Great Records Made With Inexpensive Mics

Solange (2017). Photo by:Frederick M. Brown / Stringer, Getty Images.
Billie Eilish (2020). Photo by: Emma McIntyre / Staff, Getty Images.

Everybody loves a high-fidelity record. When talented artists lay down tracks in treated rooms, record into high-end consoles, sing through tube mics with perfect placement—that's a recipe for sonic perfection.

But not every great record needs such white-glove service. And in fact, you may be surprised to learn just how many incredible albums have been made with standard-issue mics.

In our list below, we are merely scratching the surface. And a few caveats are in order:

  • Countless records use at least one inexpensive mic—on a snare drum, a guitar cab, or some other single instrument. But that's not where our focus lies today. Instead, we're talking about those records which primarily used cheap mics, or whose main vocal performances were captured by them.

  • There are times when an artist, producer, or engineer could be downplaying the equipment they actually had on hand, instead of fessing up to using really nice gear. That said, all of our records below have some documentation or on-the-record interviews that the players involved were using inexpensive microphones during the recording sessions.

  • Even performances that were recorded with a cheap mic can of course be mixed and mastered with premium equipment. But this shouldn't stop you from using whatever you have on hand. If recording a project, you can always send out your tracks for mixing and mastering. And if you want to do it all yourself, modern plugins and 500 series rack gear all provide alternatives to professional studios.

So, with those caveats behind us, here's a list that we hope gets a conversation started. What other great records were made with cheap mics?

Boston - Boston (1976)

Boston - "More Than a Feeling"

The soaring choruses of "More Than a Feeling" dominated AM radio upon its 1976 release and have been a staple on "classic rock" radio since the beginning of the format. So it might not be the first thing you think of when you imagine DIY music.

But the majority of that song—and Boston's self-titled debut album—was recorded in producer/multi-instrumentalist Tom Scholz's Watertown, Massachusetts basement, mostly with Shure SM57s.

Outside of Brad Delp's lead vocals—which, according to a 2000 Mix article, were recorded in LA as part of a ruse to allow the Scholz to continue to work out of his basement—the whole song was a home-studio production.

Solange - A Seat at the Table (2016)

Solange - "Cranes in the Sky"

Like Prince—who was known for cutting his own vocals while seated at the recording console—Solange Knowles has found that singing along to monitors allows her to get in the zone and capture a more emotive performance.

While Prince used everything from an SM57 to a AKG C12 or Neumann U 47, Solange has gravitated toward one mic in particular: the Shure Beta 58A.

In an interview with her go-to recording engineer Mikaelin "Blue" Bluespruce, he told Reverb:

"The Shure Beta 58 is the main thing that has to be there in terms of recording. She really doesn't like to be standing in front of a mic. … She likes to be seated, walking around the room, or however she wants to be she wants to bring the mic with her and hold it in her hand. The Beta 58 is the only thing that has to be there."

Drake - So Far Gone (2009)

Drake - "Best I Ever Had"

When you think of affordable gear, a $1,000 mic might not be your first thought, but when talking about Neumann, affordability is relative. The TLM 103, one of the company's least expensive mics, is a popular choice for young producers and engineers looking to level-up their setup with their first condenser.

Back in 2008, one such upcoming producer was Drake's right-hand man, Noah "40" Shebib. In apartments and hotel rooms, they created the tracks that would become So Far Gone, Drake's breakout mixtape, working off a Pro Tools-equipped laptop, some MBox interfaces, and a TLM 103. Singles like "Best I Ever Had" and "Successful" became enormous hits and launched the pop mainstay's career.

In a 2014 blog post on their label's website, 40 looked back at the time:

"I look at any old laptops or M-Box's like gold and that's where it starts. The hungry kids with what they can get their hands on making it not just work, but work at a professional level. … Now this may not be anything overwhelming in 2014. But in 2009 to be nominated for a Grammy and have multiple # 1's, it was still fairly astonishing that it wasn't an SSL 4K or a 1073 with a C800. It was a Neumann TLM 103, an amazing reasonably priced mic that gets the job done, a laptop and an M-Box. That's it."

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (2008)

Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk"

Around that time, Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij was also getting the most out of a laptop recording rig. The group's debut album—which included hits like "A-Punk" and "Oxford Comma"—was recorded at several locations in and around New York City, including apartments and basements.

Rostam has since become one of the most successful pop and indie pop producers around, but back then he was still one of us, posting on gear forums about the equipment he used.

In a series of posts on Gearspace, he explained the various gear used on the record, which included little more than a Digidesign Digi 002 interface and plugins of the era like Altiverb, Vintage Warmer, and a "Vintage Spring Reverb" IR.

All of the mics were affordable. They used a TLM 103 for most of the vocals and, for tracks like "Oxford Comma," a single Sennheiser 421 for the drums: "most of the drum sound came from one mic … the room was carpeted and about 12' X 12', it was a practice room," he wrote.

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

Bon Iver - "Skinny Love"

Like Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, the lore around the recording of Bon Iver's debut is deeply connected to the record itself. The Boss' was a left-hand turn away from his stardom, a testament to deft songcraft and stark lyrical themes, recorded with two SM57s into a four-track cassette recorder. The more it sounded like a demo, the better.

For Emma, Forever Ago, on the other hand, became a breakout release for a rising producer-songwriter, who was trying to make a record that sounded as clean as he possibly could, with a single SM57 and an overloaded laptop.

In 2008, he explained his philosophy to Stereogum: "I just set up a few mics that I know sound good, like ribbons, and use common sense. If an $80 mic sounds better for what you are doing than the $1,100 mic does, it’s a no-brainer. Get pres that sound good to you, not to the forum junkies. That’s my philosophy. Try stuff out; that’s what I do."

His setup has definitely grown over the years to match his expanded musical palette—and you can see his gear-packed April Base studio in this 2014 video—but presumably the wall of Pultec, Teletronix, and other classic outboard gear does sound good to him.

Billie Eilish - When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)

Billie Eilish - "When the Party's Over"

Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell, her brother, producer, and co-songwriter, are the reigning champions of home recording, creating an incredibly successful, multi-Grammy-Award-winning album in Finneas' bedroom.

If you'll remember one of our caveats from above—that DIY tracks can be sent to pros for mixing and mastering—that did happen here, which has led to fairly wide speculation on gear forums if the record deserves its home-recorded status.

But the fact of the matter is the tracks were created on what is now a standard modern computer rig, in the duo's childhood home. Finneas told Sound on Sound in 2019 that the setup included: Apple's Logic DAW, a MIDI controller to play a wide collection of software synths and samples, a Universal Audio Apollo interface, Yamaha monitors, and a Neumann TLM 103 for Eilish's vocals (which you can see in many scenes of the 2021 documentary about the making of the album, The World's a Little Blurry).

Going back a bit further to her breakout single, "Ocean Eyes," and the pair didn't even have the Neumann. For that song, Eilish sang into an Audio-Technica AT2020. In SOS Finneas says, "Billie's vocals for 'Ocean Eyes' were recorded with the 2020, which sounds great. It's not quite as good as the Neumann, but I have never found a microphone that I like more than the 2020 that's less expensive than the Neumann. The 2020 is a really good starter microphone."

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