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.