One of the most common questions I get when talking with musicians,
friends and home recording enthusiasts involves selecting the best
microphone. The question usually goes something like this:
What’s the best microphone for vocals? …Guitars? …Drums? etc…
The insinuation here is that there is a single magical microphone out
there that is somehow going to be the difference between someone liking
your song or not. Being a professional recording engineer for the last
25 years I can truly appreciate the intention of capturing a performance
in its best light. However, this raises questions about what is “best”?
Who decides what is best? And can that definition be watered down to
something as simple as frequencies?
When selecting a microphone to record an instrument or vocalist, I
always look for the mic that best suits the sound we are trying to
capture for that performance. To make my point abundantly clear…
THERE IS NO ONE MIC OR SOUND THAT SUITS EVERY ARTIST AND EVERY SONG !!!
Sorry for yelling, but understanding this point is critical to
finding the right microphone. To help lead you in the right direction,
I’d like to lend a bit of advice and guidance with my Top 5 Tips for
Selecting A Microphone. I think the best way to start is with a quick
primer on microphones
Tip 1: Learn the Basics
There are basically 4 types of microphones that are currently being used in the recording world.
There are many other designs including piezoelectric, electret
condenser and carbon to name a few, but they are less frequently used in
recording situations than the 4 listed above. With that in mind, let’s
take a closer look at each:
1. The Dynamic Mic: A Dynamic mic is basically a
small speaker designed to vibrate with air pressure fluctuations.
Dynamic mikes are very durable, can handle high sound pressure levels
and are relatively insensitive to the environment. Although dynamic
mikes are generally less sensitive to high frequencies they play a very
important role in the recording studio and serve well for close miking
situations with drums, percussion and guitar/bass amps. When used with
vocals they can add warmth and a dry presence to a voice.
2. The Condenser Mic: Condenser mikes have a more
sophisticated design that frees the diaphragm from a coil as used in a
dynamic mic. The benefit is a heightened sensitivity to high frequencies
that gives it a presence sometimes lacking in dynamic mikes. Condenser
microphones are also the mainstay of any recording studio and can be
used well with most instruments. They are usually broken down into 2
categories, small and large diaphragm.
Small diaphragm condenser mikes are less sensitive to low frequencies
and work well in situations where you want to limit low frequency
boomy-ness like an acoustic guitar. When padded they can also work well
to give your snare drum extra snap and are great for recording cymbals
and percussion. Large diaphragm condenser mikes are more sensitive to
lower frequencies and serve well when a full frequency sound is desired.
For vocals they are typically used at a very close distance (1-6
inches) For most other instruments, a medium distance (1-4 feet) from
the sound source is required to prevent overload, unless the mic has a
Condenser mikes require external power (usually 48v) typically
provided by the mic preamp. They are very sensitive to the quality of
the power source and do not work well with interfaces that run on USB
3. The Tube Mic: A tube mic is essentially a
condenser mic with a tube amplification stage. All tube mikes require an
external power source which is a separate box provided by the
manufacturer and plugged into your wall socket. Tube mikes use unique
XLR pin configurations to make sure there is only one way (the correct
way!) to connect the mic to the power supply. Tube mikes are very
sensitive to the environment and can be quite noisy. They typically need
to be turned on an hour before recording so that the tube is in a
stable saturation state.
Tube mikes are known for their deep low end warmth and a high end
sizzle that make them a perfect match for recording vocals. They
generally do not perform well at high sound pressure levels and are
often used at a distance when recording loud instruments like drums.
Because of all the extra power supplies, cables and design issues, a
tube mic is going to cost quite a bit more than a condenser mic will.
Avoid cheap tube mikes, they will be more of a headache than what they
4. Ribbon: The ribbon mic is the most sensitive and
unique sounding of all mikes used in the studio. A good ribbon mic will
give you unparalleled detail. Up until recently, this detail had come
with the issue of added sensitivity to the environment, and additional
noise. Ribbon mikes are best used with a dedicated preamp specifically
designed for use with ribbons.
Modern ribbon mikes are much more rugged than the vintage ones and
are not susceptible to being blown up by an accidental supply of 48v
(phantom power) designed for use with condenser mikes. Traditionally
ribbon mikes were always used at a distance from the sound source due to
their delicate design. Modern ribbon mikes can handle the higher sound
pressure levels and are amazing on guitar amps.
Some Bonus Mic Terminology:
Diaphragm: This is the part of the mic that captures the changes in air pressure, AKA sound.
Polar Pattern: The direction that a microphone will
best receive signals from. This ranges from being most sensitive
directly in front (Cardiod) to being sensitive from all directions
(Omni). The figure 8 pattern is most sensitive from and back but rejects
signals from the side.
Pad: A pad is an attenuation used to help prevent sensitive mikes from distorting when subjected to loud sound sources.
Phantom Power: A power feed (typically 48v) from mic
preamp designed for condenser mikes to power the amplification
electronics that allow it to pass audio.
I hope you have found this mic primer tip helpful. In the next tip I
will discus how musical style plays an important role in the mikes that
For more tips on music production and engineering, please visit my website, music-production-guide.net. To browse from a list of microphones I have personally helped to select, please visit musicmachineshop.com.
To see the other 4 tips for choosing a home studio microphone go here-
Top 5 Tips for Selecting A Microphone Tip#1
Top 5 Tips for Selecting A Microphone Tip#2
Top 5 Tips for Selecting A Microphone Tip#3
Top 5 Tips for Selecting A Microphone Tip#4
Top 5 Tips for Selecting A Microphone Tip#5
Editor’s Note: Jim here. Please welcome
Michael White to our blog. Mike has graciously agreed to guest post
occasionally and I’m sure you’ll find his posts truly informative. Mike
has real world experience in the recorded music industry everything from
engineering to production to the teaching of the art of audio
recording. I’m excited to have him on board! Be sure to read more about
Mike at music-production-guide.com.