Which Microphone Is Right For Me?
Microphones can be a little confusing if you’re new to recording – I mean, why are there so many sizes, shapes and styles to choose from? Don’t they all kind of do the same thing? What microphone is the best for recording vocals? Drums? Percussion? Guitars? Man O Man, where do you even start?
Sometimes all you need is a bit of new information, and that’s where this blog comes in: I’m going to walk you through some of the major differences in microphone design, and then make some recommendations that you can use to make informed choices when it’s time to record that killer take you’ve been waiting to lay down. The reality is that experienced engineers sometimes think about mics like a painter thinks about paint brushes and color palettes, because each type of microphone behaves differently just like different types of brushes and different colors of paint do, and sometimes a mic that works well for one type of audio source doesn’t work all that well for another. That’s why knowing the differences between the mics in your collection is so important.
Warm Audio makes no less than seven best-selling microphones based upon some of the most revered-designs of the past seventy years, but before we go further we should quickly discuss microphone technology in general.
Let’s start by picking off the big targets – there are three main types of microphones that you will encounter on your recording journey: condenser, dynamic and ribbon. The lion’s share of mics used in the studio are built upon one of these three microphone technologies, so chances are good that you’ve already used at least two if not all three of the different types.
Condenser microphones are one of the most common types used in the recording studio. Most condensers require 48 volt Phantom Power to run (I once heard it referred to as “ghost power”, but I would NOT suggest that you use that term around an experienced engineer!), which is an inline voltage that most professional and semi-professional microphone preamps and recording interfaces offer. That extra boost of external power can help a condenser design achieve a high level of sensitivity, which can really come in handy in the studio when you need to capture a signal with nuance. Mics in this family are used any time you need accuracy and detail when recording – so they are often used for vocals, acoustic guitars, strings and percussion.
Condensers come in a ton of different flavors – tube or solid state, large or small diaphragm, huge or tiny – but some of the most famous mics of all time are from this family. Where would the world of recording be without the venerable Neumann U87, U67 or U47? What about the many versions of the AKG 414 or C12? Or even the classic German Telefunken ELAM 251? Some of the most famous songs of all time were created with these mics, and their legacy lives on in modern designs from a host of different companies.
Dynamic microphones are the next most common type of microphone design you’ll come across in the studio, and they’re the predominant type of mic that you’ll see in a live music setting. Dynamic mics operate much like speakers wired in reverse (and some can even work like speakers if you wire them backwards and play music through them….right before they blow up that is), and they are generally a tad less sensitive than condenser designs. That lack of sensitivity can be just the right thing in some recording situations, where you really want to pick up what is right in front of the microphone but ignore other sounds around you. Mics in this family are often tapped to record loud sources like drums, electric guitars and screaming vocals, but I know serious engineers who swear by dynamics for vocals and acoustic guitars, so some of this comes down to experimentation and trying new things.
Dynamic microphones also come in a wide variety of different sizes, shapes and behavioral characteristics, and are usually a tad more affordable and more rugged than condenser designs. Some of the most recognizable microphone designs come from this category, as many people have seen them onstage during live performances, even if they’ve never been into a professional recording studio. The Shure SM57 and SM58 mics are the most plentiful live mics in history, but Shure’s SM7B has recently (re)gained massive popularity due to the explosion in podcasting and streaming as well, as many content creators look to attain the sound that they hear from classic broadcast and radio setups.
Ribbon microphones are a completely different kind of beast. Where the capsules/diaphragms of most condenser and dynamic microphones are made from a very thin piece of plastic material like Mylar and stretched over a circular hoop of some type, ribbon microphones operate by suspending a very thin and skinny piece of aluminum in a magnetic field. This design factoid makes ribbon microphones quite susceptible to being ruined by blasts of air, so they require real care when using. Ribbons are known for having a very smooth and almost dark high-frequency response, so they are often used on very brash sources like brass instruments, cracking percussion or crispy electric guitars. As well, most ribbon designs have much lower outputs than their dynamic or condenser counterparts, so using them to record a quiet source in the studio requires a mic preamp with very low noise at higher gain settings.
Ribbons have waxed and waned in popularity over the years, but companies like Royer Labs and AEA have kept the flame alive with their designs. Some of the most visible models in the ribbon category would be the Royer R121, Coles 4038 and mics like the R92 or R94 from AEA.
Besides knowing about the different types of microphones that exist, it’s probably a good idea to know about how microphones decide what to “listen to”, so to speak. In order to do that we need to quickly discuss polar patterns, because the type of polar or pickup pattern that a mic uses determines what audio it picks up, and what audio it partially or completely ignores.
There are also three main types of pickup patterns that the majority of microphone designs use:
The Cardioid pattern is so named because the plot looks a bit like a heart (although I have never heard of anyone suffering from “cardioid arrest”), and this pattern primarily “listens” to what is directly in front of the mic capsule. Most manufacturers place their logo or badge on the front of the mic, so point that side towards your source when in doubt. You can see from the plot that the back of the mic picks up very little in comparison to the front, so this pattern is effective for hiding audio coming to the back of the mic, like a computer fan or a spouse who has just found out how much you paid for your last guitar. If you encounter a microphone that doesn’t really say what pattern it uses, it is nearly always cardioid.
The Omnidirectional pattern (or Omni for short) is another common type, where the microphone picks up audio evenly in all directions. Sometimes this can be fantastic when you want to capture the sound of the room that you’re recording in as well as the source itself, but there will be times when you don’t want all of those room reflections in the audio. Your mileage will always vary, so experiment!
Finally, the Figure-Of-Eight pattern is the third most common type. This pattern picks up audio equally well directly in front of the mic as well as directly behind, but the sides of the mic are nearly 100% “deaf” to audio. Because the rejection at the sides is so nearly complete, this pattern is sometimes used to reject audio coming from other instruments or sounds in the same room. Alongside that, the back of the mic is often out-of-phase with the front in Figure-of-Eight patterns, so you can use that characteristic to your advantage in certain situations as well, especially when you start experimenting with multi-mic setups.
And now some recommendations:
(click the link to get more information on each microphone)
This microphone is based upon THE vocal mic of the last seventy years. An original model can sell for over $20,000 these days, so getting the tone, size and vibe of the original for only $899 is amazing. The WA-47 kicks serious buttootie as a vocal microphone, but it is magic on drum overheads, acoustic guitars and reed instruments when set up properly.
The WA-67 is based upon a mic made in Germany in the late sixties, which is so beloved and iconic that it recorded the lead vocals to both “Let It Be” by the Beatles and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana. Our version has the same low midrange girth that the original had, and it works fantastically well as a vocal microphone as a result. Be sure to try it on drums set to Omni too, as you won’t be disappointed! I’ve used it recently on electric guitar speaker cabinets, and the smooth top end and creaminess from the EF-86 tube gives the recorded track real authority.
The WA-251 is based upon another German desert-island microphone, beloved by engineers for the serious flattery that it gave to female voices due to it’s ultra-smooth top end response. Our version has the same smooth sheen in the high frequencies, making it magic for female voices and softly spoken word. Like all of our tube condensers it works great on drum overheads and guitar cabs, but definitely find a great female singer and stick her in front of this thing – it’s killer.
The WA-87 R2 is an updated version of Warm’s very first microphone, and it’s based upon one of the most popular designs in the history of recording. It has a lovely thickness and top presence that make it work for almost anything, and it’s one of those mics that you can just leave on the boom stand and move from instrument-to-instrument when you’re tracking. It sounds great on voices, and thick and powerful on acoustic and electric guitars, stereo piano, drum overheads and rooms, and even horns and percussion. There are instances where the original microphone was used on every single track on a tune (Crosby Stills and Nash comes to mind), and the WA-87 R2 absolutely stands up to that history.
The WA-14 is based upon another German microphone from the 70’s, only this original mic has gone through a number of revisions that all sound a little different. Our WA-14 is based upon perhaps the most sought-after version, and some engineers have touted it as far superior to any of the newer original designs – it’s that good. The original was used on Freddie Mercury from Queen’s lead vocals on occasion, but it is very well known as an instrument microphone. On stereo pianos, acoustic guitars, drum overheads and toms (if your drummer knows how to avoid hitting them!) this mic is magic, and there are classical engineers that swear by sticking them on a Decca tree in front of entire orchestras.
The only small-diaphragm microphone in the list, the WA-84 is designed after a true studio workhorse, beloved by anyone that records acoustic instruments or percussion. Small diaphragm condensers are often employed in tight situations where their small size and accurate high-frequency response really shines – great on percussion, acoustic guitars and orchestral instruments, hi hats and room mics. This mic is the secret weapon of a number of top engineers in Nashville, and it’s affordable!
The least expensive microphone in this list shouldn’t be discounted just because it doesn’t cost as much as its larger brethren – some folks feel that this may be the most versatile microphone ever released at this price point, and we know engineers that own as many as ten of them to be able to handle whatever job is required! The WA-47 Jr shares the exact same capsule as our flagship WA-47, but it uses a FET-based circuit instead of the tube inside the WA-47. Seriously though, if you only have $299 to spend on a microphone that does everything this should be the mic you check out. Engineers love it on vocals, kick drum, toms, overheads, piano, orchestral instruments (it has very low self noise) and anything else that you might consider using a large- diaphragm mic for, including streaming, podcasting and YouTubing – it’s an all-around heavyweight.
I hope that you found this helpful! We’ll be doing much more of this kind of thing in the future, so keep an eye on our blog page for new updates when they become available.