A common question we get from brand new home studio owners is: “What’s the best mic?”. It’s an entirely valid and straightforward question, but the answer is subjective, convoluted, and varied. Let’s break it down in part 2 of our 6-part blog series on outfitting your home podcasting or music studio.
Whether you’re recording a podcast or music, the basic equipment you’ll need is pretty much the same, as we discussed in last week’s post, but that doesn’t mean everybody is using the exact same gear. This week, we’re going to break down the different types of microphones and their common uses to help you choose the best tool for the job.
3 Types of Microphones
There are 3 basic types of microphone capsules (the important part of the mic), and knowing their key differences will set you along the path toward annoying your family and friends by calling out improper microphone usage in TV and movies -- it’s not just a fun party trick to alienate people, it helps you choose the right mic to record with as well!
Dynamic microphones are a great option for podcasting, music recording, and live sound because they’re relatively inexpensive, durable, and sound great on a budget. They’re the least sensitive (or detailed) mic, which is a huge advantage for people who aren’t working in an acoustically controlled environment. Basically, because they don’t “hear” as well as other types of microphone, they are less likely to pick up an echoey room. The other advantage to a lower sensitivity mic is that it can handle louder sources like snare drums and guitar cabinets.
Mics like the Shure SM7B, Electro-Voice RE20, and Aston Stealthare all fantastic choices for podcasters and home recordists alike because despite their reputations as the ultimate broadcast vocal microphones, they also shine on electric guitars, snare drums, even some kick drums.
One thing to note about the SM7B though, is that it is a much lower output (it’s quiet!) microphone than the others, so it’s recommended that you use an inline preamp like the Cloud Lifteror Se Electronics Dynamiteto boost the gain on the mic.
If you’re recording drums or guitars, you’ll inevitably come across the legendary Shure SM57, since it is one of the most widely used instrument and vocal mics on planet earth, and at around $100 each, they’re a crazy accessible price. I wouldn’t recommend them as a voice over microphone due to their unique midrange response. These are geared more toward the live sound and recording crowd.
Condenser microphones gained popularity in recording environments because they produce a much more detailed and accurate sound than dynamic microphones. Within the condenser microphone realm, we have 2 major sub categories: Large Diaphragm Condensers (LDC) and Small Diaphragm Condensers (SDC).
Large Diaphragm Condensers are the typical workhorse microphone for the studio because they sound great on pretty much anything, especially vocals and guitars. While LDCs are a great option for voice over work, they are less practical in podcast interview settings because their increased sensitivity makes them more prone to hearing the wrong voice and causing phase issues. This sensitivity can also pick up reverberations in the room, so untreated rooms and condenser mics don’t always make for a good pairing.
Small Diaphragm Condensers are great when increased attention needs to be paid to the higher frequencies in a source. Think along the lines of miking cymbals or acoustic guitar, where the delicate high frequencies can often get lost by LDCs and dynamic mics. Typically, SDCs are used for instruments, and are not a first choice for vocals because they tend to sound really bright.
You’ll often hear ribbon mics as sounding ‘vintage’ or ‘smooth’. Ribbon microphones are technically dynamic mics, but instead of the traditional bulky moving-coil head, ribbon microphones use an ultra-thin strip of metal (usually aluminum) to pick up the sound with stunning detail similar to a condenser. The difference is that ribbon mics don’t tend to respond to high frequencies quite as well, which is what leads to that smooth vintage sound that makes the heart flutter. I REALLY like ribbon mics.
Ribbon mics are great for vocals, but again, aren’t a great choice for podcasters because their sensitivity can lead to the same phase issues suffered by condenser microphones in interview situations. Ribbon mics are also extremely fragile -- the kind of fragile that makes eggs seem sturdy, so they don’t exactly love being transported around without a protective case. So why do we love them? They bring character to your sound like few other microphones can. Along with vocals, ribbon microphones sound great on bright sounding sources that need to be tamed a bit, like dobroes, mandolins, drum overheads, electric guitar cabinets, acoustic guitars and solo orchestral instruments.
So Which Mic is Right for You?
Short answer: it depends! Every microphone has its own unique characteristics that lend themselves well to some applications, but are all wrong for others. If you’re a podcaster, it’s safe to assume you’ll want to go with a broadcast style dynamic mic. For recording music at home, a large diaphragm condenser probably makes the most sense, since they’re so utilitarian. Just remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a single, perfect microphone, which is why professional recording studios have giant mic lockers filled with all kinds of goodies. As you continue to learn and grow as a home recordist, so will your mic locker.