Best Vocal Mics
Best Microphones for Singing/Recording Vocals: under $700
Do you have a list or what say you... ?
I think the problem with a broad topic like this is that the "best" depends heavily on the usage (studio booth, live stage, etc) and also the voice, as well as what type of pre-amp is available. A $90 SM58 feeding an API pre-amp can sound better than a $900 mic going into a cheap pre-amp or live mixer.
Maybe we could categorize it by assuming a quality pre-amp and then have something like a microphone for the four combinations of male/female voice and studio/live usage?
I've had a well-known vocalist do her live set and then rip the pop filter off the microphone to find out what type it was. She said it was the best live voice sound she had heard, and couldn't believe it when she read Beta58A on the microphone. I pointed at the API on the sound desk and told her that was the other half of the equation.
I'm always the odd one out on these topics, and the mic thing is so much like what is the best colour, or the best food. The only truly accurate thing is to say best for what? I don't even think general categories help - so no best male or best female - the range is too vast. Male voice, think James Earl Jones, with good teeth or dentures, no gaps in the front teeth - and the job is recording a quiet voice over. This probably brings up a smaller set of mics, but replace James Earl Jones with Brian Blessed, and the choice would radically change. He's got a similar lower range voice and is a big fella - but I recorded him once doing an announcement to be played in a theatre show, and it would be one, maybe two takes. No chance for rehearsal or mic swapping. I went with a Shure SM58 because I knew it would get me out of trouble. Blessed's speaking voice is kind of cosy - but he drops into hurricane mode on a whim and is truly deafening. US readers may have to google but I think most people will have experienced his voice. I've got a Neumann U87, but with the pad in, I'd want to experiment to make sure it didn't max out. No time. I think my other really nice mics could be blasted to hell.
I'm also firmly of the opinion that we some gentle EQ, many so called differences between mics just vanish. I just know from first listen which of my mics are out for a certain person. 414s don't like people with gaps in their teeth unless you spend ages angling and pop-shields may not be enough. They're also pretty horrid on people with the kind of speaking Dolly Parton does - she kind of has a sshhh type sound to some some words - like 'swine', it gets pronounced as 'schwine' if you know what I mean. These kind of sounds seem emphasised by large diaphragm condensers - but I still have a couple of original Oktava 319 mics and they don't seem to suffer from this weirdness. Gradually you build up a permitted use list for your own mics. Based on successes and failures. We also constantly forget to talk about where you put a mic. Forehead pointing down can be really good for reducing nose sounds, off to one side seems to remove the sizzle, of the sizzle needs removing - but if then subject has a bit of a dull voice, the side is a wrong choice. We go in till the lips touch the mic, or we stick a pop shield between mic and mouth, but we forget to manage the singer - an inch can totally change some people's tone. From OK to great in just an inch. Other people we mic from further away in a good room, but we ignore all the possibilities of moving person and mic around.
There seems a trend to have lists of everything, so you google best guitar, best amp, best microphone and get loads of hit with definitive answers - often, I note from people with very limited mic boxes! On video forums, people extol the virtues of Sennheiser 416 shotguns for voiceovers, but I hate the sound - and I think it's because video folk often have 416 mics for their booms and little else, so they've got used to recommending the 416 for voice recording. It does the jobs OK, but there are so many better sounding mics?
We also have the problem of purchase justification. Only idiots like me come up on a forum and say they bought a mic and they hate it and wish they'd kept their money. Everyone else loves every toy they buy - finding positives to rant about how good they are. Money means nothing at all to quality. QUALITY is how reliable, how solid, how nice looking maybe, how resistant to damage, how resilient it is to drops and shock. It's not about tone - because they all have a 'sound'. Ignoring comms microphones, bingo calling mics and things like harmonica mics - the rest have a characteristic flavour in their sound. The bright, the mellow, the clinical, the flattering, the revealing - all lovely words to describe sound (badly). If your favourite mic has a presence peak at 3.6K, then one that doesn't can easily get one with gentle - very gentle EQ. We can buy flat response measurement mics - but they sound bland and unexciting. If we accept that this means emphasis and deafness at certain frequencies can be character - then all we do is pick a mic that with the subject and the space, points in the right direction.
Everybody wants a mic that sounds like an old German mic (bar me of course) and now we have the crazy practice of buying a Chinese cheap mic and trying to improve it by changing components, mechanicals and circuits. If you have spent $100 on parts to upgrade your mic, you will accept the differences, what ever they are, as improvements? Truth is - they just make it sound different. I have a U87, an EV 320 and an SM7B - a friend has the SM7B, I have the U87 in my office and the 320 is in a drawer somewhere. I don't like using any of them because I have other mics I like better - so the 414 remains my 1st go to mic and the SM57 probably second - because they sound very different and with those two and a little EQ, I can do anything. The only mic I genuinely don't like is the AKG C1000 because it just sounds hard and nasty compared with every other mic I have - in honesty, they're not outside the realms of EQ but the starting point seems to not flatter anything!
I just don't think there can be best. Those recommending anything as 'best' are just recommending what they like, which is fine, but that version of 'best' might be very different from somebody else's?
Sort of getting that off my chest really - so much total rubbish is sprouted about mics. When you do recordings using lots of mics - you take everything you have, and then it's a compromise match to find the right one for everything - often having to use the one you really wanted on something else because the alternative would be a worse match. Is that cheap Sampson condenser really the best mic for a French horn? Nope but it was better than the alternative I was left with. If anybody asked me about the odd choice of a Samson for a French horn, I'd tell them is had just the right complimentary capability and made a perfect match. The reality was it was either than or the beat up condenser I use on dodgy drummers hi-hats.
desert island mic; U87ai. i know that a lot people don't care for them but to me it is a ubiquitous choice. i like the smooth but present mids. i can't recall ever putting one up and being disappointed.
in the best of worlds, having 4 to choose from would be ideal. SM7a, 414 (or other C12 type) and an RCA 44 would be my other go to choices.
I agree, U87ai. But the original topic title was under USD1000, recently discounted to USD700.
Some of you may recall I posted a picture of my very real 1985 Shure SM58. It was great live on tour. Would I use it in the studio... maybe, I have that and a couple of other mics in the similar vein. I still love my Rode NT2 I bought in 1998. I think it was, and is a fantastic vocal mic. I use it as a main take after recording with a NT2a on figure 8 and an AT4033a on M/S. It suits my voice and several other people I have used it on. As Paul says of course, it is dependent on a number of factors with a singer.
i missed that. under $700 i would say an SM7.
The $700 limit in this case really IS a limit.
Because mics vary so much in their detail, it does become a crap-shoot when putting them up for a particular singer in a particular setting and style.
With any mic no matter the cost, I always look for the "pinch points" ...those parts of the general frequency response capture that are missing or are under valued in the performance of the mic. With these you get the "thin" or the "boomy" or the "harsh" descriptive adjectives that are used in mic performance jargon.
The presence of these points is not necessarily limited to or exclusive to the retail price of the mic.
So we get the advice from people who have used a lot of mics and spent a lot of time getting a vocal sound to generally just say, "Try it before you buy it" or perhaps, "They are all different and some will work on some voices and some on others. YMMV"
A real assessment of a budget should always include the usage one expects from a mic. $700 is the budget home studio's low end for that special do-all be-all mic IMHO. A person in this case would be well served to buy that ONE mic they can trust to capture the specialty tracks that give a production that pro quality vibe. And you should always look at the build quality and try and assess its longevity. It does no good to have a mic off the stand in the repair shop when the muse hits.
So for readers who are perhaps studying this very question and need a place to start a search, I have three recommendations as far as actual mics.
Audio Technica 4050
Neumann TL 102
Microphone Parts S-87
The reasons for these specifically is they all sound really good dry, all take EQ quite well, all can stand up under heavy handed application of compression, and are all well-built.
Daniel Lanois does amazing work with SM57s and 58s (and occasionally more expensive tools if required) . The majority of hobby recordists do mediocre work with a wide variety of much more expensive tools.
Record good songs, in good rooms, performed by good musicians. If we can't get to a point where this is possible the mic brand/model makes little difference.
Making good art comes with a cost of constant development, not constant investment.
This message is brought to you by a recovering "investor".
Vocal Mic. SM58 is the go to for stage(in the US). Even the SM7b, basically the same element in it's core as the 58. For radio / podcasts, EV RE-20, and SM7b are the go to's. Seen a few youtube videos with those replica 55's, although pretty sure it's more of a prop than what was used to record the song. I've seen a few Earthworks SR314's on youtube videos as well.
Depends on where you're recording. Bad room near a firestation or freeway? Or studio devoid of the outside world? Or devoid of the inside world depending on sound proofing and characteristics. Karaoke, in a bar that has a monitor pointed at you with the opposite phase, so you can't even hear yourself, yet somehow it's outputting sound beyond a wall somewhere.
Beyond the environment, you can make other mics sound different with some EQ. As long as the detail is there. And the unwanted noises rejected. Pops, Ssssssss's, traffic, kids, pets, chickens, ... It's pretty easy to see what not to do, perhaps what not to use, if you watch many amateur artists on youtube.
Most of the Shure 55 look-a-likes have a very bog standard, cheap dynamic insert - often the ones found in the SM57 and Sennheiser 835 copies. In a way they sound quite like the old Shure 55s - which were never much cop for singing through, unless you wanted that era sound. A bit muddy at the bottom and nothing up top. They look so much better than they sound.
The comment that a good room, with a good engineer can get great results from almost anything is really important. We expect that pouring money into a mic breaks the laws of acoustics.