Studio mic guide

Want to add to your microphone arsenal but don’t know where to start? TheMicStore’s Matt Lawless runs us through some of the most compelling options on the market today.

Matt Lawless: 

We all knew it would happen; it was just a matter of when. Growing up through the 80s and salivating over a Neumann U87 or AKG C414 to record with, these industry heavyweights stood out like a shining beacon in an industry dominated by just a handful of post-Cold War era microphone manufacturers.

Fast-forward 30 years and the landscape looks very different. Yes, those same standard-bearers remain, but lower manufacturing costs have shaken things up never to go back.

Yet, in an audio world dominated by LEDs and plug-ins, with microphones, craft wins over newness. Microphone choice remains a deeply personal thing, and rightly so: without them, unless you are producing the next Jean Michel Jarre protégé, everything starts with a microphone. Get this choice wrong and you can forget the rest.

So let’s start by isolating some of the different types available and a few options of each.

The vast majority of studio microphones are known as condenser microphones. These mics have a diaphragm (think of this as the equivalent of your ear) that is made from a very thin layer of metal, which picks up sound waves hitting the surface. It is this lightweight diaphragm that makes a condenser mic able to capture nuances when recording.

We further break down condenser mics into three areas: large-diaphragm condensers (or LDCs) primarily used for solo voice and instruments; small-diaphragm condensers (or SDCs) for general instrumental recording; and tube condensers, which use a valve within their construction.

Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are usually addressed from the side, and represent the iconic studio-recording mic. They are mostly used for vocal recordings, but not exclusively. Owing to a phenomenon known as proximity effect, which causes lower frequencies to be accentuated as the sound source gets closer, LDCs can appear to colour the sound. This is why they are used mostly on solo vocals and instruments that need to cut through the mix.

With so many models on the market, it can be daunting to choose the right one. Here’s some you may want to consider…

The MXL 2003A is an excellent entry-level vocal option but is slightly noisy owing to its lower-grade components. Next up is the Audio-Technica AT4040SM. This model is an excellent all-rounder although its accuracy can feel slightly clinical at times. For greater accuracy and versatility, the 9-pattern AKG C414B XLS is hard to beat for instrumental use. Vocalists may prefer the XLII version, however, due to its built-in presence lift. Arguably the best vocal mic on the market is the Neumann U 87 Ai. Its noticeable presence lift leads to an iconic sound response favoured by many engineers.

Small-diaphragm condenser microphones by comparison, are usually end-addressed. Their diaphragm is normally less than 0.5in in diameter and importantly does not suffer from proximity issues. This makes SDCs perfect for general instrumental recordings as they will more faithfully reproduce the sound of the subject. These mics are also regularly used as a stereo pair for ensemble recordings. Here are some models to consider…

The Sontronics STC1 is a stunning example of British design, offering unbelievable quality at a level of affordability thanks to low-cost Chinese manufacturing, while the RØDE NT55 has a lower noise floor through higher-quality manufacturing. Both offer the advantage of interchangeable capsules.

With its low noise and near-perfect pickup characteristics, the Earthworks SR25 is highly accurate and built to last. Top of the tree is DPA’s 4006A. It’s the most accurate SDC we’ve come across with an unmatched level of detail and accuracy.

Tube condenser microphones arguably fit within the two above categories, given that the only change is a valve placed within the signal chain. You should be aware however that this will add three things: warmth to the tonal response; noise to the signal path; and cost! Most engineers would consider these optional rather than your main recording mic.

For buyers looking to add warmth to their recordings on a budget, the RØDE K2 is the least noisy of the entry-level models. Stepping up a level you can get the Lewitt LCT940. It’s the newest tube mic in this category but is already winning awards for its capability, sound quality, and versatility. US manufacturer Blue offers the Blue Bottle – a personal favourite – providing the option to change capsules for different applications. It’s the ultimate valve workhorse. But if you just need the best-quality valve mic, the Brauner VMA manages to retain low-noise and accuracy. Beware though this does come at a price!

No discussion on studio microphones would be complete without at least mentioning the two other primary mic types: dynamic and ribbon.

Dynamic microphones are most often associated with on-stage use due to their rugged build quality. This does not, however, prevent them from being used in the studio. Guitar cabs, percussion, brass/wind, and even vocals can benefit from using a dynamic mic. While they are less sensitive, sometimes the sense of urgency a dynamic can capture is just what is required. Models worthy of note here include the Sennheiser MD441, Electrovoice RE20, or Shure SM7B.

Ribbon microphones have a unique construction type resulting in a smoothness unparalleled by any other type. Think luscious 1950s Hollywood strings, or crooning vocals. Here are a few of our favourites.

The Avantone CR14 must be the best budget ribbon mic, period. It manages to include a very usable shockmount and carry case, but you may need a preamp to amplify the output. Next up is the Audio-Technica AT4080. It’s a high-quality ribbon mic with active circuitry, which helps to reduce noise and provide a higher output. If you’re after clear results and an open, detailed sound, the Sontronics Sigma is hard to beat. Its unique design looks great and sounds amazing on brass and strings. Our premium choice here though, almost in a category of its own, is the sE Electronics RNR1. It is unusually accurate for a ribbon mic while retaining smooth characteristics. It really is the best on the market.

Finally, I should mention a couple of models that don’t neatly fall into any of the above categories: DPA miniatures such as the IMK4060 kit can solve a wealth of problems getting a mic in exactly the right spot, and don’t forget a boundary mic for ambience recording such as the AKG CBL99. As with any of the above, your own experimentation will ultimately guide you.