DIY Recording: What Microphones Should I Get?

I wonder if AI will be able to sing vocals for me - How microphone polar patterns can help you solve mysteries - Which microphone type is best for shoulder definition - A rare look at the insides of the classic SM57 - What is and isn't cheating when recording and choosing a Halloween costume


There are more and more ways each year to create recordings without ever touching a microphone. This is thanks to HUGE advances in things like amp modelers, drum samplers, etc., However, most bands will still need a few microphones here and there to capture their performances. The goal of this post is to help you – the DIY hero of your band – to pick the right microphone investments for getting your band’s sound recorded as awesomely as possible.


Remember, getting those raw recordings sounding good will let your mix engineer (whether that’s your or someone else) get better results faster – which can also translate to “more cost-effectively”


First, do you “need” microphones for your unique brand of mom’s-attic-punk rock? Let’s go over a few scenarios for which the answer is yes:

  1. You want to mic the drum kit and capture your drummer’s live performance.

  2. You love your guitar/bass signal chain and sound as it’s coming out of the speaker cab and want to capture it.

  3. Your songs have vocals. There’s still no good way to get a robit to sing for you. You’ll have to do it yourself.

  4. You love the acoustic character of your space and want to capture the sound of the room along with your band’s performance. This can give more of a “live” feel.

So, what mics should you get?


Let’s go over a few microphone parameters that may help you decide:


Polar Pattern:

The polar pattern of a microphone describes how it will react to sounds it's not “looking at”. I’m going to borrow a wonderful analogy from the awesome Graham Cochrane here. Think of the microphone as a source of light and it is capturing anything that it "illuminates". The polar pattern describes what the microphone will illuminate. Think about the difference between having a bright focused beam on a hand-held flashlight vs. a lantern.


In the dark, the flashlight will illuminate only what’s directly in front of it. The light may diffuse slightly and show you a small area around the center but it will certainly not illuminate anything behind the flashlight. On the other hand, the lantern will illuminate a full 360 degrees. These two light sources can be said to have different polar patterns. Here are some common ones:

  • Cardiod: This is like the small hand-held flashlight. It will "reject" more of the ambient sounds bouncing around the room and capture mostly what it's pointed at.

  • Hyper-cardiod: This is like the small hand-held flashlight but the mic is a little sensitive to what is directly behind it.

  • Omni-directional: This is like the 360 degree lantern. The microphone will pick up sound from all directions. Think about snapping your fingers in a room. There will be a short "echo" or some reverberation as the sound leaves the source (your fingers), travels to nearby surfaces such as walls and little statuettes you've been collecting and bounces back to your ears. This can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing - as will be explained below.

You're a badass musician by day and a detective at night. You're solving the mystery of who keeps playing with your amp settings.

A scary wizard lantern is kind of like an omni-directional mic, yes? This is an insight you will NOT get on Facebook.

There's a good overview graphic of some of the other polar patterns here which will but don't worry to much about these for now.

Filters:

Some microphones will have a toggle that can “roll off” the low frequencies. This just means that you can configure the microphone to capture less low frequency content. For example, you may not want the microphone to capture the super low frequencies of a boomy guitar cabinet or the rumble a mic stand makes when someone bumps into it. In practice, this is nice but not critical. This type of filtering can easily be applied in the mix as long as you’re mic levels are never clipping during the recording.


Valves and Transformers:

There are a lot of heavy-as-railroad tracks microphones out there which have built-in valves (or tubes) and transformers. In this case, I mean they are physically heavy. Like, you can do those front arm raises and get a killer shoulder work-out.


Me carrying two U47 tube microphones through a field. I will be recording the field's ambiance and releasing it as a post-rock album.

This is great if you’re trying to transition to wearing tank-tops on stage. Tank-tops only work with good shoulder definition bro. I know those sleeves were easy to cut-off. Putting them back on can be much harder.


Anyway these types of mics can introduce some pleasant harmonic distortion which, in plain, confusing English, gives a sound that's “warm”, thick, creamy, etc..


There is a lot of super-sexy marketing out there for these microphones but for the general purposes of recording your own band, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them. These mics can sound great on acoustic sources and vocals but they are somewhat limited as a "multi-purpose" microphone because that warmth can be too much of a good thing on many sources - like guitar cabinets. They can also require bulky power supplies which are a bit of a pain.


Right, so what mics should I get?


Generally speaking, for the DIY Hero, I would recommend going with microphones that have cardiod polar patterns. This is because polar patterns will “reject” more of the room reflections.


Here’s why this may be advantageous for you:

  • Your rehearsal/recording space may not have the best room acoustics. Capturing a lot of room sound for something like a main vocal will tend to make the vocal sound farther back in the mix and “smaller”. Rejecting the room will give an up-front and “dry” sound. This is great. Your mix engineer can use spatial effects to make it sound like your vocals were actually recorded in a great sounding room and add a mix-appropriate reverb to taste.

  • If recording instruments in a small-ish room, the instruments can have that thin, boxy, garage sound which can be difficult to remove in the mix. As with vocals, a dry sound is always preferred to a crappy sounding room sound. A sense of space can always be added in the mix but the sound of a stone basement corner cannot always be removed.

  • Processing applied to a track that has a lot of “room” sound in it can make the finished product sound unnatural. This is doubly true for edits such as pitch correction.


Scenario 1

You’re a solo acoustic artist. You play guitar, you sing, you occasionally use electronic instruments to fill in the blanks.


Having a good large diaphragm condenser microphone will generally give you the flexibility you need. These mics are great on just about any acoustic source and are the general go-to for vocals.


Low Cost Options (<$500): AKG C214, Rode NT1A

Next Tier Up: Warm Audio WA87 - which I highly recommend. It sounds great.


Scenario 2

You’re a solo artist who plays guitar or bass and writes heavy music. You like your amp tone and want to capture it. You will outsource your drums (to me perhaps). You may outsource vocals or you may choose do record them yourself.


A dynamic microphone will serve you well. They are durable, low-maintenance, loyal and affordable beasts of burden.


What a Shure SM57 looks like with the capsule removed

I’m a huge fan of the Shure SM57 for exactly these reasons. You can pick it up new for around $100 USD and it’s great on guitar and bass cabinets. It’s also great on snares and toms and it can take an occasional drum stick to the face from your half-blind, half-deaf drummer.




I knew a guy who claims to have dropped an SM57 into a river and it continued to work – though every guitar solo he recorded after that sounded like a Muddy Waters solo - even if he was playing a mandolin.


Other Options: Audix i5, Shure SM7B. The latter of which you've heard on this album.


Scenario 3

You are in a power trio – drums, guitar, bass and want to capture the acoustic kit


Drum kick: large diaphragm dynamic mic (Shure Beta B52A, AKGD112)


Snare: Small diaphragm dynamic mic (one for top, one for bottom if you can afford two) (Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD421, Audix i5)


Drum overheads: two small diaphragm condenser mics (Rode NT5, Studio Projects C-4)


Guitar amp: Small diaphragm dynamic (Shure SM57)


Bass amp: Dynamic mic or Large Diaphragm Condenser or whatever you're using for the guitar amp - though as a rule of thumb, a larger mic will give better low-end response.


To minimize mic bleed and get a tight performance, you can record all instruments separately which means you can get away with owning only 4 mics:


  1. 1 Large diaphragm dynamic

  2. 1 Small diaphragm dynamic

  3. 2 small diaphragm condensers


One Final Note


Mix engineers will often “reinforce” your drum performance with better sounding drum samples to help fill things out. This makes a lot of people uneasy. It used to make me feel uneasy until I reframed my thinking. If you're a guitar player and you can play an awesome guitar riff but you don't have a good amp or effects chain, is it cheating to let you plug into a nice rig for recording purposes? I don't think so. It's still your performance - it just sounds better. If you have a really scary Halloween costume but I say "WAIT...take this chainsaw" is that cheating? No. It's just making your clown-suit scarier my friend.


Anyway, reinforcing a drum performance with samples is not cheating in these same(?) ways. It's still your performance - just touched up a little.


Your scary AF Halloween costume. Now imagine it with a chainsaw.

In order to do reinforce a drum recording with samples, all an engineer needs is a stereo recording of the drums in which each drum can at least be distinguished from the other drums. That’s it. So, while getting great sounding drums right at the source is always the best option, there is a lot a mix engineer can do to help out. For example, even if you only had two mics on the kit, reinforcing with samples can make that kit sound passable. If you're questioning this, reach out to me. I'm happy to show you what's possible with your tracks.


Also, pick-up a used SM57 and use it for all your cabinet miking, will ya?


Here's a really mediocre summary table to wrap it up:

Cheers and happy recording!

Vadim