Friday you rocked the corner bar all night long. Saturday it rained, but you still pulled off a credible outdoor show. By Sunday afternoon, you’re set up in the basement ready to record your latest tune. You’ve tested, tweaked, and tuned every part of your sound from string to drumhead. Amp settings? Perfect. Voice lessons? Check. It’s all good. Now, you’ve just got to capture the magic. It starts with the microphone.
Building the perfect mic kit can be expensive. Trying to do it on a tight budget can be challenging. You need just the right mic for every possible task. Focus first on what you do most. Here are some basics to get you started with finding the best cheap microphones.
Use an SM58 in the kick drum until you can cobble together about $180. Then buy a Sennheiser e602II. You won’t use it for much more than miking a kick drum on stage and in the studio, but you will never regret having one of these in your kit. Enough said.
Basic live vocal microphone:
You’ve got to have at least one SM58 microphone. And for about $100 apiece, every singer in the band can chime in. SM stands for studio microphone, but it built its legendary status as a live workhorse. It’s rugged and can withstand the rigors of the road for sure, but its tight cardioid pickup pattern makes it perfect for the bandstand. Meaning, it hears everything right in front of it (your voice) and not very well to the side or farther away (bass, drums, and those infernal guitars). It has an inherent proximity effect, which can be used to your advantage. A sound source less than six millimeters from the microphone will boost the bass frequencies by six to 10 dB at 100 Hz—a nice trick for reaching those low notes or adding deep richness to your tone.
This same SM58 that endures your Saturday afternoon gig in the rain will also serve you well in the studio. It can handle back-up vocals and instruments nicely. You’ll never run out of uses for it, and best of all, it will last you a lifetime.
A large diaphragm condenser mic is at the center of every studio. For lead vocals, acoustic instruments, and narration, the MXL 990 will serve you well. This is not a mic that you should take to a gig. Keep it safe, dry, and warm, either in its case or tucked safely into its shock mount. Get yourself a pop filter, too. This mic won’t like the moisture from too-close vocals. It has a nice wide cardioid pattern and a great frequency response of 30 Hz to 20 kHz. It can even do a pretty good job on the spoken word. Here’s a tip: have the narrator move in real close to take advantage of this mic’s proximity effect, but remember to use your pop filter.
There are some classic microphones in this category, but it would be hard to find one for under $100. The 990 will do the job at this price, and will get you started making nice recordings.
Basic general purpose microphone:
For everything else on stage, you can get by with a Shure SM57. No joke. Need a hammer? Use your SM57. Well, that was a joke. But, I’ve got to say, this is one tough microphone. It is the perfect mic for the snare drum. Nothing sounds better or can take a beating like the good ole SM57. Use it on guitar amps, banjos, let your horn players blow on it, whatever. Yes, there are better mics for some of these tasks, but again, for about $100 you are investing money in the future. You won’t find or need a replacement for your Shure SM57.
Sooner or later you will want to have a matched pair of condenser microphones. Dynamic microphones, like SM58s and SM57s are rugged and versatile, but lack good high frequency response. To hear the sizzle of the cymbals or to record the crisp clean sound of an orchestra or choir you’ll need to use a condenser microphone. A matched pair will give you stereo, just like hearing with your ears. Important: condenser microphones won’t work without phantom power. Most good mixers have a button you can push to turn on phantom power (48 volts). Don’t worry, it’s totally safe. It’s just a little DC voltage to power the mic. If your mixer doesn’t have phantom power, you can use a pre-amp.
A pair of Samson C02 microphones can be had for under $150. You’ll use them over the drum set to mic the cymbals and toms in stereo. You can also use them to make live recordings of the band, your church choir, an orchestral concert, or a group of singers or musicians in the studio. You will also use the C02s to mic acoustic guitar (stereo) in the studio. Put one near the sound hole and one where the body joins the neck. Experiment until you get perfect placement.
Any task that demands crisp, clean high frequencies will benefit by using the Samson mics. Yes, there are much better condenser mics. And you can find cheaper pairs as well. But Samson has done a solid job at a reasonable price. You can use them on the road or at home, but take care. They are more delicate than the dynamic mics in your kit. Moisture, dirt, and dropping are not good. Keep them tucked away in a case. Enjoy them. Someday you may want to upgrade.
ART TPS II
The best way to dial in a professional sound is to send your condenser microphone through a nice tube preamp. With the ART TPS II, for around $200, you will get two channels of sweet tube warmth, easy controls, some nice limiting, and phantom power, all in a tight little one-rack space package.
This article is from our November-December 2013 issue.