How to Record a Song & Get Heard
Part 4: Six Amazing Studio Microphones
In Part 2 of the “How to Record a Song & Get Heard” series, we talked about how to set up your home recording studio — assuming you’re not paying for studio time elsewhere. Before we progress any further in this series, let’s revisit the topic of studio set-up and look at possibly the single most important technical component to your recording experience: purchasing a good microphone.
This list is meant for a low-budget shopper, and it begins with the cheapest (but best quality) microphones and gradually moves up the food chain to the more costly models:
1. Audix I-5 for $99.99
If you have a modest budget for microphones and you think you can only afford the basic SM57 for miking instruments (not vocals), think again. The Audix I-5 is a fantastic microphone for any situation (except miking a kick drum). Time and time again people have commented about how good it sounds for the price. If you need a versatile microphone that sounds excellent and is $100 or less, this is the one for you. It’s also very durable, and you won’t have to worry about a drummer accidentally hitting and breaking it.
2. Shure Beta 52A kick drum mic for $189.99
If you have a live drummer in the studio, you’ll need a microphone that is dedicated exclusively to the kick drum — something that can capture its powerful lows and handle its amplitude. The Shure Beta 52 is an industry standard, even for high end musicians. If it has been good enough for Terry Bozzio, Los Lobos, Santana, David Lee Roth, King Crimson, Mr. Mister, and The Rembrandts — to name a few — it’s good enough for you. The Shure Beta can also be used for low-end instruments like bass guitar cabinets and other low frequency monsters.
If you have the cash, you can get a drum kit microphone package that includes not only the Shure Beta, but all the overhead and smaller microphones you’ll need to do a complete miking of the kit.
3. Sterling Audio ST59 Multi-pattern FET Condenser Mic for $239.99
This microphone is my personal favorite. I’ve owned it for five years now, and it never ceases to amaze me. I found it because a studio engineer tipped me off to it. He talked about it like it was some kind of state secret. In hushed tones he explained how major label engineers were occasionally using this microphone instead of ones that cost thousands of dollars more. When I bought it and tried it out, I agreed wholeheartedly with him: it’s absolutely stunning for the cost. I use it primarily for vocals, but I’ve miked many instruments with it — even a drum set — and I even miked an entire band by just setting this thing up in the middle of the room and hitting record; and it was picking up some of the subtlest frequencies from every instrument of the band. They ended up using the recording for the album. I’m not saying this is the greatest microphone ever made, but for $239.99, it sure seems like it sometimes.
4. Rode NT1 for $269
Though a very versatile microphone, this one is especially good for acoustic guitars and other acoustic instruments — and vocals, of course, as any Rode NT would be. It has a vintage sound to it that is very pleasing to the ear — very smooth. It’s another all-star, all-around go-to microphone that sounds amazing in many different situations — much like the Sterling. The primary difference between the two is the Rode has perhaps a more vintage sound.
5. MXL V67i Tube for $495
If you’ve got a larger budget, this microphone is a gem. With its dual diaphragm set-up, it has two modes that you can switch between: “warm” and “bright” mode. And, as the name declares, it is a tube microphone. Yes, it has an actual tube in it like the microphones from many decades ago; but surrounding that tube is modern wizardry and flawless circuitry. Its tube component gives it an awesome warmth. And the two switchable modes is like having two microphones in one. It comes in very handy. For example, if you’re not getting the sound you want — perhaps the singer has an overly quiet, husky voice that just sounds muddy for some reason — you can switch to the “bright” mode to bring a subtle clarity and sparkle to muddy sounds.
6. Neumann TLM 102 for $699.95
Neumann is a legendary microphone company. Their high-end products are world-class industry standard microphones used in the best studios. They created the TLM 102 to bring that world-class sound within reach of those of us who don’t have the budget of a major record label. This remarkable microphone delivers wonderful frequency response, and it simultaneously adds sparkle and a smooth warmth to every recording. It is also surprisingly small and portable — perfect for home studios. Although it is the most expensive of these microphones, it is a great value because you’re getting the ultra high-end Neumann sound for under $1,000. It can be used for just about any situation, especially vocals, and it can handle very loud volumes without a problem.
Buying a microphone like the Neumann or any gear over $500 is a stretch for most of us, and it is certainly a want as opposed to a need (in the big scheme of things). If you can’t go over $500, my advice would be to go for the Sterling. You will get professional studio quality sound from it. After a few years of restraining my “recording” spending and being very conservative in that area, I was able to save enough to splurge for the Neumann. I’ll be the honest though, sometimes I still use the Sterling instead of the Neumann. It’s that good.
Keep in mind, however, that your miking needs will be determined by what you’re recording. If a drum kit will be involved, you’re going to need a kick drum mic like the Shure Beta 52a. A low-cost mic like the Audix I-5 will help you get a quality microphone for recording instruments without spending a lot of money so that maybe you can afford a nice vocal condenser microphone like the Sterling or the Rode NT1. Figure out your strategy and build your microphone repertoire a piece at a time if you need to.