Do I need a $1,000 - $3,000 microphone to get started?

Here's a trap that we all run into a LOT.  "I need a better mic!  My stuff sounds like crap!!!"  If you're like me, you have a life outside of your music recording life.  And chances are you have a family, like I do.  If you don't, let me tell you, kids are expensive - but they make life worth living.

If you have a life outside of your audio presence, then you are probably working on a budget.  And being on a budget means that either you continue to wait to get the nicer gear, or you make do with the gear you can afford.  And man, it's always hard to have someone walk into your studio, or go out to record someone (or do sound for their concert) and have someone say - "Oh...you only have...."

Personally, I'm a fan of Graham @ therecordingrevolution.com/.  I also like to take something that's less expensive and make it sound like something more expensive.  There are some things that I disagree with Graham on, but for the most part, we're on the same page.  Now on microphones, we're a little different.  He's all about being a total minimalist, while I have a tendency to try to walk the line on having what you need, but having a choice too.  I don't want to go overboard, my wife may say I already have, but really I don't have that many mics.

Now if you're running a professional studio, chances are you have some expensive mics.  But for us home studio nuts, most of us will never use a Neumann u87, so we settle for a Blue Bluebird - which by the way is a fantastic mic!  But most of us didn't start with a $300 microphone, and you don't need to either. So....

To answer the question that this blog is about, no, you don't need a $1k - $3k microphone.

If you're just getting started into audio, then there are several things to consider.
  • How much money do you have to spend?
  • What are you going to record?
    • What type of music?
    • What type of instruments?
    • What type of vocals?
    • Is it going to be a demo or an EP/Album?
  • What other gear do you already have?
Some of these are pretty basic, but they're all vital in picking out a good microphone for your purpose.  Are you just going to record your electric guitar shredding to show your friends, or are you recording to get your music out there?  Do you have an interface already, or do you have to use your budget to get several things?

In all honesty, you really only need a few things to start recording.
  • An audio interface
  • Cables (XLR mic cables & usb/firewire cable...)
  • A microphone
  • A computer
  • A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Please don't make the mistake I did when I first started recording.  I hooked up a standard dynamic mic to the microphone jack on my computer and used the built in sound recorder to make my first few recordings.  Let me tell you, they sucked.

Use an audio interface, it doesn't have to be a fancy one, but get one.  Use a microphone, not the one built into your laptop.  If you can help it, use a somewhat powerful computer, it'll help.  And use a DAW, there are free ones that work fine (Audacity is free and I know lots of people who use it).  If you're starting out, it's more important to learn how to use the basic equipment than it is to have a bunch of fancy equipment.  You can make better sounding stuff on less expensive gear while learning than jumping into the high end arena and not knowing what to do.  Audacity is much easier to learn and use than Pro Tools.

I digress.

When it comes to microphones, some of the industry standard mics are $100 mics.  A Shure SM57 is one of the most widely used microphones in the world, and it's a $100.  I just did an audio seminar at a church and told the sound team - "If you're struggling to get someone's voice to sound right while messing around with the EQ, change the mic; it's the first layer of EQ.  And if you don't have much time to try mics, put an SM57 in their hand."  Why an SM57, it typically sounds good.  I've found that sometimes an SM58, or Sennheiser e835, don't quite cut it, but an SM57 does.

If all you can afford to put towards a mic, and the mic is recording a bunch of stuff, an SM57 might be a good place to start.  However, if you're primarily recording acoustic guitar and vocals, I would highly suggest getting a condenser mic over a dynamic.  Condenser mics just have a sound and a feel of "studio."  You can really tell in recordings.  If you still only have about $100 to spend, you can pickup an MXL 990 for less than that and it'll give you a start.

Here's where I differ from Graham - to my ear, there is a HUGE difference between a $300 microphone and a $100 microphone when it comes to condenser mics. The $80 you spend on that MXL 990 will get you going, but once you compare that to other recordings, it'll sound like it's in a tin can.  And if the mic is causing that issue, there's no amount of EQ work that will really take it out.

Here's where the fun comes in!

For about $8, you can get a mod kit off ebay for the older MXL 990s.  That means you need to buy a used one off ebay or craigslist (which means it'll be even cheaper).  I picked up a misc. box of stuff from a dead podcast group for $40 on craigslist.  It had an old USB audio interface, 3 table top mic stands, 4 pop filters (a MUST HAVE), and 2 MXL 990s.  I ordered the mod kits off ebay and prepared my soldering iron.  (Don't attempt to do any modifications to microphones or other electronics unless you have some experience and comfort level working on electronics.)  To be honest, the mod for this mic is relatively easy, but you still should know how to handle a soldering iron before attempting this mod.  About an hour later, I had 2 brand new sounding mics.  They sounded nothing like they had when I picked them up.  They sounded comparable to $300 - $500 mics, a HUGE improvement!  I still use these mics today, even though I do have one $1,000 mic.

Microphones add flavor, each one sounds a little bit different and creates a different feeling in the recording.  That's why I don't subscribe to only having one mic, if you can afford to have more.  I personally have 10 microphones in my studio collection.  A mix of dynamics and condensers, but mainly condensers (it's a studio).  But I know what they sound like and don't try them all on every source when getting ready to record.  I typically try 2 maybe 3 and pick the one that sounds the best.

So when you're looking to get started, or thinking you need to add on to your collection, don't think more expensive = better product. Think about what your using it for.  And if you can, go to a store and try the mic out.  Most stores, like Guitar Center, will let you try a mic before you buy it.  Or they'll have a decent return policy if it doesn't work for your needs.  Use your ears.  Sound is subjective, that's why this is art, not science.  Make something you love.

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