best vocal mic

Best Vocal Mics (2019)

Microphones vary in price from a few dollars to thousands and vary in quality from awful to completely gorgeous. Choosing the right microphone will have a large impact on how well you capture the performance of the vocalist. You can have a great computer, fabulous plugins, professional outboard gear but it won’t be of much use if you are recording using the wrong microphone.

Click here for our guide to microphone types and terminology.

Here’s a preview of our picks for the best vocal mics available in 2019:

  1. Shure SM58
  2. Audio-Technica AT2020
  3. Blue Ember
  4. sE Electronics sE2200 and sE 2300
  5. Aston Stealth
  6. Lewitt LCT 440 Pure
  7. Neumann TLM 102
  8. Warm Audio WA-251

As with so many “best of” lists, it can depend on what you want to spend. Throw thousands of dollars at it and you will undoubtedly pick up a decent mic, but not everyone has that sort of cash to spend. So for this roundup, I’ll pull in a number of examples from a series of price points in order to give you a couple of options regardless of your budget. And don’t forget your popper-stopper (if you don’t know what that is I’ll tell you at the end).

The Best Microphones for Vocals (2019)

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.

1. Shure SM58

 Shure SM58 – $99*

*At time of writing

It’s over 50 years old now and the direct descendant of the Shure 565 handheld microphone that was used on stage at Woodstock. The 565 was the first microphone to feature the now familiar ball shaped grill but it also suffered from feedback and handling noise. The SM58 was designed as a studio microphone to eliminate the issues of the 535. It’s the biggest selling mic on the planet. It works well, feels good in the hand and will do a decent job of recording anything you like. It is most commonly used these days as a microphone for hand-held stage performance but its abilities as a studio microphone are often underrated.

The SM58 is a dynamic microphone and so 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 rugged and will survive being spun around the head and smashed into a wall (probably) or at least you don’t need to worry about dropping it.

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

2. Audio-Technica AT2020

 Audio-Technica AT2020 – $99*

*At time of writing

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.

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.

The SM58 is a dynamic microphone and so 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 rugged and will survive being spun around the head and smashed into a wall (probably) or at least you don’t need to worry about dropping it.

3. Blue Ember

 Blue Ember – $99*

*At time of writing

Blue continues to impress at the entry-level end of the market with their new Ember studio condenser microphone. The Ember is a smart looking mic with a hand-tuned capsule that delivers an open, detailed sound that works well in any situation. Blue is marketing it towards YouTubers, podcasters and people recording vocals and instruments for online music distribution. Its compact and low-profile design makes it perfect for that sort of adaptable environment. It’s not going to crowd out your video.

The internal technology is excellent for this price level with its tight cardioid pattern and great off-axis noise rejection. Rated at 132dB SPL, the Ember offers plenty of headroom.

It’s a good alternative to the AT2020 and would be easier to position into tight places for instrument miking, making it more versatile.

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.

4. sE Electronics sE2200 and sE 2300

 sE Electronics sE2200 – $299*
 sE Electronics sE2300 – $399*

*At time of writing

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.

5. Aston Stealth

 Aston Stealth – $399*

*At time of writing

They call it revolutionary and developed it with the help of 92 top Engineers, Producers and artists. That already sounds impressive and so does the name: Stealth. The Aston Stealth is quite possibly the most versatile microphone ever made. It has 4 switchable voicing modes that forge their own signal paths through the internal technology. 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 attenuate 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.

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

6. Lewitt LCT 440 Pure

 Lewitt LCT 440 Pure – $269*
 Lewitt LCT 540 s Pure – $699*

*At time of writing

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. Perfect 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.

Under $1000

Now we’re talking. No need to look for budget versions of great microphones, with $1000 to spend you can simply buy a great microphone.

7. Neumann TLM 102

 Neumann TLM 102 – $699*

*At time of writing
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.

8. Warm Audio WA-251

 Warm Audio WA-251 – $799*

*At time of writing

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 $9500, 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.

Over $1000

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. But 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 – $17 for a generic one up to $99 for a Neumann one (of course)!

Want to see last year’s list? Be sure to read the best vocal mics of 2018.

Photo via Blue Ember.

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