How to Pick The Very Best Microphone

best microphone for home recording
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The most common question I hear from bedroom producers revolves around which microphones are worth it and which ones are just hype. There’s no question that there’s an overabundance of microphones available on the market, and almost any engineer would tell you that the time-tested SM57 is all you really need (I mean, if it’s good enough for the President, it’s good enough for me, right?).

But the reality is that none of us have $10k to drop on a microphone, and even established studios are probably better off investing that money elsewhere.  That being said, today’s younger engineer should know how to spend their hard earned money on microphones that will not only capture flawless takes with minimal post-processing but will also be utilitarian enough to work in a variety of circumstances.

The Most Versatile Microphone For YOU

Very early on in my career, I met an engineer that was very well respected in the area and had a modest (but busy) studio recording mostly jazz and folk. For over two years, he had a Nuemann M149 that a friend had left at his studio to use, but he had never even tried it. When I asked why he said “because it’s not my mic, someday it won’t be here, and I don’t want to go through the trouble of learning what it sounds like and how to use it.”

This taught me an invaluable lesson: A microphone is only as good as an engineer who knows how to use it.

You are way better off finding a microphone that you can use every day and learn how to use than constantly trying to upgrade to whatever vintage treasure you have at your disposal. For Joey Sturgis, it’s an Audio Technica 4040. For me, it’s a Shure SM7B.

A Stereo Pair

Especially if you’re recording drums, you’ll at some point need to capture a stereo image of a kit. There are a variety of ways to mic a drum kit with small and large diaphragm condensers, but they all start with a matched pair. It’s absolutely worth investing in a pair of Nuemann KM84s or AKG C414s, but even if you’re on a budget, a pair of Rode NT5s or Shure KSM137s are solid choices for drum overheads. You can also use them on acoustic guitar, strings, piano, and a variety of acoustic instruments for a big, natural acoustic sound.

Kick Drum

From metal to rock to country, the kick drum sound can often dictate the tone of the record. It used to be as simple as taping a silver dollar to the kick drum beater to get that high-impact smack on a Pantera record.
Now, there are dozens more options to consider. Start with choosing between the ‘inside the kick’ mic and the ‘outside the kick’ mic.

Inside the Kick

How much of that slap attack you want from the beater head is entirely dependent on what type of record you are making. If you want that super bright attack, then consider an AKG D112 or a Sennheiser e602. Both of these positioned up nice and close to the beater head can get plenty of the attack you crave. If you want a more rounded attack for a modern rock or indie rock type vibe, consider a Shure SM7B a bit further back (6” or so inside the head) or a Shure Beta52A. A lot of people really like the EV RE20 as well, although I’m not personally a fan.

Outside the Kick

The one time-tested trick is to take a Yamaha NS-10 subwoofer, hang it from a metal frame, and wire it up as a microphone, positioned just in front of the resonant head and off-center. Yamaha now has a “subkick” mic with the speaker mounted inside a small drum shell that gets the same result. Other techniques involved any large diaphragm condenser with enough of a pad to pull down the input gain coming off of the kick drum. Keep in mind that with an LDC, you’ll have considerably more bleed from the rest of the kit than with the NS-10 trick.

Dynamic Microphones

The one thing you should definitely have (and can definitely afford) is a small batch of standard dynamic microphones. You should have at least 3 Shure SM57s, Sennheiser 421s, or a mixture of the two if you want to track drums and electric guitar. A lot of people also like the Sennheiser E609 on guitar, although that’s a bit less versatile.

Ribbon Mics

There’s undoubtedly been a resurgence of ribbon microphones in the last 10 years with brands like Royer and AEA making new models and re-issues of vintage classics. There’s no question they sound great on the right instrument on the right record, but until you have a strong handle on all the mics listed above, it’s probably not worth the money you’d need to drop to really hear the difference from a quality ribbon mic.

So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t worry about picking The Best Microphone – instead, pick an affordable microphone you like to work with and really get to know what it sounds like and how to use it. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to get big-studio sounding takes in your bedroom. At the end of the day, it’s knowing how to use what you have that makes all the difference.

Zach Varnell

Zach began recording in his parents basement in Denver with a two track reel-to-reel and a mixer from radioshack. In the summer of 2014, Zach went back to education, working with CreativeLive as a content producer for the audio channel.