How To Choose The Best Vocal Microphone
Learning how to sing isn’t just about your breathing, technique and resonance – sometimes we also have to make tough gear decisions like choosing the best vocal microphone for our situation, setup and budget. Instead of doing a microphone shootout and bogus reviews, I’m going to give you something so much better – my own personal experience in and out of the recording studio, on stage and in various sized venues over the past 15 years. What I originally thought I ‘knew’ about recording great vocals and getting a good vocal tone live has changed over time, and I’ve come to some surprising conclusions along the way that I’d really love to share with you now!
Choosing the right and best vocal microphone for your unique situation can really make the difference between a great recording, a great live show, and an absolute bomb. Are you ready to make better microphone choices for both the studio and live situations?
Vocal Recording Microphone
We’ll get to the live situation soon, but choosing the right microphone for a recording situation has a few deciding factors you need to take into an account. If you’re in a professional recording studio, it’s likely you will have access to a wide variety of microphones, and with a properly treated room you can basically go for your life with whatever high end microphone is at hand and you’ll likely get a great sound.
Now, in a home studio situation you likely won’t have a huge budget or the same acoustic treating you’re afforded in a professional studio situation – so it’s important you choose the right microphone for your situation. A dynamic microphone might not technically yield the best results in a tonal sense, but it WILL cut out a lot of the noise you’ll get in the same situation with a condenser microphone, even the highest end condenser – due to a much more sensitive diaphragm. So in a professional recording situation, a condenser microphone is likely what the doctor ordered, but for a home recording situation where you can hear your neighbour’s dog barking, a dynamic is probably a better choice.
Dynamic Vocal Microphone
Except for perhaps really aggressive singing, you likely won’t find many major studio recordings that employ a dynamic microphone for the lead vocals, especially modern ones. Funnily enough though, some of the greatest vocal tracks of all time, from Elvis through to Metallica have been recorded using a dynamic, and to very good effect. One of my own favourite vocal microphones, even for the recording situation is an Electrovoice dynamic from the 70’s, one of the same types of microphone which was thrown in front of Keith Richard’s blisteringly loud guitars from the late 60’s – it simply has that ‘vintage’ and slightly boxy sound which I love so much, and removes much of the ‘modern’ from a home recording situation that generally suffers from too much digital and processing. Here’s my EV dynamic at work:
Of course, each mic has it’s own character and any old budget dynamic may not have the same character as the one I’m using above, but in a general sense, you can see that I’m fairly close to the microphone, am throwing a decent SPL (sound pressure level) at a close range with little effect on the clarity or dynamics of the mic.
On the flip side, of course there are certainly tracks on which I prefer a decent condenser, and my personal choice that you can see in recent vocal covers of my own is an Audio-Technica AT2020, one of the most versatile, and thankfully affordable range condenser microphones available to us mere mortals. Here’s my AT2020 at work, it’s just a home studio recording but you can hear the clarity vs. the more vintage sound of the dynamic above:
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You can see I’m relatively further away from the microphone, and it’s a much more crystal clear and modern sound, and the overall quality is a touch higher than the dynamic. If you did the AudioTechnica AT-2020, they’re a dime a dozen here.
Now, there are many other differences between a dynamic and condenser microphone beyond clarity, things like sensitivity to electromagnetic fields (you’ll get more laptop buzz with a dynamic), and the fact that condensers are way more expensive (Veblen effect anyone?) while not necessarily making your recording sound any more professional, and the fact that neither of these microphones really make up for lacking vocal technique…
Best Live Vocal Microphone
Here’s where things get interesting – have you seen many live performers using a condenser? Very few, in fact, unless they’re in a very controlled, professional environment. This is in part due to the fact the condenser is more sensitive and will pick up every nuance of sound within a reasonable proximity of the microphone, meaning you’ll hear the drums, hear the guitars, hear the singer’s phone vibrating – that sort of thing. Now, with a dynamic, there is a much smaller field of sound being picked up, so this is PERFECT for the live situation where there is a whole racket going on within arm’s reach of the singer.
Along with being a little more proximate in the way they pick up sound, dynamic microphones are also a little more robust in their durability and aren’t likely to get demolished from the occasional knock on stage or loose rattle in a travel case.
How to choose the right microphone for your situation
This really depends on what you want out of the microphone, and of course your budget. Are you in a situation with less than ideal acoustics? Then perhaps a dynamic that you can get a little closer to and isn’t going to pick up the sound of your boots squeaking every time you shift your weight. If you’re in a better acoustic surround, or you’ve got a portable vocal booth like this one, then you might be in the position to spring for a condenser microphone to make your home recordings that little bit more legitimate sounding.
There’s one more thing we haven’t talked about yet, but is absolutely KEY to getting a great sound from a home recording, no matter which microphone you choose, and that is microphone technique.
How to improve Microphone Technique
Now, microphone technique when you sing is a special skill that many singers overlook – spending many many years on their voices and vocal technique, only to let poor microphone technique ruin their recordings and performances. Now, microphone technique really depends on the microphone you’ve chosen. You might like to get up close and personal with a Shure SM58 to make the most of the proximity effect in your low range, but if you lean into that 1950’s RCA ribbon mic, you’ll not only distort the sound, you’ll probably destroy a $10k microphone at the same time. Learning proper microphone technique is just like learning any other skill and takes time, education and some tips. Here’s some important microphone technique tips I’ve learned over the years;
- The microphone doesn’t follow you around
I know, it seems simple, right? The microphone doesn’t work for you, you have to MAKE it work for you by keeping a consistent distance and not drifting away or moving closer when it isn’t appropriate. Closer proximity is okay for most dynamics, but a decent half foot or more is preferable for your average condenser mic. Remember, when you move backwards or forwards, you change how the microphone is picking up your voice.
- The microphone doesn’t care how loud you are
If you’re singing a moderately quiet phrase and suddenly leap into the high C belt, the microphone will pick up the volume of your voice consistently regardless, and now doubt you’ll see smoke in the control room when you peak all of their gear with that grinding scream – learn to back off on a loud phrase and the microphone will become your best friend, and the engineer will LOVE you. If you distort the mic, you’re not only putting the gear at risk, you’re also stuck with it distorted on the recording.
- You’re screwing up soundcheck…
In soundcheck, I used to be on my best behaviour, I’d stand nicely, sing nice and pleasantly and generally make friends with the sound guy. The problem is, when the band came roaring in I’d often run on stage screaming my head off and throwing the mic stand around like a lunatic – oh oh, all those soundcheck settings are ruined! If you’re a wild singer who moves around, you need to be consistent in your soundcheck and not alter your performance drastically because the levels have been set to the way you sang before the show.
- Don’t cup the mic
This is for you hand-held guys, don’t cup the mic – this often causes feedback and other odd effects when you sing. The mic has a handle for a reason, use it.
- There’s a line, don’t cross it….
In a figurative sense, there is an imaginary line in front of the PA that you simply shouldn’t cross – unless you’re in an industrial band that enjoys deafening your audience. Be sure to stay out of the PA line so you don’t create a feedback loop and blow the whole PA system… or your ears.
Now, I’ll do another tutorial on this soon, but HEADPHONE choice is actually a very important part of a studio singing situation. There have been many times over the years where I’ve paid big dollars to record in a top facility, only to realise they have NO idea how their terrible headphones can effect a singer’s performance and confidence. I’m a huge believer in open-back headphones, much to my engineer’s dismay. While you’ll get a little bleed from the headphones, they allow you to have a true sense of the room and three dimensions in your voice, instead of the ‘blocked off’ feeling you get from a true closed back headphone.
So, situation dictates your microphone choice just as much as your budget does. You don’t have to lay down $1,000 for a top-of-the-line microphone if your recording situation is less than ideal, and sometimes a cheap workhorse mic like a Shure is the best option even for a professional live situation.
What about Tube and Ribbon mics?
I’ve been fortunate over the years to have the pleasure of having the opportunity to sing through some truly high range ribbon and tube microphones, and also the general disappointment of singing through budget level tube and ribbon mics. If you’re on a budget, I’d personally steer clear of these types of microphones, of course there are a few exceptions, but I personally think your money is better spent elsewhere if you’re in a home-recording situation. Acoustic treating, decent headphones, a dynamic mic and proper monitors will take you a hell of a lot further than a tube mic could ever do – oh, and this comes from someone who once spent their life savings recording an album to tape for that ‘analogue’ feel that ultimately sounded like crap and never saw the light of day. Remember, a great vocal recording is more about a singer’s ability and their microphone technique than it is about the gear they are singing through – you likely have more ‘high end’ gear in front of you right now than The Beatles had throughout their whole recording career…
Coincidentally, I’m a voice coach – if you need help learning proper microphone technique, or you’re struggling with your high range, you can book a Skype Session in the online booking calendar and we’ll form better microphone habits and start extending your voice while building consistency and control in your voice every time you sing!
If you have any questions about learning how to sing, or how to pick the best microphone for your space, situation and budget, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.