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Consumers Guide to Buying a Microphone

u87-2 Consumers Guide to Buying a MicrophoneAre you an audiophile? If you are, you’re not alone. There are tons of people just like you, always striving to find new and exciting entertainment through the use of audio. If you aren’t, you might find an even greater enjoyment through the art of tweaking a recording. A lot of different questions can arise when you’re trying to buy a new microphone. With so many different options, such as condenser microphones and dynamic microphone, it is often common to be lost in a sea of consumer options.

The first barricade you must break is the art of budgeting. The quality of your microphone will vary with how much you are willing to spend. You can spend $10 or even $1000 on buying a microphone that is right for you. For the common user though, a simple Logitech Silver USB desktop microphone from Newegg will serve the purpose.

This article won’t teach you everything you need to know about setting up a home studio, but it will give you an idea of what to look for when buying a microphone.

Places to Shop and a Word of Caution

Like all industries, you’re going to need to run background searches on the company you plan on purchasing from to prevent fraud and scam. For my personal recommendation, I’d say hats off to Newegg.com and Zzounds.com who both manage to offer incredible product selection with unbeatable prices.

Make sure you purchase reliable shipping. Even if the product say its “rugged”, that doesn’t mean it’ll be in tact if it’s making a journey from China. I’ve seen horror pictures of a man’s Mac Pro that got obliterated by the bumps in the road due to poor packaging.

Things to Look For

Microphone Pickup Pattern

Every situation is a little different. To fit your specific application, you may need to buy a microphone with a specific polar pattern to fully appericate the sound you are recording. The main microphone polar patterns are cardioid, supercardioid, hypercardioid, omnidirectional and figure-8.

Type of Microphone

Microphones can be categorized into four different major categories. The first category is the consumer desktop microphone which offers average quality for consumer use while offering budget prices. Most consumer desktop microphones are either USB or 3.5 mm compatible.

Next door is a condenser microphone. The condenser microphone, dating back to the early 1900s, is the oldest category of microphones available today on the market which utilizes a thin diaphragm stretched over the microphone.

The third category for going to look at the dynamic microphone. The dynamic microphone offers an audio signal that is generated by the motion of the conductor in a magnetic field. Not only are dynamic microphones more technological advance in some mechanism cases, they’re also cheaper! In the studio setting, the largest use of a dynamic microphone is for electric guitars, drums, and other related instruments

The final category is the ribbon microphone which is used as a directional microphone due to the design that features the action of air molecules to determine velocity.

Microphone Diaphragm Sizes

While you won’t actually find different diaphragm sizes in the consumer level, when you get into the big-league microphones you’ll notice that practically every microphone out on the market is different diaphragm size. Large diaphragm microphones have a larger sound and feel to them which make possibilities such as a very prominent bass end available to the sound engineer. Large diaphragm microphones also have a larger range of frequencies that can be more accurate across-the-board.

While not a historical category medium diaphragm microphones have in recent years become a carved out a niche in the microphone industry. Aimed at high frequency content in the idea of a warmer sound, medium diaphragm microphones fit right in. Last but not least you have a small diaphragm microphone which is aimed at the higher frequency content while allowing a bit more airy sound due to the lower mass of the object.

Determining Your Project Needs

  1. Consider the scenario; are you a punk band or a solo vocalist? A jazz musician or a Celtic flute player? If you’re a band, you’re going to need about 2 of every category (except desktop microphone of course) to fit the project. Another cost consideration is the drum kit microphones. I’d recommend buying a set of Shure microphones built for instruments such as drums that comes with a very stylish carrying case.
  2. Podcasting. Podcasting requires a quality microphone. I’d recommend something above the consumer level but below the 24 karat gold condenser microphone signed by Noel Lee. Focus on a microphone that will capture the full range of your voice so that you can catch the reader’s attention.
  3. What is your desired sound? Granted a lot of the tweaking will be done in post-production, you need to keep in mind that hardware can often majorly influence your ability to tweak the overall sound of the piece. A large diaphragm microphone will give you a much more prominent bass where as a ribbon microphone will create an airy effect.

Consumer Level Desktop Microphones

First off, there isn’t a whole lot of selection when it comes down to the consumer category. You have your standard 3.5 mm line in cable and your USB ports. That’s pretty much it. The microphones are typically the same, but I’ve chosen two that stand out from the crowd. I’d recommend you buy these pieces of plastic versus other pieces of plastic.

  1. Logitech Silver USB Desktop Microphone — the Logitech USB desktop microphone features backing from a reputable company, a weighted base, great quality for me than 6 feet away at a normal voice on normal playback volume and even an LED light shows when it is on.
  2. SYBA Desktop Microphone — breaking away from the USB port ideology, the SYBA desktop microphone offers a 3.5 mm audio connector. At $7.99 you won’t really be able to find anything cheaper which would have the same value. Remember though that you’re going to get what you pay for and the quality might not be up to your standards. This microphone also features a weighted bottom just like the Logitech Silver USB desktop microphone.

Studio Level Microphones

As a general note, studio microphone categories are very diverse. You cannot simplify them into the usual consumer and prosumer level you find in other industries. You must go the extra step to fully define your prince range in addition to your desired quality for the target project. As much as I’d like to cover every single microphone out there, I feel as though you would get bored with reading over this guide, so I’ve narrowed it down to the top and most prominent in the industry.

  1. Rode NT1a — goal of this microphone is to offer studio level vocal quality in your recordings. In the form of a condenser microphone, this microphone will serve its purpose for an all-around array of use while it picks up below in the low bass as well as your highs making it a great microphone for vocals.
  2. Shure SM58 — this single microphone is possibly the most highly regarded microphone in the home studio or even low-level music studios as a reliable microphone with a rugged build and form factor. Categorized as a unique directional dynamic microphone with a frequency response of 50 to 15,000 Hz, you can’t really go wrong. In terms of project use this microphone can be applied to instruments locals or even drums if positioned correctly.
  3. Sennheiser MD421II — if you need a diverse microphone for literally ANY situation, this is the one. It has a reputation of being “world known with excellent sound qualities”. I personally have not yet purchased one of these, but it definitely is on my list for the future.
  4. Audio Technica AT2020USB – oddly enough, this studio condenser microphone has a USB interface versus the standard XLR interface. I’m assuming that the reasoning behind this is that this microphone is aimed at the home studio. From reviews I’ve read, you may want to purchase this microphone if you are setting up your first home studio.
  5. Audix OM3 – if you’re into the handheld recording stuff, you’ll want to check out this dynamic hypercardioid handheld microphone that features a design with live vocal performance in mind.

Further Resources

If you have a genuine interest in the art of recording or sound engineering, then check out Tweakheadz one of the switching content websites on the Internet that you will find in terms of audio engineering. They have a very active community of sound engineers as well as producers who’ve been in the industry for a while which means they can help you set up a home studio  to fit your needs.

If you have any general questions or comments in regards to the products I discussed here, please do not hesitate to comment on this post or e-mail me at anthony.crognale [at] lostintechnology [dot] com.

Article by Anthony Crognale (Pluble), a student and freelance writer who enjoys writing about philosophy on Pluble.

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