The microphone world is drenched with options. Should you get a condenser or a dynamic mic? What pickup pattern should it have? How do you know which one fits your recording setup?
Lucky for you, I’ll answer all of those questions in this post.
First... do you need a microphone?
Before we dive into the who, what, where, and how of buying a mic, first ask yourself if you even need a mic.
If you mainly use plugins and a MIDI controller, you may not have much use for a microphone. So, depending on your situation, you can definitely get by without one. But to record any live instrument — acoustic guitar, voice, percussion — you’ll obviously need a mic.
Even if you mainly make music with software instruments, it could be nice to have a mic on hand. Just in case you want to add a live instrument, or if you want to collaborate with a singer.
What to look for in a microphone
Okay, so you’ve decided you need a mic (or else why are you still reading?). What features should you look for in a mic?
First, figure out if you need a condenser mic or a dynamic mic.
The main thing to know about condenser microphones is that they're more sensitive to sound and more fragile overall. So you’d want one of these to record sources that aren’t too loud and typically have a higher frequency.
In my experience, they’re great for acoustic guitar, vocals, live piano, and even cymbals. They’re good at picking up details that a dynamic mic may not pick up.
Also, condenser mics typically require phantom power, and most audio interfaces come with phantom power capability.
Dynamic microphones won’t pick up as much detail as a condenser, but they’re more durable and can handle louder instruments. They work well on instruments with low-to-mid frequencies, like drum kits, electric guitar amps, and they do great for live performances.
Plus, dynamic mics are typically more affordable than condenser mics.
The next thing to consider is the pickup pattern of the microphone.
The most common pickup pattern is the cardioid pickup pattern. It records audio from the front of the mic in a bloated cartoon-heart shape. For your first mic, I’d suggest sticking with a cardioid pickup pattern — it’s the easiest to understand and least likely to capture sounds you don’t want.
Lastly, it’s best to get an XLR microphone.
This is the most common type of connection a mic has, although a lot of mics connect directly to your computer via USB. The problem with USB mics is that, when you’re recording with the mic, you can’t record anything else.
With an XLR mic, you plug it into your audio interface via an XLR cable, and the interface plugs into your computer. Then you can plug other instruments or mics in and record with them simultaneously.
Tips for buying your first microphone
In my 10-plus years of home production, I’ve learned many lessons. One of them: listen and learn. There’s always someone who knows more than me, so I should hear what they have to say.
I’m friends with a professional audio engineer and he’s a super helpful guy. When I was ready to buy my first “real” mic several years ago, I asked him what he thought was a good choice for my budget. I ended up with an Audio-Technica AT2035, which I still use to this day.
Find someone who has been around microphones more than you. Then ask them for advice on what mic to buy based on your recording setup, what you’ll be recording, and your budget.
Both places either interview experienced audio engineers or they have articles written by audio engineers. The reviews aren’t written by some content mill or a college student looking for writing experience.
And the last tip I have is to check out the online forum Gearslutz. Not the classiest name, but it’s a really helpful place. In this forum, you’ll be able to read mic reviews from engineers who actually own the mic they’re reviewing.
It’s best to read multiple reviews of the same mic because the reviewers range from beginner to expert engineers, and you’re not always sure who’s who. So getting many people’s input is the smartest thing to do.
For your first mic, I’d recommend something affordable and simple yet still high-quality. So here are my picks (all XLR mics):
- Audio-Technica AT2035: large-diaphragm condenser with a cardioid pickup pattern. This was my first mic. Clear and crisp sound.
- Shure SM58: dynamic mic with a legacy of being durable. Can record pretty much any instrument and deliver quality recordings.
- sE Electronics sE7: small-diaphragm condenser with a cardioid pickup pattern. Clear and full sound, good for acoustic guitar, piano, and even percussion.
- Blue Bluebird SL: large-diaphragm condenser with a cardioid pickup pattern. Possibly the most beautiful-sounding mic I’ve ever used. Although at about $300, it’s a bit on the pricey side.
Where to buy your first mic
If you’re wondering where to buy your first microphone and you want to make sure the experience is top-notch, here’s what I would suggest:
- Buy directly from the manufacturer’s website. Often, they’ll connect you with the official online/physical stores where you can buy the mic. Or you could go to Amazon and make sure the seller is the manufacturer.
- Buy from Sweetwater. I bought my first mic from them and their customer service is very good.
- Buy from Musician’s Friend. I’ve never gotten a microphone from them, but I’ve gone through them for other recording equipment and had a great experience.
One thing to remember: it’s not necessarily the quality of the mic that makes a great recording, it’s mostly about the skill of the engineer. So, regardless of what microphone you end up with, make sure you know how to use it.
Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX., and the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog that helps part-time musicians succeed.