When people ask me what microphone they should buy, I feel like I should pull up some chairs and pour some tea. It’s a big question, but let’s see if we can get started with some short answers.
Bear in mind that everything here is just one person’s opinion. Other people will have their own opinions, so talk to them too. What I want to do here is offer my own experience and hopefully give you a good starting point.
There’s a lot of audio gear out there that claims to be “professional” or “studio”, but there are no official standards for these kinds of labels, and they don’t serve as any genuine indicator of quality. In the 21st century, a lot of technology has become fashionable and disposable. Its marketability often supersedes its quality, utility, or durability. This makes it very challenging to buy good stuff. Just because something costs more, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Modern headphones are a great example. There are some pretty mediocre headphones out there commanding some outrageous prices. Remember Beats? They weren’t necessarily bad, but they certainly didn’t sound as good as the price suggested. When you bought Beats you were essentially paying for Dr. Dre’s name, and not so much for better quality.
Microphones (for the most part) haven’t gotten there yet. If one microphone costs more than another, odds are pretty good that it’s better. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for what you need, nor does it mean you need to break the bank to get started.
How much you need to spend will depend greatly on the application. We’re at a point where most microphones you can buy are going to sound passable, and some folks just want something clearer than their phone or laptop’s built-in microphone. These days some of us spend many hours on video conferencing platforms. People often don’t realize that a lot of the Zoom fatigue they experience is actually ear fatigue. For the sake of your audience, it’s good to have as pleasing a sound as possible.
In this case you’d probably do well with a decent USB microphone. They’re very simple, relatively inexpensive, and require little-to-no extra hardware. Just bear in mind that USB mics tend to be condenser mics which are very sensitive. I’ve been on a few calls where the mic was mounted on a desk, and even the slightest tap on the desk felt like an earthquake. This can be very distracting. Proper mic stands and boom arms do a lot to mitigate these kinds of sounds. Also worth noting that a USB mic will pick up virtually every sound in the room. In a hollow, reflective space, this can be very fatiguing to the listener’s ears. A little more on that in a moment.
For podcasting (or fancier video calls), I recommend the Shure SM7b. It’s a really solid, mostly dummy-proof mic. Bear in mind you need a lot of gain to get a decent sound out of these guys. If your interface isn’t very powerful, you may also want to invest in a gain booster like a Cloudlifter or Fethead. More on interfaces in a moment.
Voiceover is another story. If you want to get serious about voiceover, you really do need to invest some decent money. How much money? I’d say at least a grand. Sure your $100 mic might sound decent through some earbuds with no processing, but when you really put it under the microscope of proper monitors and post production processing, its flaws will be amplified. To me the greatest test of a mic is how it performs in post production. When you EQ the recording, do you find yourself enhancing the good parts or mitigating the bad parts?
For serious VO I suggest looking at either the Neumann TLM 103 or the Sennheiser MKH 416. The 416 is a shotgun mic, which seems like an odd choice for voiceover, but it works extremely well, especially for male voices. It’s become one of my go-to mics for VO. My other go-to is the Neumann U87. This is a very expensive mic, but the Neumann TLM 103 is a great alternative. It’s a solid mic and can be used for many other applications. Another one you may want to look into is the Townsend Labs Sphere L22. I haven’t used one personally but I’ve heard good things and it has some very unique and modern features that are worth exploring.
Of course it’s not just about the mic. There’s also the question of what’s driving it. Unless you’re using a USB mic, your microphone is going to need an analog/digital converter, otherwise known as an interface. This can be just as important as the selection of mic. Your interface is going to have preamps built in, which are there to boost the signal of your mic so it’s usable. In the process, they will add their own colour to the sound of the mic. Focusrite seems to be the most bang-for-your buck interface, and they make a variety of models. If you want to go higher-end, I’d suggest looking at one of Universal Audio’s Apollo interfaces. They’re more expensive, and a little more complex, but they sound fantastic. Having a good interface assures you that you’re getting the most out of your microphone.
Not to get too far off topic, but the room you’re in will also have a profound effect on the sound. My philosophy is if you can hear the walls, the room isn’t ready. I touch on selecting and treating rooms a bit in the last half of the noisy workplace blog.
If you’re still not sure about mics, your local music or audio retailer may have some rental options. Try something out for a week or two, get some expert feedback, and see if it’s right for you. If you’re in Canada, try Long & McQuade. They usually have some good rental deals.