Queen at Wembley ’86. Oasis at Knebworth ’96. Beyoncé at Glastonbury ’11. Without a doubt, some of the greatest live performances ever. But which ones would’ve made the list if it hadn’t been for the humble vocal mic? No matter how good a singer you are, or how awesome your band is, the best live vocal microphones can make all the difference to your stage show.
So, this is our ode to the best microphones for live vocals. An exploration of how to choose one, and choose one well. Who knows, with a handful of help – in the pleasing shape of the right mic – you could be the next artist to join our list of stage greats.
To get the very best from a singer’s performance, live vocal mics need to fulfil some basic needs. First, they need to work. The stage can be a hostile environment for mics, full of strange liquids, unidentifiable sticky substances and accidents just waiting to happen. Likewise, the back of your mate’s old van that transports you from gig to gig may mist up like a steam room, but it’s no health spa. To survive life on the road, vocal mics need to be robust and reliable.
Mics need to make live vocals sound great, too – not just for the benefit of the audience but also for the singer. What they hear in their in-ear monitors can spell the difference between a confident, spirited performance and one riddled with anxiety and self-doubt. We know which one we’d rather listen to.
Ideally, a vocal performance should sparkle with detail and clarity, but not if that means a host of other instruments and undesirable on-stage noises are being picked up by the mic, too. Some live vocal microphones are just too sensitive for real-world stage use, so a compromise may be called for.
Finally, choose a mic with a pickup pattern that matches your on-stage physicality (i.e. your tendency to dick about). A supercardioid will do a marvellous job of rejecting off-axis noise, but that will include your vocals if you’re constantly moving away from the mic while singing.
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Best live vocal microphones: Our top picks
Pick a live performance by your favourite artist. Heck, any artist. At any venue. In the last 20 years. Actually, let’s include the late ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, too. Chances are your chosen artist will have been singing into a Shure SM58. And, whether they were belting out an anthem or delicately delivering a soulful ballad, we bet it sounded so fine that the hairs on the back of your neck were standing to attention.
The SM58 is a legend, an icon of the stage. Ask any young kid to draw a microphone and they’ll trace the shape of an SM58 for you in primary- coloured crayon. It’s that embedded into musical culture.
What’s more, it’s virtually indestructible. The only things proven to survive an atomic blast (or a Mogwai concert) intact are cockroaches and SM58s. OK, we made that last bit up, but it does sound feasible.
Best of all, the SM58 is dirt-cheap – it probably costs less than your guitarist paid for their fancy oxygen-free, mono-crystal, pure-copper guitar lead.
If you hanker after something a little more exclusive with a broader sonic palette, and don’t mind paying a bit more for quality, then we recommend the Telefunken M80. It’s just as robust as the SM58 but boasts a wider frequency range that delivers more clarity and high-end presence. Build quality is outstanding, making the M80 feel reassuringly beefy yet well-balanced in the hand. It’s also available in a wide range of colours, from sophisticated black to wild fluro pink.
Best live vocal microphones: Product guide
Almost certainly the most popular live mic in the whole wide world. It’s tempting to believe that the SM58’s extraordinary success is just down to Shure’s keen pricing, but the truth is that it’s an incredible performer.
It sounds wonderful – clean and balanced across its entire frequency spectrum. Hats off to Shure’s engineers, who, six decades ago, got it so right first time around. That iconic golf-ball-shaped grille purposefully puts distance between you and the capsule, which, in combination with the built-in pop filter, reduces unwanted pops and tames sibilants. The internal shock mount cuts handling noise to a minimum, too, while the dynamic diaphragm makes the mic as tough as old boots.
Features? Buttons? Switches? LEDs? There are none, but that’s all part of the SM58’s charm. It’s a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kinda mic – living proof of the mantra ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Reassuringly, in the throwaway culture we live in today, if yours does ever need fixing, it’ll be easy to source the parts. Your local blacksmith could probably repair it…
Read our full Shure SM58 review
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Who’s shallow enough to buy a microphone based on looks alone? OK, OK, put your hands down. You disappoint me, you lot, you really do.
The M80 is available in some seriously bling colourways. Fluro pink, yellow, orange, gold – no fewer than 15, in fact. You can even mix and match the colour of the body and grille for maximum stage presence.
But what about the sound? Telefunken’s engineers have successfully managed to develop a microphone with the robustness of a dynamic and the sonic characteristics of a condenser. By specifying a lightweight capsule and thin diaphragm, they’ve given the M80 a wide frequency response without compromising its rugged build.
The resulting character is open – airy but authoritative, perfect for live vocals. Despite a high-end presence boost, transients are well-tamed and handling noise is nicely subdued.
It’s hardly a heavy mic but it is reassuringly hefty, tipping the scales at 430g – which is about a third more than the Shure SM58. Build quality is top-drawer. Its lines are smooth, sleek and can look rather sophisticated in black and chrome. Or great fun in fluro pink!
Some products just ooze quality, and the d:facto 4018 is such a beast. Designed, developed and hand-assembled in Denmark, it looks the part, feels the part and carries a price tag that may alarm but won’t shock.
Essentially, it’s a studio-quality condenser mic that’s been ruggedised for stage use by the clever boffins at DPA, who spend their days making reference-quality microphones for the harshest of environments. Its mics have been used to record snowflakes in icy Antarctica, are currently the ears of the Mars Rover as it explores the Red Planet, and, according to DPA’s website, have even survived abuse at the hands of Celine Dion.
Typically for a condenser microphone, the d:facto 4018 has a much broader frequency range than a dynamic microphone, but things get really interesting when you swap and switch its two available capsules. The 4018VL capsule has an ultra-flat linear response, while the 4018V has a mild presence boost that starts at about 7kHz. This gives you the opportunity to fine-tune the d:facto 4018 to suit your range and style.
Like all condenser microphones, there’s a danger it will pick up unwanted noise, but its supercardioid pattern should help to minimise this. It also has a 160dB SPL, which means it won’t be troubled by very powerful singers screaming at it.
The d:facto 4018 can also be configured to fit most professional wireless systems from the likes of Sony, Sennheiser, Shure and more.
This is a keenly priced, no-nonsense mic that loves a good performance. Its all-metal construction will shrug off years of onstage abuse, letting your vocals take centre stage show after show.
It has some clever design features, including the bevelled strip around the dent-proof, corrosion-resistant steel mesh grille, which stops the V7 rolling away when put down on an amp cab or stage floor. The integral windscreen and pop shield are coloured in sE Electronics’ corporate red but, just in case that clashes with your lippy, the manufacturer has thoughtfully included a black version in the box, too.
sE Electronics developed the DMC7 aluminium coil for the V7, which, together with the large diaphragm and neodymium magnets, gives it a voice that’s crisp, natural and open. Its supercardioid pattern provides good isolation and feedback protection, while handling noise is well suppressed.
The V7’s remarkable price puts it head-to-head with the equally inexpensive Shure SM58, so if the pressure of deciding which one to buy brings you out in hives, why not treat yourself to both? Some mics are going to suit some singers better than others, so it’s a good idea to build up an arsenal of options. The V7 is good enough to be your only live mic, but it’s also a worthy addition to any collection.
Tough, no-nonsense dynamic microphones tend to dominate live performances, while condenser mics, with their thin, often fragile diaphragms, are most often found tucked up out of harm’s way in warm studios.
Shure knows this more than any other brand. Its bullet-proof SM58 dynamic mic has ruled the stage for six decades now. But what about those vocalists who demand the superior frequency response that only a good condenser mic can provide?
That’s why Shure developed the SM27, a ruggedised condenser that’s fit for life in front of an audience, no matter how hostile. In fact, Shure’s entire SM range, including the 27, is designed to take the kind of punishment that live performance inflicts.
If you think its sonic characteristics would be compromised in some way, think again. The SM27 has a flat, neutral frequency response and very low self-noise, making it perfect for reproducing faithful, natural renditions of delicate sound sources such as tender vocals, while a -15dB pad means it’s equally adept at miking up screamers. A proper all-rounder that’s equally at home in the studio or on the stage.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some live vocal performances could match the sonic quality of studio recordings? We’re thinking more Lana Del Rey than Lemmy, god rest his soul. That’s the goal of the Audio-Technica AE5400, which is essentially an AT4050 studio microphone skilfully reimagined for the stage.
At its heart is the same large-diaphragm element, ready to capture every subtle hue of audio goodness. Of course, the form factor is entirely different – the AT4050 is side-address and the AE5400 has been ruggedised with a hardened steel body for live use. It also features an internal shock mounting, a built-in windshield and a custom transformer to guard against noise and RF interference.
The switchable 80Hz high-pass filter (aka low-cut filter) is there to remove low-frequency rumble generated by handling, wind and other undesirable background noises. It’s also a very useful tool for reducing plosives, taming the proximity effect and removing the low end so that the vocal can sit better in the mix.
There’s even a 10dB pad to stop loud vocalists driving the AE5400 into distortion. Some engineers hesitate at using delicate, sensitive condenser microphones for live use, preferring their tougher dynamic cousins. With its additional controls on-hand to reign back any unwanted liveliness, not to mention its competitive price, the AE5400 is a seductive package for sophisticated gigs where sound quality really counts.
In terms of price, the MTP 550 DM sits towards the lower end of Lewitt's range of live vocal microphones, but that’s not to say that corners have been cut. Far from it. Pay twice as much for the MTP 840 DM and Lewitt will provide you with some nice extras such as active circuitry and a low-cut filter, but they’re not essential.
The MTP 550 DM is an honest, no-nonsense mic that gets the job done well. The enclosure is made with a tough, durable zinc die-cast shell, and the moisture-resistant capsule is cosseted in a rubber suspension unit. This is a mic you can chuck about with impunity.
It sounds good, too – both detailed and authentic. The cardioid pattern rejects off-axis noise from other performers well enough without stifling the vocalist if they move away from the mic a little. The built-in wind and pop-filter is effective at limiting plosives and sibilants, too.
Above all else, this is a mic that enjoys a sterling reputation for dampening handling noise, which is a godsend for singers who like to handhold their mics or who are constantly clipping and unclipping them from their mic stands. Genres like hip-hop spring to mind, but this is a great-value mic that handles everything well.
The OM2 needed to bring something a bit special to the party in order to compete in the very crowded sub-$/£100 mic segment. Essentially, at this price point it’s going head-to-head with the iconic Shure SM58 plus a legion of pretenders. It doesn’t disappoint.
Look at its frequency curve and you’ll see that Audix has designed the OM2 to exhibit a slight bass boost, a comparatively scooped mid-range and additional high-end presence. This, the manufacturer claims, is in order to give it a full-bodied sound with a bit of sparkle on small to mid-sized PA systems.
Interestingly, it’s a hypercardioid, which means it has an ultra-tight polar pattern that will isolate vocals from any other noise on stage, provided they are sung or spoken directly into the mic within a distance of about two inches. Thankfully, it can handle very high SPL, too.
Of course, hypercardioids have their downsides, but it’s well worth adding an OM2 to your armoury for those occasions when you need a mic with an extra-tight pattern to eliminate background noise.
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A brand that’s always keen to push technological boundaries, Sennheiser has pulled off an impressive feat with the e 965. This is a product that defies the laws of physics – a large-diaphragm condenser designed specifically for live handheld use.
Ordinarily, condenser mics are very susceptible to handling noise, so this is a brave endeavour from the German pro-audio brand, but no doubt a bold move commercially.
Relatively crude dynamic microphones with limited frequency response own the stage because they’re rather good at rejecting handling noise. Unfortunately, they cannot come close to competing with the full response of a condenser mic, so audiences listening to talented singers with extensive vocal ranges risk being disappointed.
Enter the e 965, which picks up even the finest nuances in impressive detail. Polar patterns can be switched between cardioid and supercardioid to reject unwanted noise, there’s a low-cut filter to omit rumble, and you also get a built-in pop filter to handle plosives.
If your audiences demand to hear every detail, then this could be the mic for you.
Best live vocal microphones: Buying advice
When choosing a mic, whether it be for stage or studio, base your choice on what sounds good. It seems obvious but it’s so tempting to pick a mic because your favourite artist uses one, or because you’re loyal to certain brands. Instead, open your ears and open your mind.
A mic that makes one singer sound heavenly might make another sound rather ho-hum. It’s all down to the characteristics of their voices, the space in which they’re performing and the noise emitted by neighbouring instruments or performers. That said, if you’re on a tight budget then an inexpensive workhorse, such as the Shure SM58, will cover most bases.
Let’s consider some musical genres and how they might influence your choice of mic. Most people would agree that, in terms of ‘noise’, a singer-songwriter performing alone with just an acoustic guitar is poles apart from a five-piece death metal band playing like they mean business.
Sound engineers refer to that ‘noise’ as sound-pressure level, or SPL. Generally speaking, acoustic genres such as folk, classical and some jazz will naturally exhibit lower SPL levels than rock and all its sub-genres. But, of course, this is a huge generalisation – a full orchestra or a big-band jazz ensemble is going to generate high SPL levels, too. Even backstage machinery in an opera house will generate some unwanted noise. So, use your ears and a bit of common sense to work out roughly where your band sits in terms of SPL.
Why does this matter? Ideally, we want to hear every nuance of a performer’s voice, which means using a highly sensitive microphone that picks up a broad spectrum of sound. A large diaphragm condenser microphone, of the sort found in expensive studios, should do the trick nicely, but using one will almost certainly be a bad idea for a whole host of reasons.
Condenser vs dynamic
Unless the stage SPL is low, a condenser microphone will pick up a lot of unwanted sound, primarily from drums, cymbals and any loud guitar amps inadvertently pointing towards them. If you’re running through PA speakers then that additional sound is going to make it impossible to isolate the vocal track at the mixing desk, making setup a nightmare and ruining the clarity you set out to achieve in the first place.
Condenser mics are also more susceptible to feedback, and most are delicate, precision instruments not really suited to the rough and tumble of stage life or very loud vocalists. They tend to range from pricey to super-pricey, so can be expensive to repair or replace.
Dynamic mics are much more at home in live settings. Their frequency range may be more limited, but that just makes them better at rejecting unwanted noise. They don’t feed back as readily, are very robust and can be bought for under $100/£75/€85.
So, if you’re miking up a well-mannered vocalist on a stage with a low SPL, and every detail of the performance is important to your audience, it may be worth considering a condenser mic – especially those designed for stage use, such as the Sennheiser e 965 or the DPA d:facto 4018. But if volumes are going to get gnarly and you’re pushed for setup time (who isn’t?), a dynamic mic will make much more sense. Is anyone in the audience really going to notice the difference? Probably not, because in most genres sound is only part of what makes a great performance.
Getting the right response
The human voice is a rich, emotive instrument that’s capable of whipping us into an intense frenzy one minute and seducing us into a state of deep meditative calm the next. It’s such a unique, varied instrument, too. Beyoncé sounds nothing like St Vincent, and neither of them sound anything like Dave Grohl. We wouldn’t have it any other way, but this mercurial quality does mean that not all mics suit all voices.
A mic that features a subtle high-frequency boost, or presence, can do wonders for some vocals by retaining a sense of transparency and airiness. These qualities can also help them cut through the live mix. In fact, dynamic-mic designers often try to mimic the characteristics of condenser mics with such a boost, which can be reassuring for performers who are used to hearing themselves sing into a studio condenser. But additional presence can also make thin or strident vocals sound harsh and unforgiving. The trick is to match voice to mic, either by being aware of the frequency-response characteristics or through experimentation. Just remember, if it sounds good, it is good!
Sometimes, what’s coming out of the PA may sound great but the performer just isn’t feeling it. In these circumstances, it’s worth checking the monitor mixes – the vocal IEM mix in particular – to see if they can be fixed with EQ or if a different mic will help. Many vocalists can be understandably very sensitive, if not downright anxious, about their performance, so it’s important that they’re happy with what they’re hearing. Swapping out mics might just be the confidence boost they need.
Most of the time, you’ll want a mic with a tight pickup pattern, such as a cardioid or supercardioid. These very directional patterns will help to reject undesirable off-axis sounds such as other instruments, band members and general stage hullabaloo, especially if the singer is ‘close miked’, which also helps to keep gain levels to a minimum. Backing off the gain will make unwanted noise less intrusive, and will minimise the risk of feedback, too.
Unfortunately, singing directly into a closely held mic is a real skill that takes discipline and practice. Vocalists that frequently move away from or to the side of a supercardioid mic, perhaps as a deliberate part of their stage act, will suffer inconsistent volume levels as well as the wrath of the sound engineer. Worse still, because of the proximity effect, which makes closer sources sound warmer, the singer may sound rich and powerful one second and emaciated and raspy the next.
So, if you like to move around a lot, avoid really tight patterns. Similarly, if you’re constantly attaching and unclipping your mic from a stand, look for a mic with low handling noise.
Choosing the best microphones for live performance is always going to be a compromise but, fortunately, there are some outstanding options out there just waiting to help you or your vocalist shine.