Music & Entertainment

Home Recording Studio 101: What Are the Best Types of Microphones for Home Studio Recording?

Written by MasterClass

May 29, 2019 • 5 min read

In the early days of recording, microphones were prohibitively expensive. Only high-priced production studios owned the best models, and the models available to consumers left a good deal to be desired. Over a period of decades, that model changed significantly, and today there is a massive array of quality microphones available for home recorders. Whether you have a total recording budget in the hundreds of dollars or the thousands of dollars, there are quality microphones available to you.

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What Are the Best Types of Microphones for Home Studio Recording?

There are three main types of microphones used in recording: dynamic microphones, condenser microphones, and ribbon microphones.

  1. Dynamic microphones will be the most familiar model to most music fans. They’re the vocal mics you see at the front of the stage at most rock concerts. Audio engineers value them for being rugged and able to handle extremely high volumes.
  2. Condenser microphones are considered the most versatile studio microphones and can be used to record essentially any instrument. They are somewhat more fragile and sonically sensitive than dynamic mics, and they require a small electrical current to operate, so they are less popular in the live setting.
  3. Ribbon microphones utilize a very old technology: they produce sound as audio waves encounter a moving ribbon inside the mic. Like condensers, they require external power. They also have a reputation for being fragile. Many vintage ribbon mics cannot handle high volumes; the sound waves will literally break the ribbon. Today’s models are much more versatile and are beloved by studio engineers who value an extremely detailed sound palette.

What Are Good Dynamic Microphones for Home Recording?

If you’re just starting out in recording, dynamic microphones often provide the best value. They’re sturdy and don’t require extra power. They don’t produce as “textured” a sound as condenser and ribbon microphones, but they’re still ideal for many applications. Some models to consider include:

  • Shure SM57 and SM58. These are essentially the same microphone with a different head (the 57 has a flat head and the 58 has a round head). They cost roughly $100 new and are the industry standard for live performance. The SM58 is the standard issue “vocal mic” and you see it in concert venues all over the world. The SM57 also works on vocals, but it’s usually used to mic instruments, like drums or guitar amplifiers.
  • Shure SM7. Much larger than a 57 or 58 with a more bass-focused soundstage. These microphones are particularly popular for vocals—especially spoken narration and heavy rock vocals.
  • Sennheiser e609. Sennheiser is a trusted and popular audio company based in Germany. The e609 is designed for recording electric guitar amps, but it can be used for a variety of applications.

What Are Good Condenser Microphones for Home Recording?

Condenser microphones are studio mainstays for mic-ing both vocals and instruments, but be aware that they will require an external power source and almost always cost more than a comparable dynamic microphone. Some recommended models include:

  • Audio-Technica AT4040. At roughly $400, this large diaphragm condenser microphone can mimic the sounds of something ten times the price, provided that you pair it with a preamp and a bit of engineering skill.
  • Blue Microphones Bluebird SL. Blue is relatively new to the market but has built a dedicated following. This microphone is in the same price range as the Audio-Technica and can record pretty much anything.
  • Sennheiser MD421. Also in the league of the Audio-Technica and the Blue units. Sennheiser is a famous German company that some audiophiles swear by.
  • Rode NT5. The Rode NT5 is a small diaphragm condenser microphone, which makes it good for recording instruments. Many engineers use a pair of NT5s as overhead mics on a drum kit, or to capture the sound of an entire room.

If you can stretch your budget, there is a wide array of high-end condenser mics that bring a pro studio experience into your home.

  • AKG C414. These microphones, which are often used in stereo pairs, can do pretty much anything. They’re equally popular as a vocal microphone and an instrumental microphone. You can select many shapes for the C414’s recording field, from cardioid to omni-directional to figure-8. And while they certainly aren’t cheap, they can be paired with a good preamp and sound like top-of-the-line microphones.
  • Neumann U87. If money is no object, look no further than the Neumann U87. The level of detail it can pick up is truly remarkable. But make sure to use it in a truly silent room; otherwise you’ll be accidentally picking up the sound of a car driving by half-a-block away. The U87 is that sensitive!

What Are Good Ribbon Microphones for Home Recording?

Ribbon microphones can produce brilliant sound and are great for mic-ing everything from vocals to acoustic guitars to amplifiers. But they’re expensive and some vintage models are quite temperamental. They require external power for their motorized ribbons and really high-decibel sounds can snap those ribbons. Like a high-end condenser, a ribbon mic picks up a massive amount of detail. Two choices are:

  • Royer R-121. The industry standard, and considered quite stable for a ribbon mic. However, expect to pay over $1,200 per microphone (and note that they’re often used in pairs).
  • Cascade FAT HEAD. A comparatively affordable alternative to the Royer R-121. Expect to pay $400 for a pair.

You will also need microphone cable (with XLR connectors) as well as stands for all of your microphones. For mics that require external power, most recording interfaces have a phantom power option that sends a small amount of electricity along an XLR cable. This will provide more than enough juice to power your microphone. The exception might be some vintage mics (particular ribbon mics) that have their own power cables. But those are extremely rare on today’s market.

Other optional accessories include a pop filter (to block plosives when recording vocals) and an XLR-to-USB cable that lets you plug your microphone directly into your computer’s USB port. But most serious engineers plug their microphones into a digital audio interface using XLR cables. From there they send the signal to the computer via USB.

Learn more about music production in Timbaland’s MasterClass.