Best Vocal Mic: Get Better Vocals With Our Pro Picks
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Best Vocal Mic: Get Better Vocals With Our Pro Picks

Author: Robin Vincent

Last updated: May 6, 2020

Reads: 15,173


Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website Gearnews.com.
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Microphones can be a very confusing field.

There are so many options, all sorts of different types and they all look fairly similar and yet vary enormously in price. Scrolling through the options on a website can be mind-boggling. But don’t worry, I’ve distilled the choices down to a handful that I’d recommend looking at depending on your budget. There’s no point drooling over a $1,000 microphone if you only have a couple of hundred to spend.
 
But whatever your budget all of these options will do a good job of recording your voice and bringing it into your music. And don’t forget your popper-stopper (if you don’t know what that is I’ll tell you at the end).

The best vocal mics available are:

  • Audio-Technica AT2020
  • Shure SM58
  • Behringer SL 84C
  • Aston Stealth
  • sE Electronics sE 2200 and sE 2300
  • Lewitt LCT 440 Pure
  • Warm Audio WA-251
  • Neumann TLM 102

Under $100

You’ve got to be kidding right? A studio microphone for under $100? Oh yes, there are loads of great budget microphones out there at the moment that will do a decent job of converting vocals into signals. And not just the cheaper dynamic mics, there are some decent condenser ones too. Check these out.

Audio-Technica AT2020

Audio-Technica AT2020

Condenser microphones are considered to be the best choice for vocal recording. The large diaphragm responds sensitively to the changes in pressure from a vocal performance. They used to be expensive and many of them still are but in recent times the prices have come down within reach of home and project studios while retaining enough quality to make for surprisingly good recordings. The Audio-Technica AT2020 is one such condenser microphone.

For under $100, you’d expect it to be a light-weight plastic affair but the AT2020 is constructed from metal and has a certain amount of ruggedness about it. It has the wide dynamic range that we love about condenser mics and a cardioid polar pattern that reduces the pickup of sounds from the sides and rear.

One of the downsides of condenser mics is their proclivity for picking up environmental sounds — this is where the vocal booth starts to become a necessity. But the AT2020 could perform well in a quiet space without needing total isolation.

The AT2020 is well constructed and made from metal and manages to feel rugged. It can handle a wide dynamic range and because of the cardioid polar pattern, it’s unidirectional so it only picks up sound from the front, minimizing the pickup of accidental sounds from the sides or rear. The sensitivity of a condenser mic can become a problem with picking up sounds around you. You do have to consider your recording environment and the potential for background noise but in a quiet space, the AT2020 is ideal.

It comes with a microphone stand mount, which is simpler than the usual shock mounts, just be careful not to knock the stand. The AT2020 is a remarkable microphone for the price.

Street Price: $99
Audio-Technica AT2020

Shure SM58

Shure SM58

The SM58 is a classic microphone that you would have seen on stages all over the world. It’s the descendent of the first microphone to feature the familiar ball shaped grill but the SM58 is designed to improve upon the feedback and handling issues of its predecessor. It has become the biggest selling microphone on the planet, it feels good to hold, it’s rugged enough to survive the rigors of energetic live performance and yet is surprisingly useful in the studio.

The SM58 is a dynamic microphone and so not as sensitive to background noise as a condenser. It also requires no powering or additional equipment. It has a uniform cardioid pattern, meaning that it’s focused at the front and cuts down on background noise by isolating the main sound source. It’s going to work great in a larger range of environments like a home studio, garage, or kitchen.

Simple, legendary, and fantastic value at $99. You can get them colored these days but please don’t do that.

Street Price: $99
Shure SM58

Behringer SL 84C

Behringer SL 84C microphone on white background

It’s impossible to talk about cheap microphones without mentioning Behringer. They’ve recently released a couple of what are essentially SM58 clones. They are designed to look and work like the famous Shure microphone but for a fraction of the cost.
 
They are remarkably similar in terms of looks and from a stage, it would look like you’re using an SM58. It has a good, balanced XLR connection, integrated pop shield and even comes with a mic stand clip.
 
The sound is decent, it handles feedback reasonably well and if you have no money and need a basic vocal mic then the SL 84C will fill that role. For a few more dollars the Behringer BA 85A clone of the Sure Beta 58 would be slightly better but neither quite stand up to the good old SM58 in terms of sound or build quality.

Street Price: $12.99
Behringer SL 84C

Under $500

This is where the choices start to heat up. You’ll find professionally quality wrapped up in satisfying build quality where you know you can’t go far wrong.

Aston Stealth

aston stealth

The Aston Stealth is a versatile microphone with 4 switchable voicing modes that route through the internal technology differently depending on what you’re using it for. There are 2 vocal settings optimized for different vocal tones, a guitar setting for acoustic guitars or electric guitar cabinets, and then a “Dark” setting which recaptures the essence of vintage ribbon mics.

These settings are not achieved via a bit of filtering or EQ but rather by routing the signal through different “contour networks” which slightly attenuates and then adds frequencies back at higher levels. This results in much less phase distortion than conventional filter designs.

In practice, you have a single microphone for every occasion. It even detects whether there is phantom power or not and switches between active and passive mode. Without power, it acts as a simple and clean dynamic microphone. But once power is detected it can fully utilize the onboard class A mic preamp.

Inside, the important parts are held suspended with vibration damping Sorbothane so you don’t have to worry about handling it. The capsule is enclosed in a Faraday cage to block electromagnetic fields, and the highly focused cardioid polar pattern means it has excellent off-axis noise rejection.

Stealth gives you 4 microphones in one, the flexibility of a dynamic mic with the power of Class A preamp, with excellent noise prevention and professionally designed quality.

Street Price: $399
Aston Stealth

sE Electronics sE2200 and sE 2300

sE Electronics sE2200

The sE 2300 is a multi-pattern incarnation of the microphone that first put sE Electronics on the map. Famously used by Amy Winehouse, the sE 2200 large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone was appreciated by many for its smooth sound and surprising value. The sE 2300 takes that foundation and offers multiple polar patterns, adding a huge degree of versatility.

A switch on the back of the sE 2300 lets you select between figure-of-8, cardioid or omnidirectional. So while it’s still an excellent vocal mic, it will now find itself useful for pretty much any instrument, situation or sound source.

The sE 2200 and 2300 share the same original capsule design, custom-built transformer, and class-A circuit topology. The 1″ condenser capsule is handcrafted with two gold-sputtered diaphragms to ensure the best acoustic performance.

Two switches provide a -10dB and -20dB pad to extend the dynamic range when getting really close up to sources like kick drums and guitar amps. An 80Hz or 160Hz filter helps cut out the low-frequency rumble of excessive bass or incidental noise from your singers’ movement. And they come with a shock mount and pop shield so you are all set up for capturing those vocals.

They are wrapped in an interference rejecting metal housing and have a gold plated XLR connector. These are superbly crafted and complete microphone solutions at very attractive prices.

Street Prices:
sE Electronics sE2200$299
sE Electronics sE2300$399
sE Electronics sE2200

Lewitt LCT 440 Pure

Lewitt LCT 440 Pure

Here’s an award-winning microphone from Austrian audiophiles Lewitt, taking the components and capsule from their high-end prestige models and cramming it into a more cost-effective, compact yet stylish enclosure. It’s not vintage-looking like so many others in this list, instead, the focus is all on the function, all on the sound and delivering a beautifully balanced and brilliantly clear recording.

The cardioid pattern ensures a focused, low noise response with a satisfying dynamic range and ability to find the sweet spot in any application. Perfectly at home with vocals, it’s also great with guitars, cabinets, instruments, and groups.

The included shock mount and pop shield keep it out of harm’s way and the unfussy enclosure looks nowhere near as dainty or fragile as the others sub-$500 offerings. The LCT 440 Pure would be great with everything. There’s a step-up version called the LCT 540S, which offers a more balanced tone over the entire spectrum and effortless clarity.

Street Prices:
Lewitt LCT 440 Pure$269
Lewitt LCT 540 s Pure$699
Lewitt LCT 440 Pure

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Under $1,000

Now we’re talking. No need to look for budget versions of great microphones, with $1,000 to spend you can simply buy a great microphone.

Warm Audio WA-251

Warm Audio WA-251

Warm Audio has made a name for themselves building affordable replicas of rare and expensive vintage gear. With the WA-251 they are taking on the legendary Telefunken ELA M 251 which first became popular in the 1960s. The currently available reissued “E” version costs around $9,500, the WA-251 will set you back only $799.

Warm Audio doesn’t claim to have built a clone of the original but rather they based their designs on following the sound and technology as closely as possible. Their capsule is all-brass, edge-terminated that gives all the sonic richness of the original CK12 capsule. The housing is all brass, the diaphragm is 24k gold sputtered 6 micron.

It uses a CineMag USA transformer and a Slovak Republic JJ 12AY7 vacuum tube. There are carefully chosen Wima, Solen French and Polystyrene capacitors and thoughtfully selected Gotham 5 meter GAC-7, 7-pin tube microphone cable.

By all accounts, the WA-251 sounds fantastic, picking up an Editor’s Choice award at the 2019 NAMM show. Quite how they achieve such a gorgeous-sounding microphone is a credit to the intense scrutiny that Warm Audio put into developing their products. Like with any tube-based microphone you do have to put up with the chunky power supply but it all comes in a nice wooden box with a shock mount and it even looks exactly like it should.

Street Price: $799
Warm Audio WA-251

Neumann TLM 102

Neumann TLM 102

Neumann had to turn up at some point. This famous microphone brand is found in studios the world over. The TLM 102 is compact and unimpressive to look at but beneath that red badge you know there’s something a bit special. It excels at vocals, bringing a sweetness to the party with low noise and high clarity.

There’s a slight boost designed into this microphone after around 6kHz to add presence and focus to the voice as it stands in the mix. Neumann also suggests the diminutive size makes it easier for you to see the vocalist at work and keep connected.

The specs don’t make it stand out from the crowd; many cheaper mics have similar numbers but you just know that having a Neumann in your studio is going to elevate your work.

Street Price: $699
Neumann TLM 102

Over $1,000

If you have a large budget for a single microphone then I would recommend spending some time at a music store trying some out and taking advice from professionals and studios in your area. You could be looking at a proper Neumann U87 microphone, the gorgeously retro Blue Microphone Bottle range, the workhorse AKG C414, or the sublime Earthworks SV33.

But at this level, you need to consider your environment. How good is your recording space? How well insulated and treated for audio? What preamps are you going into and how will it be recorded? Without these things in place then the advantages of a high-end microphone will be somewhat lost in the signal chain.

Conclusion

We have some great options available to us. You can’t go far wrong with an AT2020 or Ember if you are starting out. But for a few hundred dollars you could be using the same mic as Amy Winehouse in the sE 2200 or get super adaptable with the Aston Stealth. I do love the look of those Aston mics.

Pop shield for recording vocals against white backgroundBut the most important thing will be your vocal performance and a popper stopper. What’s a popper stopper? Originally made from a pair of women’s pantyhose stretched over a coat hanger these circular pop shields prevent plosives from P and B sounds from impacting the microphone. An absolutely vital piece of studio equipment for vocals whether the microphone claims to have it built-in or not.

Pop Shield/Filter/Blocker/Stopper/Screen

Street Prices:
• Generic Popper Stopper: $17
• Neumann Popper Stopper: up to $99

Image via Earthworks.

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