Resources for the Recording Musician
January 12, 2007

The Ultimate Vocal Microphone?

Choosing the right vocal microphone for your home studio can be a difficult task. What sounds great on one voice might sound horrible on another. Also, you may also need different microphones for different styles of music and singing, even if you are doing all the singing yourself.

In this "review" I'll discuss some of the "vocal" microphones I use in my own studio, compare them to some of the really expensive microphones I've used at major studios, and tell you a bit about the characteristics of each so you can get a good idea of where to start looking.

Although every studio definitely should own at least one Shure SM57, it's usually not the first choice for that modern vocal sound. To get that modern vocal sound, you usually need to use a large diaphragm condenser microphone, and one that has a "presence" boost designed for vocals (although they are usually useful on many other things besides vocals).

Unfortunately, the only way to know which microphone is going to work for a particular voice is to put some up in front of the vocalist and try them out one at a time until you find the one that sounds the best. If you are just recording yourself in your own home studio, and don't record other singers, then your job is easier as you only have to find a microphone that works well on your own voice. If, however, you are going to be bringing in other vocalists into the studio, then eventually you are going to need at least a couple of different microphones designed for vocals that compliment the sound of each other well, so if one doesn't work for a particular vocalist, hopefully one of your other microphones will.

The first large diaphragm condenser microphone I purchased for my own studio was the Audio-Technica AT4033 Large Diaphragm Condenser Microphone. It's a relatively simple cardiod pattern microphone that also includes a bass roll off switch and a 10 dB pad switch, both very handy options to have. The package also includes a shock mount. This is really a great all-around microphone that has stood the test of time and earned respect, despite it's relatively cheap price tag of under $400. I used this as my main vocal microphone for several years, and it performed well with just about every vocalist I tried it with, and many different singing styles, from rap, to metal, and acoustic pop & folk music. It has that presence boost and aggressive mid-range needed for a vocal microphone, but not as exaggerated as many other microphones are. This microphone also works well on acoustic guitars and other instruments, and would make a great first choice large diaphragm condenser microphone for any home studio.

The next "vocal" microphone I picked up was the Neumann TLM-193 Cardioid Condenser Microphone. This is not a cheap microphone, at around $1600, and doesn't have the typical big presence boost or hyped up mid-range that most microphones designed for vocals have. However, I don't think this microphone is really marketed as a "vocal" microphone anyway. The main reason I picked up this microphone is that I was doing a long term project with a bluesy female vocalist who had a really powerful voice. Something in her voice was resonating in a weird way that was really exaggerated by my Audio Technica AT4033, and I just couldn't get that microphone to work with her. So, I was looking for a great microphone with a relatively flat and unhyped response. The TLM193 fit the bill perfectly. If you compare this microphone directly with another microphone that was designed for vocals (i.e., with a big presence boost), the TLM193 might sound a bit dull in comparison. However, in reality, the TLM193 is simply reproducing a much more true and accurate representation of what is put in front of it. This is a no-frills microphone with no built-in pad or roll-off, and doesn't even come with a shock mount. However, it is super rugged and the capsule has its own internal suspension mount to reduce induced vibration, and it has worked just fine for me without a shock mount. I've also used it with great success on saxophone and trumpet, as it's relatively flat response will not exaggerate the harshness that the sax and trumpet can sometimes produce. It can handle high sound pressure levels with ease! I've also used it as a second microphone on acoustic guitar to give me a nice stereo image -- using a small diaphragm condenser up on the neck (around the 12th fret), and the TLM 193 down on the body near the bridge. This is not a cheap microphone, though, and won't give you the hyped modern vocal sound, and so it would not be my first choice for a home studio owner just starting to put a microphone collection together. However, once you have a few other bases covered, this may be a good additional microphone to look into, and you can sometimes find good deals on used ones.

The next "vocal" microphone I picked up was the Studio Projects C1 V2.  (I had the original.  I guess they are up to V2 now)  I got it fairly soon after it was first introduced as it was getting rave reviews and was only $200 at the time. At that time, it wasn't that much money for me and looked like it would be a good compliment to what I already had. The C1 is a VERY bright and aggressive microphone, with a really hot output. In almost all cases, you won't need any high-frequency boosting EQ if you record vocals with this microphone because it's already quite bright. The ones being offered for sale now are "version 2" with "improved electronics" and slightly more expensive. Still, this microphone is a great value for the money since it comes with a shock mount, windscreen, and a nice travel case. It's got a built-in bass roll off and 10 dB pad as well. I've used it on rap vocals and many other vocals where I wanted a bright and in your face sound! However, due to the bright response of this microphone, it's not going to work on singers that have sibilance problems.

That's all I have time for right now, but I'll be adding more microphones that I have experience with to this list on a regular basis.

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