Meanwhile I can look back on thirty years of home recording. Usually I record in a normal environment. That means I have never invested and I can not invest in a dedicated studio-room. That means in another room my children are playing, outside the traffic is rushing, while I try to capture an intimate recording of my acoustic guitar. Of course I try to optimize the situation as good as possible: I record when the children are outside, I wait for Sundays, but there is always some background-noise, even a little blowing wind or a squealing floor is recognised by a good microphone. This is my personal perspective, which has motivated me to write this article about microphones. If you are the lucky owner of a world-class studio or you have built up a decent recording-studio in your basement you can skip this little article.
Over the years I have purchased many different microphones. In the beginning of my home recording-career I started with a single AKG C-1000 and used it for everything: Vocals, acoustic-guitar, violin. Later I made the experience, that it’s better for the mix to use different microphones for different instruments, because each microphone emphasises a special frequency. So if you just use one mic you will over-emphasize a frequency-range and it will be hard to correct this later. The best way to achieve a balanced spectrum is to care for it while recording. Therefore I added other mics to my collection, also expensive condensers like an AKG C-414, and a solid Mic-Preamp, because Condenser-Mics need Phantom Power. The mic-preamp was a SPL Goldmike. You see I am talking in past tense, because later I sold the AKG-C414 and also the SPL Goldmike. I will tell you later why. At those times I had the opinion, that Large Condensers are better for everything, because they have better technical specifications compared to dynamic mics: A wider frequency range, a higher output and a better signal-to-noise ratio. I recorded a full album with this expensive combination, because in those times I thought “The pricier the better”. Of course I recorded with an elastic mounting and a Pop-Filter. Looking back my voice sounds very thin on this album. Basing on an euphoric review I bought then a very cheap Chinese Ribbon-Mic and recorded the next album with the Ribbon-microphone. I wondered how much depth and authority and warmth this mic added to my voice compared to the AKG, though the price-tag is just 99 Euro. I read, that many famous singers have also recorded with “cheap” microphones. Many male Rock-singers use a Sure SM-58 in the studio for an example Bono of U2 and of course Bono would also get a Neumann U87, if he would want it. If you want to record a female Soul-singer you will probably get better results with a Large Condenser or a Tube Condenser. Also deep male voices could benefit from the better resolution and top-range of a big condenser. But high-pitched Rock-singers benefit from the focused mids of a dynamic microphone. They will also better compete against electric guitars. I would describe my own voice as high and very thin and articulated with explosive S-Consonants and a lack of bottom. In my case the Ribbon-Microphone works so well, because a ribbon adds a lot of low-end and rolls off the highs, so my sharp consonants are softened and my natural thin voice gets the authority and depth of a black soul-singer (Well, almost …). I learned the following lesson:
- The frequency-range and price of a microphone is not so crucial for recording vocals, because also a cheap microphone can work well with a specific voice and can be the better choice compared to an expensive Large Condenser-Microphone
But there are more advantages of dynamic microphones.
- First they are passive and don’t need phantom-power. I record myself mostly with a very small recording device, a Boss BR-600, and this device doesn’t have phantom power at all. But even, if you have Phantom power, the condenser mics need different Volt-amounts. Some are just working with 48V, some run with 12V. If you don’t match the specifications of the manufacturer, for an example you work with a 48V Mic on 12V, all high-quality specs like the noise-floor and the output are effected and the Mic will perform not as well as it could. Connecting a Mic made for 12V to 48V could possibly damage the Mic. You can also experience unstable Phantom Power on cheaper Mixing desks, what would cause an unstable output. So you need a professional and stable set-up to work with high-quality condenser mics.
- Second those big impressive large condensers need an elastic mounting, otherwise you will record all rumbles from your floor (and remember we are not working in a dedicated studio-room with optimised acoustic treatments). I can tell you, that floor-rumbles can ruin a recording completely, because they are hard to remove later, even in the age of the DAW.
- Third you can not work with a Condenser Mic in close distance like you are used to do it with a live mic (which also can be a condenser), because studio condenser-mics are mostly constructed for recording in a (small) distance. But if you record with a distance you will also catch some room-information and private rooms seldomly sound good.
- Fourth dynamic mics often feature a hyper-cardioid pattern, or a smaller cardioid pattern, which can also help to get rid of a bad room-sound.
And what’s about the ribbon mic?
A ribbon mic is not so easy to handle. It needs usually a lot of pre-amp power to reach a good output for recording. It works with a bi-directional mic-pattern. It catches also easily floor-noises, so you will need an elastic mounting. That means you can not avoid a lot of room information. On the other hand it delivers the most special and unique sound of the three kinds of microphones and if this special sound matches your needs it can outbalance the disadvantages of more room-information and maybe a higher noise-floor.
And what’s about cheap large condenser-mics?
Well I am not an audio-engineer, but low-cost large condenser-mics never sounded right to my ears. Here is a possible explanation
But the quality of chinese-made microphones has increased over the last ten years. You can buy awesome guitars made in China and I have not tested a chinese Condenser-Mic since five years, so maybe it’s worth to give it a shot.
Because of the reasons, which I have numbered above, I sold my expensive large condenser-microphones and also the expensive Mic-Preamp a few years ago and started to record with Dynamic and Ribbon-microphones. My collection includes the following models (all pictures are linked to my favourite online-store, Thomann)
This is the only Condenser-microphone, which I kept. The reason is, that you can run the C-1000 with a 9V battery. So there is no need for phantom-power. The only instrument, where I miss the sparkling and clear highs from a condenser-mic is the acoustic guitar. Therefore the AKG is reserved for acoustic guitar, sometimes I also use it for violin. It is not the warmest sounding mic and tends to produce hard highs and not much bottom, but in this way I can achieve a good contrast to other instruments. Some people hate it, but in my opinion it’s a strong keeper for home-recording and quality-wise more than enough, if you are recording at home.
The company Beyerdynamic is often overlooked behind the famous brands like Neumann or AKG, but this small german company is known for highest quality and a few true classics. The M88TG is such a classic. Phil Collins uses it live. The Mic features a wide frequency range from 30-20000kHz and can capture also brass and even a kick-drum. Compared to other dynamic mics it sounds more like a condesner with wonderful open highs and delivers a high output, so you don’t need to amplify it a lot.
Every Home-studio should consider to start with a Sure SM-57. Though the price is very affordable you can record a wide range of signals with this microphone, starting from guitar-amps and snares to vocals. It sounds not as open as the Beyerdynamic, but can accent a signal with focused mids.
The t.Bone RB 500 is a ribbon mic manufactured in China. It’s exclusively made for the german seller Thomann. The RB500 has become a secret tip. Some people modify it to achieve even better results like Hannes Mottl
For me it works right out of the box as a microphone with much character. If you want to add a special flavour to a signal try the RB500.
This is my latest purchase from E-Voice. This mic is sold for under 100 Euro and showcases the quality of lower priced mics. You can compare it with the Sure SM-58, but with more pronounced highs.
Today I prefer to record as easy as I can. If you are surrounded by a family and have a daily job, you have to take chances for recording, so you have to be fast. The more complicated the recording set-up is, the less time you have to record. I don’t use an elastic mounting (Dynamic mics are not so sensitive for rumbles and I can keep care and move not so much with my feet). I don’t use a Pop-Filter (Pop-Filter not always prevent Pop-sounds; I try to control my Consonants and if there is a Pop-sound on the recording they can easily be removed in the DAW) and I even don’t use big Mic-Stands anymore. I place a little Mic-Stand on a furniture (more stable and not so easily affected by floor-noises) and plug the mic directly into the recorder. A Mic-clamp in combination with a gooseneck can also be very helpful, if you deal with furniture.
At last I prefer to record with hardware read my review of the Boss BR-600 A hardware-device starts in a second and you can transfer from one room to another with ease. Later I drop the files in the DAW and edit them.
My very personal and very biased summary:
- If you are recording at home in your living room without a dedicated studio-environment, a vocal-booth and professional Phantom-Power it’s not worth to invest in expensive large condenser-microphones and preamps. The bad sound of the room and the noises of the environment, which you will capture with the wider pattern will outweigh the better frequency-response and sound-quality of the condenser-mic. Additionally the use of an elastic mounting, Phantom-Power and distance are less comfortable than the easy use of a dynamic microphone.
- If you are after a very coloured and lively vintage-sound don’t look after an expensive and big tube-condenser, try the cheap t.Bone RB500 Ribbon microphone