Budget Vocal Recording: 5 Tips for Choosing Inexpensive Microphones
We’ve discussed in previous blog posts our recommended microphones that deliver professional results and happen to be affordable, but what if you own another type of microphone? Perhaps you’re on a shoestring budget and need the cheapest microphones money can buy, like the $30 Fifine Metal Condenser, or the $40 Shure SM48LC. Will these suffice as usable audio tools, and if so, how can we make the most of them?
New products enter the market faster than we can test them, but the basic principles of proper audio recording are the same for any microphone, meaning that using the correct techniques, one can easily extract the best sound quality possible from any setup. For an overview of the best practices for vocal recording in any environment, refer back to our Vocal Recording Basics series.
Here are five basic principles that make a microphone suitable for professional recording applications.
This applies exclusively to USB microphones. Designing a gain knob on a microphone isn’t as simple as it may seem. Converting sound waves into a usable electrical signal requires adding gain in multiple stages. Gain staging is the process of setting gain (colloquially: “volume”) in series, such that one gain stage doesn’t overload, and therefore “pass on” distortion to subsequent stages. For example, it’s possible to overload a microphone element, overload the microphone’s internal circuitry, overload a built-in microphone preamp, and also overload its built-in analog-to-digital converter. USB microphones often house these various electrical transduction and amplification stages into a single unit, with a single knob to control only one of these gain stages. Designed correctly, the gain knob on a USB microphone controls the microphone preamplifier, but there may be designs that simply decrease the final output gain instead. For this reason, we don’t recommend any USB microphones at the moment, but these microphones can be easily put to test.
When purchasing a USB microphone, buy a model with a generous return policy, then test the microphones while addressing it loudly and closely, listening for audible distortion. If the microphone doesn’t distort at its lowest setting and still has plenty of “headroom” to be addressed even more loudly, then it will work as a vocal mic. Also listen for frequency response, as some microphones sound “dark” or muddy, whereas others, sound bitingly harsh, with an extremely amplified high-end. Opt for a microphone that sounds neutral to slightly dark, as this can be easily adjusted in postproduction with great results.
For professional vocal recording in any environment, it’s important that microphones pick up sound unidirectionally, preferably in a cardioid, supercardioid, or hypercardioid pattern. Occasionally USB microphones will have an omnidirectional pattern that mic that might work well in an acoustically treated recording studio, but could pick up unwanted sound in a typical home studio environment. Ribbon microphones are increasing in popularity and somewhat inexpensive, but their native bidirectional pattern is best suited for specialized music recording rather than vocal recording.
Consider the application of the audio recording, and whether or not the microphone will be used on camera. We discussed this at length in our post about small profile microphones ideal for use on camera. Some inexpensive microphones, like the Blue Snowball ICE, have great eye-catching designs but are simply too large and awkward to use on camera without placing the microphone several feet away. Inexpensive microphone designs intended for handheld use often make for small, practical vocal mics for use on camera, with electret condensers generally offering slightly better frequency responses than dynamic (moving coil) microphones.
Some inexpensive microphones lack the specific controls or connections to make for a usable tool. Some USB microphones act as an audio interface, containing a headphone monitor jack, and effectively replace the headphone jack on your computer or dedicated audio interface. When using multiple microphones simultaneously, this might not offer the flexibility needed for multiple individuals to hear each other’s feed. This routing can occasionally be configured in software, but the solution might be relatively complex, and unique to your particular combination of DAW and computer. Likewise, most USB microphones are incompatible with portable recorders and can’t be plugged into a mixing console. Consider the full extent of your needs, and look for the options that both fit your budget and your intended applications.
Microphones have become increasingly robust in the past decade, but some types of microphones can withstand more abuse than others. The most inexpensive dynamic microphones are incredibly rugged, with the Shure SM48LC being as virtually indestructible as its more popular counterpart, the Shure SM58. Electret condensers also make excellent choices as well, as their magnetized backplates tend to remain fairly stable for years. True condensers are the most fragile of all common inexpensive microphone designs but can be manufactured to withstand moderate abuse. The biggest shortcomings in microphone manufacturing are with the various electronics inside of the microphone housing. Condensers require more electronics than dynamic microphones, making them more prone to failure. Where durability is of highest concern, stick with trusted brands like Shure, Audix, and Sennheiser, and opt for dynamic microphones over condensers or ribbon mics.
Finewav is committed to making professional audio production and vocal recording as inexpensive as possible. Although we recommend specific microphones, we don’t intend to persuade you into spending money for the sake of increasing sound quality. Instead, consider a microphone’s practicality, durability, and convenience, as these qualities can be directly compared and measured in terms of cost and time.
Do you have a go-to inexpensive microphone that works well for your recording applications? Let us know in the comments below.
Photo by Eryk Thompson. Instagram: @ErykThompson, Vero: @ErykThompson