When getting into music and/or recording, one of the first questions we find ourselves asking is “what are the best vocal microphones?” This seemingly simple question is actually quite complex and there are plenty of answers. In this article, we’ll go through the top 11 best microphones for vocals, focusing particularly on the recording of vocals.
My New Microphone’s top 11 best microphones for recording vocals are:
- AKG C 12
- Telefunken Ela M 251 E
- Neumann U 67
- Neumann U 47
- Sony C-800G
- Manley Reference Gold
- Neumann U 87
- Neumann TLM 103
- AKG C 414
- Coles 4038
- Shure SM7B
In this article, I tried to only list microphones that are available on the market today. Many of the best vocal microphones to ever be produced are legendary vintage mics unavailable on the market today. The vintage mics on this list, fortunately, have newer editions or clones that offer similar specs and performance, so I’ve added those.
Also note that, although these microphones are high-ticket items and I wouldn’t expect anyone to buy any of these mics impulsively, I have added affiliate links where appropriate. If you do happen to buy through any links on this page, I would receive a commission at no extra cost to you!
I’ve also tried to include some microphones that are easier on the budget in this list but to no avail. The best microphones for recording vocals simply come at an expensive price (as they should be). With that being said, there is at least one microphone on this list that should cost less than $1000 brand new.
To read about my top budget microphones for recording vocals, please consider reading the following My New Microphone articles:
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $1000 For Recording Vocals
• Top 10 Best Microphones Under $500 for Recording Vocals
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocals
And with that introduction, let’s quickly go over the criteria of great vocal recording microphones.
What Makes A Microphone Excel At Recording Vocals?
Allow me to preface this by stating that the best microphone for recording one vocalist or vocal style will likely not be the best for another vocalist or vocal style. It’s important to use our ears when trying different mics, listening to the character of the mic in use and hearing how it suits the particular vocalist.
With that being said, when recording vocals, there are a few key specifications we should be looking at to determine (on paper) if a microphone is a good choice for vocals. They are:
- Frequency response
- Transient response
These factors along with a subjective judgment for the microphone character are the best way to determine the best from the worst.
Certain frequency responses, in general, benefit vocals over others. More specifically, certain vocalists, genres and ranges benefit from more specific frequency responses. This is highly subjective and somewhat confusing, so let’s go over some frequency response characteristics that could be favourable to vocals.
- Flat frequency response: A flat frequency response is best for capturing vocals in the most accurate way possible. This is great for capturing clean vocals with large ranges in pop and classical recordings.
- Gentle high-end roll-off: A darker coloured mic can actually benefit many aspects of vocal recording including the reduction of sibilance and overall harshness (especially with digital recording). Darker mics will also help to balance brighter vocals in a mix.
- Presence boost: a slight boost in the presence range (3 – 6 kHz) accentuates much of speech intelligibility, helping vocals pop out in a dense mix like in rock, EDM, pop and classical.
- Sibilance dip: a slight dip in the sibilance range (5 – 8 kHz), which overlaps the upper end of the presence range, will help to further reduce the harshness in the vocal signal. This is helpful for particularly sibilant voices.
- Low-end roll-off or a high-pass filter: removing the low-end of the vocals effectively removes low-end rumble for the vocal signal while also helping to minimize the proximity effect.
For everything you need to know about microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
The transient response of a microphone refers to the mic’s accuracy in capturing the sharp sound pressure level variations in sound. Though the transient response is not shown as a quantitative specification on mic datasheets, it is worth considering when choosing a mic.
In cleaner vocals, a faster (more accurate) transient response is often preferred. As for musical genres, this could be pop, classical and jazz (sometimes), though accuracy is typically a good thing in any genre.
With dirtier vocals, a slower (more compressed-sounding) transient response may be advantageous. These genres include rock, metal and jazz (sometimes).
For more information on microphone transient response, check out my article What Is Microphone Transient Response & Why Is It Important?
The optimal microphone sensitivity, like many of the specifications listed above, depends on the vocalist and genre.
Higher sensitivities are typically best but only if the environment (recording booth, room, etc.) is properly treated. A high mic sensitivity means the mic’s output will be strong and represent the vocals nicely.
Condenser microphones generally have high sensitivity ratings.
Lower sensitivities, by contrast, are best for louder vocalists (particularly in hard rock and metal genres) and for less-than-ideal recording environments.
To learn more about microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.
Best Microphone Types For Recording Vocals
When we see studio vocal microphones, they are typically either:
- Tube condenser microphones
- FET (solid-state) condenser microphones
- Dynamic microphones
Let’s have a look at each of these types in more detail:
Tube Condenser Microphones & Recording Vocals
Many of the highest quality and most-cherished studio vocal microphones are tube mics. Whether modern or vintage, the character of these mics is, in general, well-suited to vocals.
Tube mics often have a warm (and ever-so-slightly compressed) character with a slight high-end roll-off. Many of them sound amazing in the presence and sibilance ranges.
The “darker” character of vacuum tubes actually benefits tube mics greatly with the relatively sterile digital recording. This is also the case with bright vocals.
As always, we’d suggest listening to these microphones on the vocal before choosing to record with them. Of course, this is difficult if you don’t own or otherwise have access to these mics.
To learn more about tube microphones, check out my article What Is A Tube Microphone And How Do Tube Mics Work?
FET Condenser Microphones & Recording Vocals
FET (solid-state) condenser microphones are very common for recording vocals in the studio.
These mics are among the most accurate mics on the market. If you’re looking for a clean vocal capture, a solid-state condenser might just be for you!
The downside of being so accurate is that FET condensers can sometimes output overly harsh/bright signals which could negatively represent the vocal.
Note that FET condensers are, on average, less expensive than their tube mic counterparts.
For more information on FET condenser microphones, check out my articles What Is A Solid-State Microphone? (With Mic Examples) and What Are FETs & What Is Their Role In Microphone Design?
Dynamic Microphones & Recording Vocals
Dynamic microphones (both moving-coil and ribbon varieties) are less technically responsive than condensers but still sound great on certain types of vocals.
The coloured frequency responses of dynamic mics benefit certain harder vocal types and harder musical genres.
Moving-coil dynamics often offer presence boosts that help to accentuate vocal intelligibility. This makes up for their typical high and low-end roll-offs (which may also benefit noise reduction in the vocal signal.
Ribbon microphones are not typically used in studios to record vocals but do offer natural-sound high-end roll-offs and a great splash of sonic colour to vocals.
For more information on dynamic microphones (both moving-coil and ribbon), check out the following My New Microphone articles, respectively: Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide and Dynamic Ribbon Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.
The Top 11 Best Microphones For Recording Vocals
The following is a list of My New Microphone’s best 11 microphones for recording vocals:
- AKG C 12
- Telefunken Ela M 251 E
- Neumann U 67
- Neumann U 47
- Sony C-800G
- Manley Reference Gold
- Neumann U 87
- Neumann TLM 103
- AKG C 414
- Coles 4038
- Shure SM7B
In creating this list, I tried to add some variation in microphone choice. As you’ll see though, condenser microphones make up the majority of the list and are much preferred in most cases.
1. AKG C 12
The AKG C 12 is one of the world’s most famous and cherished vintage microphones. It is considered by many to be the finest sounding microphone ever produced.
Like many great studio vocal mics, it is a large-diaphragm multi-pattern tube condenser microphone.
Its introduction in 1953 changed the course of microphone technology forever. Its famous capsule, the CK 12, is often imitated but rarely recreated in terms of quality.
This microphone was the first to be able to produce 9 different distinct polar patterns. It did so without drastically altering the frequency response or output sensitivity of the mic. Depending on the vocal and recording environment, one polar pattern may suit the vocals more than another.
The most obvious characteristic of the C 12 is the rising high end. Contrary to what we see on paper (the frequency response graph), this high-end boost does not make the mic sound harsh or tinny as it does in many other capsules with lower-quality builds.
The C 12 offers a great mid-frequency body (though perhaps less than the 251 or U 47) to go with its bright tube character and sounds excellent on male and female vocals alike. This microphone is a go-to especially for darker male vocals since it adds brightness while still maintaining a beautiful tube character.
Though the original production run of the AKG C 12 has been wrapped up for a long time (since 1963), there are still C 12s available in the vintage market (if you’re willing to forego a down-payment on a house).
Luckily in today’s market, Telefunken offers its own C12 microphone. This mic is a historic reissue that is very close to the original with slight improvements in overall build quality.
Telefunken’s C12 does an excellent job at matching the smooth, airy frequency response of the original.
If you’re looking for a C12 without having to spend a great amount of time, effort and money searching the vintage markets, the Telefunken C12 is available brand new (and likely for a lower price).
In 1994, AKG has recently (relatively speaking) released the C 12 VR: a microphone similar to the original C 12 but will slightly different specifications. Its sound varies from the sound of the original C 12.
Many audiophiles and vintage microphone lovers would argue that the AKG C 12 VR doesn’t hold a flame to the original C 12. I would agree. The C 12 certainly deserves a top spot on the list, while the C 12 VR would likely be further down on the list (if at all). However, the C 12 VR is still an amazing vocal microphone and is available at a [relatively] inexpensive price!
The AKG C 12 is also featured on My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
2. Telefunken Ela M 251
The Telefunken Ela M 251 could have easily been number 1 on this list. However, because this mic is based on the number one spotted AKG C 12, I’ve put it in second.
The brief history of the Ela M 251 is as follows: Telefunken did not originally manufacture microphones but rather served as a distributor. Telefunken distributed many of Neumann’s mics but in the late 1950s, Neumann had decided to take on its own distribution. Telefunken, now without an industry-leading large-diaphragm condenser, contracted AKG to build a mic based on its C 12 model. The result was the Ela M 251, released in 1959.
This multi-pattern large-diaphragm tube condenser microphone was very similar to the C 12 it was based on but with slight optimizations in the overall design (including a shorter distance between the CK 12 capsule and the 6072 vacuum tube).
The 251 maintained most of the bright character of the C 12 with a slight but remarkable increase in the body. The accurate yet rich sound of the 251 has made it a legendary vintage microphone highly sought after by audiophiles and investors alike and still used in studios around the world today.
Though the original Ela M 251 has long been discontinued, there have been many other 251s created by Telefunken throughout the years. There are modernized styles of this microphone in production today. One such microphone is the Telefunken Ela M 251 E, which is a very close, and arguably improved, version of the original design.
This microphone still maintains the high-end boost though some would argue that the modern 251 E sounds noticeably brighter than the original. With that being said, the character of the Ela M 251 E is clean and clear with a slight character that improves nearly any vocal type.
At a steep price point, the Telefunken Ela M 251 E is generally only found in professional studios that profit enough to afford it. That being said, the price point could certainly be worth it, considering the Ela M 251 is one of, if not the best, microphones for recording vocals on the planet.
The Telefunken Ela M 251 family of microphones is also featured on My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
3. Neumann U 67
The Neumann U 67 is another vintage microphone that is an incredible choice for recording vocals. There is just something about vintage tube microphones that really makes vocals shine in the overly sterile and clean age of digital recording.
The U 67 was introduced to the market by Neumann in 1960 as a replacement for its incredibly successful U 47.
At the heart of the U 67 is Neumann’s K67 capsule. Like the aforementioned CK 12, the K67 is a dual-diaphragm condenser capsule that is cherished for its solid character and beautiful tone. It is perhaps the second most popular capsule (after the CK 12) and is often the basis of large-diaphragm capsule design today.
The U 67 excels on vocals of all types, providing beautiful mids; the perfect amount of bass and tone, and a slight bit of brightness. A vocal recorded with the U 67 sounds as if it’s been mixed right out of the microphone!
The original Neumann U 67 has long been discontinued on the manufacturing line (since 1971). High demand for this beautiful microphone triggered Neumann to produce a reissue of this microphone in 2018, known as the Neumann U 67 SET, to the praise of many (and perhaps the dismay of vintage microphone traders).
The U 67 SET has the same capsule and electronic design as the original with an improved power supply unit to meet today’s standards.
It’s tough to beat the Neumann U 67 (or the new U 67 SET) when it comes to an all-around studio vocal microphone.
The Neumann U 67 is also featured on My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
4. Neumann U 47
Going further back into Neumann’s history, this list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the legendary U 47 (first recorded commercial sale in 1949).
This microphone is an all-time great in terms of studio vocal microphones. It has so much character and truly brings vocals to life in studio recordings.
The sound of the U 47 can be described as lush, full, thick and smooth. Its K47 capsule, VF14 tube and BV-08 transformer are responsible for the rich character of sound this microphone produces which suits vocals impeccably well.
Telefunken does a great job of profiting from the recreation of famous and highly sought after vintage microphones. Their modernized version of the U 47 is another great example of this trend.
Telefunken’s U 47 sounds beautiful and closely approximates the old-school character of Neumann’s 1949 U 47.
For a cheaper alternative, Warm Audio offers its version of the U 47. Warm Audio is known for its inexpensive recreations of venerable vintage mics
The inexpensive Warm Audio WA-47 clone of the Neumann U 47 is featured in my article Top 11 Best Microphones Uner $1,000 For Recording Vocals.
As you may have expected, the Neumann U 47 is also featured on My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
5. Sony C-800G
Sony’s C-800G is a go-to in the world of R&B and hip-hop. This tube microphone gives great weight and depth to soft and hard vocals alike. Its transient response is nearly perfect on the most percussive rap vocals and the most drawn-out soulful passages, alike.
The Sony C-800G dual-diaphragm capsule is based on the renowned Neumann K67, allowing for omnidirectional, bidirectional and cardioid polar patterns.
Sony’s C-800G uses a 6AU6 tube in the body with a large external heatsink to keep the tube at the optimal temperature. This intriguing design feature allows for ideal functionality in nearly all studio circumstances.
The C-800G offers plenty of character and aids in thickening any vocal type. Its relatively dark character is cherished in the modern times of digital recording.
The Sony C-800G is also featured in My New Microphone’s 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
6. Manley Reference Gold
The Manley Reference Gold is a lesser-known microphone but is a top pick for many audio engineers (and top X lists).
This large-diaphragm condenser is beautifully accurate and is an ideal choice for capturing most vocal types. Its capsule is based on the CK 12 design and it utilizes low-noise 12AT7.
With the Manley Reference Gold, we get all the character of a tube mic with very little added noise. This microphone is beautifully transparent with a neutral mid-range; extended top-end; and tube-style warmth and character. What more could you ask for in a studio vocal microphone?
7. Neumann U 87
Since its inception in 1967, the Neumann U 87 has been an industry-standard vocal microphone.
The U 87 marks the first solid-state microphone on this list. With the relatively new advances in solid-state audio technology, Neumann developed and released the U 87 as it FET version of the U 67. It retained the K67-style capsule (reworked as the K87) but replaced the tube amplifier circuit with a transformer-based design.
This microphone offers cardioid, omnidirectional and figure-8 polar patterns. Though cardioid is typically preferred for recording vocals, there are certainly instances when omni or figure-8 patterns have their advantages.
The original U 87 sounds wonderfully accurate, offering lots of midrange body as well as high-end shimmer. Its high-end boost is followed by a fairly sharp roll-off, making this solid-state microphone shine on vocals without sounding overly harsh.
The transistor-based impedance converter of the U 87 made its transient response slightly faster than the U 67 while reducing saturation of the signal (compared to the 67’s EF86 tube). In general, FET microphones have improved accuracy at the expense of character, when compared against their tube condenser counterparts.
Today, the U 87 is still a major player in the recording industry and its successor, the Neumann U 87 AI is a top-seller. In fact, the U 87 (and U 87 AI) are often considered beacons of a professional studio to high-paying clients.
The newer U 87 AI is sometimes criticized as being too bright and, therefore, harsh on the ears. This is particularly the case when recording digital audio, which is cold and sterile by nature. That being said, the U 87 AI remains a top-performer in terms of studio condenser microphones and sound amazing on the vast majority of vocal types.
The Neumann U 87 is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
8. Neumann TLM 103
With the Neumann TLM 103, we’ve arrived at number 8 on the list and have entered the less-expensive (sub-$2000) part of the list. The TLM 103 was introduced to the market in 1997 as an affordable alternative to the venerable U 87.
The TLM 103 (“transformer-less 103”) is a transformerless large-diaphragm condenser microphone and a top-seller for Neumann GmbH. At its relatively low price point, the 103 is an excellent high-end studio vocal microphone that many project studio owners can afford.
This microphone utilized a capsule based on K67/K87 of the U 67 and U 87, respectively.
If you’re looking for clean, clear, and wildly accurate vocal recordings at a relatively low price point, look no further than the TLM 103. It has incredibly low self-noise and its output circuitry minimizes transmission losses, ensuring an uncolored sound that stays true to the original vocal performance.
Note than Neumann also offers the TLM 103 D (link to check the price at B&H Photo/Video) as a digital version of the TLM 103. This microphone effectively integrates an analog-to-digital converter and digital signal processors into the mic design.
The Neumann TLM 103 is also featured in My New Microphone’s 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
9. AKG C 414
The AKG C 414 is actually a full line of large-diaphragm solid-state condenser microphones that have been in development since 1971. The entire C 414 family is based on the CK 12 capsule.
The original C 414 EB is used regularly by professionals if they’re lucky enough to own a pair (or even a single). The C 414 EB and many subsequent models including the C 414 TLII) are cherished for their smooth and relatively bright response that allows their recorded vocal tracks to sit nicely above a mix straight away.
In production today, we have the AKG C 414 XLS and XLII. Both these microphones excel on vocals and many other sound sources. They each offer 9 selectable polar patterns and are incredibly accurate with low self-noise.
On brighter vocals, I’d recommend using the slightly darker C 414 XLS. Conversely, on darker vocals, I’d suggest the C 414 XLII. That being said, both models pick up vocals amazingly well in the studio.
The AKG C 414 family of microphones is also featured on My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
10. Coles 4038
The Coles 4038 makes this list mostly due to its natural but charming character and incredible response to vocals. However, it’s partly here to represent ribbon microphones as vocal microphones.
The Coles 4038, affectionately nicknamed the “waffle iron,” has an incredibly thin ribbon diaphragm which is a major factor in its accurate transient response. The thinness of the diaphragm also means that we must be careful not to blow out the ribbon, especially when using it on vocals.
With that disclaimer out of the way, the Coles 4038 is an extraordinary choice on vocals. So long as we distance the mic far enough from the vocalist and protect it with a pop filter, we can expect spectacular results.
The accurate capture and gentle high-end roll-off make give the 4038 a dark but wildly natural character. On brighter voices, this is often considered a jackpot, making the Coles 4038 a go-to on female vocals.
The Coles 4038 is also featured on My New Microphone’s Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones) and 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
11. Shure SM7B
The Shure SM7B is the cheapest microphone on this list and represents the moving-coil dynamic microphones. I’d like to present the SM7B as “an added extra spot after a top 10” rather than “the last spot on a top 11.”
The reason is that this microphone is particularly effective at capturing scream vocals (for hard rock, metal, etc.) and sometimes for the more percussive hip-hop vocals. However, for all other vocal types and performances, this microphone is lacklustre.
It has very low sensitivity; a limited frequency response, and slow transient response. Again, great for heavy stuff but lacking in the major factors that make a great all-around vocal microphone.
The Shure SM7B is also featured in my article Top 12 Best Microphones Under $1000 For Recording Vocals.
The Shure SM7B is also featured on My New Microphone’s 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
Extra Notes On Recording Vocals
As an additional resource for you, I’ve added a checklist of factors that will help you make the most of these microphones when recording vocals:
- Soundproof the recording space: it’s typically best to only have direct sound (no reflections) enter the microphone. It’s also critical to eliminate exterior noise from the booth in order to capture the cleanest vocals possible.
- Use a pop filter: this helps tremendously in reducing plosives in the mic signal.
- Distance the microphone from the vocalist: this helps to reduce the proximity effect in directional mics. It also reduces plosives and sibilance in the mic signal and allows for a more consistent pickup in terms of dynamics (inverse-square law).
- Tilt the microphone slightly off-axis: this helps to reduce plosives and sibilance while also slightly darkening the very top-end of the mic.
- Use a proper shock mount and high-quality mic stand: this will keep the microphone securely in one spot and also reduce mechanical and handling noise in the mic signal.
- Keep latency to a minimum if recording digitally: any latency delay in the headphone send will have an effect on the vocalist’s performance.
To learn more about the above tips, please consider reading the following My New Microphone articles:
- What Is A Microphone Pop Filter And When Should You Use One?
- Best Microphone Pop Filters
- Top 10 Tips For Eliminating Microphone Pops And Plosives
- Top 7 Tips To Reduce Sibilance In Microphones & Audio Mixes
- Top 23 Tips For Better Microphone Placement
- What Is A Microphone Shock Mount And Why Is It Important?
- Best Microphone Shock Mounts
- How To Attach A Microphone To A Microphone Stand
- Best Microphone Stands
- How To Fix Microphone Echo And Latency In Your Computer (7 Methods)