No matter what sort of home studio setup you have, however simple, sooner or later you will have to consider purchasing a microphone. There is much conflicting advice on the internet for the home recording enthusiast as to what type you should get. Should you buy a condenser microphone, or a dynamic microphone?
As a general rule, the first microphone you buy for a home studio should be a dynamic microphone. Home studios can have a lot of background noise, or be multi-purpose rooms where equipment is constantly being moved. This suits dynamic microphones, due to their durability and lower sensitivity.
The home recording musician faces challenges that a typical professional recording studio will not encounter. It is these issues that inform the choice of microphone, especially when budget is tight and you can only really afford one mic. Read on to discover the reasons why a dynamic microphone is often the best choice for a home studio.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
Ideally have a dynamic and a condenser mic
Now despite recommending a dynamic mic above, I believe the ideal situation is to have both a dynamic microphone and a condenser microphone. Both types have their strengths and weaknesses, and are suited to different recording tasks that are commonly performed in a home recording studio. We will see examples of these later in the article.
Recording with more than one mic at the same time is often performed in studios. My article on how to connect multiple microphones to a computer will show you how to set up everything correctly, using the method best suited to your own setup. Definitely check it out if you plan on recording 2 or more mics together, e.g. an acoustic guitar and singer at the same time.
This article however assumes that you are buying your first microphone, and can only afford to buy one mic. This financial limitation is certainly one that many home recording musicians will be intimately familiar with. And whose home studio is an “ideal situation”? Mine certainly isn’t. Let’s take a look at choosing a microphone in our actual real-world home studio setups…
Common issues recording in home studios
The term “home studio” covers many different possible set-ups. A lot of potential issues and challenges can exist in these situations, which can affect your choice of microphone. Here are some of the most common relevant issues that affect us home-recordists…
Perhaps you have a young family, with several pre-school age children. Or maybe you live next to a railway line, near an airport, or on a very busy road with lots of traffic noise. When you are recording, maybe you have someone watching TV in the next room. Or perhaps you live in an apartment with the constant rumbling background noise from neighbors above, below or to the side of you.
This is a reality for many of us in our untreated home studios, something which many pro studios with their sound proofing and isolation don’t have to worry about. But why should this affect our choice of microphone?
When you’re recording your latest masterpiece you want to capture the actual performance, not the background noise. Some microphones are more sensitive than others, so will tend to pick up every little thing going on in the background more than others. This is a situation where a less sensitive microphone is beneficial, even though that sounds counter-intuitive.
Condenser microphones are famed for their high sensitivity, compared to the less sensitive dynamic microphones. So minimizing the amount of background noise recorded is actually a win for dynamic microphones. In addition, to get the highest signal-to-noise ratio, you may have to get your mic very close up to the sound source. Dynamic microphones are designed for very close-up work, whereas condenser mics are not as effective at very short distances, potentially causing overloading or distortion due to their higher sensitivity.
This closeness means you are also more likely to knock the mic when recording, which can ruin a take with a condenser microphone. With dynamic microphones you are much more likely to get away with it, and your take be usable.
If you don’t have any issue with background noise, then this is irrelevant to you and a condenser mic will be fine.
Another source of noise can be your audio interface itself. If you suspect your interface is making noises it shouldn’t, check out this article on how to stop clicks and pops from your audio interface. It should help you get to the root cause of the problem, and to take steps to rectify it.
When people say they have a “home studio”, that can mean many things. It could be a dedicated room that is only used for recording music, containing permanently installed equipment. Or it could be literally just a laptop and an audio interface, which gets moved around to whichever room is free in the house at the time recording needs to get done. Or it could be a bedroom, where equipment can’t be permanently left set-up. Or a study. Or a dining room.
You get the idea; the picture most people get in their head if you said “recording studio” to them is certainly not what most of us have available.
So you may well be moving equipment around a lot, or setting it up and breaking it down again before and after a recording session. And however careful you are it’s inevitable that things are going to get knocked about, dropped, and sometimes broken.
This is where the durability of the dynamic microphone is a big plus. Due to their construction, they can cope with an awful lot of punishment without any loss of performance or risk of breaking. The same cannot be said of condenser microphones, which are much more susceptible to knocks. Drop a dynamic mic on the floor, and it will most likely be fine. Do the same with a condenser mic, and it’s in serious danger of not working any more.
See a video of a pro recording studio, and you’ll probably see all this lovely space they have to set up a full band recording in a live room. This is a luxury not afforded to us in our home studios.
You may well be very cramped in your recording space, with little room to move. Which can have two effects…
- Increases the risk of knocking the microphone or its stand
- Makes you get closer to the mic
It’s already been mentioned that dynamic mics cope better with knocks, both physically and with less chance of ruining a recording. Dynamics also are better suited to very close-up recording.
If condenser and dynamic microphones are suited to different applications, then why not get one of each?
Great if you can afford it, then that is exactly what I would recommend you do. But pretty much all home studios are competing for money with other things, such as putting food on the table, paying the mortgage/rent, commuting to the day job, etc.
So if you have managed to scrape together a few dollars to buy a microphone, you are going to want to get the best bang-for-buck you possibly can. “How much does a microphone cost?” is a bit of a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question, but in general dynamic microphones have the advantage here because…
- Dynamic mics tend to be cheaper than condensers
- Dynamic mics tend to last longer than condensers due to their durability
Differences between condenser and dynamic microphones
We are not too concerned here about exactly how condenser and dynamic mics work. We are more interested in what their key characteristics are, and what applications they are each suited to.
Nevertheless, if you are interested in how each type of microphone works these articles give good, reasonably easy to understand explanations…
Lets take a lot at each microphone’s key characteristics, and in what recording situations they each perform their best at.
Condenser microphone properties
The condenser microphone has certain attributes that make it ideally suited to certain recording applications. Some of these are…
High frequency Response
Condenser mics are excellent at recording high frequencies. This is one area where they have the edge over dynamic microphones. It makes them ideal for recording…
- Acoustic guitars
All the instruments above have a large high frequency (i.e. high pitch) component in their sound.
However, this is not always an advantage. It can lead to an overly hiss-y recording. Vocal recordings from a condenser mic can also end up with a lot of de-essing needed, or end up sounding a little bit harsh.
We have touched on this before; condenser microphones are generally more sensitive than dynamic microphones. As a result, they can record quieter sounds than dynamic mics.
Just like the high-frequency response, this can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that you can accurately capture a sound source, precisely reproducing all the subtle nuances of a performance in great detail. The corresponding disadvantage is that the condenser mic will capture everything, even things you don’t want it to capture such as background noise, or the movement of an acoustic guitar on a guitarist’s lap.
Require Phantom Power
Due to their internal circuitry, condenser microphones require what is known as phantom power. This is a +48V signal that is sent down the XLR cable connected to the audio interface that the microphone will not work without. It is part of the reason why condenser microphones can record quieter sounds. Dynamic microphones do not require phantom power.
It is called phantom power, as you don’t require a separate power supply to provide it. It comes “hidden” down the XLR cable, so the power appears to come from nowhere.
Phantom power is nothing to worry about; pretty all audio interfaces will provide it for you. They generally have a button somewhere labelled “+48V” or similar, which will turn it on. It is just something to be aware of, and another difference between condenser and dynamic microphones.
Incidentally, phantom power is not the only thing to consider when buying an audio interface. The number of inputs you will need is also very important to take into account. That’s why I wrote this article exploring how many audio interface inputs you need. I highly recommend reading it if you are looking to buy a new audio interface.
Condenser microphones are less durable than their dynamic counterparts.
The smaller, lighter internal diaphragm is weaker than in a dynamic mic. This is one of the reasons why dynamic microphones can cope with louder sounds than condensers. But on the plus side for condensers, the light diaphragm means it can pick up quieter sounds, and is one of the reasons for their high sensitivity.
The overall design of condenser microphones tends to be weaker than dynamic mics. This is one of the reasons why dynamic microphones are so prevalent in live situations – they can physically cope with much more than condenser microphones.
Dynamic microphone properties
Low-mid frequency response
Dynamic mics don’t have the capability of reproducing high frequencies to the extent that condenser microphones do. However, they are excellent at recording low and mid-range frequencies. This makes them ideally suited to recording…
- Guitar and bass amplifiers
These are generalities though. Don’t think that you can’t get a great recording of an acoustic guitar or of a lead vocal with a dynamic microphone; you most certainly can.
If you are going to be recording an acoustic guitar, definitely check out this article on recording acoustic guitar with an SM57. Along with my article on recording an acoustic guitar with one mic, you’ll learn all the best practices, tips and tricks to get the very best recording from your dynamic microphone.
As already mentioned, dynamic microphones are not as sensitive as their condenser cousins. They do not pick up all the very quiet sounds that condensers do.
This may sound like a disadvantage, and it can be. But it means that dynamic microphones are less susceptible to background noise. It also means that they can record much louder sounds than condenser mics, and that you can get a dynamic mic closer to even a loud sound source without risk of damaging it.
Sometimes you don’t want every last little sound in and around your room finding its way on to your recording.
Dynamic microphones have the edge over condenser microphones in the durability stakes. They are famed for being incredibly hard to break, which is why you will often see the likes of the Shure SM58 being used live – even heavy-handed roadies can’t destroy these things!
I have been using an SM58 live and in my home studio for years and years. Check out this article on why the SM58 is a great mic for recording if you are considering buying one or using one to record with in your home studio.
The larger, heavier diaphragm inside a dynamic microphone is much harder to damage than the more delicate diaphragm found in condenser mics. Plus the physical overall construction tends to be more robust, leading to a pretty durable overall package.
As a quick aside…did you know you can also run vocal microphones through a guitar amp?! It may sound crazy, but it’s actually an unorthodox way of getting a cool, unusual vocal sound, or saving some money on vocal amplification. Dynamic microphones work particularly well. Check out my article on running vocals through a guitar amp to learn how to safely do this, and some common mistakes to avoid.
There is a huge amount of snobbery regarding equipment in the music recording industry. Browse a few forums or read a few equipment reviews, and you will soon find comments telling you that “you must use a condenser mic to record vocals or you are an idiot!” or “use a microphone that costs less than $1000 and you’re recording will be terrible”. Don’t pay any attention to any such statements – they are simply not true.
You can get excellent vocal recordings using a dynamic microphone. I know; I have done. Check out my Smile! E.P. for examples; you can find it via the About page. Now sure; if you have an ideal setup, in a pro recording studio, with isolation and sound treatment, and excellent acoustics, then a vocal recording using a condenser microphone will probably give you slightly better results than a dynamic microphone.
But it is a slight difference; it’s not night and day. And would you hear that difference in a full band mix? Maybe, maybe not. It’s much more important to get your recording setup right, good placement of the mic in your room, correct distance from the microphone, background noise minimized and to use a pop filter, than to choose any one particular microphone.
Indeed, many singers actually swear by a Shure SM7B to record their vocals, which is a dynamic microphone.
And as already mentioned, the “limitations” of a dynamic microphone can actually be beneficial in your less-than-ideal home studio situation. Background noise won’t be picked up as much, along with minimizing the effect of potential audible reflections in your untreated room with less-than-ideal acoustics.
It is a similar situation with acoustic guitar. I have obtained great results recording acoustic with a bog-standard Shure SM57, a mic more commonly associated with mic’ing up guitar amps. You have to be careful that you don’t get the microphone too close, and angle it away from the sound-hole. This helps you avoid the “boominess” that you can get with dynamic mics.
By the way, if you are recording acoustic guitar definitely check out this article on connecting an acoustic guitar to a computer. It shows you the different options you have for “connecting” your acoustic guitar to your computer, either for recording or other purposes.
So the characteristics discussed in the last section while important, are generalities. Any quality dynamic microphone from around $100, and maybe even a little bit cheaper these days, will be a great all-rounder mic suitable for most situations. It’s much more important to pay attention to what you are doing, ensuring you are using the microphone in an optimal manner.
Skill & experience more important than mic choice
I have often said that the best microphone to use is the one you have at the moment. The “gear snobbery” of the last section can lead you to believe that you have to wait until you can afford some expensive microphone before you can make a good recording. I say that’s nonsense!
Get started now, with whatever you have. And if you have a bit of money to spend, say $100, buy a standard dynamic microphone such as a Shure SM57 or SM58 and record with it to your heart’s content.
Most of the people reading this will be amateur musicians with a hobby home studio. It’s far more important for the likes of you and me to develop skills in recording, and obtain experience over time. That is what is going to determine the quality of your recordings, and how you will keep getting better and better. The microphone you use to do that is almost irrelevant.
And there is only one way to get skill and experience…practice, practice, practice! So beg, borrow or ask for a microphone for a birthday or Christmas present. Don’t worry about buying a stupidly expensive one – $100 for a dynamic microphone will be as much as you need to spend. And get started on your recordings straight away; the sooner you get started, the quicker you can start improving with each recording you make.
In this respect, dynamic microphones also offer us a slight advantage here, requiring a bit less experience and knowledge to use effectively. They are slightly easier to work with than condenser microphones in my opinion, for the following reasons…
- It is difficult to overload a dynamic mic (condensers cannot cope with the volume that a dynamic can)
- It is easier to position a dynamic mic in your room (less susceptible to reflections than condensers)
- Can get a dynamic mic closer to a sound source
- Condensers can sometimes give you a harsh or hiss-y recording
- Condensers really require a “shock-mount” to dampen vibrations, whereas a dynamic mic can be place on any old bog-standard mic stand as-is
So I would argue that a dynamic microphone is a bit more forgiving for a beginner to work with.
Talking of skill and experience, a microphone is fairly useless until you have something to record. Songwriting is such a difficult craft to get good at, and can be incredibly frustrating. Take a look at this article on why songwriting is so hard to take a look at the challenging aspects of songwriting, and what you can do to improve your own songs.
Dedicated space home studio considerations
If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated home studio space where that is all you do in that room, then the advice for choosing a microphone may be different. Maybe you have a spare room in your house which you have designated as a home studio, where you leave all your music and recording gear permanently set up. Or maybe you even have an acoustically treated converted garage, which is now your home studio.
If you have such a dedicated space, then it may make more sense for you to get a condenser microphone as your first choice mic. It depends on what you mostly record. If you mostly record…
- Acoustic guitar
…then I would probably go with a condenser microphone. If you more often record…
- Mic’d up guitar/bass amps
…then I would lean towards a dynamic microphone.
It’s important to point out that everything here is talked about in general terms. There is no real right or wrong e.g. if you mostly record vocals and acoustic guitar and choose a dynamic microphone, you will be absolutely fine.
There are so many different microphones on the market from so many different manufacturers, to summarize all those available would be nigh-on impossible. So I have picked four recommendations for microphones; 2 dynamic mics and 2 condenser mics, a budget and a more expensive mid-range example of each. All of these microphones will work great in a home studio situation.
All the links below are Amazon affiliate links, where you can buy all these microphones at competitive prices. I will get a small commission if you purchase after following those links. Thank you very much if you choose to do that, but please don’t feel you have to though. If you want to just go to Amazon and search for the microphones on their website that is absolutely fine.
|Microphone||Type||Price-level||Link to buy|
|Aston Microphones Origin||Condenser||Mid-range||https://amzn.to/3nBCMAx|
More microphone types
This article has been somewhat of a simplification, as there are more microphone types than just the dynamic and condenser. Don’t let that worry you though – you have everything you need in this article to make an informed choice on which first microphone to buy for your home studio. Adding more detail would only complicate matters, and lead to confusion and delay in pulling the trigger on that first microphone purchase.
If you are a microphone expert reading this thinking that this article has dumbed things down too much…why? This article isn’t for you! It is intended to help the novice choose the first microphone for their home studio. But just for completeness, here are a few more microphone types that you can research yourself if you are interested…
- Small diaphragm condenser mics (in addition to the large diaphragm ones discussed in this article)
- Ribbon mics
- Dynamic “bass” microphones (specialists in recording kick drums and bass guitar amps)
- Multi-pattern microphones (have a switch to select where they record from e.g. just in front of the mic, or all-around it)
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!