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Finding the Right Microphone for the Situation

Certain microphones work better than others for particular situations and in general, microphone choice is fairly subjective. The following list contains basic suggestions based on what is typically used:

  • Vocals: Most people prefer the sound of a large-diaphragm condenser mic for vocals. If you have the budget, you may also want to audition some ribbon mics for your voice. A dynamic mic is best when you’re going for a dirty or raw sound (excellent for some harder rock, blues, or punk music) or if your singer insists on screaming into the mic.

    A small-diaphragm condenser mic is rarely the first choice for most singers, but it’s not out of the question for some vocalists if you don’t mind a bright, present (high-frequency) sound.

  • Electric guitar amp: A dynamic mic or a small-diaphragm condenser mic works well on an electric guitar amp. Some people use large-diaphragm condenser mics on guitar amps and like the added low frequencies that can result.

    A ribbon mic can sound great, but take care in placing the mic so that you don’t overload it and blow the ribbon. Move the mic back a bit or off to the side and you should be fine.

  • Electric bass amp: Your first choice when miking an amplified electric bass is either a large-diaphragm condenser mic or a dynamic mic. Either one can capture the frequency spectrum that the bass guitar encompasses.

  • Acoustic guitar and other stringed instruments: A large- or small-diaphragm condenser mic or a ribbon mic works well in most instances. A dynamic mic has too limited a frequency response to create a natural sound (but may create an effect that you like).

    Choose the large- or small-diaphragm type based on the overall frequency spectrum of the instrument. For example, to capture the depth of a guitar’s tone, choose a large-diaphragm mic, but for an instrument with a higher register, such as a violin or mandolin, a small-diaphragm mic works great.

  • Horns: Ribbon mics can soften the tone slightly and make the horns sound more natural, especially if you mic closely (within a couple feet or so). Second choice is a large-diaphragm condenser mic in a figure-8 or omnidirectional pattern placed off to the side of the instrument a bit.

    For this, you need a large-diaphragm condenser mic that has multiple patterns, such as the AKG C414B or the Shure KSM-44. Some people like a tube condenser mic, so if you’re on a budget, the Studio Projects T3 is a good place to start.

  • Piano: Both large- and small-diaphragm condenser mics are generally used for piano. Your choice depends on where you place the mics and how the room sounds. For example, a great-sounding room begs for a pair of omnidirectional small-diaphragm mics placed away from the piano a bit.

  • Drum set: The tom-toms, snare drum, and kick (bass) drum all sound good with dynamic mics because they don’t contain high frequencies. You can also use large-diaphragm condenser mics, but be careful where you place them because if your drummer hits them, they’re toast.

  • Cymbals: For the cymbals of a drum set, a pair of small-diaphragm condenser mics works well, although some people prefer to use a large-diaphragm mic instead.

You may choose a different type of mic, especially if you try to create a certain effect. For instance, using a ribbon mic on a metallic shaker rather than a small-diaphragm condenser mic softens the highest frequencies of the instrument and gives it a mellower sound.

If you intend to record loud instruments — drums, amplified guitars, or basses, for example — look for a mic with a high SPL (sound pressure level) rating. This is a rating of how much volume (listed in decibels) the microphone can handle before distorting. A high SPL is above 130 decibels.

Some professional condenser mics have a pad switch that allows you to reduce the sensitivity of the mic, thereby increasing its ability to handle high sound pressure levels.

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