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Microphone for Your Bedroom Studio | Music-Making for Techies 101

Check the previous post in the “Music-Making for Developers and Other Techies” series

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez on Unsplash

Disclaimer: product links below may include my referral code. If you buy something by following those links, I may get a small commission. It won’t cost you anything extra but this way you support the writing of this series.

If you are going to record vocals, acoustic instruments, or even an occasional live clap you will need a microphone. While mics on phones are getting better and better, even a $100 microphone will take the quality to the next level compared to what you can get from your iPhone. And there’s also a matter of convenience of recording straight into your DAW rather than fiddling with voice notes and what not. So, even if you are only going to record draft vocals for someone else to rerecord, you may consider getting a microphone early on your journey.

Let’s discuss what to look for and what to avoid in your entry level microphones.

Skip the USB mics

To be clear, USB microphones are totally fine. Especially if your only use-case is to improve the sound quality on an occasional Zoom call or a YouTube video. For music-makers, though, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. That is unless a mic is the very first purchase you want to make. But even in that case you are likely to find a better and more future proof solution in an XLR mic with an audio interface.

In a nutshell, a USB microphone is a microphone combined with an audio interface in one body. Provided you already have an audio interface or are going to get one at some point, there’s really no benefit in having another one in your microphone. This isn’t practical neither in terms of convenience nor in terms of rational allocation of money.

Good showcases for this are MV7 and MV7X microphones from Shure.

Shure MV7X (left) and MV7 (right)

These are essentially the same microphone, but one is just XLR (MV7X) and the other is both XLR and USB (MV7). The price difference is $70. While $70 will only get you a few of the cheapest audio interfaces, it’s still more than half of what a solid entry level 1–2 input audio interface costs. You can put that $70 towards getting a better audio interface that would get you more than just a way to plug your mic in.

Additionally, if you have your main audio interface and another one in your microphone you will have to juggle in your DAWs settings switching between the two. Especially on Windows. On the other hand, if you have your mic plugged into your main audio interface, you are always ready to record.

Condenser vs Dynamic

As far as microphone types go, there are two main types when it comes to your main “general purpose” microphone. There are other types that shine in specialized scenarios, but we will leave them out here.

Condenser

Condenser microphones are more sensitive and theoretically result in higher quality recordings. This is the type you’ll find in professional studio vocal booths, and they can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily, there are solid options for just a $100 or even less as well.

The sensitivity of condenser microphones is their strength as well as weakness. Especially, in home studio and other imperfect setups. They usually pick up way more room noise including reflections from the walls or someone scratching their head in the other room. Having said that, if you have a reasonably isolated setup and plan to record final vocals, acoustic instruments, other sounds, and not many podcasts, tutorials, or live streams, a condenser mic is probably your best choice.

Also, keep in mind that most condenser microphones require 48V phantom power. However, most of the modern audio interfaces (even at the entry level) provide this option. But be sure to check before buying.

A couple of popular entry-level condenser microphones are Audio-Technica AT2020 (or one step up AT2035) and Rode NT1-A. There are lots of other amazing choices in the sub-$200 price range and a lot of articles and videos comparing various options.

Dynamic

Dynamic microphones are what you see artists use on stage (Shure SM58 is a legendary example) and what many podcasters and streamers use as well. They are less sensitive than condenser mics which means that they pick up less room noise and that you have to keep them closer to your mouth (or other sound source).

Another thing going for dynamic mics is that the most legendary of them — Shure SM7B — costs less than $400. This is the mic used by anyone from Michael Jackson to top names in podcasting. So, if you care about appearances, a $400 condenser mic would not impress anyone (maybe even the opposite) but an SM7B puts you in the same “league” as the top echelon. Sure, this may sound like a silly reason to buy a tool but if you go on camera once in a while, appearances matter (whether you want to admit it or not). And it’s a good microphone either way.

Shure SM7B

Examples of good entry-level dynamic microphones for a home studio for under $200 are Rode PodMic, and Shure MV7X among other options.

Extras for your new mic

Most likely your new microphone doesn’t come with a cable. That’s the only thing you will definitely need. Since for XLR mics it’s all happening in the analog realm, the quality of the cables does matter. Which is not to say that you should get some gold-plated nonsense, but definitely check reviews before buying. It is also a good idea to get a cable which is as long as you need but not longer. If you imagine using the microphone in different locations it may make sense to buy several cables for each, rather than getting a 10-meter cable and use it where 2m would suffice.

Some mics may come with a simple desk stand but most of the time you’d need to get a stand separately. What you get depends on your use-cases. If unsure, you may start with a desk stand or a desk boom arm. Rode PSA1 is a “classic” boom arm, and all the newcomers are usually benchmarked against it:

Rode PSA-1

If you went with a condenser mic you may want to get a shockmount as well. Shockmounts isolate the sensitive microphone from the vibrations in its stand. So, for example, a mic in a shockmount will get less of that typing on the keyboard sound than the one without it. Many mics come bundled with a shockmount, and manufacturers usually have specialized mics for various models. There are also universal third-party ones. Just make sure you get an appropriate mount for your microphone model. You can also postpone buying one and see if you feel like you need one first.

Rode NT1

Pop filter stands between the singer and the microphone and protests it from bursts of air that result from different sounds, mostly plosives. You can actually make an improvised DIY pop filter from a pair of nylon stockings but it’s probably not worth the trouble as you can get a factory-made basic pop-filter for little money, and it will do the job just fine. The most make-or-break feature in pop filters is not the filter itself but its arm — the cheaper ones often can’t keep the filter in place reliably, which is annoying. Make sure to check the reviews before buying.

Another thing you see people use in their untreated or lightly treated rooms in an attempt to isolate the microphone from poor room acoustics are so-called mic screens. From what I can gather from reviews, these are mostly considered “snake oil” with the exception being the half-spheric ones from Aston Microphones:

Aston Microphones Halo Shadow

This is a chapter from the book I’m writing. I will be posting a new chapter each week. But there’s a way to get new chapters early or even get everything I’ve written so far and support this endeavor. Click here for the details.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

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I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"