When you’re just starting out, there’s plenty of room in your mic locker. You may have a couple of SM58®s or SM57s because you know from seeing shows that they’re industry standard workhorses for vocals and instruments. But, you may not know how to choose more specialized microphones, or even that you can afford them.
The good news: specialty microphones are not just for national tours or recording in elite studios. Additionally, you might be surprised to learn that the detailed and colorful sound of a condenser mic is within reach. We’ll share a few tips for selecting specialty mics that will help you make great choices right from the start and still leave you with some gas money.
Match the Mic to the Application
Your microphone decision begins with this question: What am I doing with the microphone?
Vocal or Instrument
Most manufacturers produce microphones for specific types of sound sources. Microphones that are designed for drum kits have different characteristics than those that are used for vocals. In most but not all cases, your first choice will be between a vocal mic and an instrument mic. Manufacturers make this easy for you by clearly labeling their microphones. (The SM58, for example, is a vocal microphone. To see how Shure labels its mics, visit the Microphone pageand click on SM, BETA or any other mic series.)
Dynamic or Condenser
Your second choice will be the transducer or cartridge type. A transducer is the mechanism that converts sound into an electrical signal. That’s all that microphones do. There are two types: dynamic, a simple diaphragm/coil capsule design that handles extreme volume levels without distortion, and condenser, a more complex capsule design that requires a separate power source and more precisely captures sound. Dynamic microphones tend to be associated with live sound reinforcement and condenser microphones for recording, but there are no hard and fast rules here. You’ll find both types on stages and in recording studios. It is true, though, that the more complicated construction of a condenser mic generally makes it more expensive than a dynamic mic designed for the same application.
Next is the microphone’s pick-up or polar pattern (also called directionality). There are two basic types:
Omnidirectional, where sound is reproduced equally whether arriving at 0 degrees (on axis) or at 180 degrees (the rear of the mic). An omnidirectional microphone will pick up ambient or room sound as well as the sound you intend to amplify or record.
Unidirectional mics far outnumber their “omni” cousins. They are more sensitive to sound arriving on axis and less sensitive to sound as it moves off axis. “Uni” mics can allow higher gain levels from sound systems before feedback becomes a problem. The cardioid with a 130-degree pickup angle in front is by far the most common, but there are also subcardioid, supercardioid, and hypercardioid types that have wider or narrower angles. The popularity of the cardioid pattern is largely due to the ever-increasing demand for louder PA systems and even louder monitor systems.
Consider Different Form Factors
With standards like the SM57 and SM58 (both dynamic cardioid mics) on just about every stage in every corner of the world, you might wonder whether the budget for your budding mic locker can handle other types of mics, or if you even need them.
Let’s look at just two examples: a side-address cardioid condenser mic and a gooseneck microphone.
Cardioid Condenser Side-Address Microphone
We’ve already established that condenser types tend to be more sensitive to sound sources generally. Offering a natural sound even at the highest frequencies, they are most often used in controlled environments (for instance, recording studios). Condensers are often portrayed as less rugged than dynamic microphones, but they are a great choice for miking drums in live applications where their sensitivity to loud sounds and comparatively louder output is a plus.
But what about large diaphragm microphones compared to small diaphragm microphones? Small diaphragm condenser mics accurately reproduce the acoustic signal and are often used as measurement mics, instrument mics, and recording mics for ensembles. Large diaphragm condenser mics will add warmth or impart a unique, desirable character to the sound, enhancing solo vocals or small vocal ensembles.
When most of us think about microphones, we’re thinking end-address, where the end of the mic (the round grille of an SM58, for example) is pointed directly at the sound source. What you can’t see, though, is the position of the capsule inside the mic. It’s parallel to the ball grille of the mic with a membrane that protects it from saliva, spilled beer, and the elements. In a side-address mic, the capsule is perpendicular to the end of the microphone. The benefit of this form factor? Positioning. It can easily be suspended over a guitar amp or positioned above the rim of a drumhead.
• Live performance and recording
• Close-miking of acoustic instruments such as piano, guitar, violins, drums, and percussion
• Brass and woodwind instruments
• Low-frequency instruments such as double bass and kick drum
• Overhead miking for drums or percussion
• Orchestras, choirs, wind ensembles
• Room ambience pick-up (guitar amplifier or drums)
Cardioid Condenser Gooseneck Microphones
Since precise microphone placement is critical to great sound in live performance and recording, the ability to position a mic exactly where it’s needed is a valuable thing. While we’re accustomed to seeing gooseneck mics on lecterns and podiums in houses of worship, conferences, and broadcast applications, they’re also useful for miking instruments in live sound and recording.
Another advantage of gooseneck mics is their typically discreet form factor. That makes them ideal for clipping to the bell of a saxophone or to the bridge of a stand-up bass. Clips are generally included, so mic stands are eliminated (contributing to a less cluttered stage or studio). Since gooseneck mics attach to the instrument, the chances of moving outside the mic’s pick-up pattern are eliminated. Most gooseneck microphones are condenser types that have built-in preamplifiers for phantom power.
- Live performance and recording
- Close-miking of acoustic instruments such as strings, brass, woodwinds, saxophone, rack/floor toms and snare drums
The most important step you can take in choosing a microphone is auditioning it yourself. Even if that’s not an option, consider these tips.
Make a shopping list
If you’re just starting out, separate the “need to haves” from the “nice to haves.” Concentrate on the mics that you need right now, and plan to buy the highest quality microphones you can afford. The Shure PG ALTA line is a good place to begin. The PGA58 (cousin to the legendary SM58) is priced around $60, and each PGA58 has met the Shure standard for rugged reliability.
Visit a reputable music store or pro audio dealer
Choose a dealer with a knowledgeable sales staff who can help you narrow down the choices and provide you with a decent test setup. Make sure that all the microphones are set to the same volume level; otherwise the loudest microphone tends to be the winner. Do not use any equalization. Use headphones if possible. If you’re testing a vocal microphone, sing like you are performing. A quick “check, check” will tell you next to nothing about how the microphones really sound. If there is a way to make a short recording, then take advantage of it. You can give the recording your full attention after you sing rather than trying to evaluate the mic while you’re singing.
Check out the return policy or warranty from online retailers or the manufacturer
While buying online may be the most cost-effective way to buy a microphone, odds are you won’t be able to try one before making a final purchase. In some cases, vocal microphones can’t be returned due to heath and hygiene concerns. It’s worth knowing ahead of time. If the dealer does offer a return policy, this option presents you with the opportunity to try the microphone in an actual performance environment, the ultimate way to audition a microphone.
Beg and borrow from friends
Check out fellow musicians and friends to see if they have microphones you can borrow. Pay attention to what microphones are used at the venues where you perform. Talk to the house sound crew and get their opinions.
Remember: if it sounds good to you, it is good
There are very few rules when it comes to microphone choice, so use the mic that works best for you. Top-flight recording studios typically stock a wide variety of microphones to suit many situations, and recording engineers know to try several microphones before hitting the “Record” button. So which microphone is the best one for you? It all depends. Just use your ears.