Many new home studio owners want to know if they can achieve good sounding vocals at home without paying for expensive studio time or costly equipment. This is actually very achievable as we’ll see in the article below.
When I first started recording vocals in my home studio, all I had was my snare drum’s Shure SM57. I soon realized that by spending a little time and effort on set up, and in post-production, I could get a pretty good vocal sound even with such a cheap microphone.
With a budget of a hundred dollars, it’s incredible what you can do to get great-sounding vocals at home. To begin, we're going to assume that you already have a DAW and USB audio interface and therefore the $100 budget is to spend on a microphone.
Can I get great-sounding vocals at home for under $100? Yes, you certainly can! There is a choice of microphones available in this price bracket, and with some careful, considered preparation, you can achieve some astounding results. Buy an SM58, use a pop filter, a minimum amount of compression, EQ, stereo widening, maybe some double-tracking, and your vocals can sound polished and complete.
Figure 1: Budget Microphones
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of microphone choices, let’s discuss a little about what makes a suitable studio vocal mic.
The Dynamic and Condenser Microphones are the most prevalent microphone types that are used in recording today. Dynamic microphones are perfect for stage use due to the sound quality as well as their robust design (Shure SM57 and SM58 mics are the most common types and generally less expensive than condenser mics). This particular type is more reliable for those who play live, for public speaking, guitar playing at high levels and for recording vocals.
Condenser microphones have two different types: large and small diaphragm. Condenser microphones can capture a broader frequency range as well as having an excellent transient response and louder output. This type is useful for recording vocals due to their warm enhancement of audio signals making vocals sound very clear.
However, they are susceptible to loud sounds, especially if a room is not acoustically treated. They are likely to pick up all the detail and nuance of a voice that you may not want to hear in your recording.
The Ribbon Microphone is the third type of microphone. This type is more costly and therefore mostly used by professionals.
If you don’t own an Audio Interface USB or DAW and still need to stick to that $100 budget, there are USB microphones available that will go straight to your laptop or PC where you will be able to record directly to free software such as Audacity. You will still be able to process your vocal recording, but it will be a little cumbersome, and you need to spend a lot more time and effort getting your vocals just right. It is still totally doable though!
If you are thinking of going the USB and Audacity route, however, we highly recommend that you don’t! Especially if you are going to be multi-tracking and mixing your vocals with some music.
Save a few more pennies and go for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface. It ships with a copy of Pro Tools First plus some free Softube plug-in goodies. Including a very decent reverb that sounds awesome on vocals.
If you’re starting off your home studio and plan on building up your gear over time, here’s my recommendation for a microphone. I recommend the Shure SM58. This is a versatile microphone for a studio, great for a lot of things and pretty good on vocals. It’s a microphone that once you buy will probably always have a job in your home studio.
Figure 2: SM58 For Recording Vocals on a Tight Budget
Alternatively, if you don’t think so, and it’s kept in good condition, an SM58 holds its value quite well, and you will have no problem selling it on for a reasonable price. And putting the cash towards more gear in the future.
I wasn’t surprised to read on the Shure website (www.shure.com) that more than a few artists have recorded vocals for commercial tracks using the famed SM58. The SM58 artists included John Lennon, Rod Stewart, Billy Idol, and Henry Rollins. I’m sure there are plenty of others too who didn’t reveal their “secret.”
The Shure SM58 (SM stands for Studio Microphone) can be considered as one of the best-selling microphones in the world which is commonly used in live vocal applications, and studio recording.
It has a great tailored vocal frequency response (from 50 Hz to 15,000 Hz) for sound with bass roll-off and with a brightened midrange. Shure SM58 has an excellent uniform cardioid (unidirectional) dynamic pickup pattern with the ability to isolate the principal sound source and to reduce background noises. Shure SM58 has an exceedingly efficient spherical filter which decreases wind and breath noises. Moreover, its pneumatic shock-mount system minimizes noise.
Not convinced? Okay, here are a few of the choices to consider:
The MXL 770 is a high-quality multipurpose condenser microphone with a clear top end and a solid low-frequency response. It can be used for vocals, recordings, broadcast, and instruments. This type of microphone has a low-frequency roll-off that helps to minimize unwanted noises and rumblings.
Figure 3: MXL Vocal Microphone Set Up With Pop Filter
The MXL 770 is wired with pro ‘Mogami’ cable for exceptional sound quality and comes with a shock mount to decrease mechanical vibrations. Furthermore, specs include a 10db pad to enable a wide variety of sound sources. Overall, this is a budget-friendly model with the right combination of quality and flexibility that provides value for both home recording and professional studios.
The MXL 990 is a high-quality condenser microphone with a tight solid bass and a silky sweet top end that perfectly works for recording vocals. The MXL 990 has FET preamp and a large diaphragm which enhances the sound quality in both digital and analog recordings. It has a fixed cardioid pickup pattern and a 22mm capsule with a sputtered diaphragm.
This model provides FET preamp with balanced output and vintage body style with silver finish. The MXL 990 provides a solid low and midrange reproduction during the work. This model has four stars out of five based on customer feedback.
Or, go for the MXL 990 Midnight Special Edition which comes complete with an XLR cable.
The AT2020 is a cardioid condenser microphone produced by Audio-Technica and was designed for project and home-studio vocal applications. The AT2020 has an unmatched versatility due to high-SPL handling, and the wide dynamic range allows the capture of loud signals with minimal distortion and noise.
Also, it has the custom-engineered low-mass diaphragm that provides extended frequency response and superior transient response. It has sound source isolation, the cardioid polar pattern, which helps to reduce pickup of sounds from different sides, to reject the noise at the off-axis sections of the microphone capsule and to improve the isolation of the desired sound source.
The Samson C01 is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone which is perfect for recording acoustic instruments and vocals. It can be used as an overhead drum mic, and it has a dual-layer 19mm diaphragm which creates a smooth frequency response due to its cardioid pickup pattern. Its characteristics also include two thin sensor membranes which can detect extremely detailed sounds.
Overall, the Samson C01 is a microphone which can capture intricate sounds with high accuracy, warm bass, and extended top end; additionally, it includes a gauge mesh grill and a gold-plated XLR connector, along with an LED used to monitor the mic’s 48V phantom power.
We can see in Table 1 that the list of microphones vary in weight, frequency response, and impedance. All microphones have a cardioid pattern and are XLR compatible (see the article on the importance of XLR cables here). As the mic will be held in a stand, the weight is not too critical. And generally, there is no significant difference between 150 ohms and 200 ohms of impedance when comparing these microphones.
|Shure SM58||298 g||⬤||⬤||50Hz to 15kHz||150 Ω|
|MXL 770||454 g||⬤||⬤||30Hz to 20kHz||150 Ω|
|MXL 990||544 g||⬤||⬤||30Hz to 20kHz||150 Ω|
|Audio-technica AT2020||345 g||⬤||⬤||20Hz to 20kHz||200 Ω|
|Samson C01||537g||⬤||⬤||40Hz to 18kHz||200 Ω|
Table 1: Comparison of Budget Home Studio Vocal Microphones
The frequency response, however, needs a little explanation. It’s probably safe to ignore the lower frequency ranges in the table, as we tend to roll off frequencies of vocals at the 100 Hz mark. And for the higher ranges, 15 kHz to 20 kHz, there is no significant difference in performance for these budget microphones.
I can feel the excitement building here as we look at what’s available in the $100 price range. And, if you’re starting to think that your budget could be a little higher, or that the $100 microphones are not quite what you’re looking for let’s see what you can get hold of for $200.
Is it possible to get twice the mic for twice the price?
Again, Shure has a great product, the Shure PGA 27 LC microphone steals in at just $199. The Shure PGA27 LC has a large diaphragm cartridge which offers a wide dynamic range for enhanced sound clarity, both highs, and lows. It can reject unwanted background noise due to its cardioid polar pattern and benefits from an updated design, which has a metallic black finish and grille.
Additional SPL versatility is offered by its -15dB switchable attenuator, with a shock mount attached for increased set-up stability and reduced transient noise. Overall, the Shure PGA27 is a first-class choice for flawless performance in robust environments.
The Audio-Technica AT2035 microphone is designed for a wide variety of needs, being suitable for both home and professional studios. High sound pressure levels are handled with ease by the AT2035 due to the inclusion of a switchable 80 Hz high-pass filter and 10 dB pad.
The large diaphragm provides advantages such as low transient noise, with natural smooth sounds. The microphone has outstanding versatility due to the high SPL handling and the wide dynamic range. Additionally, the AT2035 comes with a custom shock mount for better isolation and a protective pouch.
The AKG Pro Audio P420 is another excellent budget microphone with its one-inch dual-diaphragm, and an option of three selectable polar patterns. It is perfect for project studio recording applications, as it offers high sensitivity and 155dB maximum SPL.
The microphone is best known for its warm and transparent sound quality, which is a great choice for ensemble recording, woodwind, grand piano and brass instruments, percussion and drums. The microphone can be easily used for ambient recording and stereo miking techniques due to its cardioid, figure 8 or omnidirectional polar patterns.
Now that we’ve decided on a microphone, let’s discuss how we can use it and how to get the best, and most professional sound that we can.
The $100 budget may or may not have been enough to get yourself a $15 pop filter. There is a DIY route for making your own pop filter out of a coathanger and a pair of stockings. In either case, a pop filter will definitely help when recording vocals and it comes highly recommended (read the article here about the use of pop filters in a home studio).
After you have recorded your vocals successfully onto a DAW track, consider recording the same vocal another two times so that you can double track it to make it sound thicker in the mix. Postprocessing of your vocal recordings will likely need some mild compression, EQ, and some delicate plate and room reverb to make your vocals sound smooth and pop out in the mix.
As I was considering low-cost vocal microphones, I wondered, “What Is the Most Expensive Microphone in the World?”
So, just for fun, I decided to do a little bit more research. Just to be clear, we are going to exclude any Platinum Plated, Diamond Studded, Owned by Elvis, Sold at Sotheby’s entries! The list below are commercially available, sold online, top of the range studio microphones.
As I said, this is just for a bit of fun, or something to aspire to, or just drool over!
As it turns out, there are a few that cost more than my first car. Here are the top three most expensive microphones that I found:
There we have it! Remember to bookmark this page so that when you win big on the lottery, you can come back and get all three.
What level should vocals be recorded at? To record vocals, or any instrument, into your DAW, it is highly recommended to use Bob Katz’s K system. The K-20 is perfect for recording and mixing. K-20 provides 20 dB of headroom for recording and mixing. In the digital domain, 20 dB is more than adequate to record quality vocals without fear of distorting or clipping the audio signal. Be sure that your vocalist can be heard in the quiet parts of the song, while not distorting in the louder parts. Spend some time finding the optimum distance for the singer to sing into the microphone.
How loud should vocals be in a mix? the vocal is often the most essential element in a song. It is the vocals that carry the song from the start to the end. The vocals are the most critical component for delivering the emotion and passion of the composition. And therefore the vocal should not be buried deeply in a mix. How loud the vocal should be depends on the song style, arrangement, and genre but as a good starting point, try matching the vocal level with the kick and snare drum. Another method for setting the vocal level in a mix is to use the fader. Fade the vocal out until it can’t be heard, then fade the vocal in until it’s too loud, and finally, then move the fader exactly halfway between those two moves.
Should I record vocals in mono or stereo? Generally, you should record your vocals in mono, not stereo. If you want to add stereo width to your vocals sound, record an additional two takes, and pan them right and left to create a thickening and widening effect. A similar result can also be achieved by copying the mono track and pitch shifting the right and left tracks up and down a few semitones.