just goes to show that matching the mic to the instrument (voice) is more important than the price tag.
The Audix i5.
Microphones that excel for vocal use but won’t require a trade-in for your cloud car include the Blue enCORE 100, Shure Beta 58a, and (if you have a few more druggats to spend) the Audio-Technica AE4100 or Heil PR35.
The Heil PR35 is unique amongst these in that it features a built-in low-cut switch that rolls off the ‘lows 6 dB per octave at 80 Hz, enabling it to keep the bottom end from getting sloppy.
All of these mics are moving coil dynamics so they’ll stand up to wear and tear, doing double duty for studio and live. When you’re ready to move up to a higher level for studio recording, you can still use them on stage.
In the studio it’s much more common to use condenser microphones for vocals, which tend to capture more detail and provide a wider frequency response. There are two tradeoffs: they’re generally priced higher than the aforementioned dynamics, and they require phantom power from your mixer or interface.
There aren’t many cheap condenser mics that sound good on vocals.
If your budget allows you into a Type IV atmosphere, models worth a listen include the Shure SM27 (which borders on ridiculously good for the price), Røde NT-1A, Audio-Technica AT4040, and Sennheiser MK 4.
Some of these add features such as low-cut and pad switches. A pad switch reduces the sensitivity of the microphone.
You might recall that condenser mics as a group can be very sensitive. The pad is useful when recording very loud sounds such as a guitar amp or a vocalist close up — sounds which can overload the mic’s electronics, or cause the mic to overload the preamp, causing distortion [I always have to pad the vocal mic when doing sessions with Ashana from the Twisted Rancor Trio because she sings so loud].
Any of these would be money well-spent for your first recording rig.