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While nobody outright says that a dynamic mic or ribbon mic can't compete with a condenser, we all eventually cast our vote with our wallets.
Condenser mics are clearly the most popular types period, whether we're talking about home recording or in a professional studio, or vocals versus instruments.
It's hard to go wrong with any of the best of each budget range. It certainly makes post-processing an easier and more enjoyable task. Close miking with a cardioid, large diaphragm condenser not only picks up amazing detail but also helps minimize other issues related to bleed and a poor acoustic environment (a huge problem for home studio recording). Tack on a reflection panel and you can produce results that compete with major label releases. Zero exaggeration.
So let's take a look at what makes a condenser what it is, how to use and care for one, what else you'll need to get the most out of your purchase. Then we'll take a look at the options unanimously considered the best in each price range so you can save time hunting around and get on with some recording!
Of all of the types of microphones out there, everyone loves a condenser. By looking at how it works and how it's constructed, we can begin to understand why they are everyone's favorites. To really comprehend it you just have to use one and be wowed by the quality increase for most applications over other types.
All microphones work just like our ear drums do. There are diaphragms that are thin plates or skins that vibrate due to the pressure of sound waves contacting them. The difference in mics arises mainly from how the mechanism attached to the diaphragm translates these vibrations into an electrical signal to be sent down the mic cable and to a speaker or computer.
Condenser is an old term for the electrical component called a capacitor.
A capacitor is made of two conductive metal plates attached to a battery. The battery feeds a charge to the plates so that an electrostatic field can be maintained between them. As the plates are moved closer together, some of the charge in the field is released due to a capacitance change and becomes the current that is your audio signal.
The front plate of the capacitor is the diaphragm. As sound reaches it, it is pushed closer to the back plate to generate the current!
There are a few implications that arise due to this type of construction:
For anything much louder, you'll want to use a dynamic microphone. You can scream into a condenser and be fine, but if you blast an electric guitar amp at it you might want to use a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) monitor to make sure you're not over-doing it and damaging the diaphragm. This is a good, cheap tool every studio engineer should have in their desk drawer or pocket.
Speaking of damaging the mic, let's take a look at how to care for yours once you have it in your hands.
Thankfully, this is one of the easiest things in the world.
Humidity: First and foremost, whether you store your mic in a closet, mic cabinet, or leave it on the mic stand, you want to make sure that the room's humidity is such that you aren't accumulating moisture on the diaphragm. This is usually not an issue in most temperature controlled homes and buildings.
Moisture: In addition, any time you're recording vocals with your condenser mic, it's a good idea to have a pop filter up. The reason is that the grills will allow moisture through and most of us will accidentally spit a little here or there as we sing or rap. You don't want little globules of saliva or food landing on the diaphragm.
Sound Pressure: The pop filter will also help you manage your own or your vocalists distance, and therefore volume, from the mic. Sound pressure levels rise exponentially the closer the mic is to the sound source. If you put your mouth right to the grill like you see people do with handheld dynamic microphones, there is a real possibility that you can harm your mic permanently. Each mic has it's own maximum safe SPL rating. Make sure you know yours and check with an SPL meter occasionally.
Phantom Power: Phantom power must be used when recording with a condenser. This will be provided by your audio interface, mixer, or stand-alone preamplifier. It is extremely important that you always turn the phantom power button or switch to the off position before plugging in or unplugging the mic cable. It doesn't always happen but you can receive a surge of voltage much higher than the mic can handle that can damage the battery, tube, or diaphragm.
Dust: Finally, if you leave your mic on the stand when it's not in use, place some kind of decorative bag (so it still looks cool) over the mic. It doesn't matter if you get dust settling on the shock mount, cable, or mic stand, but you do not want it on the diaphragm. This can damage and alter the frequency response it's capable of providing.
For those new to the recording industry, please note that you can't simply convert your mic's XLR cable to a tiny 1/8th inch stereo input and feed it to your sound card.
We've already mentioned that for condenser mics you need 48 volts of phantom power. You also need a preamplifier to boost the mic-level signal up to a useable line-level signal without boosting the noise floor as well. Then you need an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) to translate the electrical signal into a binary one your computer and recording software can use.
But don't panic!
Every single bit of this can be had in one piece of hardware called an audio interface. They come in various shapes and sizes and are what all studios start with before they start collecting stand-alone pieces to complement the interface.
These recording interfaces come with all you need and more, wired in the right order, and they connect to your computer typically through USB or Firewire. It's a piece of cake thankfully, because you cannot get by without one.
Check out our write-up and reviews in our Audio Interface Buying Guide at various budget ranges if you need one. You can snag a real cheap option just to get you started in the meantime if you aren't ready for a bigger purchase. I'd definitely start with a great mic and then upgrade the rest over time than the other way around.
For the newer folks out there just getting into the game, you'll need some guidance on how to get the most out of your new mic. Read these as you wait for your mic to arrive by mail so you'll be ready to clean up whatever vocals, instruments, voice-overs, or podcasting stuff you record.
If you can't read them now, then you should bookmark them for when you're ready, because every piece of audio needs post-processing and these are chock-full of fool proof tips on how to get it done quickly and effectively:
No song, radio spot, movie audio, or even live performances sounds as good as they do without some mixing. It's one of the most fun aspects of recording to me. You too can enjoy it without frustration with those links above.
And now we're ready for the fun part...
As always, we're going to list these from least to most expensive, but also bust them into sections based on total budget to help keep things organized.
Note: Each image and text link leads to Amazon.com where you can read additional user reviews, find specific technical detail listings, and make your purchase.
We can't cover every mic out there, but we can promise that all of these have universal acclaim for their range. You can rest easy knowing you maxed out your possible audio quality with these options. I'll also mention, for lower-priced mics it's generally a bad idea to go used. There's no telling the mistreatment they underwent, especially regarding the diaphragms. My advice is to not gamble on mics. Other gear, sure. Mics... nah. Let's get this party started!
You may be thinking "But hey, I've seen mics as low as $30 at RadioShack!" Well... those are toys. There are a ton of mics out there that look like a million bucks that cost less than $50. Don't fall for silly marketing ploys.
The first mic on the list is under $100 and it is the only one I'll recommend at that level. All others are going to disappoint you and be a wasted stepping stone towards a later upgrade. The MXL 990 can stick with you and be used to mic drums or other less prominent instruments as you get better preamps and what not.
Please take my word for it. If you're out for the cheapest option that can still get the job done, then this is it. The MXL 990 is your first entry-point into professional recording quality.
To keep expectations realistic, the mic will sound good. It'll sound far better than any of your video game headset and smart phone mics by default. It'll sound great once you start adding in some mixing strategies like equalization and compression. It'll sound awesome as you take control of your environment with acoustic treatment or a reflection filter.
The nice part is that it still manages to come with an attractive shock mount, a mic stand clip, and a carrying case for storage. It's frequency response is fairly flat for the price and ranges from 30 Hz to 20 kHz, which is definitely all you need for vocals and almost any instrument. It handles a 130 dB max SPL too, making it a solid choice for a ton of applications in the future since it's good enough to keep around.
If you can hold out and grab this mic instead of the one above, I'd say it's a significant leap in quality. The Audio-Technica AT2035 is favorite among musicians that record in a home studio because it's still accessible in terms of price while bringing in some advanced features that are extremely useful.
For instance, if you're recording an instrument that is by nature a bit louder than you'd want, instead of backing the mic off physically and allowing reverbs and other issues to leak into your recording, you can just flip on the 10 dB pad switch to drop the volume by that much so you don't clip and distort. Also, for an application like vocals you can engage the 80 Hz high-pass filter. This will increasingly reduce the volume below 80 Hz to keep out low-frequency rumbles coming up the mic stand from bumps or even air conditioner rumbles on the other side of the house.
Again, a great plus is that this package comes with an XLR cable, shock mount, pop filter, and a cloth dust pouch to place over the mic. Some compare this, and even prefer it, to the next option in the higher budget range. This is a great starter mic that can keep you happy for years on end as it grows with you as you improve other aspects of your signal chain.
This is the next level in budget that brings a noticeable difference in results beyond just adding more features. The following two choices are the best in class and are tried and true, being in high demand for long time, to the point that improved models have been released, the first of which is:
The "A" stands for anniversary, signifying that this is the improved model redesigned from the ground up. The Rode NT1-A is the reason I became a huge fan of Rode's mics. I had a group of musician friends that recorded an album at home that became an international release. The only parts that weren't synth based were the vocals and they rivaled every major label release I've heard. It blew my mind when they told me they used an NT1-A.
The point is there's no reason you can't compete on quality with literally anyone else with this mic. I've heard it on many sources now and feel that it really shines on vocals, guitar, violin, and anything else largely based on higher frequencies. It has really low self-noise. Couple that with the built-in internal shock mount and there's no way to not get a completely quiet recording.
The frequency response is pretty flat up top, but has some boosts in just the right places that give this mic a sense of crystalline sheen and clarity. It's hard to describe other than using silly words like "sparkle" and "clear water."
A nice thing to mention is that you also receive a shock mount, pop filter, and an instructional DVD with mixing and recording tips to get the most out of this specific mic. It's my opinion that this is the best of the bottom half of this list!
To keep it fair, a lot of people go absolutely nuts over the Blue Microphones Bluebird and I imagine based on what I've read that it's a completely capable alternative to the NT1-A above. I've not personally used it though so I can only give you the run down based on what others have said.
This mic is Blue's bread and butter. You can't see a discussion about condensers without it coming up. On top of its quality, it has that cool 1950's style design that makes it stand out. The real winning aspect is the mic's extremely flat frequency response, making it ideal for those times when you want to accurately record every nuance and detail in true-to-life clarity.
Like most of the mics on our own list here, it comes with a custom shock mount, pop filter, and a case. Blue went the extra mile to craft wooden cases and special pop filters that attach right to the capsule. This mic is all about presentation without sacrifice to quality either, a rarity in the industry.
The one thing I've read is that on vocals it can get a little crispy in terms of needing a de-esser. A solution would be to rotate it slightly away from your mouth by even 10 degrees so you're off-axis a bit. This should maintain the beautiful high-end this mic is known for on vocals, stringed instruments, and woodwinds.
This is the sweet spot right before prices start increasing exponentially for smaller gains in quality. Even if you're looking for a top of the line mic, your search can stop here if you're already working with killer preamps, compressors, and converters in an acoustically treated recording room.
You'll notice I keep talking about vocals since that's mainly what people are looking for, but at this range these mics can record any sound source perfectly, from bass to flute to electric amps and more. As always, watch your SPL levels though, and expect top notch results.
This is my go-to mic, every time. I bought the Rode NTK after my friends amazed me with the NT1-A and figured I could show them up, since the game was always "Who could produce the best vocal quality?" I won.
I don't even know where to start. I bought this guy and started running it through my MOTU interface and was immediately floored by the quality I was getting with my mediocre preamps. I was in heaven and finally felt I could start saving for a stand-alone preamp or three. When I started running this mic through the FMR RNP and Avalon VT-737sp, I realized that sky was the limit for this mic. Then I upgraded my converters and it just kept getting better.
What I like so much is what I refer to as a crystalline high-end. Not just in the vocal region but even above in the sparkle region of hi-hats and cymbals, which is a nice touch for vocals, male or female. I've recorded oboes, flutes, saxophone, acoustic guitar, grand piano, banjo, cello, and pretty much any thing else you can think of with magical results each time. It's something to do with the combo of the tube and diaphragm Rode is using. May they never change it. Amen.
As I said on another post here, this mic actually has paid for itself. I've had local bands seek me out and rent time in my studio just to use this mic for their albums. Word of mouth got around pretty fast once I one-upped my homies with the NT1-A.
This baby comes with it's own high-voltage power supply because phantom power just isn't enough. It's carrying case makes room for the mic, power supply, power supply cable, mic cable, mic stand clip, shock mount, and instruction booklets (all come with the mic purchase!). This thing is no joke. You can thank me later.
Neumann is known for their top of the line mics. If they're older models like the U47 were readily available, they'd be listed below this one in the "Wow, I could buy a car instead" section. But alas, you can only sometimes find them and they're always used.
The Neumann TLM 102 is the competitively priced offering that still brings the same tremendous audio quality of its older brothers but is priced so that the rest of us can get in on the action. I guess it doesn't take long to saturate the five-figure mic market and you have to drop down and let the rest of us play. I'm grateful, because this is truly high-tier gear at a mid-tier cost.
Part of what makes their line-up so sought after is the extremely flat and transparent frequency response across the board with a slight, purposeful bump around the "vocal presence" area of 5-6 kHz. That works out great for almost every vocalist and helps you cut through the mix without having to boost in that region after the fact.
This mic and the NTK right above are amazing. If you find yourself struggling at all to get professional results out of either of these, then you need to upgrade your preamps and acoustic treatment. These both are fully capable and comparable to the mics below in my opinion.
Sometimes the money doesn't matter. We're given or have a budget and told to get the best money can buy for recording vocals because a huge artist coming in next week. What you're looking at in this section are some of the more costly mics (and the most costly I've ever seen last).
The first two are hanging in just beyond that nice break point where you start getting diminishing returns in quality for the increased cost. They are still worth it even for home studios. The final is absurdly priced and used by those artists when quality is all that matters (Dr. Dre bought one to use for 50 Cent at the height of his popularity).
For anyone looking to record a lot of different instruments in various locations, the AKG C414 XLII is one of the most versatile mics you'll find. There's an entire army of people who swear by it for vocals too. I'd put this on the recording quality level of the two above, but you pay a tad bit more to have access to the boatload of options it provides.
As you can see in the picture, this mic has 5 pickup patterns, and we're not just talking about variations on the cardioid pattern. It can go omnidirectional and even figure-eight as well. These work great for round table conversations and interviews with two people. Duet performances come to mind as an awesome use for this bad boy.
Other feature are the several levels of attenuation you can use to manage your gain staging. These pads will keep distortion out when recording loud sources. It also features three different low-cut and bass roll-off switches when you're working on sources like vocals when you know there should be no sub-bass. This helps give you the cleanest signal possible so you don't have to get into destructive equalization later.
You knew a Shure mic would make this list. The Shure KSM27 is a popular choice for vocals, drum overheads, and anything that requires the sensitivity of a large diaphragm condenser while handling bass with finesse. I know a lot of male vocalists with deep voices prefer this mic over other alternatives for that very reason.
For us non-bass folk, there are three levels of hi-pass filtering to keep out low frequency rumbles. This along with the transparency and low self-noise the KSM27 provides with no extra flavor makes it hard to not get a perfect recording. Apparently people will pick up two of these to use as a stereo pair even when they aren't a true matched pair, because they all have that much transparency that it doesn't matter.
The mesh features a triple layer windscreen behind the grill and you can get away without a pop filter most of the time but I'd keep one up anyways. Why risk a great vocal take on such a great mic?
I mentioned the mic that Dr. Dre busted out to use on 50 Cent when it truly mattered the most. This is it. The Sony C-800G is undoubtedly a fantastic mic. But for the same price I could buy 10 of another world-class mic and after mixing you'd never know the difference.
That's not a dig at the mic because if you've heard recordings produced with this mic it's perfection. The cost is justified by the research and development it takes to get such a flat frequency response. You really have to push the limits of time and precision. But is that incremental gain in quality important enough for me? Nah, I'll just EQ a decibel here or there and be just fine.
I had to share it though in my commitment to make sure you know what options are available to you. There are thousands of instances I can imagine where I'd order several of these. You may find yourself in one of those spots where the chance of a lifetime arises. Strike while the iron is hot.
You know it's a bit ridiculous though, when this is one of those products where people leave fake, comedic reviews because it's priced so astronomically. But hey, you've got to pay to play in the big leagues.
Choosing the right condenser is no longer an issue with our suggestions above, but there are things we can't do for you. It will be up to you to use our supplied tips to mix your recordings down. It's up to you to take proper care of your mic so it serves you for decades to come. The only thing I can guarantee is that you'll be pleased by any choice from our curated selection above in your budget range and rest easy knowing you're working with the best condenser microphone.