How to choose your first microphone?

ChooseFirstMic_Cover

So you are looking to buy your first microphone. You have probably done some research already and, if you are a member of various Facebook pages or website chat rooms, then you have often seen the following. “What is the best mic for Rap … What is the best mic for Rock” etc … and all the comments that replied to these posts.

Although there is no “best mic” for a specific genre as it really depends on the source, we can narrow it down.

More important than the mic choice will be the room treatment.
You must also remember that an understanding of
mic’ing technique/placement and a sound knowledge of mic polar patterns, frequency response will play a greater role in how the mic will sound than the actual microphone.

Also, no two human voices are the same and no mic will be a perfect fit for every voice.
I will not get into mics for Live situations in this article.

Polar patterns

The first and obvious question is what do you want to record?
Do you need a general-purpose mic? Will you be recording drums, guitars, saxophones etc.? Are you recording vocals only?

The next obvious criteria to establish is your budget. This also depends on what you intend on doing.

As a newbie if your goal is to record your personal demos then there is no point in buying a $10K mic even if you have the means. You’d be better off investing in a less expensive mic and putting the rest of the money into other gear/software, promotion or other aspects of the biz if you want to advance your career. 
Let’s assume that you are an aspiring studio tech in the process of building a studio whether it be at home or in a rented space. I would suggest that, if possible, you always buy in pairs. Then you can continue to use them as you progress to record other sources. Don’t let your ego get the better of you and due to the very minute variations in texture, frequency response between even the most expensive and less expensive microphone, I would recommend starting off with the good ‘ole Shure SM58.

Shure SM-58

For under $300 you can get a new pair of these workhorses that will handle all your studio needs. You would be amazed how many hit records have been recorded with these. These were my personal first choice and I recorded entire albums, including drums, guitars, vocals etc using only these two mics. Some of those albums got airplay on commercial radio. No one ever hated a great vocal performance because it wasn’t recorded with a C12.

Audio Technica AT2020

If you have a smaller production studio and only need a mic to record vocals, there are some inexpensive options. Firstly, I would stay away from both tube and ribbon mics. As cool as they might sound sometimes, they can cause more problems than they are worth with muddiness and general lack of clarity if you don’t know what you are doing. I would suggest a large diaphragm condenser. Even though it would have seemed impossible to get a truly professional large-diaphragm condenser microphone for less than $500 just 15 years ago, there are so many very decent ones on the market. Again, don’t get caught up in myths and snobbism.

The AudioTechnica AT 2020 is an excellent entry-level mic that can be acquired for under $150. It was good enough to win five Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, two MTV Europe Music Awards, one BRIT Award, three MTV Video Music Awards and a NRJ Music Award for Billie Eilish …. Ok she also used a Neuman TLM 103 ($1400) too but it was the AT2020 that got her the gig. 

There are also mics like the MXL 990 – $160,  MXL 2003a – $230, RØDE NT1-A – $330, Aston Origin – $400, Audio Technica AT4040 – $450, AKG 214 – $500 which all sound awesome and you would be sorely tested to tell the difference between these and most high-end mics. If this is your first mic then your ears are probably not yet developed enough to fully appreciate the subtle differences.

MXL 990
RODE NT1-A
Aston  Origin
AKG C 214

Once your audio senses become more informed then perhaps you can then move up to the next level with the Avantone Av-Cv12 – $700, Lauten Audio LA-320 – $800, Neuman TLM 102 – $850, Mojave Audio MA-201fet – $1000, Shure KSM44 – $1350

Avantone Av-Cv12
Lauten Audio LA-320
Neumann TLM 102
Mojave Audio MA-201fet
Shure KSM 44

A couple of honorable mentions are the classic Electrovoice EV RE20 Studio Mic – $530 with its patented anti-proximity effect circuitry and the trust standby Shure SM-7B – $550.
Both have stepped up to the plate and worked in situations where the other, sometimes more expensive mics have failed.

Electrovoice EV RE20
Shure SM-7B

If you are not afraid of using modern technology, then I would highly recommend that you seriously consider the emulation mics as a first microphone.
There are three main companies building them:

 Slate has two models, a small diaphragm condenser (ML-2) for $200 and a large one (ML-1) for $1000.

Slate ML-1 ML-2
Antelope Edge Duo

Antelope has three models, the Solo, Duo and Quadro from $1000 to $3400.

 Townsend has the Sphere L22 – $2000.

Twonsend Sphere L22

The basic idea is that the microphones are built to be very clean and transparent without any individual character. You then can use the companies’ library of plugin emulations to have some of the world’s finest microphones in your mic locker. It is an awesome way to start out and the emulations are stunningly very much like the originals with the detailed modeling. I personally own both the Slate for general tracking/mixing and the Townsend for tracking/mixing with my UAD interface. The beauty is that you can try out a few different mics to find out which sounds best for that particular person or instrument. It can be done in both the tracking and mixing stage without changing anything other than the plugin mic type. The mics themselves sound pretty good and I’ve had clients go out and buy their own after hearing mine.

 

Don’t be afraid to buy from the used market. Just do your research on the seller and whether or not they have a good reputation to lose by selling you crap.

There is also the option of modifying the less expensive models in order to upgrade them as your tastes develop. The results of some of the DIY kits that you can purchase online are impressive to say the least. 

 

Remember that the best sound comes from the performer who is at ease and comfortable enough to express their emotions … and it is your place to create that environment. It cost nothing but a little bit of empathy to do.

To conclude, here is a very cool microphone shootout so you can hear several of these mics for yourself.

No matter which mic you choose remember to have fun!

Question or comment? Write to the author: Iain Booth

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