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If there’s a king of recording equipment, there’s no doubt it would be the microphone. Arguably providing the most significant impact on your recorded sound (at least within the realm of gear), finding a mic that complements your voice can pay more dividends than almost any other purchase. Sure, the studio classics and vintage condenser mics run thousands upon thousands of dollars, but for the amateur or working musician looking to track themselves, there is no shortage of great mics used in pro studios worldwide for less than $500. Here are five picks, any of which might become your go-to vocal mic for everything from YouTube demos to your album.
OK, I know some of you might be rolling your eyes at a dynamic mic that, out of the gate, is at the price-point ceiling of this article, but with the KSM8 you need to let go of the fact that it is dynamic. Yes, many dynamic mics usually come in at slightly lower price than their condenser or ribbon cousins. However, the KSM8 is not a typical dynamic microphone, for a number of reasons.
Immediately, the KSM8 gives you a frequency response closer to that of a condenser mic, meaning it captures higher frequencies smoothly and accurately, making it adept at capturing vocals. From a construction standpoint, Shure employs a dual-diaphragm design, which provides you with a number of benefits.
First, it highly reduces what is known as the proximity effect, or in laymen’s terms, the bass boost you generate the closer you sing or speak into a mic. By reducing proximity effect, the KSM8 gives you a fairly wide sweet spot, which can help if you do not have a lot of experience with proper mic technique. The design of the mic also results in a highly directional pickup pattern, meaning it captures what it’s pointed at while rejecting sound from other directions, especially great if you’re recording in an untreated room.
Newcomer to the mic game Aston has managed to make quite the splash in what is frankly a bloated field: affordable condenser microphones. The company's Origin cardioid condenser has garnered some fantastic reviews, and having had the chance to demo it myself (as well as pass it among some of the audio staff here at B&H), I can say those reviews are well earned.
Aston went the route of developing its own “sound” rather than giving the company’s take on a classic and proven design (which has its own value, no doubt). To accomplish this, Aston contacted countless engineers and producers in the UK to shoot out different capsules to find what performed best on male and female vocals.
The result was the Origin, which ultimately provides you with clear and transparent sound, devoid of that upper-range harshness that can typically plague large diaphragm condensers in this price range. This is definitely not a colored microphone, so it provides clean and straightforward sonic reproduction. Its looks, which should always be an afterthought to its sound, provide their own appeal.
sE Electronics is a company that has made a great name for itself creating high-quality microphones in China, where it owns its own factory dedicated to producing only its own products. The gold capsule of the X1, even at its price, is made and tuned by hand. This attention to detail gives the X1 a smooth richness and quiet performance. The first time I used an X1, it outperformed another condenser I owned that’s more than twice its price; needless to say, it made quite the impression on me.
What the X1 lacks in visual aesthetic (sporting a simple all-black finish) it makes up for in sound quality and versatility. It works excellently on all the usual suspects in front of which you would put a large diaphragm condenser but, in my experience, it shines on vocals and acoustic guitars. Keeping with the whole no frills concept, the X1 gives you just a cardioid polar pattern, 10dB pad, and high pass filter at 200 Hz to clear up some low-end mud. If you are after excellent sonic reproduction in a straightforward package, the X1 is your pick.
David Royer is essentially royalty when it comes to modern classic microphones, and his eponymous ribbon microphone company more or less single-handedly started the modern ribbon mic renaissance. Less known is the fact the Mojave Audio is his outlet for creating condenser microphones that live up to his reputation.
The latest addition to Mojave’s already respected lineup is the MA-50, a somewhat stripped-down large diaphragm condenser. Like some of the other mics in this article, the MA-50 holds back on even the basic “bells and whistles,” forgoing even a built-in pad or high-pass filter to focus its budget on its capsule, which it shares with the company’s higher-end MA-200 and MA-201 FET mics.
The end result is a balanced, elegant response that is going to shine on vocals, but a variety of acoustic instruments and percussion, as well (these would also be excellent as drum overheads, thanks to their high SPL handling).
RØDE has a hard-won reputation for making excellent entry-level to higher-end microphones for a broad variety of applications. The NT1, a more recent addition to its family, gives you a newly designed capsule tuned especially for detailed midrange. The mic also gives you extremely low self-noise, with that quiet operation giving you accurate and smooth reproduction.
The capsule is protected against vibrations and handling noise, thanks to the internal Lyre shockmount provided by Rycote, renowned for its shockmounts. From the ground up, RØDE designed the NT1 to give the feel and tone of a classic large diaphragm condenser, while offering modern, low-noise performance. It shines on vocals but also shows its stuff well on acoustic instruments.