Ever seen the equipment list of a studio online and gasped at how many different microphones they have in their collection? I certainly have, but it needed be as daunting as it seems. As is the case with most medium-to-large studios, they have more gear than they regularly use so as to give themselvesoptions when it comes to tracking. As project studio legends we don’t need all that variety to begin with. What we need is 1 microphone that will cover all bases and again allow us to do some quality tracking at home so we don’t have to pay for extra studio time.
The main thing you’d want to be tracking with a microphone on a project studio setup are vocals. Vocals are arguably the most important thing on an album, and being able to track at home when you feel comfortable and ready can be a huge advantage. Your first microphone should be 1 that gives you a nice vocal sound above all else, but still can be utilized for other instruments should you decide to track them.
MICROPHONE TYPES AND PICK-UP PATTERNS
Whenever you read about a microphone it will describe the type of microphone that it is and also thepick-up pattern. It can sound a bit like mumbo-jumbo and I must admit is a little off-putting because it seems like it could be easy to make a mistake with your choice. Microphone guides are usually too intense for the casual or first-time reader, so I’ll skip the detailed mechanics of each type and describe them more in terms of functionality.
I’ll start with pick-up patterns, as they will be used to describe microphone types.
Cardioid: This is a ‘tight’ or ‘narrow’ pattern, which means that it will pick-up whatever it’s directly pointed at, and will reject any sound that comes from the sides. Hyper or Super-cardioid simply means that the pattern is extra-narrow. In visual terms, a cardioid is focused like a spotlight – it will light up what its pointed at, and only vaguely light up the surrounding objects. Hyper or super cardioid is more like a laser beam, although it still will pick up a bit of the surroundings.
Omni-directional: As the name suggests, this accepts sound from many directions. Using our visual example, it is like a torch that generally light’s up all that it is pointed at, but nothing behind it.
Figure-8: This is a 2-way pattern – front and back. It could be narrow or wide each direction, but the general rule is that it will accept sound from the front or back but will reject the sides.
There are 3 main microphone types: Dynamic, Condenser, and Ribbon.
Dynamic mics; are the most common mics you’ll see at gigs and on television. These include the classic Shure SM57 and SM58s that are staples of a live show. Dynamics can handle loud sound sources like drums, guitars and bass, and usually have cardioid or omni patterns. They can be plugged into directly into your interface or any preamp and do not need power.
Condenser mics: are used more in the studio than live. You’d typically see them used as overheads or on a high-hat at a gig, but nowhere else. Condensers are powered either with a separate power supply, or need 48V phantom power from you interface or preamp. They can be any pattern and some have multiple patterns selectable from a switch on the mic itself or on the power supply. Condensers are very bright sounding and are a go-to for many vocalists in the studio.
Ribbon mics: are generally figure-8 patterns which means they’re 2-sided. They have an actual ribbon inside made of very thin metal that vibrates as sound hits it. Because of this they are very sensitive and cannot handle loud sound sources up close. Because of this ribbons are used as mostly on vocals, acoustic guitars, overheads or as ambience mics. There are some ribbon mic manufacturers that produce sturdier ribbons that can handle louder sound sources and they are commonly used on guitar cabinets or as closer-positioned ‘underheads’ (close to the drum kit under the cymbals). They also require a lot of preamp-gain, which some interfaces may not provide…
WHAT SHOULD YOU GET?
I’m a guy who has bought and sold a lot of microphones and audio equipment over the years due to bad advice or inadequate research so I’m encouraging all of you to really consider each thing you buy and how it can factor into your long-term setup. This doesn’t mean you have to buy the best piece every time; it’s more about sensibility. For this reason I suggest that you assess you current setup, what you hope to achieve with a microphone purchase, and then look for the best quality microphone that fits your needs and budget.
I suggest a Shure SM57 or SM58 for your first microphone. They are super cheap – somewhere between $100-140 brand new – are highly versatile, and have been used on some of the biggest albums in history. Because of their cardioid pattern you can record in a less-than-acoustically-treated room and get a very focused instrument sound. Cabba and I recorded Episode 9 of the Blodgecast on 2 x SM58s in a tiled room and you can barely hear any reverb or echo in the recording. They can be used on vocals, up close on a guitar or bass cab, about 6 to 12 inches from the 12th fret of an acoustic guitar, any percussion, on snare and toms – the list goes on!
They are a total workhorse and you will continue to use them as you get more and more gear.
OTHER MICROPHONE SUGGESTIONS
Audix i5 ($110-140) – A rival to the SM57. It has a different character to the 57 that some people prefer and can be used in all the places you’d use a 57.
Shure SM7b ($350-400) – the granddaddy of dynamics. Used for vocals on everything from Michael Jackson to Cannibal Corpse. Also makes for a beefy snare mic, is beautiful on bass, and kick drum.
Apex 460 ($400-450) – This large-diaphragm condenser is nice sounding as-is, but is easily upgradeable to rival classic mics like the Neumann U47/67 or the AKG C12. A single Apex 460 can be used to great effect on vocals, as a mono overhead, and acoustic guitar and will give more of a ‘HiFi’ sound than a dynamic mic.
Rode NT-5 pair ($400-450) – These are an entry-level pair of condensers which are nice sounding and very affordable. While maybe not an ideal 1st purchase, having a pair of small condensers can come in very handy. These were used as overheads on Forged In Flame. They can also be used as a stereo pair on acoustic guitar, to mic a piano, and as spot-cymbal mics on a drumkit (for instance hihat and ride) if you eventually decide to upgrade your overhead mics in the future.
Cascade FatHead ($200-250) – This is a very affordable and nice sounding ribbon that can handle higher level sound sources and with a transformer upgrade it is in the ball park of the much pricier Royer 121. Great for a 2nd mic on a guitar cab, can be used as a room mic or overhead, and is lovely on vocals and acoustic guitar.
Microphones don’t need to be expensive to sound great. Owen from Point Break Down used a Behringer condenser mic on his Pappas EP that cost him less than $100, and I tracked the drums on Forged In Flame with microphones that I hired for about $130. It’s about using what you can to get the best output possible, and not feeling pressured into buying gear that is out of your price range.