No two microphones are the same. How am I supposed to choose the right mic for my own use when the internet is full of such strong and often conflicting opinions?
There's a lot of nuance to the choice of microphone for any given use so I'm going to simplify and generalise quite a bit in this post, skipping over a lot of technical detail and distilling it down to the basic comparison points I used to choose a mic for my own use. This is a highly subjective topic so what works for me may not work for you.
I want a microphone that's easy to use, reliable, has good sound quality (doesn't need to be professional level), and can just as easily be used for web conferences as for recording music from a variety of (mostly acoustic) instruments.
There are many types of microphone, however the majority that will be of interest here fall into two main categories:
- dynamic microphones, which function essentially as a speaker in reverse, are typically good for loud sources, e.g. drums, guitar amps, and are generally cheaper
- condenser microphones, these are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, which makes them good for more dynamic sources, e.g. vocals
- usually large diaphragm condenser, but also see small diaphragm condensers (a.k.a. pencil condensers) commonly used for stereo recording and acoustic instruments, e.g. orchestral recordings
Polar patterns #
A microphone's polar pattern describes its directionality, i.e. its sensitivity to sound coming from different angles.
Common polar patterns include:
- cardioid - captures sound from in front of the microphone, blocks the rest, great for background noise rejection
- omnidirectional - captures sound from all directions around the microphone, lacks background noise rejection, good for picking up 'room sounds'
- figure-8 / bidirectional - captures sound from both the front and back of the microphone, rejecting sound from the sides
There are variations on these, such as supercardioid / hypercardioid, and more besides, but these are the most commonly found in the microphones I looked at.
Again, this can be quite subjective, what sounds good to one person's ear may not sound as good to another, what works well for once voice may not fare so well on another.
- vocals - typically condenser, although dynamic mics can be a good choice for more aggressive vocals such as metal
- piano - very much depends on the piano, what works for an upright may not be suitable for a grand, condenser mics are usually a safe bet at least to start off with, probably want at least a pair
- woodwind - many of the smaller mics that can be mounted to an instrument are condensers, I'm not quite there yet but it's something to keep in mind for future reference
- acoustic guitar - small diaphragm condenser due to the guitar's brighter more percussive sound
- electric guitar - usually dynamic, guitar amps typically quite loud and sound profile can be quite intense with little high frequency content for a condenser
- strings - condenser, again depending on the instrument, e.g. small diaphragm for violin, large diaphragm for cello, similar to piano you'd probably want at least a pair if recording a few instruments
- drums - there can be a lot going on with drums so they usually need a combination of all types. This is probably not something I'll be getting into anytime soon, I'll just stick with software for now
How do you want to connect the microphone to your computer or other devices? The two main options are USB and XLR, let's take a look at some of their pros and cons.
USB is generally cheaper, uses a single cable to connect to your computer, and provides a largely plug and play experience. It can come at the cost of line noise as the power and signal channels (both input and output) are not isolated, leading to crosstalk which can cause a buzzing or hissing sound. This can be quite noticeable on cheaper mics, but mid-range and higher quality microphones usually do a very good job at reducing this to barely perceptible levels, practically eliminating it for most uses.
XLR is an industry standard connection for professional audio equipment. Connecting an XLR microphone to your computer requires additional equipment, i.e. an audio interface which will then connect to the computer via USB or Thunderbolt. The audio interface is responsible for providing 48V phantom power to a condenser mic and will often have multiple inputs and outputs with support for varying levels of mixing across these.
Going the XLR route provides additional flexibility and room for future expansion as individual pieces of equipment can be swapped out or upgraded as needed. With a USB mic it's all or nothing since it's a self-contained system. XLR appeals to the gadget lover in me, although it can end up being quite expensive.
For now I'll be sticking with a USB setup, both for its simplicity and also for budget reasons. I may revisit this in a few years if I start recording more music, but a USB condenser should suit my needs just fine for the time being.
Other features #
So far I've narrowed down my choices to a USB condenser mic of some description. What else is important to me so I can further reduce my choices to a manageable number?
Since one of the uses for the mic will be web conferences, having a physical mute button on the mic would be great. Many USB mics do not have this feature, meaning the only way to mute is through software. I'll rule out mics that use a capacitive mute control as they can be unreliable or easily activated unintentionally.
Another important feature for me is a 3.5mm headphone output for zero-latency monitoring of the recording. I definitely don't want to listen to myself on a delay, that would be far too distracting for any use. There should also be a volume control for the headphones and if possible the ability to adjust the volume of the monitoring channel relative to other sound coming from the computer.
Gain control is another thing that's useful to have as a physical control, avoiding digging in software if you notice your audio is starting to clip. Sometimes you need to make some quick on-the-fly adjustments and having that ability directly on the mic would save a lot of hassle.
I realise a lot of these things would be easily addressed by using an audio interface, but that's something I may invest in at a later date. For now I want something relatively cheap with the fewest cables possible.
Some common accessories used with microphones include:
- pop filters - these help to reduce the noise from plosives, consonants that result in a sudden puff of air being emitted which is picked up as noise by a microphone, in English these are
- windshield - reduce wind noise, useful when recording outdoors, not something I'm currently planning
- boom arms - raises the mic off the desk or other surface, helping to reduce transfer of noise from typing and other surface movements. Also makes it easier to position the mic correctly for optimal sound
- shock mounts - further reduce the transfer of vibrations from the desk / stand to the microphone, reducing noise
While these may not be strictly necessary, they can help to improve the quality of the recording, reduce the need for additional care when moving near the mic, and cut out the need for some additional editing.
I've listened to audio samples from a variety of microphones while doing my research, trying to cover as many of my use cases as possible, and getting samples from both treated and untreated recording environments to more accurately guage the profile of the microphones. No one microphone will be the best at everything so I've had to weigh them all against my particular use cases to find a suitable match.
To my ear, the best sounding microphone with the features and characteristics I want at a relatively low price point is the Blue Yeti X. It provides a solid balance of features, quality, and price that seems hard to beat.
I'll be ordering it soon and will update this post once it arrives and I've used it for a while. Wish me luck.