The Best Vocal Mics for Any Price Point
Microphones are devices that convert sound waves into electronic signals for recording. Stand a microphone in front of something making sound and you will be able to record that sound to your choice of recording mediums. Be that tape, a phone, computer, wax cylinder — whatever you like, the microphone doesn’t care. In the studio, we are most commonly recording the sound of someone’s voice as they perform the lyrics to your next smash hit. Microphones vary in price from a few dollars to thousands and vary in quality from a bit crappy 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 plug-ins, 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.
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 round-up, I’ll pull in a few 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).
You’ve got to be kidding right? A studio microphone for under $100? Oh yes, there are loads of great budget microphones out there now 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.
Street Price: $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.
Link to Website: www.shure.com
USA based Avantone have some ridiculously good microphones with an unusually generous array of features and accessories across some surprisingly reasonable price points. The CV-95 is probably the sweet spot of price, performance and versatility.
Street Price: $99 (at time of writing)
Condenser microphones are considered to be the best choice for vocal recording. They contain a large diaphragm that responds sensitively to the changes in pressure from a vocal performance. Many of them are expensive 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.
Link to Website: www.audio-technica.com
Blue Snowball Studio USB
Street Price: $100 (at time of writing)
USB microphones can be somewhat of a conundrum. On the one hand, they provide a simple and cheap way to get sound into your computer, but on the other, they can’t connect through your other studio equipment or be used with analog recorders. However, the Blue Snowball is a great little condenser microphone for recording both vocals and other acoustic instruments. Favored by podcasters, it’s completely capable of handling studio vocals. It has two polar patterns, one cardioid for focusing on the vocal and the other omnidirectional for capturing instrument performances or groups of singers.
The fact that you don’t need any other equipment could be a real bonus for someone starting out or working under a very tight budget. But if you already have an audio interface, or some outboard preamps and other gear then you’ll probably want to lean towards the AT2020.
Link to Website: www.bluedesigns.com
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.
Street Price: $229 (at time of writing)
They say it’s one of the worlds quietest microphones. With a dynamic range of more than 132dB, I’m inclined to agree! Behind the classy, nickel plated and understated look is a cardioid condenser microphone with a gold-plated membrane. The state-of-the-art surface mount electronics ensures that you get a serious microphone for a fun-sized price. It comes with a shock mount, pop shield, cable, dust cover and instructional DVD — everything you need to start some serious recording.
The NT1-A can handle more than vocals though. Put it in front of a guitar cabinet, inside a piano or in front of an acoustic instrument and the wide frequency range will pick up the nuances in every performance.
It’s a solid unfussy microphone that would hold its own against any microphone under $500.
Link to Website: www.rode.com
Street Price: Aston Origin – $269 (at time of writing)
Street Price: Aston Spirit – $449 (at time of writing)
This is one nice looking piece of studio equipment. I think it has a cold war Soviet vibe to it, but actually, these are British. The Origin is designed to deliver direct, smooth and intimate sound. Perfect for vocals and acoustic guitars, it’s engineered by industry professionals to be beautiful and devastatingly effective and they have a roster of big names who they claim believe in the Aston sound.
It’s built by a similar process to the RODE NT1-A but encased in 2mm solid stainless steel, laser cut and etched. The distinctive Wave-Form Spring Head shock absorption and stainless steel mesh-knit pop filter protect the gold-evaporated capsule from everything but sound. They call the sound “forgiving” where it doesn’t flatter but rather produces a smooth and pleasing result.
Origin has an onboard 10dB pad and 80Hz high-pass filter making it suitable for all sorts of tasks in the studio. There’s a taller, “pro” version called Spirit which takes transparency to another level for detailed reproduction with a range of polar patterns to tune it to the application. Both come highly recommended.
Link to Website: www.astonmics.com
Lewitt LCT 440 Pure
Street Price: Lewitt LCT 440 Pure – $269 (at time of writing)
Street Price: Lewitt LCT 540 S – $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 contemporary rather than vintage looking, putting the focus on the function, 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 other sub-$500 offerings. The LCT 440 Pure would be great with everything. There’s step-up version called the LCT 540S which offers a more balanced tone over the entire spectrum and effortless clarity.
Link to Website: www.lewitt-audio.com
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.
Neumann TLM 102
Street Price: $699 (each) (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.
Link to Website: www.neumann.com
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.
Avantone Pro CV-95
Street Price: $599 (each) (at time of writing)
USA based Avantone have some ridiculously good microphones with an unusually generous array of features and accessories across some surprisingly reasonable price points. The CV-95 is probably the sweet spot of price, performance, and versatility. It’s designed to offer true professional performance that can hold their own against much more expensive microphones.
CV-95 is a Tube Condenser microphone, giving a warm analog feel shaped by the transformer-coupled tube circuitry. Inside there’s a 25mm gold-sputtered six-micro Mylar capsule with high-grade polystyrene and metalized-polypropylene capacitors in the audio path. What does that mean? It means it’s awesome. The enclosure exudes classic vibes with precision machined brass and polished nickel trim. And it can all sit in a beautifully retro shock mount.
The CV-95 comes in a flight case with its own outboard power supply. It not only powers the mic but offers up the ability to dial in one of nine polar patterns. So, while the microphone is in situ you can experiment with different patterns depending on the application. Like the others on this list, it’s super versatile and you could easily find yourself buying a few to use in all sorts of situations.
They have microphones going down to the $199 CK6 and up to the striking BV-1 at $999, but at $599 I think the CV-95 is the one to have on your list.
Link to Website: www.avantonepro.com
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.
We have some great options available to us. You can’t go far wrong with an AT2020 if you are starting out and RODE, Lewitt and Avantone offer a range that will fit most budgets and be amazingly versatile. For me, I love the look of the Aston mics and the rock ‘n’ roll vibe they’ve got going on. 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)!
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