How to pick the best microphone for your needs

Buying the best microphone for you

Passionate debates can frequently be seen on forums about which microphone voice over artists, podcasters and DJs should use.

People have been known to chip in recommending beginners (and anyone else) use very expensive (sensitive) microphones, some costing thousands of dollars – all without knowing too much about the person’s needs or where the recordings will take place

I think it essential that anyone with the desire to podcast, do voice overs, or record radio shows at home, not delay following their passion just because they may not have the gear people say they need. I say, use what you have and do it anyway – or buy modest equipment to get going.

In my view, technique and environment play a large part when it comes to getting the best out of a microphone.

Now, back to the ‘heated debates’. When someone asks for advice on microphones, it is – on one level – an impossible question to answer. Partly because people’s voices can sound better with one microphone over another, and only by trying quite a few can the user settle on the one that’s best for them.

Best microphone

The best microphone is also the one that suits the environment in which it is being used.

When it comes to supplying ‘dry reads’, unless you have a soundproofed room fitted with acoustic tiles, then using a very sensitive condenser microphone will cause you lot of problems that can’t easily be fixed in post (if at all).

And frankly, forever fixing things up will become tiresome and boring. And who’s got the time to fix up audio anyway? Like filmmakers say – ‘get it in the can’. I.e; record it right so you don’t have to fix it it up.

In an un-soundproofed room, a good condenser mic will pick up the sound of birds tweeting outside, traffic, planes flying over and next door’s lawnmower and their barking dog – as well as all the reverb of your voice in the room.

One way to reduce room reverb is to hang heavy curtains to cover any hard surfaces and/or lay bed mattresses against walls (or smother the walls and ceiling with acoustic tiles).

People who have to record in less than ideal situations might consider using a dynamic microphone. While it is less likely to pick up unwanted noise, it could mean the vocal performance risks being compromised. It’s a trade off.

Dynamic

Using a dynamic microphone may mean you need to speak louder than is called for, and/or you will speak much closer to the microphone – which could lead to an unnatural sounding performance. It really depends on what your client wants.

However, there is a place for each microphone. For example, I used a Sure SM58 and a pop filter for my podcasts for years. It is one of the lowest priced professionals mics there is (although I had to raise my top end on the mixer a hair to compensate for its slightly dull treble response).

For softly spoken and natural delivery, my phantom powered condenser is the best choice for me. Although the RE27 dynamic mic is claimed by some users to have the same performance as a condenser.

Some people will also record at night, when it is quieter, but that isn’t always ideal for quick turn-around Voice Over jobs that are received first thing in the morning.

Doing VOs late at night when you are tired isn’t ideal either because your vocal chords won’t be fresh (have you noticed that your voice is a little deeper in the morning?). And you won’t deliver your best performance if you feel tired.

A noise gate may help keep unwanted noise at bay, but they can sometimes introduce a whole set of other problems. They need to be set up correctly so they do just enough to help (less is more).

Recording environment

Apart from having the mic that’s best suited to your voice, the mic you buy will likely depend more on your recording environment than your voice or budget.

If you do have a soundproofed room or booth, that also has acoustic tiles to deaden reverb, then you can probably buy your dream condenser microphone.

Everything else is a compromise – I know it, you know it – and that may be fine if you are just starting out and have the freedom to do multiple retakes and polish up your recording, and mix it with music (to mask room noise etc), before you send it to your client.

When it comes to selecting a microphone, your choice is simple. Use the mic that best suits your environment, and don’t put a Roll Royce engine in a Skoda.

While there is nothing like standing in a perfectly silent sound-proofed studio and just giving the best uncompromized performance you can, plenty of people get by recording in less than perfect rooms.

When I narrated a film I made years ago, I recorded the VO in the closet. The clothes deadened the reverb (not recommended though).

But stick with it, continue to invest in yourself and your studio and put practicality first.

Need to have, rather than nice to have.