Take a look at any online music superstore, and what do you see?
Thousands upon thousands of microphones.
But do you really need that many for a simple home recording studio?
Of course not.
However, if you don’t at least know:
- the different types of mics,
- the instruments they record,
- the top brands in the industry…
How on Earth will you ever sort through the endless assortment of microphones you DON’T need…
To find the few you actually DO need?
The answer is…you won’t. And you’ll make some pretty dumb purchases, and waste a lot of time and money in the process.
So to spare you the headaches that so many of us newbies go through in the beginning…
I’ve compiled the following comprehensive guide which outlines everything beginners should know to choose the right microphones for their home studio.
Sound good? Then let’s begin.
The 2 “Umbrella” Categories
One of the first things we all learn…
Is that the two “umbrella” categories of studio microphones are:
95% of all the mics you will ever use…
Will fit into 1 of these 2 categories. That part’s simple.
The harder part is understanding the 8 KEY WAYS in which they compare.
So let’s cover them now. Starting with…
1. Frequency Response
The Beginner’s Rule of Thumb states:
Condenser mics work better on high frequency instruments…such as:
- acoustic guitar
And dynamic mics work better on low-mid frequency instruments…such as:
- electric guitar cabs
While the truth of the matter is far more complex, it’s a good rule to start with.
2. Diaphragm Size and Weight
The reason condenser mics work better with high frequencies is…
They use a smaller, lighter diaphragm to capture sound.
Since high frequencies contain LESS energy than low frequencies, they don’t have as much power to move mass.
That is why the heavier diaphragms of dynamic mics are far less responsive to them.
3. Internal Circuitry
The upside of a heavier diaphragm is…
The larger mass generates enough voltage through movement, to eliminate the need for an external power source. That is why dynamic mics are known as “passive“.
Condenser mics however, which are “active“, require “phantom power” to amplify the weaker voltage.
But this is by no means a disadvantage.
With phantom power, condenser mics can achieve higher gain, and record softer sounds.
4. Diaphragm Durability
Unfortunately, the lighter diaphragms in condenser mics are also more fragile.
At higher Sound Pressure Levels (SPL), they can potentially be damaged.
That is why the stronger diaphragms of dynamic mics are better for louder instruments like drums.
5. General Durability
Not only are their diaphragms stronger…the overall design of dynamic mics is stronger as well.
Drop a dynamic mic on the ground, and it will likely survive. Drop a condenser mic on the ground, and your chances aren’t nearly as good.
That’s one reason dynamic mics are great on-stage.
6. Resistance to Moisture
Another reason dynamic mics are great on-stage is…
They’re highly resistant to environmental changes such as humidity.
Condenser mics however, can suffer performance problems under extreme humidity changes.
7. Gain before Feedback
A third reason dynamic mics are great on-stage is…
They allow for higher gain before feedback.
In live environments, where many microphones record many sounds in close proximity….feedback is a common problem.
But since dynamic mics are generally “less-sensitive” than condenser mics, they’re also better at resisting feedback.
8. Price Tag
When comparing the best dynamic mics to the best condenser mics…
- Dynamic mics max out at a mere $400-$500 a piece. However…
- Condenser mics can cost as much as $5-10 grand EACH.
While that might seem terrifying to some…
Don’t worry, because there are plenty of affordable options as well for budget studios.
Which is Better for Studio Recording?
Many beginners INCORRECTLY conclude that condenser mics are somehow “better” than dynamic mics for studio recording.
And from what we’ve covered so far, it’s not hard to see why.
But the truth is…NEITHER mic is better overall…and NO mic on the planet is good for EVERYTHING.
That is why, more than just these two umbrella categories….
Recording studios use a WIDE range of mics, each one tailored for specific tasks.
In this next section, we’ll cover each of them in more detail…
The 9 Sub-categories of Mics
Here are the 9 sub-categories of microphones you should know:
- Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics
- Small Diaphragm Condenser Mics
- Dynamic Mics
- Bass Mics
- Ribbon Mics
- Multi-Pattern Mics
- USB Mics
- Boundary Mics
- Shotgun Mics
Now here’s a little more on each one. Starting with…
1. Large Diaphragm Condenser Mics
You’ve seen them countless times in movies and television.
You know that cliche scenario?…
With the young beautiful pop star recording her debut album in the studio?
Well the microphone you see is ALWAYS a large diaphragm condenser.
Because not only does it look great on camera…It’s also the standard mic for recording vocals.
And since it sounds great on many other instruments as well…
It’s usually the first microphone on a new studio’s shopping list.
In this post I show you which ones I recommend:
2. Small Diaphragm Condenser Mics
Also commonly known as a “pencil microphone“…
The small diaphragm condenser mic specializes in recording instruments rich in high frequency detail, such as cymbals and acoustic guitar.
Just as large diaphragm condensers use smaller diaphragms than dynamic mics…
Small diaphragm condensers use diaphragms that are even smaller.
The result is a microphone that is the best in the world at capturing that beautiful high-end shimmer.
In home studios, they’re perfect for singer/songwriters.
If you sing and play acoustic guitar, a pair of small diaphragm condensers provides the perfect companion for your vocal mic.
Here are the ones I recommend:
3. Dynamic “Utility” Mics
While dynamic utility mics is not an “official” category of microphones…
For this article, let’s pretend it is.
Because among the many dynamic mics which specialize in one specific task…
There are a select few, recognized as “the classics“, which are SO versatile, they work on almost anything.
For example, they’re among the industry standards for recording:
- electric guitar
- rock vocals
That is why…pro studios typically carry a dozen or more of these mics in their locker.
For home studios, any one of them would be a great addition to a modest mic collection.
Here are the ones I recommend:
4. Bass Mics
While your average dynamic mic does okay on bass instruments…
To capture that REALLY low end…
Most engineers prefer a specific kind of mic designed for just that purpose.
Commonly known as either a bass mic, or kick drum mic…
These mics feature a unique frequency response characterized by:
- a low end boost
- a small scoop in the mids
- and a presence boost around 4k
On kick drums, they capture both the low end thump, as well as the attack of the beater.
They also work well on bass cabinets, and just about any other low frequency instrument imaginable.
In a home studio, it’s always smart to keep at least one around, for obvious reasons.
Here are the ones I recommend:
5. Multi-Pattern Mics
Normally seen in the form of a large diaphragm condenser…
Multi-pattern mics feature a unique dual-capsule design…
Which allows you to switch between the 3 common polar patterns:
This makes them highly versatile tools, especially for stereo recording.
While NOT a high priority for beginners…
The sooner you get familiar with multi-pattern mics, microphone polar patterns, and stereo recording, the quicker your recordings will improve.
Once that happens…
You’ll make frequent use of this next mic as well:
6. Ribbon Mics
Of all the microphones on this list, ribbon mics are the ONLY ones that are neither dynamic nor condenser.
They get their OWN special category because:
Rather than using a diaphragm, they use a thin aluminum ribbon to capture sound.
Other notable features of these mics include:
- Durability comparable to dynamic mics
- High-frequency sensitivity comparable to condenser mics
- A standard figure-8 polar pattern
While highly-prized by professionals for their unique sound…their high cost makes them rare in home studios.
But if you’d like to try one, check out this post:
7. USB Mics
But with the recent rise of bedroom studios, and podcasting…
USB mics are NOW more popular than ever.
Compared to standard mics which require preamps, interfaces, etc…
USB mics plug straight into your laptop, no other gear required. And some even work with tablets!
This ease-of-use makes them ideal for anyone looking to dabble in home recording…without investing in a “real” studio.
Here are the ones I recommend:
8. Boundary Mics
You rarely see them used in home studios…
And some studio owners have never even heard of them.
But to many professionals, boundary mics (aka PZM mics) are essential tools in their recording arsenal.
Here’s how they work:
Rather than using a mic stand, boundary mics mount against a flat surface in the room, such as the floor or wall.
While other mics suffer from comb filtering, (when direct and reflected sound combines out-of-phase)…
Boundary mics are immune…because up against a wall, the two automatically align.
Outside the studio, they’re used in:
- Conference rooms – by laying it on the table
- Theatre performances – by laying it on the stage
Inside the studio, they’re used as:
- Room mics – by mounting it on the wall
- Kick drum mics – by laying it within the shell
Once you already own a solid mic collection, I highly recommend you check one out.
Last on the list…
9. Shotgun Mics
While not commonly used in the recording studio…
Shotguns mics are seen so often in movies and tv, people often wonder what they’re for.
Normally used for outdoor tasks such as news reporting and wildlife documentation…
These mics are known for their unique ability to isolate sound.
They do so, using a design known as an interference tube, which features a series of slots designed to reject off-axis noise. The longer the tube, the narrower the pickup angle.
Using these mics, you can record further from the sound source, in much noisier environments.
And while advanced sound engineers might use them in the studio occasionally, most of us never will.
But at least now, you know what they are.
Microphones by PURPOSE
Now that we’ve covered the 9 TYPES of studio microphones…
Let’s examine things from a different angle, and order them by PURPOSE, to see which mics work best on which instruments.
First up, the most popular musical “instrument” in all of human history…
Whenever someone starts a new home recording studio…
The first question they always ask about microphones is…
What’s the best mic for recording vocals?
Which of course is no surprise. The only problem is…
No there’s no single answer to this question which is right for everyone.
And so…to find the right answer for YOU, check out the following post:
2. Acoustic Guitar
The next most common instrument recorded in home studios is of course…
The acoustic guitar.
Because…combined with vocals, this one instrument alone can occupy the role of an entire back-up band.
Which is quite handy in a studio with limited resources.
This benefit comes at a cost, because the acoustic guitar is also one of the most complex sound sources you can record.
Fortunately though, the first step is pretty simple:
Start with the right mics.
To find out more about which ones I recommend, check out this post:
3. Electric Guitar
With most musical instruments…
What you’ll notice is that the top recommended mics for that instrument tend to fall into the same “category”.
However…not so with electric guitars.
Because when you look at the top microphones ever for recording this instrument…
You’ll see…some dynamic mics, some condenser mics, and some ribbon mics.
Of course we’re not talking about just any old mics. Because they all fall within a very exclusive list of long-time classics.
To find out what they are, check out this post:
More than any other instrument…
Acoustic drums are by far the most complex instrument to record…
Especially in a typical home studio where resources are limited.
Which is why in most cases, home studio engineers will instead opt for an easier, yet less-ideal solution…
Such as virtual instrument drums or electronic drums.
However, if you want to record acoustic drums at home, it can be done. And it all starts with getting the right selection of mics for the various parts of the kit.
To find out which ones I recommend, check out this post:
5. Bass/Kick Drums
As we covered earlier in this post…
There is one category of mics that is dedicated solely to “low-frequency” instruments.
Commonly known as “kick drum mics”, they can be used not only on the kick drum, but also on bass cabinets, and most other bass-heavy instruments.
While the list of microphones in this category is quite short…
The good news is: they’re all pretty cheap, and they’re all capable of professional results.
To see what they are, check out this post:
Microphones by BRAND
For the final section of this post, let’s take a moment to discuss BRANDS.
The deeper you get into the world of audio recording, the more apparent it becomes that virtually ALL of the top microphones come from a small group of 6-7 big brands.
Specifically, these here, in no particular order:
Click any of the above links, and what you’ll find is a list of the top microphones from each company.
Go through each of these articles and by the end, you will know 95% of the top microphones in the recording industry.
And your chances of making a stupid purchase will be next to none. 🙂