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Microphone Buying Guide

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When you're shopping for new microphones, you'll encounter a wide variety of mic types spanning a vast range of prices. The glut of specs and features associated with the hundreds of available models can be confusing, leaving you with little basis for comparison aside from a microphone's price.

Sure, it's generally true that a mic's price reflects the quality of the sound it’s capable of reproducing. However, a little research will show you there are plenty of reasonably priced mics that are capable performers in many respects. In fact, many of these models copy the basic structures of microphones costing many times more. Understanding how various types of microphones function and what they’re intended for will help equip you to improve your live performances and enhance your recordings.

To help you find the right mic to match your budget and needs, this guide will cover the most important characteristics of the many different microphone types and models.

shure super 55 dynamic vocal mic

Despite its vintage look, the Shure Super 55 Dynamic Vocal Mic reproduces vocals and speech with great accuracy.

Table of Contents

Sound Off: How Will You Use Your New Mic?
Check, Check: Understanding Microphone Specs
What Microphone Specs Don't Tell You
Types of Microphones and Their Applications
Application-Specific Dynamic Mics
Wireless Microphones
Condenser Microphones
USB Microphones
Microphone Packages
Microphone Accessories
Signing Off: Some Final Comments

Sound Off: How Will You Use Your New Mic?

The most important thing to ask yourself when choosing a microphone is how you plan to use it. Will you be using it onstage for vocals or to mic an instrument? Is it intended for home-studio recording? Or are you looking for something that can perform well in either situation?

You want to match the mic to both the environment you'll use it in and the gear you'll use it with. For instance, it might not make a lot of sense to spend thousands on a Neumann studio mic if you plan to use it for recording at home. The acoustics will be less than perfect, and since chances are are you don’t own high-end mic preamps, the Neumann’s virtues will essentially be wasted. A less sensitive and more affordable microphone might be a better choice.

If you want to find a single mic that will serve you both in the studio and on the stage, a number of models will fill the bill. The Shure SM57, for example, is a popular, go-to mic that gets extensive use in both settings.

shure sm 57 microphone

The Shure SM-57 has a bulletproof design and performs equally well onstage or in the studio, capturing vocals and instruments with natural sound.

Check, Check: Understanding the Specs

Getting some fundamental knowledge on microphone specifications and terminology under your belt will help you select a mic that best suits your needs. Here are the primary specs and terms you will often see in mic descriptions:

Polar Patterns

The polar pattern is the shape of a mic's field of sensitivity, or the directions from which it accepts or ignores incoming sounds. An omnidirectional mic responds to sounds coming from all directions. A bi-directional mic picks up sounds from east and west while excluding sounds from north and south. A unidirectional mic primarily hears sounds from one direction and excludes sounds from other directions.

Unidirectional mics are the most common type, and they come in three polar patterns:cardioid, supercardioid and hypercardioid. All three of these patterns reject rear-axis and off-axis sounds coming from behind the mic or from the sides.

cardiod pattern supercardiod hypercardiod

The cardioid pattern is roughly a heart shape (hence its name), which makes the mic most sensitive to sounds from straight on and from the sides, but rejects sounds from 180 degrees opposite the direction the mic is aimed.

The supercardioid mic accepts a little more sound from a 180-degree field, but rejects more from each side. The hypercardioid allows yet more sound from 180 degrees but rejects more of the sound coming from 90 or 270 degrees.

Polar patterns are important when you are working in a noisy setting, such as when miking a vocalist in a band. Cardioid, supercardioid, and hypercardioid mics will tend to exclude all the sounds except the voice of the singer, thus preventing the signal from becoming muddied or producing feedback.

Multi-Pattern Microphones

Some microphones are multi-pattern. In other words, their polar patterns can be changed (e.g. from omnidirectional to cardioid) by means of a switch or by interchangeable capsules. This capability gives the mic added versatility in various settings.

Frequency Response

A microphone’s frequency response refers to the range of frequencies, from low to high, that a microphone will pick up. This range is referred to by its lowest and highest frequencies, measured in hertz. A microphone with a frequency response range of around 80 Hz to 15 kHz would make a good choice for a vocal mic. However for miking snares and toms, you would look for a range that starts lower, at around 50 Hz, and for a bass drum mic, you will want a low end of 40 Hz or even lower, down to 30 Hz.

Response Curves

It is important to note that frequency response only tells you the overall range a mic can reproduce. How it performs at different frequencies is another matter, and this performance is what gives a mic its character.

The shape of a microphone’s frequency responsiveness is called its response curve. Because it starts out at zero on the low end and drops off to zero at the high end, it takes the form of a curve when graphed. Within this overall curve, there will be peaks and dips in certain places that give the mic a certain character and make it more suited to certain applications. For example, a mic intended for vocals may have a spike in its upper midrange that results in smoother or more intelligible reproduction of voices.

shure sm58 frequency chart

The frequency response curve of a Shure SM58 microphone

Sensitivity and SPL-Handling Capability

Sensitivity refers to how quiet a sound the mic can detect, and it is expressed using different systems. Regardless of the system, it is perhaps enough to know that the lower the number, the more sensitive the microphone is.

SPL stands for “sound pressure level” and is expressed in decibels (dBs). It describes the maximum volume that a mic can handle, so, in a way, it is the opposite of sensitivity. This is important if the mic must deal with loud instruments such as drums. An average level is around 100 dB; a high SPL is 130 dB.

Proximity Effect

Proximity effect is not given as a specification, but is an important mic characteristic that is sometimes mentioned in descriptions.

Proximity effect causes bass frequencies to become more pronounced as the sound source moves closer to the mic. This is desirable for singers who "work the mic" to create effects. A recording engineer might select a mic with a strong proximity effect for close miking an instrument to bring out its bass tones.

Condenser mics generally produce more proximity effect than dynamic mics.

What the Specs Don't Tell You

The characteristics of a microphone involve more than just the specifications you read in its description. In fact, you will learn that some manufacturers fudge the numbers, so it can be hard to tell the difference, on paper, between a mic that costs $50 and one that costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars. However, the product’s structure, the kind of metals used and the precision of its manufacturing can all greatly affect its performance.

That’s why it's fair to say that price itself is a significant specification. Keep in mind that listening is the best way to really know the differences between a great mic and a lesser one.

Types of Microphones and Their Applications

Most microphones fall into one of two categories: dynamic mics and condenser mics – and these types are characterized by a number of important differences.

Typically, dynamic mics are more rugged than condensers, making them more suitable for on-stage use. Condensers, on the other hand, are more sensitive and more delicate, so they are most often used for studio recording. These are generalities however; there are dynamic mics that are often used in recording settings, and condenser models designed to handle the rigors of stage work.

Another distinction is the mic’s power requirement. Dynamic mics operate without a power source, while most condensers need a battery or phantom power supply (from a mixing board, preamp, or dedicated external power supply) to function.

Let’s take a closer look at the different microphone types to zero in on the best option for your purposes.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones use an inductive coil connected to a diaphragm and placed within the field of a permanent magnet. As the diaphragm moves, it moves the coil, thus varying the voltage the coil produces. These subtle shifts in output voltage shape the mic’s output.

These mics are usually quite rugged, and have high SPL-handling capability. Most have internal shock mounting to allow hand use, and their polar patterns reject off-axis sounds. These are all reasons that dynamic mics tend to perform well in live sound situations, though some also are used regularly for recording. The Shure SM58 has been both a studio and stage staple for many years.

As a group, dynamic mics also are relatively affordable, and many of the big-name mic manufacturers have economy-series mics that give you great performance for a low price.

shure sm58 dynamic microphone

U2 record producer Daniel Lanois counts on the super-affordable Shure SM58 dynamic mic to capture Bono’s vocals.

Ribbon Microphones

Unlike other dynamic mics, ribbon mics are extremely delicate. They operate on the same principle as the other dynamic mics, but instead of a diaphragm, they employ a thin ribbon that vibrates to vary voltage. Ribbon mics are used in the studio for recording voices and a broad range of instruments. They soften the sound and impart warmth to recorded material.

beyerdynamic m260 ribbon microphone

The Beyerdynamic M 260 ribbon mic is prized by studio engineers and producers for its ability to add a warm sheen to digital recordings.

Application-Specific Dynamic Mics

In recent years, microphone manufacturers have begun producing dynamic microphone models designed for specific instruments. Here are a few examples:

Drum and Percussion Microphones

Because each drum and cymbal within a drum kit creates its own unique sounds, mics are tailored for kick drums, snares, toms, and cymbals. Each mic has a response curve and profile best suited to the drum for which it’s used. Because of their ability to handle high frequencies and sounds with a rapid attack, small-diameter condenser mics are often used to capture the sound of cymbals. Drum mics are often sold in special packs of four, five, or more microphones that will save you money and guarantee that you have the whole range of your drum kit’s sounds covered.

audix fp7 drum mic pack

The very affordable 7-mic Audix FP7 Drum Mic Pack includes everything you need to mic up a full-sized drum kit.

Microphones for Reed, Brass, Woodwind, and Stringed Instruments

Typically small and lightweight, these microphones have a frequency response tailored to the specific instrument, and they employ a special mounting system that attaches to the instrument's bell or body. Since these mounts and their attached mics move with the instrument, they maintain a set distance for greater volume consistency while giving the artist freedom of movement. Clip-on microphones have been developed for violin, viola, cello, and double bass that eliminate the need to retrofit priceless instruments with pickups.

applied microphone technology AMT LSW

The Applied Microphone Technology AMT LSW wireless mic for sax is compatible with many wireless systems and gives reed players freedom to roam the stage.

Bullet Microphones

Bullet microphones are specially made for harmonica players. With a short, round casing, they can easily be cupped in the player’s hands along with the harmonica, and their crystal diaphragm elements produce the distorted sound beloved by blues harp players.

hohner blues blaster microphone

The Hohner Blues Blaster cranks out raw “Mississippi Saxophone” tone—the Holy Grail for blues harp players.

Wireless Microphones

Though they are electronically similar to wired microphones, wireless microphones include a transmitter to allow a greater range of movement. A battery-powered transmitter in the microphone’s body transmits the mic’s signal to a receiver unit that is connected to a mixer or PA system. The signal is transmitted using radio frequencies. The most common wireless systems use digital, UHF, or VHF frequencies. Affordable wireless mic systems that deliver good sound and bang for the buck typically use the UHF band. The best systems use digital technology that optimizes audio quality while also eliminating noise and signal dropouts that can be an issue with low-quality systems. Interference generated by devices such as radios, wireless phones, garage-door openers, and even fluorescent light fixtures are detected and eliminated by such digital circuitry.

Another way better-quality wireless mic systems deal with reception problems is through diversity technology. Receivers that have what is referred to as true diversity contain two separate radio modules, each connected to its own antenna. When interference is detected, a circuit compares the signal received by each module/antenna and uses whichever one is cleanest.

It’s important to note that receiver microphone frequencies must match. This is not an issue when you purchase a full system since the frequencies have been matched by the manufacturer. But if you are buying microphones and receivers separately, be sure they operate on the same bandwidths.

Wireless vocal mics come in a number of formats including hand-held models, clip-on lavalier mics, and headworn mics that have a headband. Some manufacturers also produce plug-in transmitters with which you can convert a standard wired mic to wireless operation.

shure pgxd24 sm58 digital wireless mic

The Shure PGXD24/SM58 Digital Wireless System combines a benchmark SM58 mic with a wireless transmitter and receiver employing 24-bit/48kHz digital technology for peerless sound.

Untethered from mic stands or amp cables, wireless instrument mic systems give the musician the freedom to move around the stage. There are wireless systems for brass, woodwind, and string players too that are essentially smaller wireless microphones that clip onto the instrument.

As you explore the Musician's Friend mic selection, descriptions will usually include information about the various model’s best applications. Keep in mind that the majority of on-stage mics are used for vocals. Accordingly, you will have many choices when it comes to choosing dynamic mics for this purpose.

Learn more about wireless mics with our Wireless Systems Buying Guide.

Condenser Microphones

In condenser mics, a thin conductive diaphragm is located close to a metal plate called a backplate, creating a capacitor. This capacitor is supplied with a small electric charge, either from phantom power or from a battery. When the pressure of sound waves causes the diaphragm to vibrate, it changes the distance between it and the backplate, thus causing variations in the output voltage. This varied output creates the microphone's electronic signal.

Condenser microphones use an external power supply, internal batteries, or phantom power supplied by the mixer input. These days, most mixers have phantom power on mic inputs, but if you are using an older mixer, you’ll want to make sure it has phantom power before buying a condenser that requires it.

There are many different types of condenser mics, and most of them are used for recording. A few are used for live sound applications such as overhead miking of choirs, pianos, acoustic stringed instruments, and certain percussion instruments such as cymbals.

Here are the main types of condenser microphones:

Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

Sizable recording microphones with diaphragms from three quarters to an inch in diameter, large-diaphragm mics are usually very sensitive. They almost always require external power and suspension mounting that isolates the mic from external vibrations.

The large size of these mics and their need for suspension makes them unsuitable for such applications as miking drum kits, where space is tight, but they are excellent for recording voices and a wide variety of instruments. That is why they often serve as a recording studio's all-purpose microphones.

As you may have guessed, the best mics in this category can be very expensive; however, a number of affordable models have become available in recent years. These cost-conscious models mimic the design of the more expensive mics, and they work quite well for nonprofessional recording.

sennheiser mk4 mic

The Sennheiser MK4 large-diaphragm condenser mic uses classic studio mic construction techniques and components for definition and sensitivity that belie its modest price.

Side-Address Condenser Microphones

Another type of large-condenser mic, side-address microphones usually have a wide, flat windscreen over a large diaphragm. These are positioned horizontally and aimed toward the side at a 90-degree angle. Thus, if the mic is vertical, a singer seems to be addressing it from the side, hence its name.

Dual-Diaphragm Condensers

Usually, dual-diaphragm mics are configured the same as side-address mics. However, they have two diaphragms aimed in opposite directions.

Naturally, dual-diaphragm mics are effective for recording duets or larger groups, and they can be great for picking up room ambiance. A dual-diaphragm condenser mic makes it easier to balance two simultaneous sound sources as opposed to using two single-diaphragm mics.

Tube Condenser Microphones

The vintage models you associate with old-time recording and broadcast studios are tube condenser microphones. Because they impart a warmth and a rounded sound to recorded material—much like a tube guitar amp colors the instrument's sound in pleasing ways—they still are made and used in professional studios to this day.

These mics require a dedicated power supply, powered mixer, or a mic preamp that provides the correct voltage.

mxl 9000 condenser mic with shockmount

A 12AT7 tube circuit in the MXL 9000 condenser mic results in warm-yet-transparent sound. A great value, it includes a power supply and shockmount.

Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

With a diaphragm a half-inch or less in diameter, small-diaphragm microphones are used in many recording applications and occasionally in live settings.

These mics do especially well at reproducing higher-frequency sounds and sound sources that change quickly in volume or have a sudden attack. One common application is overhead miking of cymbals. Like other condensers, they depend on phantom power or a battery to operate.

sterling st33 small diaphram condenser microphone

With its highly detailed sound capture, the Sterling ST33 small-diaphragm condenser mic excels at recording piano, acoustic guitar, and as an overhead drum mic.

USB Microphones

The enormous popularity of computer-based recording has revolutionized the way music is recorded. When it comes to routing your music through the soundcard of a computer, there are many possibilities available today, ranging from sophisticated digital audio workstations (DAWs) and digital mixing boards to simpler interfaces offering connections for a single mic and /or instrument. Or simplest of all are USB-powered mics that offer plug ‘n’ play convenience.

blue spark digital condenser mic

The Blue Spark Digital Condenser Mic offers plug ‘n‘ play compatibility with Macs and PCs, and incorporates the same acclaimed condenser capsule used in Blue’s Spark XLR condenser mic.

There’s a healthy selection of USB-compatible microphones to choose from these days. They include both condenser and dynamic mic types configured for specific applications such as vocal and instrument miking. Many work seamlessly with iOS and Android apps that turn your smartphone or tablet into a highly portable recording studio.

Shotgun Microphones

Having a very narrow and extended polar pattern, shotgun microphones are often used for broadcasts such as sporting events because they excel at picking up specific sound sources from a distance.

Boundary Microphones

These mics are usually are placed on a flat surface such as a floor, table, ceiling, or wall which help gather the sound. Boundary mics are quite versatile and are often used on podiums, at conferences, in boardrooms, and in the studio. They are useful for various sound-reinforcement applications that require coverage of a large area.

Roll-off and Bass Attenuation Switches

These controls are found on many condenser microphones and enhance their versatility. The roll-off switch alters the frequency range, usually on the low end, reducing response or cutting it off below a certain level. The roll-off switch is used in live sound situations to reduce low-end rumble. Rolling off the bass keeps the PA power amp from having to deal with frequencies below its capability. In recording, rolling off the bass can add clarity. Attenuation switches alter a mic's sensitivity or volume, padding it so that a high volume source doesn't overload the mic, causing distortion.

Microphone Packages

Equipping your home studio with a versatile selection of mics and mic mounts can be an expensive proposition. So can equipping your band with a collection of stage-worthy mics and mic stands. At Musician’s Friend we offer many different mic packages that include multiple mics, stands, mounts, cables and other mic accessories. These packages contain carefully matched components, and offer significant savings compared to buying those components separately.

Microphone Accessories

There are numerous mic accessories designed to optimize your microphone’s performance. Some of them, including mic stands, cables, and mounts, are pretty much essential. Other items such as pop filters, windscreens, shockmounts, and isolation screens may also be critical, depending on how and where you are using your mic. Whether you’re looking for mic replacement parts such as a new grille for that battered SM58, or a mount that’ll puts your mic precisely where you want it, you’ll find it at Musician’s Friend.

Signing Off: Some Final Comments

One of the most helpful things you can do in selecting a mic is good, old-fashioned research. Ask others about the mics they use, read reviews by pro-audio specialists as well customer-written reviews on our website. There are other resources, too. Harmony Central, for example, is a great place to go for reviews and comments regarding specific microphones.

Another strategy to consider is sticking with the established, big-name companies that make professional mics. Many of them have lower-priced models that deliver surprisingly good sound. You can spend as little as $40 to $50 and get a decent dynamic stage mic.

For recording mics, the more you spend directly correlates with the quality of your recordings, so it is best to avoid the very lowest-priced models. Starting at around $100, you can find condenser recording mics that serve very nicely in home recording studios.

Of course, it’s safe to assume that the more you spend, the better the mic you’ll get. But be realistic. Work with your budget, and ensure your choice is appropriate for what you want to achieve. A mic’s overall quality should match the audio quality of the rest of your signal chain.

For a DJ who needs to talk to his audience occasionally during a show, a low-priced mic can be perfectly adequate. If you need a vocal mic for your garage band, an affordable mic will do for that application too.

We want you to be pleased with your microphone purchase, and offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee and generous return policy so you can order with confidence. After reading this guide, if you’re still not sure what mic is right for you, we invite you call to one of our friendly and knowledgeable Gear Heads at (800) 449-9128.

Tags: Microphones

Comments  

# john 2014-10-07 08:04
I play the trumpet (sometimes muted with Harmon) and sing in a 4 man combo (piano bass acoustic guitar). Looking for a reliable mic for small performances. This is a hobby band, so cost is a factor. Small stages so want to minimize "stuff". Suggestions for stands and accessories appreciated.

Article is very informative. Thank you
Reply
# Dick Dixon 2014-10-07 10:07
Hi John, I'd avoid condensers and ribbon mics. Dynamic microphones are more durable, don't require +48v power like condensers, and won't break or distort from the high volume a trumpet projects. Go try these options and pick what you like. I have been very successful with all of these for trumpet and voice. The dynamic mics are: Sennheiser MD 421 (349), EV RE20 (339), Audix D4, D2 or i5 (85-169), AKG D40 or D112 (99-139), Shure SM 58, 57, or Beta 56 (99-159). If you buy a dynamic, I highly recommend you also buy an impedance mod (30) from Peterson Goodwyn. It makes a HUGE difference. Search Google: "Peterson Goodwyn How to add an input impedance control"
If you want a Condenser, the standard mic for your application is a Neumann U87ai (2685) or have a professional modification (175-399) done to a CAD M179 or GXL3000 (119) or AKG 420 (199).

For your backup, should anything happen to your GOOD mic, buy a Pyle Pro PDMIC58 (22). Not great, but it'll save you.
Reply
# Rajendra 2014-09-22 03:33
Hello,

I have to record engine noise which have frequencies up to 1KHz. Can anyone suggest suitable mic to record engine noise.

Regards,
Rajendra
Reply
# Mark Aronoff 2014-05-10 08:44
Hi Dan, thanks for the reply. I am under the impression that the DM-80 is a condenser mic needing either phantom power or a battery. I realize I am wrong. I am going to check out the pre-amp you've recommended. I really appreciate your time and effort to help me out.

Kindly,

Mark
Reply
# MF Gearhead - Dan 2014-05-09 20:13
Hey Mark,

You don't want to put any phantom power into the Nady DM-80 since it is a dynamic mic (you'll damage the mic if you do). But you do need to raise it from a low impedance to a high impedance level to work straight into a bass amp. Most preamps will give you the signal boost you need to do that. Personally, I own the Art Tube MP and it's worked well for clean signal boosts like what you need:

http://www.musiciansfriend.com/pro-audio/art-tube-mp-studio-mic-preamp
Reply
# Aud1073cH 2014-06-16 06:51
Most dynamic microphones will not care if there is phantom power present or not. It will not damage the DM-80, but it is not required. This application will benefit from a proper pre-amplifier, not only to match impedance, but to raise the signal level.
Phantom power IS dangerous to most ribbon microphones.
Reply
# Mark Aronoff 2014-05-09 08:29
Have a Nady DM-80 mike plugged into Ampeg bass head. Hardly any sound. Any suggestions how to supply 'phantom' power to DM-80 to get it to perform? I like the heavy thump of a good kick (Gretsch 20" with Evans batter)
thanks, Mark
Reply
# Mark Aronoff 2014-05-09 08:25
I bought a Nady 80 Kick Drum mic and plug it directly into my Ampeg Bass head. There is very little sound. Any recommendations as to how to 'phantom' power it? I am interested to add punch to the kick drum live thru the Ampeg head and cab, or alternatively, I also use a carver 1201 amp with 4 peavey monitors and a powered Polk Sub for background music during practice. Many thanks. Mark
Reply
# frequency dependant 2014-05-08 05:33
I agree with everybody (except the guy who asked unobjectively for recommendations ) but the main focus here is application. If'n the right mic ain't used rightly than you end up with doodly squat.
Reply
# The HUB 2014-04-07 17:57
You'll find details about headworn mics and the wireless systems they operate with in our Wireless System Buying Guide. We hope you find the guide useful in picking out a system that works for you.
Reply
# Guido 2014-04-05 03:54
Nice article, but I'd like some reference about the head worn mic types, I haven't find one yet, that'd work well for singing Hard rock, I've seen that Sammy Hagar, and the singer of Winger, used them in live situations.
Reply
# Guido 2014-04-05 03:51
Nice article indeed, but It's missing the headworn mic types, I'm needing one, for singing classic rock and hard rock style, I've seen that Sammy Hagar and the singer of winger (don't remember his name now) used these head worn wireless mics, for live situations of course.
Reply
# Samuel Asher 2014-04-01 16:19
Excellent overview article. My only comment is with this statement, "A mic’s overall quality should match the audio quality of the rest of your signal chain."
What this does not say is that, being the first device that converts real sound to electrical signals, nothing down the chain can improve the fidelity over that initial microphone. To me, this implies that if any part of your rig is going to be high quality, start with the microphone.
Reply
# Ronald 2014-02-18 13:55
what would you recommend?
Reply
# Dick Dixon 2013-12-11 10:53
Pretty good basic overview, but a few corrections may be needed here.

1. Proximity effect is caused by the polar pattern. A mic with an Omni directional polar pattern will not experience proximity effect. All other types will.

2. The Cardioid, Hyper-Cardioid, and Super-Cardioid mics do not by nature reject rear sound. Point the back of one at a monitor and you will see that it does not by the deafness you in cure from the feedback squealing. However, some manufactures have altered the physical housing of a microphone to not reject sound but to cancel sound by way of phase-cancelati on. This is most common ally done by adding ports on the sides of the mic. Unfortunately, the ports are often incorrectly spaced or sized to do much good.
Reply

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