Capturing a musical performance at its source is the essence of what a microphone provides to producers, artists and engineers the world over. The humble transducer converts sound waves into electrical signals, to be either manipulated within a digital audio workstation or kept pristine on tape. However, not all mics are created equal, and choosing the right one for the job can be quite difficult to say the least.
Which is the perfect microphone for vocals, guitar, a rack tom, or recording a podcast? What type of polar pattern is best for capturing the ambience of a room? Does spending more money mean better-quality recordings?
And then there’s the location itself; not everyone is blessed with purpose-built recording facilities and dedicated vocal booths.
With all of this in mind, we have collated the best microphones for all manner of needs and situations. Whether you're shopping on a budget or are looking for something for a pro studio, there's a mic for you.
All the mics we've chosen have been reviewed by us, so despite its legendary status, you won't find a Shure SM58 on this list. We have some pretty good alternatives, though - read on to find out what they are.
1. AKG C636
A great handheld condenser and master reference mic
List price: $499/£339/€399 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR
As a condenser mic, the C636 is inherently more complex than its dynamic siblings, a complexity that comes at a cost in both R&D and production. Issues with feedback rejection and handling noise have to be balanced against tradeoffs in sound quality. Behind the simple black exterior and lightness in hand, the C636 boasts serious design chops to give it the ‘Master Reference’ moniker, but is it deserved? In short, yes. The sound is clear and full, far more linear and ‘real’ than its dynamic mic counterparts. The high frequency range is present and well defined, without the harsh hype and phase-shift peakiness that some (cheaper) condenser mics either display or attempt to mask with an overall HF pull-down.
2. Lewitt LCT 640 TS
List price: $899/£879/€899 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Omni, wide cardioid, cardioid, supercardioid and figure-8 | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR, mini XLR
Although visually similar to Lewitt Audio's LCT 640, its new LCT 640 TS sports a twin diaphragm capsule and incorporates Lewitt's integrated capsule matching system. The TS stands for Twin System: it works either in regular multipattern mic mode, or in dual mode, providing independent access to both diaphragm outputs. This allows adjustment of the pickup pattern after recording and also opens up some stereo recording options. In dual mode the second diaphragm output is accessed via a miniature three-pin connector on the side of body, and in the carry case there's a mini three-pin XLR breakout cable as well as accessories such as foam windshield, suspension cradle, mic pouch and a rather nifty magnetic pop shield. All told, it's a well put together and stylish package.
3. Aston Microphones Origin
Excellent low-priced condenser
List price: $269/£199/€299 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals | Connection: XLR
The Aston Origin may be competitively priced, but it possesses a degree of originality that is uncommon in this range. The Origin is a fixed pattern (cardioid) condenser and is the smaller of Aston's two mics: the larger Spirit is a multi-pattern condenser with an extra 10dB of pad available. There are two switches on the stainless steel casing: 10dB pad and 80Hz low-cut filter. The XLR connection is on the underside of the mic, as is a mic stand mounting socket (5/8-inch with a 3/8-inch adaptor included). This latter feature means there's no need for a mic clip, though this does limit angle choices to the capabilities of the stand. The wave-shaped outer spring/mesh acts as a shock absorber for the capsule, and behind it sits a stainless steel wire mesh shielding.
4. Sontronics Aria
Best valve microphone
List price: $1,199/£899/€1,092 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: 12AX7/ECC83 tube
With everything plugged up, the first thing that's obvious with the Aria is just how natural it sounds. There's definitely a slight presence lift, but this is in the upper mids rather than right into sibilant territory. Beyond this there's no high frequency hyping, or the brittleness that plagues mics of that ilk. So, one's attention is drawn to the lows and low mids. These feel solid and although there is a small proximity effect, it's not at all overbearing. In use we feel the cardioid polar pattern is pretty broad both in horizontal and vertical directions. So the sweet spot is large, which is particularly useful for vocals and acoustic guitars. On vocals the Aria delivers a faithful sound, and when you dig in with more forceful delivery it responds very well. With acoustic guitar it's easy to capture a non-boomy sound, and once again the non-hyped sound is great. The smooth response also lends itself to complex sounds such as guitar amp, strings and percussion.
5. Rode NT1
Best affordable condenser
List price: $395/£239/€269 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
Rode's original NT1 was released around 20 years ago, followed by the NT1A a few years later. Now the company has gone back to the old name with a just-released new NT1 model that looks very similar to the NT1A but has actually been completely redesigned from the ground up, the only component in common with the NT1A being the mesh grille. So, what does that redesign involve? First up there's the new HF6 capsule, designed to feature a sound signature similar to vintage favourites but exhibiting extremely low noise. Then there's the fact that the transducer is suspended inside the microphone using Rycote's Lyre system, which should minimise external vibrations. Rode also claims that the NT1 is the world's quietest 1-inch cardioid condenser due to the high-grade electronics keeping the self-noise level down to 4.5dBA.
6. Slate Digital VMS
Best virtual modelling mic system
List price: $999/£1,099/€1,299 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
Classic large capsule condenser microphones are without a doubt amongst the most sought-after and expensive items on anyone’s wish list. With an original Neumann U47 commanding up to $10,000, most of these mics are out of reach for the average studio owner, and certainly only possible for a tiny minority of home studios. So in theory, if you can emulate them with software then you should be on to a winner. There have been a few plugs over the years which have claimed to give one mic the character of another but, given the limitations of the original mic, coupled with any number of mic pres that could have been used, plus the quality of the interface that recorded it, most of them have been pretty disappointing. Slate Digital have taken that idea and built a complete system which removes as many of those variables as possible. What you get with the VMS is a high-quality, large capsule condenser mic, a dedicated ‘ultra linear’ mic pre and a plug-in which contains the modelled mics. The only variable is that you have to use your own A/D converter to get it into your DAW.
7. Audio Technica AT5040
Best high-end condenser mic
List price: $2,999/£2,999/€3,111 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
With a new large diaphragm condenser mic there's rarely anything unusual to discuss. After all, the focus is typically on the general frequency response, pick up pattern, build quality and sound. Audio Technica's new AT5040 ticks all the boxes of a typical high end phantom powered condenser mic with its discrete component design, low noise, high SPL handling and decent shock mount. Look closer, however, and you will find some special touches. The noise figure is exceptional and the quick release cradle beautifully designed (more later). Also worth mentioning is the advanced internal capsule decoupling mechanism and the fact that it's 100 per cent hand built and inspected. The really big deal here - bigger than that whopping price tag - is the capsule: a four-part rectangular design delivering over ten square cms of surface area (roughly twice that of a one inch capsule). Put into perspective, a circular design with roughly the same area would have a diameter of 3.6cm.
8. sE Electronics sE2200a II
Best multi-patterned mid-range mic
List price: $399/£335/€385 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid, omni, figure-8 | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
Like many large capsule condensers, omni mode on the sE2200a II is unlikely to be this mic's forte, and the MkII's response shows a noticeable dip (6dB) around the 5kHz mark. However, in use this wasn't that obvious, and is possibly compensated slightly by the gentle boost above 7kHz. Either way, both patterns are useful inclusions, and save you the trouble of buying or setting up another mic, should you want to try out different patterns. Overall, sE's upgrade is a success, and combined with the multi-pattern option, the 2200a MkII is more desirable than ever. OK, the multi-pattern capability has pushed up the price a bit, but there's always the fixed cardioid version if your budget's tight.
9. Lewitt LCT 540 S
Quietest condenser mic for recording vocals
List price: $699/£630 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
The LCT540 S is a thoroughly modern mic in style and function, but how about in sound? This cardioid condenser shows its quality right away, sitting effortlessly next to a mic more than twice its price across a range of sources. For vocal work it is ticks all the boxes, possessing great clarity along with an easily worked proximity buildup, a smooth high end and all the low-end richness you need for voiceovers or in-your-face breathy vocals. The condenser mic HF lift is subtle and free from phasey peaks, keeping sibilance natural and easily controlled. There’s plenty of dynamic range and headroom without the pad engaged, and the output level is impressive, helping keep preamp noise low. Of course, the Subzero is all about low noise, and very low it is too (below the mics we put it up against).
10. Audio-Technica AE2300
Best mid-priced, compact SM57 alternative
List price: $269/£249/€268 | Type: Dynamic | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
The AE2300 is a broad-application high-SPL cardioid design, so should be ideal for percussion, drums, guitar amps and brass. It’s also pretty compact (less then 10cm long), so is perfect for discreet use in a live environment. The weighty brass casing and top grille feel robust, and the screw-tight rubberised clip should see off any wandering drum sticks while providing some mechanical isolation. Overall, it’s a beautifully designed and manufactured mic. The proprietary double-dome diaphragm improves high-frequency and transient response. The off-axis frequency response is also reasonably linear up to 120 degrees, and not bad even at 180 degrees off-axis, which could certainly be beneficial when setting up a multi-miked drum kit.
11. Sontronics Solo
Best SM58 alternative
List price: $135/£99/€111 | Type: Dynamic | Pickup pattern: Cardioid | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
The Solo is a well-weighted, solid microphone; light hand-held mics suck. The grille has a flat front which we much prefer to the bulbous type: it not only gives a more consistent distance guide when up close, it is also less likely to knock your front teeth out in a rowdy club gig. The output impedance is higher than the average dynamic mic, and this is reflected in the healthy level at the preamp. This bodes well for controlling noise and feedback in live event gain staging, as well as studio usage. A beefy output is useless if the sound doesn’t pull its weight, which in this case it does.
12. Rode NTR
Best ribbon mic
List price: $999/£589/€888 | Type: Ribbon | Pickup pattern: Figure-8 | Application: Vocals, instruments | Connection: XLR | Powered: No
Electronically, the NTR is active, running from 48V phantom power and has a built-in transformer that offers a high output so that the mic is not so finickity about preamp requirements as other ribbon mics and can, a fact borne out by our tests, be used with a wide range of preamps without having to turn the gain up to noise-generating levels. Internal shockmounting results in there being no need for an external suspension cradle, which helps with placement, and, even though this is quite a heavy mic, the included compact mount which attaches to its base works great at holding it at any angle on a mic stand with little pressure needed to firm it up. On a variety of sound sources we found the mic to deliver a very natural representation of whatever was put in front of it with plenty of low-end and a clear top with a natural roll off, rather than the often overdone brightness designed into some condensers.
13. M-Audio Uber Mic
Best for all-round recording and podcasting
List price: $99/£99/€111 | Type: Condenser | Pickup pattern: Cardioid, omni, stereo, figure-8 | Application: Vocals, instruments, podcasts | Connection: USB | Powered: Bus-powered
M-Audio’s Uber Mic is one of the cheapest and well spec’d USB mics that includes a stereo mode as well as three regular mono polar patterns (omni, cardioid, figure-8). On-body controls for mic gain, mic mute, headphone level, zero latency blend and polar pattern selection, alongside a handy miniature LCD display, make operation totally self explanatory, and the U-shaped mic mount works equally well screwed into the included desktop stand or attached to a mic stand. Slightly frustratingly iOS use requires Apple’s camera kit, and audio operation only goes up to 16-bit/48kHz. Nevertheless, if this doesn’t bother you, the Uber can certainly deliver some awesome value for money.