How to Choose the Right Microphone

Marc Henshall | 7/12/2012 How to Choose the Right Microphone

Have you ever wondered which microphone is best for you? It's possibly the most commonly asked question by musicians and in many ways - one of the most difficult to answer. The truth is, there isn't a clear cut answer, and the easiest answer is - it depends. Are you singing pop ballads? Or leading the next big rock group?

Although it isn't easy to provide a simple answer to this question, there are a few basic points to consider. The following information should get you started when choosing your microphone:

What Are You Trying to Pick Up?

There is no such thing as the one size fits all microphone, they all sound different, and they all have their uses depending on application. However, vocal microphones can be split into three common categories:

  • Handheld - Handheld microphones offer great sounding durable and practical solutions for the majority of live performance situations. They can, however, be ineffective for other scenarios such as presentations and theatre, where a more discreet and usually wireless solutions would be more practical. In this situation, you could consider one of the following:
  • Headset - As the microphone is stationary, the performer or presenter can move freely, without restriction, and the microphone will still pick up an even and clear sound.
  • Lavalier - A similar option to headsets, with the added advantage of being discreet. A lavalier microphone can easily be positioned in a costume or attached to suits - a great solution for theatre or presentation applications where a discreet PA is necessary.

Where Are You?

The environment you're in plays a big part in the selection of your microphone and the polar pattern you use. For example, an omnidirectional pickup pattern can work great in the studio, but in a live environment, where stage monitors and other sound sources are present, it is important to choose a directional polar pattern. - A cardioid or super-cardioid polar pattern will pick up sound from the front, and reject sound from other directions; reducing the chance of feedback.

Omni Directional - Picks up sound evenly from around the microphone.

Cardioid - A directional pickup pattern, which picks up sound from the front and reduces sound from other directions.

Super Cardioid - Similar to Cardioid, but more directional.

Bi-directional - Receives the sound evenly from both the front and back and rejects from the sides.

Note: Cardioid pickup patterns are affected by a physical occurrence known as the "Proximity Effect", which causes bass frequencies to be boosted as the microphone moves closer to the sound source. This effect can be used to the singer or engineers advantage to fatten up a vocal if desired.

How Do You Want It to Sound?

Another key element to consider that will have the greatest impact on general tone quality is the type of microphone capsule you select.  Microphone capsule styles breakdown into three main categories:

Dynamic - A warm and full sound. Dynamic microphones are highly durable and able to handle very high sound pressure levels, making them ideal for live applications and noisy environments. If you play in a loud rock band, a dynamic microphone is most likely the most suitable for your live gigs.

Condenser - A brighter and more detailed sound. Condenser microphones are much more sensitive than their dynamic counterparts and have a much wider frequency response. For this reason, they can pick up a very honest and true sound, which is favoured by studios around the world. However, for some live applications, they can be problematic in terms of feedback; particularly with noisy performances.

Ribbon - Prized for their ability to pick up high-frequency detail, without being harsh or brittle. Ribbon microphones are great as a vocal or drum overhead solution in the studio, but are rarely used live due to their more delicate construction.

The Rules Were Made to Be Broken

As we have concluded, there are many factors to consider when choosing a microphone, and the reality is, the best microphone for you is the one that sounds best on your voice or instrument. There are no rules, only guidelines, and we encourage you to experiment with as many types as possible. There are plenty of examples in pop history of unconventional uses for microphones. For example: John Lennon recorded all his vocals with a Shure SM57 (A microphone usually regarded as an instrument mic). Also, check out this article on how the Shure SM7 was used as the main studio vocal mic on Michael Jacksons classic album Thriller.

Have fun and experiment next time you're choosing your mic, and if you have a story to share with us on unconventional microphone use - please leave a comment below.  In the meantime, we will leave you with some resources below to assist you in finding the right mic.

For more information on Shure Microphones - visit the Shure Microphones Section

Marc Henshall

Marc Henshall

Marc forms part of our Pro Audio team at Shure UK and specialises in Digital Marketing. He also holds a BSc First Class Hons Degree in Music Technology. When not at work he enjoys playing the guitar, producing music, and dabbling in DIY (preferably with a good craft beer or two).