What Microphone Should I Buy on a Budget?

Hey guys, Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com, and mixing101.co.

I’m going to try and attempt to answer the question, what is the best microphone I can buy for my vocals on a budget? This is a ubiquitous question. It comes up again and again, and the answer is, well, there isn’t really any one specific answer. There’s a lot of great microphones out there, and of course, everybody’s budget is different, and of course, there’s also the consideration that the microphone is only part of the equation. We also have to consider the room in which we are recording and the way that we’ve laid out our recording setup, as well as the preamp that’s powering the microphone.

So first of all, before getting into microphone choices, I’m just going to start off with some really easy stuff you can do to improve your sound right away.

First of all, if you are recording in a closet or you have put your microphone inside of a tight, reflection killing space, like one of those reflection boxes or something like that, stop that. Don’t record in a closet, don’t record with your microphone in a box, because the problem is something called comb filtering. It’s not that the reflections and reverb is no longer there, simply because you’re in a smaller space, it’s just that they’re compacted into a smaller reflection time, and what happens is that reflection time gets so fast, the sound starts to feedback on itself and start to lose detail, and generally speaking, create a very weird frequency response.

So by thinking you’re cutting reflections out of your sound, all you’re doing is condensing them and making the sound worse. The better solution is to take the microphone out of that small space, put it into a regular sized space like a bedroom or a basement or whatever it is, and get some 703 Corning rigid fiber glass panels. They’re pretty cheap to make yourself, you can make really successful ones for $70, and you know, treat up the space to control the reflections. You’re going to get a much better sound.

Similarly, don’t stick a microphone in the corner of the room. Again, that’s going to have the same effect, you’re just condensing those echoes into comb filtering.

So that’ll improve the sound of your microphone vastly right away. Outside of that, consider your preamp. If you are using an interface preamp combo, chances are, the preamp is not one of exceptionally high quality. It’s usually passable.

So what you want to do is drive that preamp as little as possible. The harder those preamps work, the more prone they are to self noise or over saturation or a loss of detail, or various other artifacts that can come along the way. So use the level very sparingly.

Yes, you don’t get the immediate satisfaction of a loud capture right on input, but you’re going to get a richer, better capture at the end of the day.

So once we’ve gotten that far, then we need to consider what we really need to upgrade, because if you have an okay microphone already, maybe the step is not to improve the microphone, but it is in fact to get a dedicated preamp instead that you can then run line in to your interface or line in to your converters.

But now let’s move past that. Let’s talk about budget microphones.

So inevitably, when this question is asked, certain microphones are going to come up. C414s, TLM103s, and SM7s. They tend to be very frequently recommended. Also, there are a number of Blue microphones that get recommended, and I happen to really like the Lewitt microphones. They’re kind of newer and they sound great, and they tend to be within the under $1,000 price tag for the most part.

So let’s talk about some of those. If you saw my Harvey J video where I’m recording outside, you’ll notice that I was using a Shure SM7. The benefits to an SM7 is that one, they’re on the cheaper side out of everything, they have to be very high quality because dynamic microphones are inherently cheaper to build, so you get much more bang for your buck in terms of build quality versus price point.

You can get an SM7 for like, three, four hundred bucks. It’s a top of the line large diaphragm dynamic. It’s great quality, it’s been used on a lot of great records for vocals, and one of the benefits to it is that it’s a very uni-directional microphone. It’s also not particularly sensitive to proximity effect, so it’s sort of fool proof if you’re in a space not particularly fantastic, or if you have someone that leans into the microphone and backs away, you’re going to get still a fairly predictable and even response, you’re going to get more or less the same results whether you’re recording there or you have to record on a mountain outside like I was doing.

So it’s a very good choice in the sense that you’re really never going to go wrong with it, and when the idea is to get the music together and get the music happening, having a microphone like that is — it’s pretty useful.

The only things to consider are that they tend to have a lower output, so you have to drive your preamp a little bit more sometimes to get above any kind of noise, and also they tend to be a little bit darker than condensers, so you are going to have to EQ up some top end and there is a certain saturation sound to the SM7 in particular that is going to be in the microphone.

It’s not a bad sound at all, it sort of has this way of almost sounding kind of like a “natural compression,” although I’m stretching the use of that word for sure, but it does feel like there’s a certain weight and tension on the vocal when you use an SM7, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Just depends.

Another one you might want to consider is something like the TLM103 is a classic, but any kind of condenser in that ballpark, whether it’s one of the Blue microphones, or one of the Lewitts, or one of the TLM103s, chances are it’s going to be useable, it’s not going to be necessarily great, but it’s certainly not going to be bad.

C414s tend to go for under $1,000 as well. All of those are super useable condenser microphones that have made their way onto records as well. They tend to be microphones that require a little bit more work to get used to, so you need to get used to how far away you need to be from those mics, you need to see how they play off your environment, how their frequency curves affect the response of your voice.

So it takes a little bit more “engineering” to get the exact sound that you want from many of those mics, but with a little bit of time put toward it, there’s no reason why you can’t.

So the only thing I would say is you know, just be wary of whether or not the microphone — if it’s condenser — that you’re getting is a transformer coupled output or if it’s transformerless, because that’s going to also reflect how it interacts with the preamp, and I find that transformerless microphones tend to get a little bit more of the print of the preamp, because you end up driving it a little bit more, but it also just seems to pick up a little bit more of the preamp to begin with. I don’t know why and I might be generalizing, but it’s something to consider.

Anyway, you know, you can’t really go wrong with an SM7, you can’t really go wrong with a C414, you can’t really go wrong with a TLM103, you can’t really go wrong with a Blue Bluebird or a Blueberry microphone or something like that. I wouldn’t fret too much over it. I would say, work with what’s convenient for your price point. Make sure you’re recording in a good environment. Maybe even go on the cheaper end of the microphone so you can upgrade the preamp pretty soon too, and then start making the music, because if you ever concern yourself with these things, then you’re not thinking about things like delivery, comping takes, constructing a vocal arrangement that works really well, and those are the things that are going to have a bigger impact ultimately on the sound.

Alright guys, don’t forget to like and subscribe, and I will catch you next time.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.
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