What is the best studio microphone?
Firstly, there's no such thing is the one best mic to rule them all. All microphones sound slightly different to each other, but above a certain professional level of quality - the Shure SM57 is a good benchmark - it all comes down to personal preference.
So how do these preferences work out? Most important, much more important than the make and model, is the type of microphone.
Types of microphone
Microphones come in a number of types...
- Large-diaphragm capacitor
- Vacuum-tube (or just tube)
- Small-diaphragm capacitor
There are others, but these are the main contenders. All of the microphone types, makes and models mentioned here can be used on any instrument or vocal, with the exception that special precautions should be taken if recording kick drum with a ribbon microphone and it is best to consult the microphone's manufacturer for their advice.
Large-diaphragm capacitor microphone
The large-diaphragm capacitor microphone has, as you might expect, a large diaphragm compared to other mics, and works according to the capacitor (or condenser) principle. The large-diaphragm capacitor microphone is epitomized by the Neumann U87. This mic is a useful comparison for all others. Some mics might be brighter, some less bright, some richer but less clear, some clearer but less rich. But the U87 is right in the center of everything. Put it this way - If you have the money, you'll never regret buying a Neumann U87. Conversely, if you get to the end of your recording career and you've never owned one, then you'll regret that.
The prime feature of the large-diaphragm capacitor mic is that it has a sound that is clear and full, with just a little hint of larger-than-life confidence.
There are of course cheaper alternatives to the Neumann U87 and in your search you should probably start by looking at the specifications of the U87, then seek out mics that look, specify, and sound similar.
The vacuum-tube microphone harks back to an earlier era before transistors were invented and capacitor microphones needed an internal vacuum-tube amplifier to work. Where transistors can be very clean and precise, tubes have a warmth with which transistors struggle to compare.
So if you want a richer, warmer sound, then a vacuum-tube microphone should be your choice. Bear in mind however that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and if you record all of your vocals and instruments with a tube mic, you may find the sound a little over-congested. That's a personal taste thing though.
Other than vintage examples, there isn't any one model that is the epitome of the vacuum-tube microphone type, but if I had to pick out a contender, it might be the Rode K2 - I've heard some great recordings made with this mic so it's certainly one to consider, among others.
Dynamic mics work by the dynamo principle. They are simple and robust, with a sound that, although not quite as clear as the capacitor microphone, comes across as straightforward and no-nonsense. It's great for rock vocals and electric guitars where it's the overall sound of the band that needs to be big, not any particular vocal or guitar line.
It's also practical to hand-hold many dynamic microphones, and this can give a performer a sense of freedom they don't get when restricted in positioning by a mic on a stand.
I've mentioned already the Shure SM57 which is as classic a mic as the Neumann U87. The SM58, although it is normally considered a mic for live sound, is almost identical to the SM57 other than the grille, so this is a good all-round recommendation too.
Small-diaphragm capacitor microphone
When microphones are designed for the ultimate in accuracy, then the diaphragm needs to be smaller - around 12 mm in diameter. This is so that a) there are no audible resonances in the diaphragm, and b) so that the off-axis frequency response can be smoother.
You might think that more accurate = more better. Bad English I know but you get what I mean. Well yes it is if accuracy is your aim. But an accurate sound can sometimes be perceived as a thin sound, which is why large-diaphragm capacitor microphones are still widely used.
The classic small-diaphragm capacitor microphone is probably the Neumann KM 184 but there's plenty of choice at both higher and lower price points.
The ribbon mic is very characterful with a rich, dark sound. It also has excellent clarity that rivals the capacitor mic, but in a different way that's hard to describe.
Ribbon microphones perhaps should have gone out of fashion by now because they are commonly quite fragile, they have a low output level that in some cases would benefit from a special preamplifier, and they don't really have a sound to compete with the brightness and warmth of a large-diaphragm capacitor or vacuum-tube mic. Yet there's something alluring about the ribbon microphone's sound texture. Maybe if it isn't your first and only mic, then it will be the first to enhance your collection.
One of the most classic ribbon microphones is the Coles 4038. It's been around for a long, long time, but it still sounds great and it has that characteristic ribbon sound.
And so - the best mic?
Well I said at the start that there is no one mic to rule them all, but I certainly can tell you which is the best mic for you...
Presuming basic professional quality (like I said, the Shure SM57 is a good benchmark of professionalism) then the best mic will be the one that you know best - The mic you've spent the most time with and you know how it sounds on all instruments and vocals, how you can position it for best effect, including both direct and reflected sound, and how it responds to processing such as EQ and compression.
It's great to have a selection of mics to choose from, but if you have ten mics and don't really know any of them properly, then you won't make recordings that are as good as you could have made with the one mic that you really know how to use.
This really is a very brief guide, considering the vast choice of microphones that are available. You should consider the types, makes and models listed here as starting points for your research.
One last point is that you don't need to spend the earth to get a mic of fully professional quality. Yes microphones do sound different to each other, but what will sound best in your studio is the microphone that you really get to know how to use. Choosing a microphone is one thing, the next step is to learn how to get the best out of it in every recording situation.