Before we get into How to Choose a Microphone, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
You’ve come to the right place!!
My goal for this article (and all articles) is to provide every bit of information needed to answer all questions, and in some cases make an informed purchasing decision. Today we’re going to simplify the process! By the end of this article you should have a clear idea of how to choose a mic, the differences in types, and what you’ll need to get started! Keep checking back for future updates as well!
Choosing a Microphone can seem like a daunting task given how many there are out there. I still have my very first microphone! It’s the Samson C01, and I’ve talked about it ad-nausea over the years.
It’s held up remarkably well since I bought it all the way back in 2007-2008. It’s just about the most rugged and heavy piece of equipment I have in my studio. It feels like a 5 lb. dumbbell!
This condenser microphone paired with an audio interface and XLR cable provides what you’ll need to quickly get started recording, well, anything!
With that, let’s take a look at some Criteria involved in the decision making process..
USB vs. XLR
One of the first considerations to make is whether or not you’ll want a USB mic or an XLR mic. What is XLR?
USB microphones are much more convenient. Plug and play is what all the kids are calling it these days 😉 All you have to do is plug the cable into your mic, and slide the other one into the USB hole on the side of your PC/Laptop. After that, your device should be recognized immediately. If it’s not, the mic is either a piece of crap or you’ll simply need to download a driver from the manufacturer’s website. No big deal! 😀
USB mics are nothing to scoff at too. After demoing and researching a few different units, I settled on the Blue Yeti. It’s actually my main mic that I use for my YouTube channel, and has become mainstay in my home. The sound quality is just about as good as something like an AT2020.
Right now it’s just what I need, and has proven to be the most flexible and versatile unit that I’ve ever had. We’ll get into it more a bit later!
A good USB mic is ideal for:
People who don’t want the hassle of purchasing separate gear.
People who aren’t familiar with Interfaces or Mixers.
People who want great sound at an affordable price.
An XLR mic simply uses an XLR cable and must be plugged into an Audio Interface, Mixer, Preamp, etc. For beginners that are looking to get their feet wet, I would recommend an Audio Interface to start. Related:What does an Audio Interface Do?
Let’s discuss quickly what an Interface can do. Something like my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 can:
Power my Studio Monitors. This is done via it’s Balanced Line Outputs on the back. Some other units come with RCA/Analog, etc. but I prefer Balanced because the TRS cable utilizes reverse polarity to completely cancel out any noise and interference that may happen when the sound is in transit. Related:What are Studio Monitors?
Power my Condenser Microphone. This is done via 48v phantom power. Condensers by default have a weak signal on their own and need this power to reach acceptable listening levels. Just make sure your 48v phantom power button is pressed or you won’t hear anything! This is a common issue in forums and reviews. People write negative reviews for condenser microphones or audio interfaces without realizing that they forgot to flick the switch.
Function as an Amp/DAC. An interface like the 2i2 is also a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) that converts the digital 1’s and 0’s that your computer understands into the analog sound that you hear. This is really a mind blowing process when you dig deeper into it. Related:What is a USB DAC? Basically you can plug your headphones into the 1/4″ Jack on the front and you’ll have a pretty decent Amplifier. Keep in mind it’s no substitute for a dedicated Amp, but we’ll get into that later.
Outside of your computer, the Interface is perhaps the most important component of your chain. You could also opt for something like a Mixer, but I prefer the Interface. For instance, if you’re more hands on and like to feel knobs turning with your fingers, the mixer is probably better for you. Related:What does an Audio Mixer Do?
An XLR microphone is ideal for:
People who are a bit more serious about recording Instruments and Vocals.
People who want better sound quality out of their purchase.
People who are more familiar with Interfaces and Mixers.
People who have more room in their Studio Space.
Now that we have an idea of the differences between XLR and USB, let’s take a look at some more considerations!
This is a big one, and could make all the difference in your purchasing decision. Let’s take a look at the Condenser. Related:Condenser Mic vs. Dynamic Mic
A Condenser Microphone tends to pick up a lot of ambient noise, as well as background sound and such. The good news is that it does reject anything going on behind it and to some extent the sides. I find that even with no Acoustic Sound Treatment in my room and a highway full of buzzing cars outside my window, it’s still relatively quiet.
There are also two types to consider: The Large Diaphragm and the Small Diaphragm.
A Small Diaphragm Condenser is under 1 inch in diameter and proves to be a little better at handling transients and other high frequency information due in part to their smaller and more compact diaphragm. These sound a bit more airy and sometimes have less coloration than an LDC.
Small Diaphragms tend to work well with Woodwinds, Acoustic Guitars, Cymbals and Hi Hats, Small Percussion Instruments, delicate instruments, and any thing else that has a lot of detail.
These are greater than 1 inch in diameter and do a great job of bringing out the lower frequencies. This is why they’re more sought after for Rap Vocals as they tend to beef up your voice. I can confirm this with my AT2020, as it makes my somewhat lighter sounding voice appear to have more husk and weight. It also helps to kind of alter your vocals a bit and concentrate on delivering the Rap with a bit more ferocity. Like a Lion! Lol.
A Large Diaphragm has more of a big sound, but they have a thicker and heavier diaphragm which means they won’t react as fast to changes in sound. Related:What is SPL?
Dynamics are much less sensitive and will not pick up nearly the amount of background/extraneous noise, if any at all. To start off, dynamics are a lot more durable. In general, even if I have a really rugged condenser, I’m more concerned about it dropping than I would be a Dynamic.
Dynamics are also better for live applications because of that very reason: They are much more durable and can handle quite a bit of abuse. This is why a mic like the SM58 has been a live staple for so many decades.
The Shure SM7B represents just about the best all around Dynamic mic on the market for studio work. It’s been used in studios for decades by some of the most popular artists of all time. Michael Jackson used an original SM7 on his 1982 hit album “Thriller” and many more have used it since. Learn more:Shure SM7B dynamic microphone | BEST IN THE BIZ?
With a Dynamic, you won’t need a separate power supply, as they can be plugged into an array of equipment without the need for 48v phantom power. Because they are less sensitive, they’ll do well in a less than ideal studio environment. If you don’t have or plan on investing in any kind of treatment for your room, a Dynamic might be the better option.
The trade off is that something like an SM7B needs a bit more gain than is provided out of a basic Audio Interface. Fortunately the solution is rather simple. Check out the SM7B article above for more details!
A Dynamic won’t pick up background noise, ambient noise, your neighbor taking a dump, or the guy above you having sex. Lol. In some of my YouTube videos you can clearly hear a ruckus going on upstairs due to the Yeti picking up a lot. Could you describe the Ruckus sir?
At first I thought it was the guy having sex, but they mostly do that at night when I’m trying to sleep. 😛 During the daytime, I’ve figured out that he’s likely running on a treadmill, which ends up shaking my living room ceiling fan. I feel like one day it’s going to fall and completely obliterate my face while I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy (how ironic), but that’s a separate issue altogether.
As alluded to earlier, with a USB mic you’ll need nothing but a USB connection. By now nearly every device that’s worth a darn has one.
With an XLR mic, it’s a bit more involved but still not too difficult. Let’s discuss some major components needed!
The Microphone. This goes without saying, but I’m including it anyhow.
A Mic Stand. I have the Pro Line MS112 which is extremely durable, rugged, and heavy. You may opt for an upright boom or even something like a scissor arm. It just depends. I will say that while the desktop homie that I have works well with my set up, it may not for yours. That depends on your studio space and what not.
A Pop-Filter. This is pretty much mandatory, at least for a Condenser. If you don’t invest in one you’re audio is going to sound like po
op. Lots of plosives, crackling, un-even sound, etc. It’s also mandatory to keep your nasty spit and undesirables from your dirty mouth out of the grill and the capsule. If you don’t invest in a Pop-Filter for a Condenser microphone, you’re mic is likely to get damaged over time. Related:What is a cardioid capsule?
An XLR Cable. I’ve had the same one for years and years and it seems to do just fine. Some people claim there are huge differences in higher priced cables but I can’t really speak to that from experience. I’ve only ever had one cable and it’s served me well since about 2007.
An Audio Interface, Mixer, or other device to plug the mic into. As we’ve discussed above, you won’t need 48v Phantom Power for a Dynamic mic, but you can still plug it into the Interface as a way of laying down a track. Just don’t press the 48v switch and you’re golden. You could also opt for a mixer if that’s more your cup of tea. Like I said, I prefer the Interface because of how versatile it is. Right now I have my mic plugged in (just in case I want to record something) and I’m listening to music as we speak out of my Studio Monitors. I also have my HD600’s on standby just in case I want to switch over to those and really dissect the music using the 2i2’s headphone jack input. However, for that I generally tend to use a dedicated Headphone Amp. Related:How to Choose a Headphone Amp!
Some sort of sequencer to lay the track down. Since I’m not a serious vocalist, I use the free Audacity which works just fine. There’s nothing wrong with using this program contrary to what some snobs will tell you. It’s perfect for the beginner and it’s all I need. You could opt for something like Reaper (Free 60 Day Trial) later on down the road if you wanted. I’ve used Steinberg’s Nuendo in the past and that was cool too. It just doesn’t matter as much as people like to claim. It’s more about your technique than anything else. After I lay down the Vocals to a track in Audacity, I can then EQ them very easily with something like FL Studio’s Parametric EQ feature. Even with that said, my AT2020 provides an incredibly good first take without any EQ applied! A lot of times I will simply adjust the levels and panning inside Audacity and call it a day. I do it more for fun, but in the future I may EQ some of my vocals. It just depends.
To round this article out, let’s take a look at some of my picks..
I think the best USB mic you can purchase, and the go to solution for 99% of people is the Blue Yeti. It’s got a ridiculous amount of features and flexibility, and for the price is an absolute steal. Learn more about my favorite USB mic: Blue Microphones Yeti Review | EXTRAORDINARY!
My favorite XLR Condenser Microphone is most certainly the AT2020, and is a perfect starter solution for the budding vocalist. It can record instruments as well, and is a really great all purpose mic. Learn more:Audio Technica AT2020 condenser microphone review
For those looking for the absolute best dynamic mic that does not require phantom power, look no further than the Shure SM7B. This baby has been a beast for decades, used in some of the greatest records of all time. Learn more:Shure SM7B dynamic microphone
Choosing a Studio Microphone shouldn’t be too complicated of a process. Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for and exactly all that a mic entails, it becomes fairly straightforward.
Just think about what you’ll be using it for, the level of convenience you’re after, and also consider some of the studio components we discussed today. Will you need any of them? I would recommend a Mic Stand and Pop-Filter for any mic you decide on. The SM7B comes with one attached already. Something like the Blue Yeti can even be Jerry Rigged with a simple sock! Yeah you heard me correctly. I use a sock as a Pop-Filter because I just don’t feel like purchasing a separate windscreen right now 😛 I do have a Pop-Filter for the AT2020 as you saw in the picture. That baby has been going strong for me since around 2007 as well. You can check out the Samson PS01 Pop-Filter on Amazon.
Well that’s about it for today folks! I hope you’ve come away with some valuable insight on How to Choose A Microphone…
How did I do? Suggestions for improving this article? Do you need any further clarification on anything? Did I leave anything out? Let me know!!
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Let me know in the comments below or Contact me!! I would love to hear from you..
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.