Choosing a Mic: The Mic for You…
…is the mic for YOU.
This article on choosing a mic first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂
“Which mic should I get?” is probably the most asked question in recording. New recordists ask it when they start out, and veterans ask it when they need to improve, expand, or record something new.
When you ask this on the internet, dogma can get the best of you. Some factions will tell you only a $10,000 classic will do. Others will tout the latest and greatest. Some people swear they hate U67s and Telefunkens, and some will tell you they recorded a number one hit with a lavalier they found in a trashcan.
Point is it’s easy to get caught up in hype, but in reality every mic has its place. Whether that place is in your studio depends on you and what you’re doing.
Consider the source
When you’re choosing a mic, consider the source that you’re recording – and of the information you gather. Internet forums may be confusing or inaccurate. Better to talk to trusted colleagues and read specs.
More than that, picking a mic is all about what you’re going to do with it. This may seem obvious, but the more you can drill down the better. Maybe you’re looking for a vocal mic – ok. But not all vocalists are the same. Will you be recording men and women? Rock? Metal? Intimate music? Spoken word?
Avoid the idea that some mics are “best” and instead think about what mics work for given applications. Even then, consider things like frequency response and what characteristics a mic tends to emphasize.
For one person “great on bass” means a mic emphasizes low end, while someone else may find that mic muddy. “A great snare mic” might end up being a shiny sharp mic that gives you exactly what you weren’t looking for.
So, instead of looking for the best in general terms, dial in what you want to accomplish as tightly as possible.
Consider the cost
Microphones can be really expensive. They can also be frighteningly cheap. So, you want to have a good solid budget in mind. There’s no point in deciding you can’t do without a $20,000 Telefunken U47 vintage tube (or even a Neumann U87) if your budget is $1000. Similarly, you may find that spending more doesn’t always get you what you want. A $5000 mic might have the wrong sonic characteristic for most of what you need it for. Still, there are times when you get what you pay for. So, start with a budget before choosing a mic.
Consider the big picture
Maybe you’re considering a $1200 vocal mic. But is that all you need? Would your money better be spent getting four $300 vocal mics which all have different qualities, giving you the most options? If you never record anyone else and the mic is just for you then no. If you record a variety of acts, maybe so.
Don’t get buyer’s remorse – unless you should
Once you’ve bought a mic there’s only one thing you should consider when it comes to whether you made the right choice: the results. If the thing works the way you want, you did good. If not, then try to find that out quickly before you can’t take it back.
What you don’t want to do is continue researching and listening to the court of public opinion and get caught up in unnecessary buyer’s remorse. This happens more than you might think. You’ll share with your friends or some Facebook group about your shiny new purchase, and some jerk will invariably give you their very strong opinion about how bad that purchase was. Happens every time.
Only consider the opinions of trusted colleagues – and only before you buy.
Use your ears
Finally, the one piece of advice that trumps the rest of this piece is this: audition and listen to mics. The best way to choose a mic is to bring the candidates in for a test drive. It helps to do some research first to narrow it down, but your ears are the best judge. Some stores will let you do a shootout. Failing that you could rent a few top candidates. If at all possible, let your ears make the decision.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: the right mic is the one that’s right for you.