Here at MasteringBox, we’re always looking for ways to offer as much help and advice to our users as possible. In the past, we’ve detailed the ins and outs of microphone types and some of their more specific uses. Today, I’d like to run through a simple guide to picking out the right vocal microphone for you. This could be for you as a performer or perhaps something to add to your home studio equipment. Maybe you’ve already got a vocal microphone but you’re in the market for something a little bit different? Let’s take a look at some of the key details to consider when choosing the right vocal microphone for you.
Dynamic vs Condenser
First off is the age-old question of dynamic or condenser. I am aware that we also have the option of ribbons but this is likely to be the least sought-after vocal microphone type. In order to keep this as simple as possible, allow me to briefly detail the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones.
Dynamic microphones are typically used for louder sources. They have very high gain before feedback levels and are less sensitive than condensers. This means that they are unlikely to pick up as much of the fine quality that a condenser could. If you’re working with loud singers or rappers that tend to get a bit carried away (or just full on shout most of the time), going for a dynamic microphone would be a good option. You’ll be able to capture the full power of the performance without having to worry the microphone being able to handle high SPLs up close. A popular option for a dynamic vocal microphone is the Shure SM7B.
The most commonly used microphone type to record vocals, condensers can be seen in every recording studio under the sun. With literally hundreds to choose from, there is likely a condenser microphone perfectly suited to everybody out there. Condensers are sensitive and delicate and offer us beautiful colour and character in our recordings. They can pick up the smallest sonic nuances and make for truly intimate recordings. From budget models like the Audio Technica AT2020 all the way up to Vintage Telefunken U47s, you’re spoilt for choice with each offering something slightly different.
Features of a Vocal Microphone
One of the key things to look out for when picking out a vocal microphone are the features that it includes above and beyond being a microphone. Many microphones will come with adjustable polar patterns. Many also come with switchable attenuators and high-pass filters. Other things to consider will include the circuitry type and the frequency spectrum of the microphone.
If you’re looking for some wonderful warmth and depth from your vocals, you might want to consider purchasing a tube microphone. Just bear in mind that tube microphones come with their own power supplies. This means you’ll need to warm them up before you want to use them and you’ll need an additional power outlet. Finally, think about the frequency response of the microphone relative to the vocals you intend to capture. For instance, if you know that the vocalist you intend to capture has a very nasal vocal range, selecting something that is less aggressive in the 500-1,000Hz range will work perfectly.
Budget, Quality, and Longevity
Next, we come onto the fiscal elements of choosing a vocal microphone. Investing in audio equipment can be quite expensive and so you want to know that what you’re getting is providing you as much bang for your buck as possible.
Build quality should be just as paramount as the sonic qualities of the microphone. Make sure that it feels sturdy and solid in your hands. You want to know that it could withstand a few knocks over the years because let’s face it, it’s bound to happen! You also want to make sure that the microphone is going to interface with your current equipment correctly. There’s nothing worse than buying a new vocal microphone and then finding out that your preamps don’t supply enough gain to really get them going.
Longevity is also something to think about when you’re buying a new microphone. If you’re buying this microphone for yourself and you intend to make album after album of new music then splashing out something of a slightly higher quality with more built-in features is definitely worth it. Equally, if you’re buying a new vocal microphone for your studio where you’ll have paying customers, it’s likely to pay for itself in no time. Everyone gets excited when they hear that my studio has a Neumann U87 and it keeps them coming back. Set yourself a sensible budget but don’t be afraid to spend a few extra dollars to see some serious improvement in quality.
A Word on Preamps
A final consideration when it comes to vocal microphones is preamps. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Even if you’ve shelled out $1,000 for a microphone, you won’t be able to make the absolute best use of it if you’re still running old, cheap audio preamps. As many of you have probably found out, the music equipment market can be quite a money pit but just like I mentioned before, if you invest in the equipment for the long run, it’ll pay dividends in the end. Quality really is everything so it’s totally worth pairing your new vocal microphone up with a quality preamp and maximising the results!
Choosing a vocal microphone can be tricky. Firstly, you need to assess what the most common source to be captured will be. This should help you to make a decision between dynamic and condenser microphones. After this, have a good hunt around. Check out some of the additional features that certain microphones can offer you. Next, make sure that what you’re investing in is well built. You want it to provide great results and last you a long time. You don’t want to be replacing equipment every year unless you’re upgrading. Splash out and throw a few extra bucks into something that will really survive the test of time. Finally, make sure to consider the preamp that your vocal microphone is going to be paired with. Each piece of equipment is just as important as the other.
On a side note, if you’ve chosen to go with a condenser then check out Sweetwaters vocal mic shootout page. They’ve got audio files for 50 popular vocal microphones so you can get a feel for the sonic properties of some of the microphones you’re interested in.