The year was 1984, and the music airwaves were soaked in synth-driven sounds. Tina Turner was asking what’s love got to do with it, Stevie Wonder was calling to say I love you, Steve Perry went solo, Madonna was still a virgin, and Van Halen was jumping. One of my old grammar school teachers got me an intern position in a recording studio cleaning toilets, rolling cable, and getting coffee. A fantastic gig for a high schooler.
Still, there was always the outside chance of gaining access to the recording console. My daydreams included being called into the studio and subbing for the engineer. I’d tweak the board, save the mix, win a Grammy, and my career would skyrocket. Instead, I was asked to set up some mics, clean messes, and run to the store.
On my first day, my boss told me about the mic models and that I should commit them to memory. A few days later, I was asked to go into the supply room and report which models of small-capsule condensers we had.
I went to the supply room and prayed that these things were labeled—they were not. Then I heard, “What’s taking the kid so long?” The producer (my boss) was shouting from the control room. I came back empty-handed, which only got me some dirty looks. But, when I asked him to repeat the mics that he needed, his language became colorful.
“You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.” That was the last thing he said before handing me the broom and telling me to clean up any room far away from him.
I share that story to let you know that I was incredibly overwhelmed by the many shapes and sizes of microphones. But that experience helped me learn the ins and outs of microphones and the many differences from one mic to the next.
When it comes time to decide what mics are necessary for your home studio, you want to understand the differences in how they sound, look, and cost. And, more importantly, which ones do you need.
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know to make you the go-to microphone expert amongst your musician friends and help you outfit your home studio with a few bucks left over for pizza.
Bottom Line Up Front
If you don’t want to bother with the details, then here are the 3 basic mic types that you need to know about:
- Small Capsule
- Large Capsule
I put together a chart that covers each mic type below at various prices from low to high, and at the end of this article, I’ll suggest the models you need for your home studio. You won’t have to get these all at once, but you should know the best uses for each mic type.
|Mic Type||Dynamic||Small Capsule||Large Capsule||Ribbon|
|Cost||Cheap (these are not expensive to make)||Moderate (can be expensive); the components are small and complex||Can be cheap, but tube and multi-pattern can cost more||Moderate to High, but not as expensive as you might think|
|Build||Mechanical design, low handling noise, can handle high SPL (sound pressure level)||Sensitive to vibration and handling noise||Sensitive to vibration, diaphragm is sensitive to humidity||Delicate ribbon; sensitive to wind, plosives, and sibilance; some use heavy magnets|
|Pickup Pattern||Cardioid, hyper-cardioid||Omni, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, figure-8||Caridoid or multi-pattern||Figure-8 and cardioid|
|Sound||Upfront sound and can lack high frequency accuracy||Transparent and sensitive, good high frequency response||Less transparent than small capsules||Smooth response with high-frequency trail off|
|Best For||Live vocals, guitar and bass amps, most drums||Quiet and ambient sound sources; strings and piano; stereo miking||Studio vocals, guitar amps, drum overheads, featured instruments (sax, violin, etc.)||Narration, voiceover, studio vocals; guitar amps; complex high frequencies|
|Sucks For||Quiet sound sources, accurate high frequencies||Remote and field recording uses (requires phantom power)||Damp and windy environments, small or cramped spaces||Complex, windy, or uncontrolled environments|
|SE Electronics Voodoo VR1
Microphones are precision tools and are often quite delicate. So, before you drop cold, hard cash on these complex instruments, you’ll be better informed on what to buy after doing some due diligence.
Learning the different types of mics and how they sound and behave is a great starting point. Also, understanding how they work will go a long way toward making a well-informed buying choice.
After all, the goal is to create the best-sounding recordings in your home studio that you can. Plus, your musician friends will be amazed by your guru-like knowledge, and you’ll save a few extra bucks in your wallet.
There are two basic categories when it comes to mics.
- Dynamic: come in two types,
- Moving Coil: Extremely rugged.
- Ribbon: Extremely fragile.
- Condenser: Need a power source to work, e.g., a 48-volt phantom power source or a separate power supply. And condensers also come in two types.
- Small Capsule
- Large Capsule
The way that a microphone interprets (or ‘hears’) the sound source is called the polar (or pickup) pattern. There are three types:
- Cardioid: Picks up sounds arriving from the front. There are more-focused variations to the cardioid pickup pattern.
- Supercardioid: Focuses the pickup angle to around 115 degrees.
- Hypercardioid: Focuses the pickup angle to about 105 degrees.
- Figure-8: Picks up sound equally from the front and the back.
- Omnidirectional: Picks up sound from all directions equally.
Some microphones will offer an option of multiple patterns that you can choose from. And there are other pattern options as well, and we’ll explore those in a moment.
You’ll often hear terms like bright sounding (think single-coil pickups) and dark sounding (humbuckers with the tone rolled off). Microphones will reflect these types of sound characteristics. Here are some examples:
- Midrange-focused mics are good for speech, voiceovers, narration, and vocals.
- Dark-sounding mics will work well for bass amps and specific drums.
This is all due to the microphone’s frequency response. Again, as a guitar player, I like to use guitar-centric metaphors. You can think of different microphone makes and models like guitar pickups (single coils, humbuckers, P90s, etc.) and their tonal characteristics.
A Closer Look at Microphone Types
I’ve mentioned these in the previous sections, but it is time to take a closer look at each microphone type.
When people think of microphones, the dynamic mic is the one that probably comes to mind. It’s a popular hand-held style that most singers use for live performances.
How It Works
This microphone uses a moving coil and works on the principle of electromagnetic induction. I cover this topic in my article, The Complete Guide to Hot Rodding Your Electric Guitar Pickups. Here’s the short version.
A small induction coil is attached to a moving diaphragm, and the entire mechanism sits in the magnetic field of a fixed magnet. The same way a guitar pickup works. Don’t worry. We’re not going too deep here.
- Sound waves cause the diaphragm to move.
- This movement creates (or induces) a current in the coil.
- The current is then extracted as an audio signal.
Due to the simplicity of this concept, manufacturing robust mics is relatively easy.
But not everything is perfect in the land of dynamic mics. This design can compromise the frequency response accuracy, and dynamic mics work better in loud environments or upfront sound sources.
Condenser (sometimes called capacitor) microphones have certainly benefited from technological advances. Traditionally, they are more complex and costly than their dynamic counterparts. But, the availability of good-quality, affordable models have made the condenser the most popular mic type.
How It Works
This microphone uses a flexible capsule diaphragm and a rigid backplate to make a parallel-plate capacitor.
- Sound waves cause the flexible capsule diaphragm and backplate to move.
- This movement changes the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate, which produces changing capacitance and voltage.
- The changing capacitance and voltage are then extracted as an audio signal.
For this to work correctly, the plates must retain a consistent charge. This is why many mic preamps provide a 48-volt phantom power charge that travels through the mic cable. Tube condenser mics rely on a dedicated power supply that powers the tube and the plate charge.
Condenser mics come in many shapes and sizes, from tiny lapels to large capsule vocal mics. They provide a more accurate frequency response than dynamic mics. The careful combination of capsule, body, and grill design changes the frequency response and polar pattern from model to model.
But, before declaring this the perfect mic, condensers are susceptible to wind noise and vibration.
Ribbon mics use the same moving coil concept that dynamic mics use. But, instead of a moving coil attached to a diaphragm, a thin conductive metal ribbon sits inside the magnet.
This ribbon needs to be light, so the mechanism is quite delicate. Modern advances have replaced traditional magnets with smaller, more lightweight neodymium magnets making the microphones less bulky.
The downside to these mics is that they can be very delicate and challenging to use in certain environments.
Ed Story: I was recording a singer/songwriter/guitarist, and his vocal performance was so intertwined with his guitar playing that we had to record everything at once. This meant no overdubs. I placed a ribbon mic for his vocal, a large capsule condenser for his guitar, and two small capsule condensers for the room.
As we listened back to the recording, I heard a barely audible rhythmic click-click-click. It was drowned out by the guitar playing and vocals. But, when it was silent, I couldn’t help but hear the rhythmic clicking. So now, I listened for the rhythmic clicking every time there was silence.
During one of the subsequent takes, he leaned forward to relax, and the clicking got louder. I asked him, over the headphones, “Can you hear that click?” At first, he said no, but then he pushed his chest in front of the ribbon mic, and the click got louder. I was so excited that we discovered the source of the rhythmic clicking.
It turned out that the artist had a prosthetic aortic valve—he’d had open-heart surgery. The clicking was the opening and closing of the valve.
Tube vs. Solid State
Tube microphones also benefit from technological advances, making them accessible to the home studio producer. The tube-based circuit provides beautiful color and warmth to the sound, especially at higher volumes.
I’m gonna get a little techy… Tube-based circuits, from amps to pedals to microphones, share the same “smooth and warm” characteristics due to second harmonic distortion. Transistor circuits provide third harmonic distortion, which is harsher sounding. This is a vast topic that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, even harmonic distortion is warmer and smoother, and odd harmonic distortion is harsher.
The drawback of tube microphones is that they need a dedicated power supply which makes them cumbersome. Also, the body houses a small tube that is delicate, breakable, and can be challenging to maintain—as tube amp owners can attest.
More on Polar Patterns and Microphone Design
The three patterns mentioned above (cardioid, figure-8, and omnidirectional) are the main types of polar patterns. But you may come across some options that fall somewhere in between. And some advanced microphones offer a selection of patterns.
I’ve even experienced an engineer using a microphone with a variable controller. This controller provided patterns from omnidirectional to figure-8 to all points in between. I can’t remember the make or model of it—it seemed unimportant until now.
The physical mic design effects the pattern, for example:
- Produces a figure-8 polar pattern because the sound hits both sides of the ribbon.
- The mic capsule is sealed apart from the diaphragm side in a pressure-only design, producing an omnidirectional pattern.
- Open up access to the back of the capsule, and the sound waves will hit both sides. This is called a pressure-gradient design and creates more of a cardioid pattern.
- If two capsules are lined up back-to-back, you can electronically combine their outputs to create a variety of more-complex pickup patterns.
One of the problems with polar patterns is inconsistent frequency response. This is due to more techy issues, but I’m sure you’ll follow me here.
A cardioid mic is designed to pick up the sound source from the front. Mid frequencies can bounce off the back (some can be rejected), while low frequencies can be picked up from all around.
Why did I tell you this? To explain why you should avoid buying cheap mics.
This is the new breed of microphones that are a simple ‘plug-and-play’ alternative, especially for computer-based musicians. These mics include the microphone, analog-to-digital converter, and power, all in one neat little package that plugs conveniently into the USB port on your computer.
I have minimal experience with these types of mics. However, I have musician friends that swear by these as they tick the following boxes: affordability, reliability, convenience, and user friendly. As for the sound quality, as I said before, I don’t have enough experience with them.
Nonetheless, the computer-based musician audience is probably the fastest-growing demographic, and USB mics offer a viable solution worth mentioning.
My 6 Must-Have Home Studio Mics
I didn’t purchase mics for my home studio until much later in my musical journey than many of you. Home studios were only for the wealthy when I was a teen and even well into my early 30s. Even then, hard disk recording was quite expensive.
However, I benefited from professional experience and a wealth of knowledge before purchasing my first studio microphones. And that was about 20 years ago, and I’m still using the same mics. So it’s safe to say that I made wise choices back then.
The first two microphones are really the must-haves to get started. But if you’re thinking of producing quality recording projects, check out all six. I continue to use them for professional work.
2 Dynamic Mics
The Shure SM57 and SM58 are the industry standard for a reason. They pack a powerful one-two punch, and you can also use them for live applications.
2 Small Capsule Condensers
The reason that I say two is for you to consider a matched pair of microphones. You can use these for a room, drum overheads, choirs and choral groups, backup vocals, main vocals, acoustic instruments, etc. My favorites are the AKG C1000s, but I also use Studio Performance C4s.
2 Large Capsule Condensers
Again, this is a matched pair for stereo use, but I also use these separately. I use these the same way I use the small capsule AKG C1000s. My favorites are the AKG C214s and the C414s (I don’t own these, but I use them quite often).
The difference is that I use these when I need a better quality sound, and I have a controlled enough environment as they are pretty sensitive and pick up the neighbors and street noise easily.
Question: What microphone is best for home recording?
Answer: The Shure SM57 and SM58 dynamic mics are great all-purpose mics. These mics will also work well in live situations. But if you want to add small capsule condensers, I use AKG C1000s.
Question: What kind of microphone do I need to record a room?
Answer: If you’re working within a budget, you can use some microphones for double duty. I’ll use the AKG C1000s as utility mics. But if you’re looking for a specific mic for room recording, I suggest Studio Projects C-4 Small-diaphragm Condenser Microphone – Stereo Pair. These also work well as drum overheads, acoustic guitars, and pianos.
Question: How do I set up mics for a room for live recording?
Answer: You need to use two or more mics for ambient miking. Then you mix and add to your live stream. These microphones pick up sound reflections and audience noise to create a “live” feel for the listener—the goal is to make them feel like they are actually there.
Any microphone will do the job, but small-diaphragm condensers set to a cardioid pattern work best.
Question: What Gear Do I Need to Build My Home Studio?
Answer: My article, Building Your First Home Recording Studio, answers this more in-depth. For now, here’s a short list:
• Sound Source
• Audio Interface
• Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
• Studio Monitors
It’s been a long time since those early days of sweeping the recording studio, rolling cables, running to the delicatessen for coffee and snacks, cleaning toilets, and taking out the trash. But the studio environment and recording culture lessons I learned couldn’t be taught anywhere else. I needed to experience it.
At first, I was overwhelmed by the different types of microphones, polar patterns, phantom power, etc. All terms that I didn’t know or understand. I needed to pay my dues.
This article was very nostalgic as it reminded me of when I was just another guitar player in a mediocre band. But I was learning about the culture in a pre-internet world and learning more about music from an entirely different perspective.
I hope this article provides you with a solid foundation for microphone knowledge. I also hope it helps you make better-informed buying decisions and confidence in your gear acquisitions.
As you learn about microphones for personal use or to help others capture their ideas, remember that you’re more than just a music producer, recording artist, and/or performer. You’re helping others experience their dreams (even if it’s just for a moment) as you experience yours.
Thanks for reading. I wish you the best of luck.
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