Best Microphones For Music Production – From Cheap To Ridiculously Expensive

If you’re busy kitting out your home studio then one of the fundamental tools in your arsenal will be a good quality mic. 

From recording vocals and guitars to grabbing a can of soda and popping it open in front of the mic for a unique hat sample. Microphones are the fastest way to get creative ideas from your head into your DAW.

There are alot of factors to consider when buying a mic so I’ll start by covering some technical jargon to help you decide what’s best for you.

Microphones come in many different configurations, shapes, and price points. They all serve different purposes and give their own unique character to recordings.

There are four main types of microphones that are typically used in a recording environment:

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones are like the all-rounders of your studio. They’re relatively low cost and are versatile in that they can record vocals, instruments, guitar amps and more.

So how do dynamic microphones work?

They work via something called electromagnetic induction.

I’m no scientist but the basic, simplified version goes something like this:

You have a magnet shaped somewhat like the letter “E”. A wire coil is wrapped around the center pole. At the end of the coil is a thin, flat, membrane-like component called a diaphragm. When sound hits the diaphragm the pressure of the sound waves causes the diaphragm to move back and forth. An electrical current is then generated and converted into audio information.

Now, because of the structure of them, dynamic microphones are relatively robust and can handle being dropped and abused by angry rockstars. They also respond quite well to high SPL (Sound Pressure Level).

With all the above taken into account, it’s no wonder why you will find a dynamic mic in almost any recording environment.

Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

First, let’s cover what exactly a condenser microphone is.

A condenser mic has two plates with voltage between them. The front plate is made from a very thin metal and is referred to as the diaphragm. Each of the plates is connected to the positive and negative terminals of a battery (and in some cases, mics use phantom power instead of a battery).

When sound waves hit the diaphragm it causes the plates to move closer together. When the plates are closer together the voltage increases. When they move further apart it decreases.

Large diaphragm typically means the diameter of the front plate is 25.4mm or more.

The main advantages of large diaphragm microphones are:

  • Low noise floor
  • Pleasing/lush sound even if the singer moves around the mic due to the widened cardioid pattern at lower frequencies. 

Note: If you don’t know what cardioid or polar patterns are I will be explaining them in the next section.

Small Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

Small diaphragm microphones work by the same exact mechanism as large diaphragm mics do. The diameter of the diaphragm is typically 12.7mm or less. 

The body of the mic is also typically long and thin or pencil-shaped and operate end fired which means you would position the instrument or singer facing the top of the mic whereas large diaphragm mics are usually side facing.

The main advantages of small diaphragm microphones are:

  • A very consistent polar pattern across all frequencies means they provide a very accurate and true sound.
  • They respond well to high frequencies even beyond human hearing.
  • Very accurate transient response.

Ribbon Microphones

Similar to dynamic microphones, ribbon mics also use electromagnetic induction. Instead of a coil, however, ribbon mics use a thin aluminium, nanofilm or duraluminium ribbon placed between the opposite poles of the magnet. When the ribbon moves in response to pressure from sound waves, it generates voltage which then creates the audio signal.   Because of the way the ribbon is suspended between the poles of the magnet, it will respond to sound coming both from in front and behind the mic. It is, therefore, a bidirectional microphone. One drawback of the ribbon is that it’s extremely thin. In some cases almost 100x thinner than a human hair. It is therefore not very robust and should be kept away from plosives and blasts of wind. The main advantages of ribbon mics are: 

  • They are known for their dark sound. This can be desirable in some cases.
  • Bidirectional applications like recording two people sitting opposite eachother.
  • Highly detailed but not oversensitive so they don’t pick up a lot of background noise. 

Polar Patterns

The circles in the image below represents the top down view of a microphone. With the top of the circle being the front and the bottom being the back. The shapes inside show how sensitive the mic is to sounds coming from different angles.

Polar patterns in microphones
Image from Wikipedia – Different types of polar patterns

SPL

Sound Pressure Level usually refers to the maximum level of audio a mic can handle, measured in dB.

Impedance

When people talk about impedance in microphones they are talking about a type of AC resistance. Microphones will usually have a resistance of below 200 ohms. The lower the resistance the longer the cable can be without any loss in signal quality.

Ok, I think that covers most of the technical jargon. Let’s move on to the list!


Here are the top 9 best microphones for music production and recording (from cheap to expensive):

  1. Audio-Technica AT2020
  2. Shure SM58
  3. AKG P420
  4. Rode NT1-A
  5. Audio-Technica AT2050
  6. Shure SM7B
  7. Warm Audio WA-87
  8. Neumann TLM-102
  9. AKG C12VR

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Audio-Technica AT2020

Price to performance wise you don’t get much better than the AT2020. A versatile condenser microphone with high SPL handling, low noise level (20dB SPL) and wide dynamic range. It has a cardioid polar pattern so it is great mic if you are using it in front of speakers (on your desk for example) as it wont pick up too much sound from the speakers. Not to mention it looks great and is fairly robust. I’ve had this mic for over three years and have had no issues with it whatsoever.

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid
  • Mic Type: Large Diaphragm Condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 100 ohms
  • Max Input Sound Level: 144dB SPL, 1kHz at 1% T.H.D
  • Dynamic Range: 124 dB, 1kHz at Max SPL
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 74 dB, 1kHz at 1 Pa
  • Phantom Power Requirements: 48V DC, 2 mA
  • Connector: XLR
  • Switches: N/A

I’ve been using this mic for over 3 years and love it. Typical daily usage includes, recording vocal shouts, foley (claps, snaps, random objects), recording tutorials, VOIP calls, all work perfectly. My choice in the ~$100 range.


Shure SM58

Typically suited best for vocals with a roll off on the low range and brightened midrange, the Shure SM58 is a staple on any recording stage. It has a built in pop filter, pneumatic shock-mount system so can handle being man-handled, and has a uniform cardioid pattern to isolate the main sound source from background noises.

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid
  • Mic Type: Dynamic
  • Frequency Response: 50-15,000Hz
  • Impedance: 150 ohms
  • Sensitivity: -54.50 dBV/Pa – 1.85 mV/Pa
  • Phantom Power Requirements: NA
  • Connector: XLR
  • Switches: N/A (If you want on/off switch you need the SM58S)

Pretty much the most recognizable mic in the world for a good reason. It’s cheap, robust and effective. Perfect for live performances and vocal recording. If you are planning to record a lot of bass heavy instruments and have a budget in the ~$100 range, rather opt for the AT2020.  


AKG P420

The AKG P420 is a strong, and great sounding mic, especially for vocals. The 300Hz rolloff means it won’t be great for recording bass heavy instruments but it’s a brilliant mic for recording vocals. You can switch between cardioid, omni and figure-8 pickup patterns so the mic is suitable for many applications such as vocal recording, podcasting, streaming and more.

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-8 (Variable)
  • Mic Type: Large Diaphragm Condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 200 ohms
  • Max SPL: 135dB
  • Bass Rolloff: 300hZ (12 dB per octave)
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 79dB (A weighted)
  • Phantom Power Requirements: +48V
  • Connector: XLR
  • Switches: Can switch between cardioid, omni, and figure-8 polar patterns.



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If you’re planning to record mostly vocals then this is an awesome choice in the ~$200 range.


Rode NT1-A

The Rode NT1 is renowned for its low noise floor which means you will be able to effortlessly capture quiet sounds without having to worry about noise creeping in. A nice high SPL of 137dB makes it a great choice for recording things like guitar amps and cabinets. It also does a brilliant job on vocals and many people swear by this mic. It also comes with a variety of accessories like a pop filter, shock mount, 20′ mic cable and a dust cover. 

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid
  • Mic Type: Large Diaphragm Condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 100 ohms
  • Max Input Sound Level: 137dB SPL
  • Noise Floor: 5dB
  • Phantom Power Requirements: +48V
  • Connector: XLR 
  • Switches: N/A

If you are planning to record anything from guitars to vocals and have $200-300 to spend then this may just be the mic for you. Make sure to check out the AT2050 below as it is slightly more versatile with switchable pickup patterns and a configurable bass roll off.


Audio-Technica AT2050

An extremely versatile mic with switchable pickup patterns, a 10db pad and 80Hz (12dB/octave) bass roll off. With the 10dB pad switch on you can take the max SPL to 159dB which makes it perfect for recording both studio and live instruments. The sound quality is comparable to many of the more expensive mics and the low price point makes it a no-brainer.

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-8
  • Mic Type: Large Diaphragm Condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 120 ohms
  • Bass Roll Off: 80Hz 12dB/Octave
  • 149dB SPL, 1kHz at 1% T.H.D.; 159dB SPL, with 10dB pad (nominal)
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 77 dB
  • Phantom Power Requirements: +48V
  • Connector: Integral 3-pin XLRM-type
  • Switches: Polar pattern selections; flat, roll-off; 10dB pad

Have a budget of around ~$200 and want a fantastic sounding mic that is super versatile? Your search is over my friend.


Shure SM7B

One of the more popular vocal mics, the Shure SM7B is a dynamic mic that tends to be quite forgiving. It can deal with getting screamed and yelled at. It has a switchable low cut and a mid range presence boost which helps give vocals a nice lush character. People are using it for anything from podcasting to radio shows and studio vocal recording. It has also been shown to excel at recording guitar cabinets, and even some percussion elements.

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid
  • Mic Type: Dynamic
  • Frequency Response: 50-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 150 ohms
  • Phantom Power Requirements: N/A
  • Connector: XLR
  • Switches: Switchable Low Cut

Not as detailed as a condenser mic, but if you are looking for a workhorse that can handle high SPL and still produce a warm, lush recording, then this is the one for you. Current budget range is around ~$350-450.


Warm Audio WA-87

Modelled after the famous vintage Neumann U87. The Warm Audio WA-87 comes very close at a fraction of the price. It is a large-diaphragm condenser with three switchable polar patterns.  The WA-87 is known for its warm, detailed low-mid to mid range. However, the WA-87 is reported to be slightly brighter than the U87 and will require a little bit of post EQ to achieve a similar sound. It excells at recording almost anything in a studio environment, from vocals to drums. You will also need a decent pre-amp to drive the gain up to optimal levels. It looks great and comes in both Nickel and Black colours. 

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-8
  • Mic Type: Large Diaphragm Condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 150 ohms
  • WA-87-B-50V Capsule. Reproduction Of Classic Dual Backplate (Four Wire Termination) K87 Capsule.
  • Max Input Sound Level SPL: .5% THD @ 125db (Without Pad),132db.
  • High Pass Filter: 80hz.
  • Diaphragm: 6 Micron Thickness, 1 Inch Diameter, Gold Sputtered Membrane, NOS Mylar (PET Film).
  • Phantom Power Requirements: +48V 
  • Includes Shock Mount, Hard Mount and Wood Box
  • Switches: Switchable polar patterns

If you are after the sound of the original Neumann U87 but don’t have $2000-3000 to spend on a mic then the Warm Audio WA-87 is a great choice. Bare in mind it doesn’t sound exactly the same, and in many cases will still require some post EQ. But for the low price point of around ~$600 I feel like it is well worth it.


Neumann TLM-102

Neumann is a name we all want to see in our studio. The Neumann TLM-102 is a highly capable cardioid large-diaphragm condenser mic that can handle up to 144dB SPL! This means you can easily throw it in front of guitar amps, bass drums and other loud instruments. It is known for its smooth, warm sound and subtle presence boost which can help to push vocals to the front of a mix with little to no help from post EQ.

  • Polar pattern: Cardioid
  • Mic Type: Large Diaphragm Condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 50 ohms
  • Dynamic Range: 132dB
  • Max Input Sound Level: 144dB maximum SPL
  • Phantom Power Requirements: 48V DC
  • Includes Shock Mount and Pop Filter
  • Switches: Switchable polar patterns

Versatile, robust, detailed, smooth, warm, Neumann. What else do you want? Definitely my choice in the ~$700 range.


AKG C12VR

Modelled after the AKG C12, a legendary mic first created in the 1950s. The C12VR is an enhanced version of the C12, with the original vacuum tube and design but it includes a new and updated capsure that boasts lower noise and distortion. With 9 remotely switchable polar patterns for enhanced flexibility. 

  • Polar patterns: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-8, with 6 intermediate patterns (silent switching)
  • Mic Type: Tube Condenser
  • Tube: 6072A
  • Frequency Response: 30-20,000Hz
  • Impedance: 200 ohms
  • Max Input Sound Level: 148dB SPL
  • Dynamic Range: 124 dB, 1kHz at Max SPL
  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio: 72 dB
  • Self Noise: 32 dB
  • Low Cut Filter:100Hz (-6dB/octave), 130Hz (-12dB/octave)
  • Pads: -10dB, -20dB
  • Phantom Power Requirements: N/A (Requires External Power Supply)
  • Switches: Remote Controlled Pattern Switcher

The C12VR is arguably one of the most desired, versatile and best sounding microphones available on the market today. But at well over $5000, it is far out of the reach of most aspiring studio owners. Would I buy it if I could afford it? Hell yeah!


Conclusion

Asking someone to decide what the best mic is, is kinda like asking someone what the best shoes are. Shoes for what? Rock climbing? Ballroom dancing? 

The point is that all the above mics are desirable for different recording and performance scenarios.

For my own personal use, the AT2020 is more than sufficient. If I had a bit more money to throw around I might go for the Neumann TLM-102.

If Jeff Bezos was my father and I was planning to record Grammy award-winning artists then I’d jump on the AKG C12VR. Or try and get my hands on the original U87.

Budget and application is everything. Happy shopping!

Gearing up and looking for more great kit for your studio? Check out our other reviews on headphones, monitors, midi keyboards, and audio interfaces.

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