I promised a microphone post today, and even though my arms are all cranky at me for rebuilding the front porch all week, MICROPHONES IT IS!

The porch looks good, by the way.

yeaaaaah, not hardly

First, I have to confess; this is way less DIYish than the previous few posts have been. Why? Because you really don’t want to be building microphones. Sure, you can, and if you want to, go for it! If you’re starting from scratch – actually building a microphone instead of just repurposing an existing mic – you’ll probably want to start with an old-school carbon or button microphone, the sort that were used in telephones for decades and decades. You’ll find yourself wandering down all sorts of crazy paths including flame speakers, which are awesome and totally dangerous.

Also, fully endorsed by the Fire Nation Broadcasting Network. But I digress.

Actually less cool

But let’s say you’re looking for a cheap way to do some recording. There are a few things you need to know. First! You’ll need an external sound card. We’ll talk in more detail about why, in another entry – there are lots of reasons. It’ll need to support phantom power, and other other features, but the most important for right now is that you’ll need an interface that accepts this kind of plug:

XLR Connectors

This is the standard for professional audio. It’s a three-wire cable that carries something called a “balanced signal,” wherein noise spikes picked up by the cable are intrinsically neutralised without any active circuitry. It’s really clever and if you didn’t understand that, don’t worry about it. You just need to know what kind of connector that is.

There’s also a five-wire stereo variant, but I’m the only person I know who has a five-wire microphone, and I had to build my own interface cable to break it into a pair of XLR mono cables. You’ll probably never run into a microphone that uses it.

You will, however, run into plenty of cheap microphones with cables like this:

TRS connectors

Just walk away. Don’t even try. There are almost no microphones worth bothering with which even support this kind of connector. Not none – I own one of these exceptions, I use it for percussion – but this is rare enough that you almost certainly won’t run into it.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the microphones themselves.

There are several technology paths in microphones. Which is better for you and your recording depends upon environment and what you’re recording. Even old-school carbon microphones are still being made today, for specialty applications! You won’t run into one, unless you take apart a really old rotary-dial phone, but they’re out there.

What you will run into are:

  • dynamic microphones
  • small-can condenser microphones, and
  • large-can condenser microphones

You may also run into ribbon microphones and pressure zone microphones, but that’s less likely, so I’ll leave them aside for now.

Let’s talk about these by technology class. Dynamic microphones are an older technology still in regular use live, and sometimes in studio. As a group, they’re durable and rugged. They don’t mind dampness too much. If you overload them with too much sound, you’re not going to do any harm as a result, so you see them fairly often in drum recording. They’re good at picking up sound in the immediate area of the microphone, but not sounds further away, which has both good and bad points. And at the low-professional end, where we’re talking, they’re bad at picking up subtleties.

The dirt-common models are the Shure SM-57 and SM-58, for instruments and vocals, respectively. They were a huge technological advance when invented, and are beloved by many older performers. The two models both have the same pickup inside, but different enclosures, which changes the sound.

The Shure SM58. You’ve seen this before.

Do you want one? Well, if you play out, it’s good to have an SM-58 in the studio to practice against, mostly because it’s really fond of amplifying your vocal plosives. If you don’t know what those are, put your hand in front of your mouth right now and say “plosive,” or “plant.” Feel that gust of air with the “Pl” sound? That’s a plosive, and an SM58 is pretty good at making those REALLY LOUD.

If you aren’t bringing your own microphone to gigs – which happens at festivals, open mics, and so on – you’ll want to practice against that, to avoid doing it on stage. Also, some old-time country musicians and rock musicians insist upon them, for their particular sound. If you want that sound on your vocals, then, yes! You want one. Absolutely.

But if you’re only buying one microphone? It really shouldn’t be one of these. Their response curve is a little strange, they’re not generally good – not even the 57 – for recording instruments with any subtlety at all. They’re wretched for recording mandolin and not noticeably better on zouk, for example.

You’ll see instruments miced with them on stage, occasionally, but if it’s an option you can avoid? I’d avoid it.

Condenser microphones are far more commonly used in studios. There are, again, multiple types, which we’ll distill into large can (or large diaphragm) and small can (or small diaphragm) types. The difference is centred around the size of the sound pickup diaphragm, as well as the manufacturing technologies used to produce them.

Small-can condenser microphones have traditionally been the more affordable of the condenser microphones out there, but that all changed…

…when a small number of companies all figured out how to make large-can condenser microphones at far lower cost. (See? I changed it up on you.)

This has been a huge boon to home recording, because if you can only afford one, or one pair of microphones? You’re really best off going with this technology. I like the M-Audio Nova (no longer made, but – unlike many of the other cheap large-can capacitor microphones of its generation – retaining its price level in used territory) and the AKG Perception 200. I do a Nova pair for the mandolin, a mix of Nova and AKG for zouk, and vocals – as of recently, anyway – on the Perception.

I really, really wish I’d had the Perceptions for Dick Tracy Must Die.

If you can’t afford specialised mics, this is a really good route to maximixing what you can do with what you’re able to spend. If you dig around, you can find them for $90 or so used… and you won’t do too badly that way. You really won’t. They’re pretty flat pickup response, they have nice sensitivity, and they’re pretty good at picking up the details that make such a cumulative difference in recording.

But! There is a downside. They’re very sensitive. They’re relatively fragile. Loud enough noises can break the microphone, so you don’t want to be close-micing drums with these things. They may and may not survive a fall.

Condenser microphone diaphragm

Small-can condenser microphones tend on average to be more durable. They’re also, as a class, the most precise at picking up transient changes in sound. You can close-mic drums with many of them – where you can’t, use dynamics, like the SM57 again – and they’re great on cymbals and snares. They’re popular for live show recording, and a lot of instrument recording. If you’ve seen a Zoom H4, H4n, H2, or any of that sort of recorder? You’re looking at small-can condenser microphones.

I have a Sony ECM-957 in studio. Unlike the other cases above, that’s not a recommendation; it took me forever to figure out what this mic was actually good for. It was a terrible mic for vocals, and a poor one for most of my instruments – but turned out to be a great close-mic for drums!

And the moral of that story is even the weird microphones will have their uses. You never know where that’ll be, but it’ll be out there.

So! Inventory what you’re likely to record – vocals if applicable, the instruments you and your friends play. Tailor your purchases to that, using the capabilities of the various technologies as a general guide. And if you can only afford one microphone at all, a large can condenser microphone is almost certainly going to be your best overall bet.

Next week, let’s talk audio interfaces! Until then, what microphones do you use, and for what purposes? This is just my experience set. How about you?


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.