Microphones can be a bit confusing when you first dig into a RAMP program. There are so many different ones–and so many different prices! What do you really need? What budget should you set? How can I tell if I’m getting the best product for the price?

Here are some rough guidelines on the different types of microphones, what they do, and how you can start your microphone locker.

One last introductory point: keep in mind that these are more budget-friendly options. There are several more microphones beyond the few listed, but these are going to be your start-up level in price.

Dynamic Microphones

These are by far the most durable microphones. They are built with a large magnet surrounded my an electrical coil. This rugged design provides excellent isolation in its polar pattern, as well as a sturdy construction. These are the heavy workers of the concert venue, finding a place on everything from vocals to guitar cabinets to snare drums. However, they have a limited frequency response, and they tend to capture a more mid-heavy sound from whatever they’re placed in front of.

  • Shure SM58: the classic “ice cream cone” look you expect to see in a small concert venue. This brute has been around for decades, and it can hammer in a nail as easily as pick up a vocalist. It may not be your first purchase, but it’s a good all-around microphone for a low price (especially used ones).
  • Shure SM57: likely the most popular instrument microphone available. This microphone is great for snare drums, guitars, horns, and almost anything else you can think of. It’s not perfect for vocals, but it works in a pinch. I’ve used it for drum overheads as well, and it gives a very unique sonic flavor to the set.
  • Audix i5: This microphone combines the best of both of the Shure microphones, and it even gives a bit more warmth in guitar tone. It may not be quite as rugged, but it’s still a sturdy and dependable choice. It won’t give the same snap as the SM57, but it is worth looking at nonetheless.

Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

While a bit more delicate in the handling, these microphones are leaps and bounds more flexible than most dynamic microphones. The thin capsule oscillates with vibrations in the air, creating electrical current variations that translate into sound waves when amplified. It’s not as sturdy, but it offers a full frequency response with a little boost in the high end frequencies. As such, it lends itself to a brighter overall tone, which is great for vocals, acoustic guitars, and overhead drum parts.

  • Sterling Audio ST51: at only $100, this microphone provides a great tone. It’s a little bright, leading to some sibilant issues, but it captures a great, open acoustic guitar tone and a cutting vocal recording for thicker mixes. It’s not as sturdy and reliable as some options, but it still does the trick.
  • Behringer B1: This feature-rich, sub-$100 microphone may not be the pinnacle of fine quality audio equipment, but those who have one swear by it. It offers multiple polar patterns (for different pick-up and frequency response options), and it is fairly sturdy. The price is also more than appealing for the entry-level studio.
  • RODE NT1A: A flagship condenser, this model has survived for years with critically acclaimed build quality and sound quality. While a little bright at times, it offers a clear picture of whatever you’re recording. It’s great for picking up low-end information as well, such as kick drum. This one, though, falls on the high end of the price range, at around $230.

Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphones

Also known as pencil microphones because of their shape and size, these little guys provide clear, crisp sound with minimally intrusive footprints. It’s best to have a pair of these on hand, since they work perfectly for stereo recordings of large ensembles or as matched pairs for drum overheads. They’re also great for acoustic guitars, auxiliary percussion, and bowed string instruments.

  • CAD CM217: These are inexpensive microphones with bass roll-off and 10dB pad switches built in. They offer crisp sound, but they feel a little less expensive than many other options. But for $100 a pair, they provide more than enough quality for the price.
  • RODE M5: Sold as matched pairs (made almost simultaneously), these microphones are considered high quality in almost every way. The sound has given RODE a solid name in the business, and the price is still reasonable at around $200 per pair.
  • Samson C02: For the low end of the price range, these microphones cost less than $80 per pair. Don’t expect a truly matched pair, and don’t expect incredible consistency between the two microphones. However, they will still work very well for almost any situation at the entry level.

Ribbon Microphones

Perhaps one of the oldest microphone designs, the ribbon microphone offers a warm, rich tone that is unlike any other microphone listed above. However, it comes with its own quirks. For example, the pickup pattern is a figure-8, meaning that both the front and the back of the microphone will record equally, while the sides will reject sound almost completely. They’re also touchier when it comes to care. They can’t handle phantom power, and they can’t be dropped without damaging them. Still, they’re a great addition to a mic locker.

  • MXL R144: A classic design at a mere $80. This microphone, while a little on the flat side, offers a warm, rich tone for vocalists, guitars, and amplifiers. It also works well as a room microphone for drum sets.
  • sE Electronics X1R: A more expensive option, this microphone provides a richer sound than less expensive models. However, it’s also a price of around $230, so the quality should be part of the deal.
  • Avantone Audio CR-14: Another reputable company, mostly for their vintage-style recreations. This microphone will likewise give that classic feel to a recording. The price is even a bit more steep than the X1R at $260.

Final Thoughts

If you’re starting out, don’t aim for the stars. Getting to know an inexpensive microphone is more important than having four or five expensive ones you’re unfamiliar with. At the very least, you should plan to purchase a large-diaphragm condenser and a dynamic microphone, since they offer very different tones and can be used in many different ways. With even $200 to invest, you can get started right away.

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