When we hear a great singing performance, there is often a microphone that is capturing the vocalist’s sound. This is always true of a recorded performance and often the case in live concerts.
What kind of microphones are best for singing? The best microphones for singing are subjective. Most often, the best singing mic is dependent on the acoustic environment rather than the singer. That being said the mics that accentuate the particular vocalist’s voice are often preferred.
In this article, we’ll discuss which microphone types are best for singing vocals in studio and live stage applications. I’ll also share some of the world’s most cherished vocal mics and a few of my own recommended vocal mics.
Understanding How Singing Sounds And How Microphones Capture Sound
In order to best capture a vocalist’s voice with a microphone, the mic should accentuate the characteristics of the singer’s voice. So before we start talking about the best vocal microphones, let’s discuss the general sound of singing and how microphones capture this sound.
There are a few key factors to take into account when choosing a vocal mic for a singer:
- Vocal range and harmonics.
- Vocal presence range.
- Vocal plosives.
- Proximity effect in directional microphones.
Vocal Range And Harmonics
Vocal range describes the range of fundamental frequencies a singer may sing with their voice. These ranges vary from person to person and are often defined in music as bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, etc.
The lowest note of the lowest vocal range (Bass) is E2 and has a fundamental frequency of 82 Hz.
The highest note of the highest vocal range (Soprano) is E6 and has a fundamental frequency of 1319 Hz.
Note that many singers are not able to hit the low 82 Hz E2 or the high 1319 Hz E6, this is simply a presentation of the low and high-end of typical vocal ranges.
These fundamental frequencies have harmonics above them that complete the sound of the singer’s voice. These harmonics can range up to 16 kHz but are often only strong and present up to about 8-10 kHz.
So in order to capture the full sound of a singer’s voice, we’d want a microphone that is sensitive to sound within the vocal range, which we’ve defined loosely as 82 Hz to 10,000 Hz.
Note that we can high-pass a bit above the lowest fundamental without overly affecting the sound of the vocal. We can also brighten and darken the sound with more or less high-frequency sensitivity without necessarily affecting the vocal range. That being said, the microphone will sound the most accurate if its frequency response covers the vocalist’s range.
Vocal Presence Range
Of the frequency response of the singer’s voice, it’s not the fundamental frequency that is the most important. Rather, it’s the presence range that we should be focusing on.
The vocal presence range is loosely between 3 kHz and 6 kHz and contains much of speech intelligibility.
A microphone with an increased sensitivity or “boost” in the presence range of its frequency response will help a vocal cut through a dense mix or a loud live performance.
Vocal plosives come as a natural byproduct of singing. They are the tiny blasts of air that come from a singer’s mouth when they hit hard consonants such as B, D, G, K, P, and T.
Though plosives are unavoidable, they can be minimized before and as they hit the microphone.
In the studio, we can distance the singer from the mic; position a pop filter between the singer and the mic; and tilt the microphone slightly off axis. We can also try using an omnidirectional microphone since omni mics are extremely resistant to plosives.
However, cardioid mics typically sound best on vocals, so it’s not always best to use an omnidirectional microphone. When choosing a cardioid vocal microphone for the studio, try to find one with very little off-axis colouration, so that the mic can be tilted slightly to avoid plosives.
On stage, it’s best practice to use a cardioid mic for gain-before-feedback and sing as close to the mic as possible. In this case, choosing a dynamic microphone with a heavier diaphragm may improve resistance to plosives. There are not very many strategies to reduce plosives in live situations.
For more information on vocal plosives and other techniques to eliminate them, please consider reading my article Top 10 Tips For Eliminating Microphone Pops And Plosives.
Proximity Effect In Directional Microphones
Directional microphone exhibit the proximity effect, which is an increase in the mic’s bass response as the sound source gets closer to the microphone diaphragm.
Proximity effect can help add low-end warmth and power to a vocal but can also quickly muddy up the sound.
Choosing a microphone that sounds great at a distance is important for vocals. Picking a microphone with a built-in high-pass filter will also benefit vocals as it combats the proximity effect.
Again, omnidirectional microphones are immune to proximity effect, but do not typically sound the greatest on singing vocals in live or studio situations.
For a detailed article on microphone proximity effect, check out my article In-Depth Guide To Microphone Proximity Effect.
When performing live with sound reinforcement, it’s paramount that we choose a microphone with high gain-before-feedback.
Gain-before-feedback is highly dependent on mic and loudspeaker location and proximity to each other.
Cardioid microphones positioned behind front of house loud speakers and pointed away from stage monitors are the standard for live vocal microphones in terms of providing the most gain-before-feedback.
It’s also worth choosing a microphone that is not overly sensitive in the low-end, especially in the sub-vocal frequency range (we’ll call it <100 Hz). A microphone that is insensitive in this range will effectively capture vocals while rejecting low-end rumble and other low-end noise (which will improve gain-before-feedback).
To read more about microphone feedback and gain-before-feedback, click through the following articles:
• What Is Microphone Feedback And How To Eliminate It For Good
• 12 Methods To Prevent & Eliminate Microphone/Audio Feedback
Best Microphones For Singing Live
When choosing a vocal microphone for singing live, there are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Vocal clarity/presence.
So What Microphone Type Is Best For Singing In Live Situations?
In my experience, and in most musicians and sound engineers’ experience, the best microphone type for live vocals is a cardioid dynamic microphone.
It’s preferred if this microphone also has a boost in the presence range of its frequency response as well as a low and high-end roll-off.
The Shure SM58 is one of the most famous live vocal microphones for singing.
Shure is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.
To read more about dynamic microphones and the cardioid polar pattern, please check out the following My New Microphone articles, respectively:
• Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.
• What Is A Cardioid Microphone? (Polar Pattern + Mic Examples)
Gain-Before-Feedback In Live Vocal Microphones
When I discuss “singing live,” I assume there is some sort of sound reinforcement. With live microphones in the same room as loudspeakers (whether monitors or audience-facing PA/sound systems), microphone feedback is always a factor.
When singing, it’s paramount that the singers hear themselves. This monitoring can be achieved with in-ear monitors but is typically done with fold back (loudspeaker) monitors. These monitors face the singer and therefore the microphone.
Having a cardioid microphone pointed toward the singer and away from the monitor helps tremendously to improve the mic’s gain-before-feedback. The cardioid pattern has a null-point to its rear, meaning it rejects sound fro the rear. It is most sensitive where it points (ie: toward the singer).
Omnidirectional microphones have the worst gain-before-feedback. Bidirectional (figure-8) mics have terrible GBF in the aforementioned position. Unidirectional microphones, and particularly cardioid mics, are the way to go.
Another factor in gain-before-feedback is the low-end response of a microphone. If the microphone is particularly sensitive to low-end frequencies, stage rumble and bass frequencies can more easily push the mic to feedback.
This is partly due to the more omnidirectional nature of low-end frequencies and partly due to the strength of low-frequency mechanical vibrations (vibrating through the mic stand and mic as well as through the air).
Having a mic with a natural roll-off of low-end frequencies is great for live vocals. This is especially true if the mic’s low-end roll-off is not within the vocal range of the singer often around 100 Hz – 150Hz.
Note that cardioid (and all other directional mics) exhibit proximity effect. Therefore, even if the mic has low sensitivity in the low-frequencies, the bass response in the vocal pickup can be restored if the vocalist is close enough to the mic.
On that note, the vocalist should indeed be close to the mic, as this further improves gain-before-feedback.
Clarity And Presence Of Live Vocal Microphones
A boost in the presence range (roughly 3 kHz – 7 kHz) helps the vocal to cut through a dense mix and loud playback system in live situations.
Many dynamic microphones, unlike most condenser mics, have coloured frequency responses. A coloured frequency response means the mic is not equally sensitive to frequencies across the audible spectrum.
Choosing a coloured microphone (which often means a dynamic mic) with a presence boost and low-end roll-off (and even a high-end roll-off) will allow more gain-before-feedback and greater clarity in a live vocal.
Another big point to mention in terms of vocal clarity is the signal-to-noise ratio.
Self-noise is not really an issue in live-settings (when the stage itself is loud). Rather, the SNR in live situations has to do with the amount of vocal in the mic versus the amount of non-vocal the microphone picks up (other instruments, crowd noise, monitor/playback system, etc.).
A dynamic cardioid mic will often do a better job than any other mic type at rejecting extraneous sounds and focusing on the singer.
Durability Of Live Vocal Microphones
Finally, durability is a factor with live vocal microphones.
This is especially true when the performance style is a bit more rugged. However, durability plays a role with any live microphone that sees a lot of moving around (travelling, set-up, tear-down, etc.).
Moving-coil dynamic microphones are well-known for their relative durability and therefore make great choices for live vocal microphones.
Popular Live Vocal Microphones For Singing
With that in mind, the best cardioid dynamic microphones for singing live are:
- Shure SM58 (link to check the price on Amazon):
- Sennheiser e835 (link to check the price on Amazon):
- Heil Sound PR35 (link to check the price on Amazon):
Other popular (non-cardioid and/or non-dynamic) microphones for live singing include:
- Shure Beta 87A (electret condenser, supercardioid).
- Sennheiser e945 (dynamic, supercardioid).
- Neumann KMS 105 (condenser, supercardioid).
To read more about my recommended microphones for singing live, check out my article Best Microphones For Live Vocal Performances.
Best Studio Microphones For Recording Singing
When choosing a vocal microphone for the studio, there are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Vocal clarity/presence.
- Natural frequency-response.
- Low self-noise.
So What Microphone Type Is Best For Recording Singing In The Studio?
In my experience, and in most musicians and sound engineers’ experience, the best microphone type for studio vocals is a large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone.
It’s preferred if this microphone has a consistent polar pattern and a wide, natural frequency response with a boost in the presence range.
The now-vintage Telefunken Ela M 251 is one of the most cherished vocal microphones of all time.
The Neumann TLM 103 is very popular modern vocal microphone on the market today.
Neumann is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.
Clarity And Presence Of Studio Vocal Microphones
Vocal clarity is nearly almost important in music. It’s critical to be able to hear the singer in live performances and in studio recordings alike, so I’ll mention vocal clarity again in this section.
Choosing a studio vocal microphone that accentuates the voice of the singer will make mixing easier since the vocal will shine through before processing.
As mentioned previously, many microphones have a boost in the presence range (around 3 kHz – 7 kHz).
Frequency Response Of Studio Vocal Microphones
When recording a singer in an iso-booth, we do not necessarily need an overly coloured microphone (though we’ll talk more about colour and character in the next section).
In the quiet soundproof studio environment, it’s actually beneficial to have a microphone with a wide frequency response.
There’s no worry of microphone feedback, and so a solid low-end and high-end frequency response will allow for a fuller, more natural capture of the vocal.
It’s important to note that, although the singer’s may not be hitting low notes and may not have harmonics all the way up to 20 kHz, having a full frequency response does in fact affect the sound of the audio. A wider frequency response sounds better and more natural on isolated sound sources (like the typical studio vocal).
As mentioned above, a slight boost in the presence range will help to accentuate the singer’s voice. It’s also worth prefacing that some variation in a mic’s frequency-specific sensitivity can give it character.
Large-diaphragm condenser microphones, in general, are known for their flat and extended frequency responses and many of them have the slight presence boost that allows vocals to shine.
To read a heavily detailed article on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).
Character Of Studio Vocal Microphones
The character of a great studio vocal microphone is tough to describe technically. Subjective terms like warm, full, bright, dark, thin, etc. are often used to describe a microphone’s character.
The character of a microphone has a lot to do with its components, materials, and design. Factors that influence a mic’s character include:
- Size of the diaphragm.
- Diaphragm material.
- Transducer principle (dynamic or condenser).
- Transistors and printed circuit boards.
- Vacuum tubes.
All these factors (and many more) affect a microphone’s frequency and polar response; output signal distortion/saturation; sensitivity; and overall character.
Many of the greatest studio vocal microphones ever created are vintage microphones (which we’ll discuss shortly). These mic’s are cherished for their character. They add flavour to the singer’s voice without anything away from the performance.
Though every microphone has its own “character,” large-diaphragm condensers (especially those with tube electronics) are known for their richness, warmth, and fullness, which really enhance a singer’s vocal.
Self-Noise Of Studio Vocal Microphones
In studio environments, choosing a microphone with low self-noise is good practice. Low noise means a cleaner capture of the singer’s performance.
Quality large-diaphragm condensers typically have very low self-noise ratings that benefit studio vocals by improving signal-to-noise ratio.
For more info on self-noise and signal-to-noise ratio in microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).
• What Is A Good Signal-To-Noise Ratio For A Microphone?
Popular Studio Microphones For Singing
There are plenty of legendary large-diaphragm condenser studio microphones that work amazingly well on singing vocals. To list a few:
- Telefunken ELA M 251
- Neumann U 47
- Neumann U 67
- Neumann U 87
- AKG C 12
- Sony C-800G
These are all high-end (and mostly vintage) large-diaphragm condensers. Some more affordable and common studio vocal mics on the market today include:
- Neumann TLM 102 (link to check the price on Amazon).
- Neumann TLM 103 (link to check the price on Amazon).
- Rode NT1-A (link to check the price on Amazon).
- Mojave Audio MA-200 (link to check the price on Amazon).
- Audio-Technica AT4050 (link to check the price on Amazon).
To read more about my recommended studio microphones for singing, check out my article Best Studio Microphones For Recording Singing.
Microphone Accessories For Singing
Microphone accessories for singing include:
- Mic clips and shock mounts (link to check out my recommended microphone shock mounts).
- Mic stands (link to check out my recommended microphone stands).
- Pop filters (link to check out my recommended microphone pop filters).
- Acoustic shields (link to check out my recommended acoustic shields for vocal microphones).
What type of microphone is best for live performance? Directional dynamic mics are most commonly used for sound reinforcement in live performances. When positioned correctly, they provide excellent sound isolation and gain-before-feedback. If the live performance does not require reinforcement, the best mics for each specific instrument may be better.
What is the best condenser microphone? There are many great condenser microphones in the world, but too many different condenser designs and too many microphone applications for there to be one “best condenser.” Reputable condenser mic brands include Neumann, Schoeps, Telefunken, and many others.
For deeper discussion on the best microphones and best microphone brands, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is The Best Microphone? (Full Guide To Choosing The Best Mic)
• Top 12 Best Vintage Microphones (And Their Best Clones)
• Recommended Microphones And Gear
• Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You’ve Likely Never Heard Of