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photo from seymorduncan.com
I’m often asked “what are the best microphones for recording”? Well, thats a little hard to answer in a quick response. I can answer that question by teaching you the types of microphones and their different uses in the studio and on stage.
The 3 most common are Dynamics, Condensers, and Ribbon microphones.
The first one, and type that you are probably already familiar with is a dynamic microphone.
The reason you know these types of microphones and didn’t realize is because these are mainly used for live sound. If you have ever been in a band or attended a live show then you have seen these on stage.
In the picture above is the trusty shure sm57. This guy is a beast for live sound and studio work.
Dynamic microphones are very durable and well suited for live sound. They can handle loud signals like snare drums, guitar amps and never blink an eye. They are also great for rock vocals.
They use a magnetized moving coil to capture sound waves, but it takes a loud signal to move the coils, so they can take a beating.
Most live sound vocal mics like an sm58 are also dynamics.
A lot of dynamic mics typically pick up the sound source that is right in front of them, and do a good job of rejecting sound from the sides, tops, bottoms, and backs, making them ideal for live sound and in studio for isolating the desired source.
This all depends on the mic pattern of each mic, so be aware of this when choosing a mic to use for isolating a sound source and reflecting others.
image from www.telefunken-elektroakustik.com
Since I just mentioned mics picking up and rejecting sounds depending on where you point them, here are a few typical mic patterns.
All 3 mic types in this article may be one or many of these mic patterns.
The blue outline in each picture above represents what areas the mic with that pattern will pic up.
Some will pick up sounds in every direction (Omni), some only in front (Cardioid), some in front and a little in back (Hypercardioid), and some in a figure 8 pattern (Bicardioid).
You can use mics with certain patterns to your advantage.
For example, if you only want to pick up what’s in front of the mic and not what’s in back of the mic, use cardioid.
This could be good in a home studio scenario where you wanted to reject sound coming in from a window while you sing into the mic.
Simply face the back of the mic towards the window, and sing into the other side where the mic will pick up your voice.
Think of these patterns as camera lenses or eyes. Depending on the shape of the pattern is what that mic can “See” or “hear”.
Mics are dumb! They have no brain, so you have to use yours and play around with positioning.
There are many different uses for each pattern, and I will cover this topic in another article.
The second is a Condenser Microphone
Unlike the dynamic mics, condensers use an electrically charged capsule which is far more sensitive than the rough and tough moving coil design of the dynamic mic.
But don’t let that fool you, these guys pack a punch in the recording studio.
Because it takes less to move these capsules, they tend to pick up more nuanced and detailed information of the sound source they are in front of.
Some describe it as picking up the top end or “AIR”.
These mics are typically only used in studio settings. Many people use these on vocals, acoustic guitars, drum overheads, but can be used on just about anything you can think of. It’s a Very versatile mic.
I’ve used the AT2020 in the pic above on drum overheads, vocals, and acoustics. All sounded great! $100 mic!
Some condensers can take a lot of SPL levels, but be careful not to overload them with too loud of a sound source. These are mainly used for recording sources where you need the delicacies and presence of the sound to shine through.
Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics
These types of microphones are usually the go to for recording vocals.
They can capture that “detail” of a vocal we all strive for.
Beware, the most expensive mic is not always the “best” mic for your vocalist.
Check out this mic shoot out I did with some pretty famous mics matched up against some $100 dollar mics.
Small Diaphragm Condensor Mics
photo by audio-technica.com
Small Diaphragm Condenser mics, or a “Pencil Microphone”, are great for high frequency instruments like acoustic guitar and cymbals.
They can also be used on vocals to capture some of that “air” we talked about.
Last but not Least…Ribbon mics.
I believe these are the most under utilized types of microphones when it comes to home studio owners. Most don’t own one. Including me for many years.
Ribbon mics use, well… a ribbon that vibrates when air pushes it.
These beauties tend to reproduce a much more flat (or dark), but musical response in the upper frequencies.
You can be left with a much smoother sounding recording on instruments with harsh high ends than if you recorded with a typical large diaphragm condenser mic.
I know ribbons are used as drum overheads a lot to tame the sometimes harshness of the cymbals. They can also be used on vocals to get that “vintage” sound. They do great with orchestral and string instruments as well.
Making the “right” choice.
So when deciding what are the best microphones for recording, having a little insight into the different types of microphones and how they are used is very helpful.
If you’re just getting started in a home studio, a large diaphragm condenser mic will get you pointed in the right direction.
More than likely you will need to mic a loud guitar amp, or snare drum, or maybe a loud screaming vocalist, which in these cases it’s good to have a dynamic mic. The trusty sm57 I mentioned above is a good starting point for these situations.
I believe Chris Cornell, lead singer of Sound Garden and Audioslave has used an sm57 on his vocals. Another $100 mic being used in all kinds of professional recordings!
If you need clarity, but your recordings are a bit too harsh, maybe invest in a ribbon mic. BUT BEFORE you spend more money, move your current mics around and work on mic position.
A lot of times, if you can’t get the sound you want, it’s probably bad mic positioning. So move the mic around, record a small take, and listen in each spot until you get the sound you desire.
I heard someone say that different mics are like different colors. All 3 types of microphones are like different colors that you can paint with and make your masterpiece.
One is not ”better” than the other, but each is different.
So I mentioned 2 $100 mics above to get you started, and I believe you can get a decent ribbon for the same or around the same price.
Like always, don’t get caught up in the hype of the most expensive microphones. A lot of GREAT recordings are being made on budget friendly mics.
Don’t focus on what are the best microphones for recording, but rather what is the right microphone for your recording.
I hope this helped you. Please comment below and share if you think someone else can benefit form this article. Thanks!
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