Microphones are the one essential bit of hardware that in many ways have stayed the same. Sure there are digital microphones with multi-pattern options, but the core function is still the same – a diaphragm that converts sound waves into a low electric current (audio signal). There are three main types of microphone. Each one has different strengths, making them more suitable for particular jobs or instruments.
The bad habit many home studio enthusiasts pick up in the early days is that they just position the microphone in front of the instrument they are recording. Not worrying about that much in the moment and then just hope to fix it in the mix. The core sound of your recording starts from your instrument, followed by how you capture it. Microphone positioning is one of the most important parts of the recording process. The best thing to do is to put on your new mixing headphones and move the microphone in front of the instrument, while someone else plays it. If you are working alone as I do a lot, do some test recordings, while marking the microphone position for every take, then choose the best sounding position. For example, for some of the best sounding acoustic guitar or drum tracks I have recorded, the microphone positioning played the biggest part. Spend some time getting this right.
Types of microphones
Dynamic microphones are the workhorse of microphones. In general, due to their simple design, they are the most robust type of microphones; as such, they are the main type used for live sound. They can handle loud signals, which make them ideal for close mic’ing, for instance, drums and electric guitar speakers. They might lack the glamour of a nice condenser microphone in the studio, but if I was to have only one microphone in my arsenal, it would definitely be a dynamic microphone.
A major advantage of dynamic microphones in the home studio setting is that they tend to pick up less background noise than, for example, condenser microphones. They do the bulk of their work (picking up sound waves) in close proximity, so the room acoustics have less effect on them. This does not mean that a dynamic microphone will make a room with problematic acoustics sound nice, but it will pick up less of the problematic reflections from the room than a very detailed condenser microphone. At hand’s reach, I always have a Shure SM57 in my studio.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive than Dynamic microphones. They tend to have a greater frequency response, as well as a faster (transient) response. This makes condenser microphones an ideal choice in a controlled studio environment. To put it simply, a good condenser microphone seems to capture more detail.
Condenser microphones come in two types, with either a large diaphragm or a small one. Large diaphragm microphones are more sensitive, produce “deep” and “warm” sound and are the desired choice for vocals. Due to the sensitivity of these microphones, it is recommended to use a pop shield when recording vocals. Harsh consonants tend to pop the diaphragm and distort the signal. Small diaphragm condenser microphones produce a much more even frequency response, which makes them ideal for drum overheads, room microphones in live recordings, choral or orchestral recordings. Condenser microphones need external power, called phantom power, and most modern mixing desks and Audio interfaces have this built into them. The power travels through the microphone cable from your preamp to the microphone. There are some valve/tube condenser microphones that come with their own power source. These do not require phantom power. As mentioned above, the only disadvantage condenser microphones might have in a home studio is being too sensitive to unwanted noise or reflection caused by less than optimal room acoustics, but these are small issues and most of the time there is a way around them.
Ribbon microphones are definitely the rarest of the three and can be described as smooth, sensitive and warm. They are very sensitive to external power and if fed with phantom power, they can and will break. Also the signal level is much lower than either of the other microphone types and therefore the signal requires a strong clean preamp. Ribbon microphones are that one extraneous tool in the studio toolbox and perhaps not very high on a home studio shopping list. However, when recording an electric guitar, a Royer ribbon microphone can sound fantastic.
If you are recording something loud with a hard attack and want to position the microphone close to the source (e.g. electric guitar, individual drums, brass instruments, even loud singers), then a dynamic microphone would be recommended. They can take the beating. Exposing large air pressure directly to the diaphragm of a condenser microphone can, in the best case, damage it. If you are looking for detailed vocals, or an instrument with much more subtle sound, a large diaphragm microphone is the tool for the job. If you want to capture more of an overall sound, like an acoustic guitar, overheads of a drum kit, vocal assemble or an orchestra, a stereo set of small diaphragm condenser microphones are in order. These are general rules and it is advisable to experiment all the time.
Shure SM58 Microphone
The Shure SM 58, currently retailing around $110, will produce great results. If you were to have only one microphone in your studio, I would recommend this. SM 58 is an industry standard, and for a very good reason. It can take the knocks and still deliver night after night. It can produce remarkable results both live and in a home recording studio.
Starting at around $160, It’s hard to beat the area sound and price of Rode microphones, and I would say these probably should be your first large diaphragm condenser microphones. They will still be useful years down the line when you have upgraded to more expensive microphones.
Rode NT USB Condenser Microphone
For a quite bit bigger budget, the AKG 414 is incredible large diaphragm microphone, that sounds great on vocal, but also pretty much any acoustic instrument as well (approx. $900).
AKG 414 Condenser Microphone
Condenser microphones also can have a small diaphragm, for example, the AKG C1000. These small-diaphragm condenser microphones are often used as overheads on drums, recording acoustic guitars or other string instruments and start at around $150.
AKG C1000 Condenser Microphone
I would recommend starting with (if your budget allows for it) a dynamic microphone, like the Shure SM57 (approx. $100) and a large diaphragm condenser microphone of your choice.
Shure SM57 Dynamic Microphone
In the past decade or so, there has been a lot of large diaphragm microphones produced in China, which can be very brittle sounding and lacking in bottom end. The old rule “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” applies here. I mentioned the Rode microphones earlier and to be honest, I’ve still yet to hear a bad microphone from them.
Also, many of the major microphone producers like AKG and Shure make their own budget versions of large diaphragm microphones, which are great microphones for the price. Once you have both a solid Dynamic microphone and a nice condenser microphone, my next recommendation would be to invest in a matched pair of small diaphragm condenser microphones. The Neumann KM 184 is one of the best in the market with a price tag to match (approx. $1600 for the pair).
Neumann KM 184 Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
Oktava MK 012 Diaphragm Condenser Microphone
This blog post is a chapter from a book “How to set up your own home recording studio” published by Melosity. You can get the book HERE.