Studio Basics for Beginners Pt. 1: Choosing Your First Microphone

Studio Basics for Beginners Pt. 1: Choosing Your First Microphone

Need help choosing your first microphone?

The world of professional audio recording has been changing incredibly quickly over the last two decades. In the early days of recording, it was a very expensive process that included a lot of specialty gear, which needed a professional operator with a lifetime of experience to set it up and use it.

Today, basic recording gear is extremely easy to come by and only a few basic items are required. Anybody who has access to a laptop or personal computer can obtain cheap or free audio recording and editing software. A microphone and recording interface are also necessary, which is why choosing your first affordable microphone is very important. Most modern companies carry a fairly wide selection of price and quality, with the higher quality products generally priced higher. On top of that, there are many brands with their own entry level products for sale. So what should you buy and why?

First, you will need to decide on the type of microphone. There are a few types of microphones available, and each has its own strengths and drawbacks. We are going to talk about three types of microphones in the entry-level price bracket.

Dynamic

We’ll talk a little about the most commonly used microphone type. The dynamic microphone is a durable workhorse that can withstand abuse and can capture most sources with great accuracy. They reject bleed and off-axis noise and can handle high SPL levels, making them ideal for drums and guitar cabinets. A dynamic microphone consists of a diaphragm connected to a movable induction coil suspended in a magnetic field.

Microphones such as the Shure SM58, SM57, SM7B, and the Electro-Voice RE20 are classic dynamic microphones and have been used on rock vocals (SM58 and SM7B), guitar cabinets, snare, toms, even kick drums (SM57), and bass cabinets (RE20 & SM57) on countless records. These kinds are affordable, durable, and useful enough that every studio should have at least one or two in their arsenal.

Here are PlayMT’s favorite entry-level dynamic microphones:

Shure SM58 – A Classic vocal mic, the most commonly used live vocal mic ($99 new)

Shure SM57 – A Classic instrument mic. Very commonly used on guitar cabs, snare,  and other loud sources ($99 new)

Electro-Voice RE20 – A very popular broadcaster/podcasting mic. Commonly used on bass cabinets, kick drums, or other bass heavy sources. ($399 new)

Shure SM7B – A popular vocal mic for rock and metal. Great for loud singers. An upgrade to the SM58, can be used on snare or cabinets. Also popular as a broadcast/podcasting microphone. ($399 new)

Condenser

Condenser microphones work by using a capacitor (condenser) instead of a moving coil and magnet to transform the vibrations at the diaphragm into electrical current. Since capacitors need power, this means condenser mics need power to work. Luckily, most preamplifiers made today have 48v “Phantom Power” built in, which will provide power to condenser mics when engaged. Interestingly enough, Condenser mics are more sensitive to low level sources and output a higher level, which makes them perfect for very quiet or dynamic sources. Because they are powered, there is sometimes a switchable pickup pattern for greater versatility.

There are two types of condenser microphones, Large Diaphragm Condensers (LDC), and Small Diaphragm Condensers (SDC). LDCs are the classic looking studio vocal microphone. They are effective on a wide range of sources, as long as they do not contain extremely high SPLs. Small diaphragm condensers are smaller (sometimes called pencil condensers), but very useful for sources like acoustic guitar, overheads, spot mics, and classical instruments. They pair very nicely to provide realistic stereo miking techniques.

Here are PlayMT’s favorite entry-level condenser microphones:

Note: Due to the incredibly high number of great and affordable condenser microphones, this list is in no way comprehensive and we encourage you to do your own research and find the mic that best fits your price range and application.

LDC’s

Aston Microphones Origin– Excellent on most sources, excels on vocals and acoustic guitars, affordable, sleek and solid design. ($299.99 new)

Aston Spirit – Upgrade from the Origin, adds switchable omni and figure-8 polar patterns and an additional pad value ($449 new)

AKG C214 – The single pattern little brother of the iconic AKG C414 large diaphragm condenser. Great on almost any source, evenly voiced and easy to work with. ($359 new)

SDC’s

Slate Digital ML-2 – An incredibly versatile small diaphragm modeling microphone. Includes software that emulates a variety of classic instrument microphones. Pairs best with the proprietary preamp for the most accurate emulations, but will work with any clean, linear preamp. Extremely versatile and affordable ($149 new)

Rode NT5 – Another popular choice for entry-level SDC’s. Great for most applications, especially stereo applications. Overheads, acoustic guitars, volins, etc. ($429 for a matched pair new)

Shure SM81 – Popular as a mid level SDC, great in pairs for overheads, acoustic guitars, classical ensembles and other sensitive sources that you want to capture cleanly and accurately ($349 for a single mic new)

Neumann KM184 – Not an entry-level microphone (or price), but the KM184 is one of the most popular and utilized small diaphragm condenser microphones of all time. Many of the more affordable models of SDC’s are based on the sound and functionality of this mic. ($1500 for a matched pair new). For example, the Warm Audio WA-84 SDC is a clone of the Neumann KM184 and a matched pair of them goes for half the price of the Neumann mics ($749 new)

Ribbon

Ribbon mics are one of the oldest microphones, dating back to the earliest broadcast and studio recordings. Also, ribbon mics use a very thin ribbon suspended between the poles of a magnet to turn the incoming sound vibrations into electrical current. They are known for their “warm” and “vintage” sound and are commonly used to tame harshness in the high end of sources such as cymbals, guitar cabinets or brass instruments. Almost always, ribbon mics come in a figure 8 pickup pattern, making them useful for mid-side or blumlein stereo miking applications.

An important point to make, ribbon mics are typically more fragile than condenser or dynamics and need to be handled with care. Old ribbon microphones will be destroyed if plugged into phantom power. Today, most ribbons will have circuitry in place to prevent phantom power from destroying the mic, but a good rule of thumb is to NEVER engage phantom power on a ribbon microphone.

Here are PlayMT’s favorite entry-level ribbon microphones:

Cascade Fathead – A wonderful, affordable option for that great, warm ribbon sound. ($195 for single and $449 for a matched pair with case new)

Royer R10 – A modern remake of an industry standard ribbon microphone. Made to be a more affordable version of the classic R121, it is sure to please. ($499 new)

Golden Age – There are several low-cost ribbon options by Golden Age Projects that will be about as low an impact on your wallet as is possible with a ribbon mic. The Beyerdynamic M 160 also comes up a lot in popular budget ribbon mic discussions.

Royer R121 – The R121 is a true legend and industry standard of ribbon microphones. It has been a staple on guitar cabs, famously paired with the SM57 to get that perfect guitar tone. It is not an entry-level price, but ribbon mics don’t get much better than this. ($1295 new)

Now that you’ve read up on mics and have looked at your bank account, don’t feel like you need to buy the nicest gear or multiple mics at once.

Start slow, and stay within your budget; don’t panic and spend all your money. There are plenty of inexpensive microphones that will work great for your first recordings. After you have some experience and know what you need, it might be time to look into one of the more expensive mics on the list. Also, make sure you have a goal for the sound that you want, and aren’t just copying what other engineers or musicians are using. Everyone is different and what you need might not be what everyone else is using. Do your research, talk to people more knowledgeable than you, and get recording! Nothing beats time and experience in the studio.



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