Finding The Right Microphone

The vocal mic you record with can make or break your project.

In a low to mid budget studio, you might be offered an inadequate Mic for your vocal type. If you know about mics, you can take a more active role in the creation of your recording. In today’s marketplace of great gear available at competitive prices, any studio worth it’s salt will own a few “industry standard” vocal recording mics. But which will be the right microphone for you?

Microphones have a sonic identity.

Each manufacturer and design captures specific frequencies For a signature sound. The nuances captured on the mic will be a mark of your individuality. A microphone which favors one type of singer may sound lifeless- or at the other extreme- even shrill on a different voice. Experiment with various mics to hear the way each responds to your tone. You may find that you favor a few different mics for different song performances.

Do a “Mic Shootout” before the recording day.

A Mic Shootout is standard practice for big studios and big album projects, but a key step often skipped in lower budget studios or novice producers and engineers. When recording for the first time, or with a producer or engineer who is new to your voice, you should plan a pre-production day for a Scratch Vocal and Mic Shootout. If you like your production team’s ears, but the gear is not as good as it could be for your voice, you still have time to rent a super professional mic and outboard gear (a mic pre-amp and compressor) and bring it to your session.

Pro-audio rental houses will accommodate a Mic Shootout when you guarantee a week rental.

They deliver a gamut of top end mics for you to test on Day One, and pick up the mics you don’t want at day’s end. What makes this a sweet deal is this: most top rental companies offer a special price of 7 days for the price of 4! When it comes to a mic like the vintage Neumann U-47 -in my personal opinion the best sounding mic ever planted on this green earth, and re-selling at $7,500 and upwards- a rental of a few hundred bucks which makes you sound like a million bucks might be the difference between you “making it” and selling shoes. Once you know which mic works best for you, stick with it. See my pocket guide below for beauties that you’ve got to try. You’ll never know how good you can sound until you’ve sung on a great microphone. A word of caution; when you rent vintage tube mics, take out more than one of each model. Each C12, U87, U47, and U67 sounds different from any other made. Also, through years of handing some can be abused.

The electronics of microphone technology are stable and finite.

But the prices are getting better all the time for home studio owners! No longer is a great recording the domain of a major budget artist. But before buying for your project studio, do a Shootout at the store. Get a solid, reliable workhorse in your price range for demos and writing. And if you can get a studio owner friend to slip you into a NAMM show, to lay your hands on the latest gear, you are in Candyland, my friend.

Take control of your vocals. It’s is who you are.

If you record with a terrific tracking engineer, writer, or producer who spent all his cash on keyboards but you are getting crummy vocals on lousy mics, ask them to rent a better mic for your vocal date. If they don’t want to take the time or trouble, pay the bill, take the tracks and walk. It is not uncommon at the project studio level to cut tracks at one place and carry the digital files or audio tapes to another studio, producer, or engineer where you can cut a better vocal. Not everybody can be a genius at everything.

A few technical terms about microphones every singer should know:

There are three types of mic designs: condenser, ribbon and dynamic. In simplest terms, dynamics are rugged and can take a lot of beating, so they are usually stage mics, or instrument mics. Ribbons and condensers are more fragile, and condenser styles comprise the bulk of top studio recording mics.

Condensers can contain electronics of various types, such as vacuum tubes or solid state components. Tube mics are the most fragile, the most sensitive, and therefore often the most expensive, and hard to find if vintage. Of the solid state condenser variety, there are some killer mics out there, both new and vintage, which utilize FET, or other types of circuitry.

 A Pocket Guide to Vocal Microphones

The following list of Mics have been industry standards for decades, with some new favorites mixed in. I have sung on every mic on this list.

First we will look at the Shure SM7A, SM57 and SM58. Of these three, the Shure SM7A is the best for recording. A dynamic mic used extensively in broadcast and voice-overs, the SM7 kicks out a powerhouse sound for singers on stage. It’s also a great sounding rock or blues Recording mic. I’ve used it on tracks where my smooth sound needed roughening up a bit. It’s a monster of a mike, versatile, rugged and very affordable.

The Shure SM 57 is a clean, all around dynamic mic, mostly used for recording drums and aggressive instruments like guitar amps. The SM 57 can also be effective for recording vocals in a pinch, on singers with some punch to their sound. It is not fussy, and hand-held, so it’s perfect for tracking quick scratch vocals in the control room, or on a live date when laying down drums & bass. The Shure SM58 is the industry standard for live performing and should not be used for vocal recording. If someone puts it in front of you to record, you are in the wrong hands. Take a walk.

Classic Low to Mid-Budget Workhorse Microphones

Beyerdynamic M88: I love this little sweetie. It is the first mic I purchased for myself and it outshines the Shure SM58 by a lightyear. Clean, bright, and crisp, with a beautiful high end and warm bottom, the M88 was made for the stage but is surprisingly refreshing for recording and very affordable for a home project demo studio. I have held it up against mics 5 times its price and recorded lovely keeper vocals. Research the Beyerdynamic line. They have a lot of great mics to choose from.

Sennheiser 421: Originally used for broadcast radio announcing, the 421 is a dynamic mic more often used on drums and bass in top studios. If it’s all you’ve got for a vocal, the 421 sounds best on male rock or blues vocalists with a full voice. For example, Billy Idol liked it. But it is not effective on female, lighter or younger voices.

AKG 414: A popular professional solid state condenser mic, giving a bright sound, the “414” is often used for jingles and is good for male or female voices that need added sparkle. Although it is often a single mic owner’s first purchase- you’ll run into it in mid priced studio situations- I don’t recommend it for high, loud or bright voices, male or female. On treble voices it can sound very brittle, and it lacks warmth on top and in the low end. Personally I avoid singing on it altogether, and bring my own mics to studios that only offer this.

AKG 1000: This is a newer, mid priced mic, gaining in popularity for home studio use, and pushed by AKG as “the Swiss Army Knife for Musicians.” It is claimed to be excellent recording at a distance such as for vocal choirs and group instruments.

The Groove Tube: A good quality, mid priced modern tube mic, this company was recently bought out by Alesis, a respected audio designer with good price points. It will be interesting to see what they do with the Groove Tube. Try an old one if you can, but look to Alesis for its future.

Top Of The Line Mics

Among the most popular professional mics you will encounter are those manufactured by Neumann and AKG. Neumann is still pumping the industry with their competitive line of great modern mics for studios on limited budgets. The TLM 103, is an award-winning mic using the same capsule found in the higher priced U87. However, their vintage tube mics are legendary.

Neumann U87:  A great all around FET condenser, with good depth and color, great highs, mid range and tonal balance. I have one, and I love it for all applications; rock, pop, classical, R&B, male & female. With a custom tube conversion by Jeff McLane, I’ve got two mics in one.

Neumann U67: A vintage tube condenser mic, similar looking to the U87 but different in tone. Every U67 sounds unique. If you rent one, try out a few before you settle.

Neumann U47: The Grandfather of all recording mics used on such classic artists as Elvis, Roy Orbison, and the Beatles. A vintage condenser tube mic, with a warm, full bodied sound that is phenomenal on the top and bottom end. Very few studios outside of the top dollar joints are lucky enough to own one, but you can rent them! There are also later model, but still old, FET versions of the U47.

Neumann M147, M149: Neumann has continued their excellence in a line of modern microphones which incorporate elements of their vintage masterpieces. Details on the new Neumanns can be found on their website. Don’t be intimidated. There are affordable beauties in the TLM series. If you can buy a car, why can’t you buy a great microphone for yourself?

AKG C12: A gorgeous tube condenser mic, in production for over 40 years. A clear, transparent high end, full, soft and round in the bass. I’ve loved it on classical vocals. Very expensive, very fragile, and very wonderful.

Telefunken Elam 251: A superb old German tube mike, if you are lucky enough to find one!

The Manley Gold Series: includes 1. Manley Reference Cardioid 2. Manley Gold 3. Manley Gold Stereo. Pricey, impressive, modern microphones, the Manley comes in three models. I have sung on the second two and they are clear as blue ice. In a figure 8 pattern, we cut girl group vocals smooth as whip cream. Very forgiving for inexperienced artists who don’t have good technique and proximity working the mike. Definitely not beginner prices.

Oktava MK 219: Every now and again, we stumble upon solid technology from surprising places. Made in Russia, the OKTAVA is so industrial looking, it looks like it belongs on a submarine. Priced around $500 it sounds like it’s worth three times that, with a warm mid range and a fat sound for easy going voices. The Oktava Factory is state run and is the world’s third largest manufacturer of telephone handset mics. It has made up to 30,000 mic a month, due to a decree that required for every tape recorder sold in Russia, an OKTAVA microphone had to be sold with it. Somebody is looking out for up and coming singers! By the way, if you buy one, sing on a few in the store first. Each one sounds slightly different.

Find your Soul Mate and you will fall in love with recording.

I swear that microphones have a soul. The microphone reads you in a special way. When you find your studio mic, what was once a frustrating and foreign land is now home.