What Microphone Should You Get First?

Key Points:

If starting with one microphone a large diaphragm cardioid condenser will suit most applications and make a great starting point for the home recording studio, followed by a small diaphragm condenser for recording acoustic instruments.


Unless you plan on recording everything directly e.g. using a direct line to your audio interface from your instrument of choice, you’re going to need at least one decent microphone to get up and running recording music.

Without a mic, you can’t record vocals, acoustic instruments or mic up equipment such as guitar amps, leaving you severely limited with regard to the type of music you can record.

The problem most people new to home recording encounter however, are the inevitable budget constraints that come with setting up a new home studio.

We’ve all been there.

Once you have factored in the costs for a potential new computer, audio interface (don’t use the sound card of your computer), studio monitors and/or headphones, not to mention recording software, it can sometimes leave precious little for a decent recording microphone, not to mention accessories such as mic cables, mic stand and pop filter.

And, that’s a problem, because while a reliable computer is a must, the item that under most circumstances will make the biggest difference to your recordings is your microphone.

In the following article we’re going to investigate which mic you should consider first, if new to home recording and discuss the differences between dynamic and condensers, along with explaining the different technical terms you may come across.

But first, we’ll quickly address a common question.


Why are microphones so damn expensive?

If you’ve already cast your eye over the available range of mics out there you might be surprised to see just how costly they can be. You might also be equally surprised at the differences in price between entry level, mid-range, and high-end mics.

Audio engineers tend to shell out a lot of money for microphones for the recording studio. Along with sound quality, another good reason for owning a number of mics is versatility. One particular microphone may suit one type of vocalist far more than another. I’ve recorded in studios where several mics were tested before settling on one for the session.

In any case, microphones can get pretty expensive at the high-end, but there’s a huge range of options available in almost all price ranges, starting from $50 (or less) to upwards of $10,000 and beyond.

Why the major difference?

For one, high-end mics are built by hand, the components are carefully matched, and then carefully tuned by ear. That expertise does not come cheap, and the more expertise on offer e.g. a renowned manufacturer such as Neumann, the more you will pay.

A budget microphone on the other hand is typically mass-produced, and uses inexpensive, and unmatched components. This often means a noisier microphone along with a lot of inconsistencies with regard to sound quality between microphones of the same range.

For example, you might purchase a $50 microphone and it sounds surprisingly good for the price. You might then convince a friend to give that particular brand a go and their mic is next to useless.

If you can venture into the $200+ range, inconsistency becomes less of an issue.

None of this is to say the most expensive microphone is necessarily the best for every job either. Sometimes less expensive microphones suit a particular application better than others, but in general if operating with just one mic price will be a determining factor with regard to quality.

Dynamic V condenser microphones and price

You should also be careful when comparing microphones to ensure you’re not comparing apples to oranges.

There are really just two types of microphone you might be considering when first starting out, a condenser microphone and/or a dynamic microphone.

There are other options, of course. A ribbon microphone is also a highly versatile option, but for the most part is cost prohibitive for the home studio owner.  USB mics are also an option. They convert the analogue signal to a digital signal, meaning you don’t need an audio interface, but they are not ideal for multi-track recording due to inherent latency issues.

We’ll discuss the differences between these types of microphones shortly, but for now keep in mind dynamic microphones (mostly) are less expensive than condenser microphones.

A great dynamic microphone will cost anything up to $1000, with the ultra-reliable Shure Sm58, perhaps one of the most widely used microphones for live performance, generally coming in at around the $100 dollar mark.

The sky’s more or less the limit for condenser microphones however, with some costing upwards of $10,000 or more.

Why are condenser microphones so expensive?
The reason a great condenser microphone costs considerably more than a dynamic mic is the sensitivity a condenser mic offers compared to a dynamic mic, and the components and workmanship involved in achieving this level of sensitivity. And this can be taken to extreme levels, whereas a dynamic mic has more or less a ceiling with regard to price.

Choosing between a condenser and dynamic microphone

Deciding between a condenser and dynamic microphone really comes back to your intended usage.

Dynamic mics tend to handle loud sound more effectively, condenser mics on the other hand are more sensitive, have quicker transient response, and capable of detecting a wider range of frequencies.

What is transient response?
A transient is the initial short-duration sound at the beginning of a sound wave, that you might expect when recording a snare. It’s generally high-impact, loud but short-duration. A microphone’s transient response refers to its ability to respond to those initial transient sounds.

What’s best for you, really depends on the music you intend to record.

For the home recording studio the more sensitive condenser microphone is a more versatile option under most circumstances, especially if recording vocals (a pop filter is also a must) and acoustic instruments as it will capture more detail than a dynamic microphone.

And that’s pretty important when it comes to recording music as no amount of recording studio wizardry can rectify that lack of detail in your recordings, essentially if it isn’t captured in the first place you can’t add it in later.

But there are always exceptions, so if unsure, try asking yourself the following questions:

What genres will you be recording?
If you are predominantly recording hard rock or heavier music a dynamic mic might be your best starting option, for anything else a condenser microphone is a more versatile option.
What instruments will you be recording?
Most people new to recording, start out simply recording vocals and an acoustic instrument e.g. acoustic guitar or other stringed instruments including piano. If so, a condenser mic will be your best bet as it will capture more detail and tends to suit the brighter tonality of the acoustic guitar.

If on the other hand you mostly focus on recording electric guitar, or play drums a dynamic mic (or a set of dynamic mics for drums) will generally handle this type of application better.

What kind of vocals will you be recording?
Unless performing loud aggressive vocals, under most circumstances you will find a condenser microphone a more versatile option, particularly if you record a lot of different singers in your studio. If recording rap or voice over work it can depend. The proximity affect is more evident when using a condenser mic but under some circumstances this can be useful and has been used in rap to good effect.
What’s the proximity Effect?

You will have experienced the proximity effect when speaking on your mobile phone. In simple terms, the closer you get to the mic the more low-frequency sounds are accentuated. It’s often described as making a vocal sound boomier. You can prevent the proximity effect from occurring by using a pop filter (you should be using one anyway) and forcing the vocalist away from the mic by approximately 6 inches.

How does a dynamic microphone work?

Dynamic Microphone - Diagram

Dynamic microphones are similar to speakers in that they utilize a magnet, voice coil, and diaphragm.

The magnet and voice coil create a magnetic field. When sound waves are detected by the diaphragm of the microphone it vibrates, causing the voice coil to also vibrate. This results in an electrical signal being created.

How does a condenser microphone work?

COndenser Microphone - Diagram

 

Condenser microphones work differently to dynamic mics, primarily because they utilize an external power source (phantom power) and do not use a voice coil, instead using a diaphragm and back plate, which is more sensitive to sound pressure.

Power is stored between the two plates (capacitance) supplied by the external power source.

As sound waves hit the diaphragm (the front plate) the distance between the two plates changes, changing the amount of electrical energy stored between the two plates.

More electrical energy is stored as the plates react to vibrations and the distance between the diaphragm and plate is reduced. Alternatively, less electrical energy is stored when the diaphragm and plate are further apart.

How Does a Ribbon Microphone Work?
In case you’re wondering, a ribbon microphone works slightly differently again and doesn’t rely on air pressure. Instead, it utilizes a thin strip of foil, known as the ribbon which is suspended between the two poles of a magnet, creating a magnetic field. When air hits the ribbon it vibrates and an electrical signal is generated.

What is phantom power?

Phantom power is the term used to describe the power supply for a condenser mic. Unlike a dynamic mic, a condenser mic requires a power source (48V) to send an audio signal to your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Many audio interfaces supply phantom power, but it’s best to make sure, otherwise you will need to purchase a dedicated phantom power unit to record with a condenser microphone.


Types of condenser microphones

The two main options when it comes to condenser mics are large diaphragm and small diaphragm condenser microphones.

Rode NT5 Small Diaphragm Condenser MicrophoneSmall diaphragm condenser microphones

If you are planning on mostly recording instruments a small diaphragm condenser microphone, aka a pencil condenser will provide a more accurate representation of the instrument being recorded.

For example, if recording acoustic guitar using a small diaphragm condenser mic, the sound being recorded will be very accurate, and less colored by the microphone. The first time I used a pencil condenser the difference between it, and my larger vocal microphone was very easy to hear with regard to accuracy.

LArge Diaphragm Condenser MicrophoneLarge diaphragm condenser microphones

Under most circumstances a large diaphragm condenser microphone is the best ‘all-round’ option for the home studio.

If I had to purchase just one microphone to get started with, and being mostly interested in recording vocals and guitar a large diaphragm condenser mic would be my mic of choice.

They are especially well suited to recording vocals, and under most circumstances this is what your microphone will be needed for.

They are larger, which benefits vocalists, giving them ‘something to aim at’ so to speak. They also add warmth and shape the sound being recorded in a pleasing way for vocals.

That’s not to say they are always the best option under every circumstance, as mentioned above, there are exceptions, however if choosing just one mic to begin with, a large diaphragm condenser mic is a great, versatile option for recording vocals and guitars and is the choice of microphone most home studios to start out with.

Hopefully, the information above helps you make a more informed choice. But, if you are new to this whole home recording thing and have started to look over your available options you have probably seen terms such as frequency response, signal-to-noise ratio, and self noise, among others.

I’ve listed the most common of these below with a simple explanation beside each.


Microphone Specifications

Microphone pole patterns

Pole patterns refer to the directional sensitivity of the mic.
What this really means, is the primary area of focus for the microphone, and perhaps just as importantly the area the mic doesn’t target.

There are 4 main types of polar patterns:

Cardioid
A cardioid mic is the best option when first starting out as it detects sound directly in front and ignores sound from behind. A good way to get the most out of a cardioid mic is to consider the area of the room that is the noisiest e.g. a window and aim the back of the microphone at it to cut down on excessive noise on your recordings.

Super Cardioid
Much the same as a cardioid mic, except offering a more focused sensitivity to the front of the mic and also detecting some sound from behind in a limited capacity.

Omnidirectional
As the name suggests, sound is detected equally in all directions. This type of mic is usually used for picking up ambient room noise.

Bidirectional
This polar pattern is similar to a figure 8, detecting sound equally from the front and back.

Frequency Response

Frequency response in simple terms, is a measure of the frequencies able to be recorded by the microphone. It’s arguably the most important specification with regard to condenser microphones.

Frequency Response Curve

This is a term used to describe how the microphone performs within specific frequencies or ranges. You can read a frequency response chart to get a better idea of the character of the microphone. For example a vocal microphone will tend to accentuate the middle and high frequency sounds more effectively.

Maximum SPL

Otherwise known as maximum sound input level. The maximum output the mic can cope with before clipping or distortion occurs.

Signal/Noise

Signal to noise ratio. The level of signal the mic can provide in comparison to the amount of background noise.

Output Impedance

How much resistance to the electrical signal measured in Ohms. A quality microphone will be ‘low impedance’ e.g. 50Ω to 600Ω

Dynamic Range

Dynamics, describes differences in volume e.g. range that exists between the lowest and highest amount of sound the microphone can accurately capture.


Summary

There really is no hard and fast answer to the question of which microphone you should purchase first if starting out with home recording. However, under most circumstances, if starting with just the one microphone a large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone will tend to be a great ‘all-rounder’ for the home studio, followed by a small diaphragm condenser microphone for recording acoustic instruments.

As previously mentioned however, if you are more interested in recording heavy guitar and loud vocals a dynamic microphone will be a better starting option and is also an affordable option compared to a quality condenser microphone.

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