You know what, I’m pretty sure that I don’t have to tell you that home studio recording can be a pretty expensive and time consuming gig. There are a lot of things that go into creating the perfect environment for a home studio. First of all, you need to make sure your work area is setup for the job. This includes things such as proper studio monitor setup (unless of course you’re working off of headphones) and the all-important acoustic treatment of a room which in and of itself is a pretty tall order. That doesn’t even begin to include costs such as a mixer, recorder, the instruments, amplifiers, preamplifiers, DAW programs… well, I’m sure you get my point – it can get expensive, fast!
While there is no going around certain costs if a great mix is your main goal, with a little bit of knowledge and a few tips from us here at PAL, you won’t have to break the bank if what you’re looking for is a very capable studio microphone.
With the seemingly hundreds of choices in studio microphones out there, those unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty details of mics in general can easily become overwhelmed to the point where might simply judge the value of a mic by price alone. And while it’s generally a safe bet to assume that a thousand dollar mic is probably better than something closer to two hundred, it is not an absolute simply because, well, that all depends. On what? Mainly the task at hand, for one. Certain mics work better for cetain applications, and whether that entails recording vocals, an acoustic guitar, a kick drum or what have you, sometimes all you really might need for a great sounding mix is a $200 mic.
In today’s feature, we will be taking a look at a few of the best budget microphones around along with a few tips on what application they work best for. And while we won’t be arguing with some of the pros out there who swear by their $5000 C12VR, you don’t always have to pay top dollar for some top notch sound.
Before We Get Started
We will be discussing a few things when talking about each mic including their type – mainly condenser versus dynamic – as well as their polar patterns, so it’s a good idea to brush up a bit on the subject in case you’re still a bit new.
For a more in depth look at the differences between Condenser, Dynamic and Ribbon microphones, check out our Microphones 101 article right here.
For tips on understanding a microphone’s polar pattern, check out our feature on Microphone Polar Patterns right here.
And finally, for a small guide on certain things to look for when selecting a microphone, check out our article, Microphone 101: Part IV.
Best Bang for your Buck Microphones
AUDIO TECHNICA AT2020 : Coming in at the very reasonable price of $99, the AT2020 has the earned its reputation of being one of the best “first mics” that will make a perfect addition to anyone building their first home studio on a budget. You might be thinking that for less than one hundred bucks, how good can this mic actually be? Well, compared to other similarly priced microphones, this guy pretty much blows most of them out of the water. Seeing as how Audio Technica clearly has the budget home studio market in mind, the biggest surprise with the AT2020 is just how well it handles multiple recording duties. Comparing it to the similarly priced AKG C1000s (which is a favorite of the budget mic community) when used for recording acoustic guitar, the AT2020 actually sounded much fuller and precise in capturing the instruments entire sound along with a very developed bottom end. Not only that, the AT2020 also kept the highs the highs smooth without getting too harsh which might not be great for cutting through the mix but works perfect for something such as a backing track. When tested on several different instruments such as an electric guitar or even drums toms, the AT2020 did tend to sound kind of flat with a slight rise (very slight) at the high end but all in all pretty negligible. If you’re looking for pretty versatile condenser mic at less than $100, you can’t go wrong with the AT2020
Works best as: Moderate to great on most applications
EV Cardinal : To cut to the chase, the single best feature of the Electro Voice Cardinal Condenser microphone is most definitely its VERY wide cardioid pattern. What this means is that if you are one of those people out there who simply hate having to meticulously search for those perfect positions when recording something like an acoustic guitar then this mic is a godsend. I tried explaining to a buddy of mine on how different mic positions greatly affect the quality of the recording. While recording an acoustic guitar, I tried placing the Cardinal in several different positions, including several of the “bad” choices so as to give my friend a good idea on how important placement is. Honestly, I just couldn’t find a bad placement for this mic – it always sounded great. Even when placed right next to the sound hole of the acoustic guitar, the mic was very clear with none of that deep woofiness along with a surprisingly fast response for a large diaphragm condenser. The highs were just right along with the rest of the EQ spectrum. Essentially, if you’re looking for a mic that you can easily whip out and quickly set up – not to mention will sound great too – you can’t go wrong with the Electro Voice Cardinal, especially for under two hundred bucks!
Works best as: Acoustic guitar and drum overhead mic
Works best as: Vocal condenser mic
SHURE BETA58A: You simply can’t mention the Shure BETA 58A without mentioning its very similar and very famous predecessor – the Shure SM58. For those of you unaware, the SM58 is pretty much THE dynamic mic. The next time you ever go to a live concert, there’s a VERY good chance that they are probably using an SM58 since it is essentially the most widely used and seen dynamic mic in the world. It has even been widely speculated that U2’s Bono pretty much recorded everything an SM58. Well, enough about the SM58, let’s get into the BETA 58A. As I mentioned before, the BETA 58A is very similar to the SM58 but has a slightly wider frequency response as well as a better grip. Much like the SM58, the BETA 58A is well known for being the permanent choice in a live vocal mic for several singers and works just as great as a dynamic studio mic. If you’ve never heard either one of these bad boys, the BETA 58A is a bit clearer than the SM58 in my opinion and has a very warm and colorful sound to it that simply can’t be reached by almost any other dynamic mic in this price range. And if you happen to have a good preamp on you, you can even use it to record pretty much almost anything on it, from acoustic guitars to drum kit toms. Not to mention that they can take one hell of a beating and still work good as new. All, in all, the BETA 58A builds on what was already considered the most popular dynamic mic ever released… you simply can’t go wrong with this one!
Works best as: Live stage vocal mic
SENNHEISER e604: If you’re looking to record a full band in your home studio, you’re going to need a few solid drum mics, not to mention one that can fit within your budget. Luckily for us, Sennheiser has developed the e604! My first experience with the e604 was pretty much an accident. A friend of mine was in the middle of recording an entire drum kit and needed some suggestions on some mics that he could use that wouldn’t go beyond his $500 price point. My first suggestion was getting something like four Shure SM57 mics – three for the toms and one for the snare. We went over to our local music shop and before we could find the SM57s, my buddy noticed a three pack of mics that were being sold specifically as tom mics (among other uses… such as snare). For some reason, I didn’t have such a great feeling about Sennheiser; it had nothing to do with actually using them, but similar to the prejudice some people have about off brand cereal, or things of that nature – I just didn’t know what to expect from these three very modestly priced microphones. Well, I’m sure you already know that I was very much surprised when we finally went home and got to use them. When it comes to recording drums one of the trickiest parts deals with the toms – specifically getting them to sound nice, clear and professional. With the e604, the toms were crystal clear along with plenty of headroom before peaking – an absolute masterpiece! The sound came off crisper than an SM57 and even worked great – as the manual suggested – on wind instruments such as my buddy’s sax which came off very rich and natural. The versatility is definitely in there but if you are looking specifically for a very capable set of tom and snare mics, you most definitely should consider taking a look at the Sennheiser e604 dynamic microphone!
Price: $139.00 each / $349.95 for 3 pack
Works best as: Tom mic – comes with drum clip
Works best as: Kick drum mic