Microphone Buyer's Guide: 9 Popular Vocal Mics

Choosing a vocal microphone that best suits your own unique voice (and let's face it, budget) is nothing short of daunting. There are more microphones being made now than ever before, and when you factor the enormous amount of out-of-production and vintage mics into the equation, it can seem as though any decision you make wasn't totally informed.

In the video above, we run through nine popular vocal mics of all types - condenser, dynamic and ribbon - to give you an idea of what a certain microphone can bring to the table in terms of its sonic signature.

This is in no way a "scientific test" or even a "shootout." We're dealing with nine different performances of nine different songs. The only constants are the singer, the mic preamp used (Rupert Neve Designs Portico 511), and the distance from singer to mic (in all but one example). Input gain was set differently for each microphone to level-match as best we could going in.

Ultimately, you need to get a microphone in your hands and onto your stand to really judge what it can do for you. No amount of listening to internet samples will change that. Remember, at the end of the day, these are just tools. No one walks down the street humming the microphone.

AKG C 214

Notes: The C 214 does a particularly good job of accentuating the "air" and "silk" in any sound source, with a notable presence bump that centers around 13kHz without ever sounding harsh -- even on female vocalists who work primarily in the upper register. The switchable high-pass filter can be useful when recording very close to the microphone, but in this case we've got our talent about 9" from the capsule and wanted to keep the bass response as linear as possible. The tonal quality of this microphone is extremely close to the C 414 XLS, so if you don't need the multi-pattern functionality of the 414, you'll find the C 214 to be quite the bargain.

Song: "Blue Kentucky Girl" by Loretta Lynn (Emmylou Harris arrangement)

Shure SM7B

Notes: Compared to the C 214, the first thing you'll notice is the much more direct capture of the vocal with essentially no room tone or natural reverb. That's what's made the SM7B a favorite among voiceover artists and vocalists with home studios that have less-than-ideal acoustics. It's also among the lowest-output mics used in this little exercise and does require quite a bit of muscle from your mic preamp -- in this case, around +50dB. The Motown classic used here as an example certainly doesn't show it, but these two traits actually make the SM7B an amazing microphone for metal screamers and any sort of aggressive lead vocal.

Song: "Heat Wave" by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas

Neumann TLM 103

Notes: And back comes the room. The TLM 103 suits our talent's voice particularly well, giving it a three-dimensional quality with a very present midrange that would cut through even the most dense arrangements. All told, we could have had her step about three inches closer to this microphone to bring some proximity effect bass boost to the party, but opted to keep the distance pretty much the same for all microphones in question.

Song: "Le Temps de L'amour" by Françoise Hardy

Blue Mouse

Notes: Among the condenser microphones auditioned here, the Blue Mouse has the most distinct character and "built-in EQ" happening. The upper midrange on the Mouse has a pretty significant bump as demonstrated here. In the case of this singer, it actually works out pretty well. As with the TLM 103, this microphone has a pretty big bass boost when used up close that's not exactly in play here as we've got the talent 8-9" from the mic.

Song: "Beautiful" by Carole King

Sony C-38B

Notes: Perhaps the polar opposite of the Mouse, next up we've got a circa-1970s Sony C-38B. This microphone is much more neutral in its frequency response and nowhere near as sensitive as any of the other condensers in this video. The C-38B's average output level, even without the internal pad engaged, is closer to a dynamic microphone than a typical condenser microphone. There's a slight high-frequency push in the form of a shelf inherent to this microphone, but by stepping slightly off axis just a few degrees you can actually tame this down and get a sound that's about as close to "flat" as is possible with a large diaphragm condenser. There's also an internal switch for high-cut and a rotary switch for bass roll-off which are not in play here.

Song: "Listen to Her Heart" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Sennheiser MD 441 II

Notes: The Sennheiser MD 441 never gets the attention it deserves as a vocal mic. These mics offer the sort of nuance and detail that you'd expect from condenser, and offer a "Brilliance" switch to boost high frequencies around 5-8dB when necessary. In this example, we're leaving that flat, as well as the rotary high-pass filter to let the beautiful sound of this mic come through untouched.

Song: "She Said She Said" by The Beatles

Royer R-121

Notes: The R-121 on this singer's voice leaves behind a classic footprint. Sure, it's a bit band-limited and certainly has a push around 3kHz, but the sound has some subtle quality that lures you in. Having the singer a little closer would tip up the bass quite a bit, and would also dial back some of the room sound being picked up by the rear lobe of the mic, but we think it sounds rather sweet at this distance as well.

Song: "Till There Was You" from The Music Man (covered by The Beatles)

Coles 4038

Notes: Just as this microphone does for acoustic guitars and drum kits, the Coles 4038 adds about five pounds to any sound source within its pickup pattern. This singer is no exception. That can make this mic sound "dark" at first, but listen a little closer and you'll notice there's plenty of presence to this microphone -- the key is in finding the appropriate distance from the mic to get the balance of bass and brilliance. We actually had her step about two inches closer for this example to demonstrate that. I'm of the opinion that this singer should probably own one of these mics, but I'm not gonna spend her money for her.

Song: "Carey" by Joni Mitchell

Neumann U87 Ai

Notes: Here's the U 87 Ai doing what it does best, letting a relatively flat midrange character set the stage for an understated high-frequency bump. This gives us a pretty nice blank slate that still has some charm and character to the sound, and can easily be shaped and shifted with EQ to be fit into nearly any arrangement or mix.

Song: "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac

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