Budget Friendly Mics That Sound Great
As a sound engineer I am always asked about which microphone is the best, as well as asked to recommend which microphone an artist or producer should buy. Unfortunately, there is no single answer to either of these questions. Every vocalist sounds different. Some are very dynamic. Some are quiet and breathy. Everyone has a range that they fall in to with their voice: bass, baritone, tenor, alto or soprano. Plus the voice has different registers as well. A vocalist can sing with resonance in their chest or head, as well as in the high falsetto register or the low vocal fry register. Some singers have a rough, gravelly tone while others have a smooth, sweet tone. There are so many variables that affect the sound coming out of a vocalist’s mouth, whether singing, rapping, or even just talking.
And microphones have their own characteristics too. Some sound good with smooth, quiet vocals but not with loud, gravelly singers. One might work well on a vocal in a high register, and another one works better to record a low register voice. Microphones have their own unique sound just like each person has their own unique sound. On top of that, there are literally thousands of microphones out there to choose from with price tags ranging from just a few dollars up to costing as much as a new car. And let’s not forget that everyone has their own opinion and preference on how the vocal should sound.
There is not one single microphone (no matter the price) that is the best for every voice out there. So, when someone asks me “what is the best microphone for vocals?” I cannot give them an honest answer. It’s a loaded question.
But, let’s try to narrow down the options based on budget. Here is my list of the 5 best vocal microphones under $500. As you check out the list, consider the vocal tone you like and the application you’re recording for. Are you singing, rapping, or recording a podcast, etc? I’m going to start this list with 2 uncommon choices and then finish it up with some more common mics. Therefore, the numbers are not being used to rank the mics. All 5 are equally good in my opinion, just in different ways.
(1) Shure SM7B $399
The SM7B from Shure is a dynamic microphone. This means it’s less sensitive to quiet sounds than a condenser or ribbon microphone, but that also means it is better at rejecting ambient sounds in the room. For this reason, it is a very common mic used for radio broadcast and podcasting work. It handles high SPLs (loud sounds) without breaking up which makes it a great choice for loud vocalists, and loud instruments (like a distorted electric guitar) as well. The SM7B comes with a built in windscreen (which can be removed easily if needed) eliminating the need for a pop filter. You can also get right up on this mic when talking or singing and it won’t color the sound very much. A condenser microphone would add a lot more bass to the tone if you got too close. Famously, this was the microphone used to record Michael Jackson’s vocals for his “Thriller” album.
The SM7B has two switches on the back of the microphone to help you control the tone. There’s a bass rolloff to remove those low rumbling frequencies that are, typically, not desired in a vocal recording. Additionally, Shure has built a presence boost control in to the SM7B as well. This emphasizes the midrange frequencies, the range of the human voice where most of our speech sits. Basically, the presence boost is designed to make the words easier to understand.
(2) Avantone Pro CV-12 $499
The CV-12 is a tube condenser microphone. If you’re not familiar with tube mics, the short description is that they have a vintage sound. One of the distinguishing traits of tube condenser mics is that they usually have a separate power supply which has to be plugged in to a power outlet, rather than using phantom power from your preamp. So you’ll need to be able to accommodate the CV-12’s power supply in your studio. This particular model was used to record Taylor Swift on her “1989” album. It has a smaller diaphragm than is normally used for condenser microphones, so it is better suited to higher register vocals. Typically, tube microphones come with a higher price tag than this model from Avantone. While the CV-12, which is just barely squeaking in under the price cap of $500, is the most expensive mic on the list, it’s a great deal nonetheless.
The Avantone Pro CV-12 gives you all the features that you would expect from far more expensive mics. On the microphone itself, Avantone has included a bass rolloff switch to remove low frequency rumble and a -10dB pad in case you need to drop the output level feeding your preamp. And located on the power supply is a switch to select between 9 different polar patterns.
(3) AKG C214 $399
The C214 from AKG is a budget-friendly version of the legendary C414 XLII model. Various C414 mics have been used on so many hit records over the last 50 years that I cannot even begin to list them all. Seriously, google it if you’re interested. The list is amazing! So, the question you should be asking right now is “What is the difference between the C214 and the C414 models?” Well for starters, the C414 gives you options that the C214 does not. The C214 has only one polar pattern (cardioid) and the C414 has 5 different polar patterns. The C214 includes a 2-position switch for both the pad and bass rolloff, but the C414 has a 4-position switch for both of them. The C214 model has very similar electrical components as the C414, but ultimately, it’s not an identical mic with less switches. There are some significant audible differences. However, for under 500 bucks I don’t think you’re going to get any closer than this to that classic C414 sound.
(4) Sennheiser MK4 $299
If you go to any pro recording studio, live concert venue, church, or film set, I bet they have some Sennheiser mics. They’re one of the most popular brands of microphone on the planet … and for good reason. Sennheiser’s quality control is on point, their microphones sound great, and they’re very durable. So it’s not surprising that they would have a great vocal condenser mic for under $500.
The Sennheiser MK4 does not have any switches. The polar pattern, frequency response, and output level are all fixed. But what it lacks in controls, it makes up for in tone quality and durability.
(5) Blue Bluebird SL $299
The bluebird microphone from Blue is an extremely popular microphone for home studios. It’s designed to sound good on a variety of things: vocals, guitars, piano, drums, etc. It has a high dynamic range, meaning it works well with both quiet and loud sounds. Many people like it specifically for vocals because it has a boost on the high frequencies, which translates to a crisp, bright sound. Plus, even if you get really close to this mic the bass frequencies don’t jump out excessively (many microphones exhibit “proximity effect” when you get too close). I would really recommend the bluebird as a great first mic as you’re still learning how to use effects like EQ to polish your sound.
The Bluebird SL has 2 switches right on the front of the microphone. A bass rolloff switch and a -20 dB pad switch. If you use this mic on very loud sound sources, then the pad switch can be useful to drop the output level of the microphone.
So to sum up, all 5 of these microphones are great options… especially if you are working on a budget. They all shine in their own way and have distinctly different sounds. Spend a little more time researching the one(s) you find interesting before deciding how to spend your hard earned money. And then go make some great music!
-written by Matt Hayes for urmixd.com