Click here to jump straight to the reviews!
Regardless of the inconsistencies in all of the advice out there, I'm here to tell you. There's a sweet spot between high-end professional microphones and consumer mics.
You don't want some USB mic designed for some kid who wants to be a podcaster before putting the mic in the closet. You also don't need to commit to a $500 or $2,000 dollar purchase either.
There's a handful of mics that are considered entry-level into the professional studio realm that I'll share with you that can literally compete with the most expensive options out there.
With the mixing and recording tips from other articles here on Ledger Note (I'll link you to them!) you can pump out studio quality work while saving your cash for more gear.
It's important, no matter if you're singing, rapping, recording guitar, or doing voice-over work, to understand not only how to choose the mic that best fits your needs, but also to set realistic expectations on the results. You can have top-of-the-line quality with any of the mics discussed here, but it's never as simple as plugging in the mic and pressing record.
But don't worry. I've got your back here. I'm about to tell you everything you need to know about...
You need to know three things before and after making a decision and purchase:
We're going to cover each as quickly as possible so we can jump right into the cheap mic reviews.
You can open this can of worms and get confusing real fast. People talk about the pickup patterns and all types of other attributes as types of mics. There's no such thing as a stage mic for live performance as opposed to a studio mic. Various pickup patterns can be had on different mics and some can switch between as many as five.
When it comes down to it, there are only a handful of types of mics and you only need to worry about two:
You don't need to worry about ribbon mics, large or small diaphragms, boundary mics, etc. Just condensers and dynamics.
Let me preface all of this by saying either type can give you the results you want. The differences between the two are small and will bring diminishing returns when used on the "right" applications. There are no hard rules to recording. It's an art, not a science. That being said, there are physical differences that make one a more appropriate option for most people over the other for specific uses. Professionals don't care one way or another.
Condensers typically come with what are called large diaphragms, but there are also small diaphragms. The short of it is that when sound waves travel through the air and collide with the diaphragm, it vibrates back and forth just like the skin stretched over a drum does when struck. Just like your ear drum vibrates and sends electric signals to your brain, the mic diaphragm sends electric signals to the computer. It does this by passing a magnet over a powered coil.
Anyhow, both large and small diaphragms in condensers are usually larger than those in dynamic mics. This allows them to be more sensitive and produce tighter details. But the flip side is that they have lower sound pressure level (SPL) ratings than dynamics. Don't let that fool you. You'd have to be incredibly loud to harm a condenser through pure volume.
For all normal uses, this is impossible to do with your vocals. But if you put it on front of your electric guitar amp you could manage it if not careful. Condensers also contain tubes that can be damaged or broken if treated roughly by being knocked over or thrown about.
This is by no means universal, but lots of people prefer condensers on instruments and voices centered around higher frequencies.
Typical Uses For Condensers: Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Piano, Violin, Mandolin, Banjo, Oboe, Flute, and most other stringed or wind instruments.
Dynamics have two things going for them: They are nearly indestructible and can withstand louder sound sources. These are the types of mics you'd put in front of a kick drum, bass guitar cabinet, or in front of a screamo nu-metal vocalist. They can take the beating from the volume and don't have tubes so they can take a bit more shaking and occasional dropping by accident. This is why you usually see dynamics on stage during live performances at bars and stadiums.
Condensers diaphragms point to the side of the mic while dynamics have diaphragms that are oriented towards the top of the mic. That's just a physical difference that's also convenient for vocalists on stage that like to hold the mic in their hands.
Again it's not universal, but lots of people prefer dynamics on darker, lower frequency voices and instruments.
Typical Uses For Dynamics: Vocals, Electric Guitar and Bass, Close Miking Brass Instruments, Drums, Percussion Instruments, Radio DJ's.
I realize most people are looking for a mic to record vocals. Here's my recommendation...
When it comes to singing you'll usually benefit from a condenser due to it picking up every little nuance. For Gospel, R&B, and any other softer style of vocals this is great. Most Rock and Metal can be recorded with a condenser but if you're doing the loud and screaming style, consider a dynamic.
For speaking roles such as voice-over work and reading audiobooks, I'd recommend a condenser. For less formal situations that can get rowdy like radio disc jockeying, podcasting, and interviews, go for a dynamic. That's key in getting that "radio voice" sound by taking advantage of the proximity effect.
Rapping is a different animal. You can go with either depending on your voice and style. If you want a more aggressive, intimidating sound use a dynamic and the proximity effect. This works well for most East Coast styles especially with the classic hip hop vibes or street sound. If you want something more intimate like you hear on pop records and most singles, then opt for the high frequency clarity and detail of a condenser. After compression you can get it closer to the ruggedness of a dynamic while maintaining a bit more openness. It's hard to put these qualities into words, but I'm sure you rappers know what I'm saying here.
This can be an entire discussion, so let me summarize. You'll need:
Fortunately for us companies wised up and are producing audio interfaces that include preamps, converters, and even come with DAW software and the cables you need like USB or Firewire. If you aren't aware of what I'm talking about, please read our audio interface reviews article that explains it all. Also check out How To Setup a Recording Studio for a quick overview that brings it all together in an easy to understand summary.
You will need a recording interface. You can't simply run a microphone into your computer's sound card. It has to run through a preamplifier to boost the signal to useable levels. If you just turn up the input volume, you're going to have a completely noisy recording because you're boosting the noise floor as well as the main signal.
One more consideration that is by no means a must but will help a ton is acoustic treatment. This keeps sound from bouncing around everywhere and muddying up your recordings. Close miking helps block out a lot by recording the source louder, but you won't get extremely crystal clear results without it. Even professional vocal booths have acoustic treatment built into the walls. It's not critical at first but it's something you'll want to consider as you continue down your path. Alternatively, reflection filters work well for a lot less effort and money and are portable.
This is what I recommend for anyone who doesn't have the immediate budget to buy or build acoustic treatment. It's like putting your mic itself in its own mini-vocal booth. Other items to consider are pop filters, wind screens, and mic stands. You may need an XLR cable if your mic doesn't include one.
To avoid delaying the fun part of looking at actual mics, please open these few articles and bookmark them for later. You'll want to use these mixing tips and tricks to clean up your recordings so you can present the most professional sounding result possible to your listeners.
Giving these even a once-over read will launch you into the next level of quality. You'll learn tips and tricks about techniques you may not have been aware even existed. If you want your results to even remotely resemble what you hear on the radio and album releases out there, then you will have to do some basic mixing. These articles will guide you through it as easily as possible.
And now for the fun part... Cheap Microphone Reviews By Budget Range.
What we'll do is cover these by price range from the cheapest (but still good) to the most expensive. We'll mix condensers and dynamics together but I'll say which is which, and you can tell from the pictures. I personally don't recommend you stray from the options on this list as your first mic purchase. You won't end up with horrid results nor a microphone that you won't keep around and use forever. It'll keep you from under or over-spending.
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.
I know you're on the hunt for something cheap, but deny the temptation of buying a better mic on the used market. I never recommend grabbing anything this sensitive used. You never know if the diaphragm is damaged from moisture, volume, spit, or if the tube is busted or cable jack broken, etc.
Be on the lookout for my personal favorite from the list, too!
In no particular order...
For those of you really strapped for cash, this is your cheapest option. It's a bit more costly than other options out there, but where you win here with the MXL 990 condenser is that you get a shock mount, mic stand adapter, and a real nice carrying case along with a mic that can perform like it's big brothers. So in the end you save some cash.
Realistically you shouldn't buy any mic less expensive than this. This is your true entry-level into the ability to produce professional results. There are mics at half and quarter the price that look impressive visually but what you want is a quality diaphragm and electronics. Not a single one of your listeners can see your mic, only hear it. Those others are made to be sold, not to be used.
This mic, and all others on the list, will grow with you. You can step away from the mic upgrade game and focus on acoustics and preamps and the mics will continually perform better along the way as you surround them with better gear.
It is my opinion that if you're going to pick up any mic on this list it should be this one, the Rode NT1-A.
This baby is the most expensive on the list but still in the realm of cheap. I had some friends release their first professional release internationally and the vocals sounded incredible. I asked them what mic they used to record them and they told me it was the NT1-A. That blew my mind because this is one of the low-end options but you'd never know it without asking.
Since then I've used an NT1-A a ton and even snagged a Rode NTK for myself and it's still my go-to mic for vocals and stringed instruments. Rode isn't messing around. My friends didn't even run their mic through a crazy expensive preamp either. It was just one in your typical recording interface. It's the best cheap condenser on the market, hands down.
The A stands for Anniversary and the anniversary package includes a shockmount, pop filter, and even an instructional DVD with some mixing and recording tips specific to this mic. It's the best deal and mic on this list.
The Shure SM57 and the SM58 are considered "The Industry Workhorse." This is because they give you really good results with cheaper home studio gear but can also give you perfect results when surrounded by expensive preamps, equalizers, and compressors.
This isn't just on vocals. Studio engineers will put these on guitar, drums, and especially live on the stage. In 90% of live performances I've been to at bars, stadiums, and even concert halls, they've exclusively used these. They are rugged and transparent. They are as good as you allow them to be by feeding them into better and better gear. I have two SM57's that get used constantly.
To clear up the confusion, the SM57 and the SM58 are the same mic internally. They are both dynamics that use the same capsules and electronics. The only difference in the top shield for the diaphragm, visually. You can mix and match and it's all the same... audio goodness!
The Audio-Technica AT2035 is very useful. I don't have any "wow" factors to report because it's that transparent. That's a good thing. It spits back out exactly every detail it hears, which is what it's built to do as a transparent condenser.
This is a great option for louder source materials like vocalists who like to hug the mic and sing real loud and can mic up the amps for electric instruments and more. Part of this is the unusually high SPL ratings for a condenser thanks to the 10 dB attenuation pad switch that can give you a bit more leeway when it comes to volume. It also includes a switchable 80 Hz high-pass filter for live events to keep bass and mic stand rumbles from making it into the PA system.
The bundle I'm linking to from the picture comes with a pop filter and XLR cable too, saving you some cash to drop on a mic stand. Can't beat that!
I have a love/hate relationship with Blue Mics. I love them because not only does each of their mics look amazing and remind me of the old 1950's style of construction, but they sound absolutely fantastic. The part that I pooh-pooh about is they sell a ton of USB mics to podcasters and musicians who want to record at home end up buying them. That's kind of a disservice to musicians but whatever. The actual studio mics sound so good I can't really complain and the builds are incredible.
The Blue Spark is a condenser mic comes with a classy metal pop filter and custom shock mount made specifically for this mic, including a nice wooden carrying case. It features built in phantom-power amp to power it and a high-pass filter button like the AT2035 above.
People report using this bad boy on almost any source, especially higher frequency sources like vocals, hand claps, piano, acoustic guitar, etc. It shines on almost anything you put it in front of. Blue has the reputation it has for a reason. This is a solid purchase for any home recording studio.
Ultimately, as a beginner or even someone with experience needing another cheap option to use at home, I recommend one of the five above, with my one particular favorite. There are certainly a couple more decent choices I could have mentioned according to other people, but these are the ones I personally can hold their own against mics two and three times as expensive. You most certainly don't need to empty your bank account to get great sounding recordings at home or in the studio. Save some cash for other gear and get the best cheap microphone you can.