Beginners in the audio industry may ask what the best microphone is while experts may argue to no end about which microphone rules them all. The truth is, there really is no “best microphone,” though there may be a best microphone for a certain applications and there are most definitely industry standards for certain applications.
What is the best microphone? The best microphone is subjective and application specific. Choosing the best microphones depends on the sound source, acoustic environment, mic placement/technique, other environmental factors, and desired results.
In this article, we’ll discuss strategies for assessing the acoustic environment and choosing the best microphones for that particular environment. We’ll also look at “industry standard” mics, which will give us an idea of the best microphones for certain applications.
A Hierarchy Of Importance When It Comes to Miking A Sound Source
When it comes to miking any sound source, there are many factors that will determine the quality of the sound and audio signal. These factors are much more than the sound source and the microphone alone. They include:
- Sound source: the musician and their instrument; the singer; the speaker; the foley artist and their props; etc. This is by far the most important part of the equation when it comes to great sounding audio. If the sound source is awful, then even the best microphone and signal chain will capture an awful sound.
- Acoustic environment: the space in which the sound is produced. This also takes into account the mic positioning relative to the sound source and the acoustic space. Reflections and reverberation can add space to signal but they can also really ruin the capture of an otherwise great sound source.
- Microphone: which microphone is used on the sound source. The microphone is the key component in actually converting sound into audio. Without a suitable microphone, a sound source will not be captured in the best way possible. This is the main point of this article.
- Cable, preamp, and other inline devices: the audio is changed, even if only slightly, by the devices inline after the microphone. The physical of analog (and to a lesser extent, digital) signal transfer plays a role in the degrading of a mic signal. The inline device may also alter the mic signal. Preamps provide gain and will obviously change the amplitude of the signal but may also introduce noise and saturation.
- Electromagnetic interference: this is interference that may enter the mic signal through the mic, mic cable, or preamp circuits. EMI has the potential to ruin an otherwise great audio capture.
So that’s the hierarchy of importance when it comes to capturing sound with a microphone.
It is important to note before we get into detail in this article that the microphone is typically not the most important piece of the puzzle. That being said, it is the critical part of the puzzle for actually converting sound waves into electrical mic signals.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s dive into the best microphones and the thought processes involved in selecting the best microphone for you application!
Understanding The Sound Source
First and foremost, we must understand the sound source if we are to choose the best microphone to capture the sound as audio.
Frequencies Of The Sound Source
The audio frequency range of human hearing is between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz (Hz = Hertz = cycles/second). Any particular sound source produces its own frequency picture.
With tuned instruments, this is made of a fundamental frequency (the lowest frequency), which represents the musical note of the sound source. Above that fundamental, there are frequencies at integer multiples of the fundamental which are referred to as harmonics. The relative levels of these harmonics are responsible for the timbre of the sound.
With non-tuned sound sources (percussion instruments, noise, etc.), the frequency picture is a bit less predictable.
Either way, every sound source is made up of various frequencies (except the single frequency sine wave). The frequencies that make up a sound source have different strengths, which give the sound source its characteristic sound.
With that in mind, different sound sources have different “key frequencies” so to speak. Let’s go through a few examples of commonly miked sound sources:
The Sound Of The Human Voice
There are high voices and low voices. The lower ranges of the human voice can drop below 100 Hz fundamental frequencies.
The harmonics of the human can go up to about 16 kHz, but the strength of these harmonics typically drops off around 8 – 10 kHz.
Speech intelligibility, which includes sibilance and important consonant and vowel articulations, resides around 4-5 kHz (or more broadly between 3-7 kHz).
The human voice is also somewhat directional, and is emitted out of the mouth and resonated from the vocal tract and chest.
Choosing a microphone with a presence boost in the 3-7 kHz range will accentuate vocals. A low-end cut below 100 Hz will likely not affect the sound of the human voice.
The Sound Of The Bass Guitar
The frequency range of the typical 4-string bass guitar or upright bass guitar:
- Overall Range: 41 Hz ~ 5,200 Hz (weak harmonics may be heard above 5,200 Hz)
- Fundamentals range: 41 Hz – 247 Hz (E1-B3) for standard 4-string double bass
- Harmonics range: 82 Hz ~ 5,200 Hz
The acoustic bass guitar’s sound emanates from its strings and sound board outward but is also quite omnidirectional due to its low-end frequency content. The same is true of an amplifier/cabinet and electric bass guitar.
Choosing a microphone with a good low-end frequency response is essential to capturing the true sound of the bass guitar. When close-miking a bass guitar or bass guitar cabinet, using a cardioid microphone will benefit in signal-to-noise ratio.
The Sound Of The Guitar
The frequency range of the typical 6-string acoustic/electric guitar:
- Overall Range: 82 Hz ~ 7,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 82 Hz – 1175 Hz (6 string, 22 frets, standard tuning)
- Harmonics range: 162 Hz ~ 7,000 Hz (upper harmonics are much weaker, though still present above 7 kHz)
Guitars produce sound outward from their strings and soundboards. Sound from electric guitar amps/cabinets emanates outward from the speaker.
Choosing a microphone with a solid mid-range response is important for capturing the true character of the guitar. When close-miking guitars and guitar amps, using cardioid mics is a good choice to have good signal-to-noise ratios.
The Sound Of The Piano
The frequency range of the typical grand piano:
- Overall Range: A27.5 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 27.5 Hz – 4,186 Hz (A0-C8)
- Harmonics range: 55 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz
Therefore, choosing a microphone with a wide and flat frequency response works well. Also, because pianos create sound from such a wide area and in an omnidirectional fashion, having multiple microphones with wide (even omnidirectional) polar responses is also a good choice.
The Sound Of The Kick Drum
Depending on the kick drum, the low thud will have different low-end frequencies. That being said, the typical kick drum will have a low “thud” in low-end frequencies (20 Hz – 100 Hz) and a higher “beater attack” that is apparent in the 2 kHz – 6 kHz range (in general).
The percussive nature of a kick drum gives it a strong transient spike in sound pressure. Its low-end frequencies, and most frequencies, are emitted in an omnidirectional fashion from the kick drum.
Kick drums are also very loud, so a dynamic microphone with very high max SPL is often preferred. A ribbon microphone is likely a bad choice, at least on-axis, due to the large bursts of air.
Therefore, a microphone with a coloured frequency response that accentuates the beater attack and low-end thud will work well with a kick drum. Depending on the character of the drum and our desired audio results, we may want a mic with faster or slower transient attack.
The Sound Of The Drum Kit
The term “drum kit” represents a truly diverse combination of percussion instruments. Depending on how we decide to mic the kit, certain microphones perform better.
In order to capture the entire drum kit with fewer microphones, we may set them up as overheads and/or room mics. These microphones should have flat frequency responses and accurate transient responses as well as directional or omnidirectional polar patterns, depending on the positioning of the mic(s) and drum kit.
The Sound Of The Trumpet
The frequency range of the typical B♭ trumpet:
- Overall Range: 164 Hz ~ 10,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 164 Hz – 932 Hz (E3-B♭5)
- Harmonics range: 328 Hz ~ 10,000 Hz
- Important Note: The fundamental frequency doesn’t actually sound on a trumpet.
- Formant 1: 1,200 Hz – 1,400 Hz
- Formant 2: 2,500 Hz
Trumpets have a wide dynamic range and contains formants, which are basically tiny boosts in the frequencies emitted by the horns.
Microphones are generally miked closely to their bells and benefit from a directional microphone with a high max SPL and a boost in the aforementioned formant frequencies.
The Sound Of The Saxophone
There are many types of saxophones that range from bass to soprano. Let’s show the range from the lowest note of the bass sax to the highest note of the soprano sax:
- Overall Range: 52 Hz ~ 12,000 Hz
- Fundamentals range: 52 Hz – 1,480 Hz (A♭1-F#6)
- Harmonics range: 104 Hz ~ 12,000 Hz
Saxophones emit sound from their bells, through open sound holes, and from their reeds. The instruments are fairly directional, becoming more omnidirectional at lower frequencies. These instruments also have wide dynamic ranges, produce both quiet sounds and loud sounds.
Having a microphone with a wide dynamic range and even a presence boost will help capture the sound of saxophones and accentuate their characteristic sounds.
Strength/Loudness Of The Sound Source
Some sound sources are louder than others.
When dealing with a loud sound source, it may be necessary to choose a microphone with a high maximum sound pressure level and/or to move the microphone further away from the sound source.
Transients Of The Sound Source
Sound sources have transient information, which is basically the beginning spike of the sound wave. Transients are strong but short-lived.
A snare drum, for example, has a strong and fast transient while a kick drum has a strong but somewhat slower transient. A slapped bass string has a hard transient while finger-style bass has a soft transient. Vocal plosives have strong transients while consonants have somewhat weaker transients and vowels have very weak transients.
While understanding the transient nature of a sound is important, choosing the microphone to capture a transient sound source is more subjective.
In general, moving-coil dynamic microphones have a slower transient response; condenser microphones have a more accurate transient response; and ribbon mics have a fast transient response.
Direction Of The Sound Source
It’s also worth knowing the directional characteristics of a sound source.
Some instruments, like the human voice, trumpet, and and saxophone are quite directional. Other instruments, like the piano or drum kit, are more omnidirectional.
In general, lower frequencies are more omnidirectional while higher frequencies are more directional.
Understanding The Acoustic Environment
Another crucial element when it comes to choosing the best microphone for a job is the acoustic environment. Acoustic environment is also a huge factor in determining the best position for a microphone.
The acoustic environment refers to the space in which the microphone is capturing the sound source. Common acoustic environments include the following:
- Soundproof rooms.
- Non-soundproof rooms.
- Live performance stages and venues.
- Open ambience.
The study of acoustics is incredibly complex to understand, let’s talk briefly about microphones and acoustic environmental factors.
Reflections And Reverberation
Reflections and reverberation refer to sound waves bouncing/reflecting off surfaces within an acoustic space. A reflections refers to the first time a sound wave hits and bounces off a surface while reverberation refers to the superposition of many reflections.
Omnidirectional mics are more sensitive to picking up reflections and reverb. This makes them great room microphones in some cases but can lead to washy audio captures in other situations.
To avoid capturing too many reflections and reverberation, close-miking techniques with directional (often cardioid) mics is a good choice.
Soundproof rooms have, ideally, no reflections or reverberation.
Non-soundproof rooms and live stage/venues will generally have noticeable reflections. The bigger rooms will typically have reverberation.
Different ambiences have varying amounts of reflections and reverberation.
Free And Diffuse Sound Fields
Free-field and diffuse-field are two opposite ends of the spectrum and mic placement within an acoustic environment is typically subjected to both. Free-field refers to a position/environment where only direct sound waves are present. Diffuse-field, conversely, refers to a position/environment where only the reflections and reverb are present.
Close-miking with directional microphones in soundproof environments generally leads to a cleaner more direct free-field capture of the audio.
Distant-miked omnidirectional microphones in lively environments generally lead to more diffuse-field signals.
Depending on the amount of extraneous noise (all sounds that are not from the intended sound source), we may want to choose a different mic.
For example, if we’re conducting an interview in a noisy environment, perhaps a lavalier microphone clipped to the collar or the host and guest would work better than a table top microphone.
Electromagnetic interference is the noise that is introduced to the mic signal from sources such as AC mains, power cables, computer monitors, radio stations, etc.
Some microphones are more susceptible to EMI than others. If EMI is particularly bad, a microphone with a humbucking coil may be preferred.
As alluded to above, the placement of the microphone and sound source is also a big factor in the “acoustic experience” of the microphone. With our brief discussion on acoustic environment as a primer, let’s now talk about miking placement/techniques.
Microphones And Miking Technique
The microphone positioning and technique involved thereof is a critical factor when choosing a microphone.
Close And Spot-Miking
When close-miking (also known as spot-miking) a sound source, the idea is most often to capture as much of the intended source as possible with as little extraneous noise as possible.
Therefore, directional microphones are often chosen when close-miking sources. They provide a narrow angle of acceptance which allows them to capture the intended source while minimizing the pick up of extraneous noise.
However, it’s important to be aware of the proximity effect when close-miking sources with a directional microphone. The bass boost that comes with the proximity effect may muddy the sound of the mic.
For this reason, omnidirectional microphone (which do not exhibit proximity effect) are sometimes used in soundproof environments when close-miking sound sources.
For a more in-depth read into microphone proximity effect, please consider reading my article In-Depth Guide To Microphone Proximity Effect.
When miking a source at a distance, we are able to capture the sound in a more natural way.
To improve the “natural sound” when distance miking, omnidirectional microphones are often used. Omni mics sound the most natural since they do not colour or attenuate off-axis sounds.
That being said, when miking at a closer distance ( we’ll take drum overhead mics as an example), directional microphones help to concentrate the sound capture on the intended sound source. This effectively reduces the amount of extraneous noise in the mic signal.
Depending on the stereo technique you’ll be using, different microphone types are required. Let’s take a look at some examples:
- XY stereo miking requires two cardioid microphones (ideal pencil mics).
- Blumlein pair stereo miking requires two bidirectional microphones.
- Mid-side stereo miking requires a cardioid and a bidirectional microphone.
- Spaced pair stereo miking often benefits from two omnidirectional microphones.
For more information on the best stereo miking techniques (and the best mics for these techniques), check out my article Top 8 Best Stereo Miking Techniques (With Recommended Mics).
Ultimately, choosing the best microphone for particular application is subjective and comes down to your desired results.
The best example I can think of to explain “desired result” is the kick drum.
Depending on the genre of music, the kick drum will be built and tuned differently. On top of that, we usually want to capture the sound of kick drum differently. For example:
- Metal: in harder metal genres with lots of double kick action, we often want to accentuate the high-end beater attack. A microphone with a fast transient response and high-end clarity is a great choice.
- Jazz: in Jazz, we often want a softer, more natural sounding kick drum. Condenser microphones typically aren’t used on kick drums, but in Jazz, they are quite popular.
- Dance: in dance genres, it’s often critical to capture the low-end thud of the kick drum. A large diaphragm dynamic microphone may be the best bet for accentuating this heaviness.
Microphone Types And Generalities
There are 2 main types of microphone transducers: dynamics and condensers.
Dynamic microphones can be separated by the following types:
- Moving-coil dynamics: these mics work with a diaphragm and conductive coil that move within a magnetic field. Generally, these mics have slower transient responses; coloured frequency responses; and are very durable.
- Ribbon dynamics: these mics work with a conductive diaphragm that moves within a magnetic field. Generally, these mics have a natural and gentle high-end roll-off; very accurate transient response; and fragile diaphragms.
Condenser microphones can be separated by the following types:
- Large-diaphragm condensers: a LDC is typically defined as having a diaphragm diameter of 1 inch or more. These mics have low self-noise; fairly natural transient and frequency responses; and fairly consistent polar patterns.
- Small-diaphragm condensers: a SDC is typically defined as having a diaphragm diameter of 1/2 an inch or less. These mics have slightly higher self-noise values than LDCs. They benefit from extended frequency responses; fast transient responses; and very consistent polar patterns.
Note that lavalier or miniature mics can be moving-coil dynamic or electret condenser mics. Similarly, PZM or boundary microphones can be either dynamic or condenser.
Note also that tube microphones are typically condensers, but there are ribbon tube mics on the market.
I’ve put together the following table of microphone type generalities that will help you to choose the best microphone for your application:
|Typical Frequency Response||Typical Transient Response||Typical Polar Pattern||Typical Sensitivity|
|Moving-coil dynamic||Coloured||Slow||Fairly consistent||Low|
|Ribbon dynamic||Natural high-end roll-off||Natural||Consistent bidirectional by nature||Very Low|
|Small-diaphragm condenser||Extended and flat||Very fast||Very consistent||High|
|Large-diaphragm condenser||Flat||Fast||Fairly consistent||High|
|Shotgun (typically small-diaphragm condenser)||Flat or coloured||Fast||Highly directional||High|
|Lavalier (typically miniature electret condenser)||Coloured and alterable with cap||Mid||Fairly consistent||High or low|
|Boundary||Coloured||Fast or slow||Hemispherical||High or low|
|USB (typically electret condenser)||Flat or coloured||Fast or slow||Fairly consistent||N/A (digital output)|
Remember that these are simply generalities and that not each microphone of the above-listed types exhibits all the above-listed characteristics. That being said, if you require a microphone to behave a certain way, the table above should point you in the right direction.
For more information on the various microphone types, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Microphone Types: The 2 Primary Transducer Types + 5 Subtypes
• The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns (for all polar pattern types)
Choosing The Best Microphone Type For Your Application
So far we’ve discussed the important of understanding the sound source; the acoustic environment and interferences; and the generalities of the microphone types. Now we can make a better claim as to the best microphone for our application.
When choosing the best microphone for your specific application, try asking yourself the following questions:
- What does the sound source sound like and how loud is the sound source?
- How many other sounds are happening simultaneously?
- What miking technique(s) are being used?
- How reflective is the environment?
- What is my desired result?
- Should the microphone’s frequency response attenuate or accentuate any frequencies?
- How fast or slow should the mic’s transient response be?
- What polar pattern would best serve the source, mic positioning, and acoustic environment?
- How sensitive should the microphone be?
With these questions, you should be able to narrow down which microphone would best serve your particular application!
Top 5 “Industry Standard” Microphones
In this section, we’ll try to answer “what is the best microphone” in terms of popularity and standardization across the many facets of the audio industry.
I’ve added amazon links to check the prices of each of the microphones listed.
Top 5 Moving-Coil Dynamic Mics
Top 5 Condenser (Non-Tube) Mics
Top 5 Tube Condenser Mics
- Sony C-800G
- Mojave Audio MA-200
- Neumann U 67 Set Reissue (link to check the price at Sweetwater)
- AKG C 12 VR
- Neumann M 150 Tube
Top 5 Ribbon Mics
Top 5 Lavalier Mics
Top 5 Shotgun Mics
- Schoeps CMIT 5U
- Sennheiser MKH 416
- Sennheiser MKH 60
- Sennheiser MKH 418-S (link to check the price at B&H)
- Rode NTG-3
Top 5 USB Mics
Click here to check my list of the 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
My New Microphone’s Top Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use features:
My New Microphone’s Top Best Microphone Brands You’ve Likely Never Heard Of includes:
• Mojave Audio
What microphone brand is the best? There are many reputable microphone brands so it’s difficult to state which one is the best. However, some standout brands include Shure (a leader in dynamic mics); Royer and AEA (leaders in ribbon mics); Neumann, Schoeps, and DPA (leaders in condenser mics); and Sennheiser (leaders in wireless).
For more information on microphone brands, check out My New Microphone’s Full List Of Microphone Brands/Manufacturers.
What is the best cheap microphone for recording? There are many cheap microphones on the market for amateur (and professional) recording. Some of the best inexpensive mics (with links to check the current price on Amazon) on the market include: