Basics of Recording: Microphones

Basics of Recording: Microphones

A good recording starts with a good source. Next, you have to capture that source, which is where microphones come in. The bottom line is this: you need at least one good microphone. The built-in mic on your computer just won’t get you the results you want. Thankfully, we live in a time when you can get a good microphone on a serious budget.

In this post, we’ll cover the basic typs of microphones, the kinds and specific mic’s that I use, and what I would recommend for the DIY Musici who’s just starting out. See the other posts in the “Basics of Recording Series” here.

Here are the more common types of microphones and their typical uses :

Dynamic Microphones:

These are typically live sound hand-held mic’s. Shure is a very well-known name, and you’ve probably seen or sung into Shure SM58 at some point. Dynamic mic’s are used for both  vocals and instruments. Some common characteristics: (note – there are lots of exceptions to these, so think of the following list a guidelines)

  • Can take a very loud source. In other words – you can scream into it or put one in front of your amp and turn it up really loud and most dynamics can handle it.
  • They are meant to be used in close proximity. They typically won’t pick up stuff from far away.
  • Usually they are pretty tough – they are meant to be used in a live environment.

I have two dynamic mics:

  • Shure Beta 58a: Used mainly for live vocals
  • Shure SM57: Used mainly for electric guitars and percussion.
Neumann U87

Neumann U87

Large Diaphragm Condensers:

I think of a good large diaphragm condenser as a swiss-army mic. If you’re a DIY Musician on a budget, start out with one of these.

  • Very sensitive. They’ll pick up your air conditioning and the car driving by two blocks away. Pay attention to these things when you use one for recording.
  • Typically a bit more expensive than dynamic mic’s.
  • Great all-purpose mic’s.
  • You won’t want to use these in live environments, as you’ll run into serious feedback problems.

I have a Studio Projects C1, and I use it on basically everything. I can’t say enough good things about it.

Small Diaphragm Condenser Mic’s

These typically look like cigars. They are share a lot of similarities with the LDC’s, but are used more for recording instruments or for field recording. All these little hand-held recording devices you see (the Zoom Hx series, for example) use a pair of small diaphragm condensers.

I have a pair of MXL 603s’s. I use them a lot for recording acoustic guitar and percussion. I’m using them less and less all the time, actually. I just like the sound of my Studio Projects C1 better.

There are certainly other types of microphones out there, such as Ribbon mic’s, but I won’t go into them all here.

Shure SM58

Shure SM58

A good game-plan, especially for the home recording DIY Musician:

1. Buy a Large Diaphragm Condenser

I can’t say enough good things about my Studio Projects C1. I got it used for $150. They are a bit pricier now – I think they’ve upgraded the mic to “version 2”, whatever that means. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Studio Projects B1, which can be purchased used for under $100. MXL is another brand that has a good reputation on a budget.

2. Buy a good dynamic

If you want to record multiple sources at once (acoustic guitar and vocals, for example), you could buy another LDC, or you could go with a dynamic mic. A Shure SM58 is a tried and true winner. Same with the SM57. I really like my Beta 58, but it’s a bit more $$, and honestly, I think an SM58 does just about as good a job. If you perform live a lot, you might want to start with a good dynamic mic, like the Shure Beta 58a.

3. Buy the mic’s that suit your specific needs

From here, do your research and buy the specific mic’s that will meet your recording needs.

A few things to remember:

  • It’s always a good idea to try before you buy. If you are recording music with vocals, the vocals are the most important part. Go to Guitar Center and try out all the mic’s in your price range on your voice (they will let you do this). Buy the one that sounds the best.
  • Buy used. You can get way more bang for your buck with used gear. I buy almost everything used, and I’ve never run into problems. Just be smart about Ebay sellers and Craigslist.
  • If you have one good mic, go record with it. It’s easy to get caught up in the upgrade game. If you’ve got a mic that gives you decent results, go record music instead of pining over what new mic out there might give you a 0.05% increase in quality.

Stay tuned for the next post in the Basics of Recording series where we’ll talk about recording interfaces, which will get the sound from your mic’s into your computer.

Have any questions about using mic’s or specific microphones? Ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to follow up.

  • Opie

    Good article man it helped a lot, I like the whole concept of “Use what you got” instead of pining over what new mic out there might give you a 0.05% increase in quality. Thanks for the motivation, -EO