Last Updated on December 7, 2020 by Dave Tudor
Microphones are important. Which is why pro studios have shed loads of them for a myriad of recording applications from bass drums and guitar cabs through to pianos and drum kits.
But for the more budget minded muso recording at home or amateur studio, vocal microphones are particularly challenging because the human voice is so diverse ranging from the softly spoken folk balladeer to the melt your face off metalhead.
For this reason it’s important to realize that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ scenario here – voices are different; mics are different; acoustic surroundings are different so the best recording microphone will depend on a number of factors. That said, this is a review to help you find the best microphone for recording vocals and that’s precisely what we’re going to try to do.
If you need a good microphone for recording generally, you won’t go far wrong with a large diaphragm condenser and that’s why five out the six mics reviewed here fall into that category. We did however manage to shoehorn a crafty dynamic mic into the mix (no pun intended).
Also, from a connectivity perspective, these are all XLR microphones. For USB variants, check out our separate article. Remember also, this is a ‘real-world’ review. We know the average guy in the street won’t be able to drop $10K on a vintage Neumann.
We should also point out that condenser microphones need external power to operate so make sure your audio interface offers 48V phantom power. Or use a mic preamp.
Whatever mic you choose from this list, we can confidently say that you won’t be disappointed. We’ve researched a ton of models and this is our Super Six. If you simply can’t wait however, our top pick is the Rode NT1 large diaphragm condenser.
What criteria did we consider?
We kept things pretty simple here:
Sound quality: self-explanatory really. How does the mic perform? What’s it’s sound characteristics?
Specification: polar patterns; frequency response; how noisy is the thing in operation? How much sound can the microphone take before it distorts?
Bang for Buck: Price to performance. Important before you part with your hard-earned cash
Top 6 Best Microphones for Recording Vocals
It has to be said, both are top notch large diaphragm condenser microphones, but for us, the NT1 takes the prize simply because it’s such an ‘honest’ mic with a flat, smooth frequency response that faithfully reproduces whatever you throw into it.
The NT-1A by comparison has a frequency boost in the 10-15kHz range which sounded a tad too bright for our liking. The flatter response of the NT-1 means that, at least in theory, it should be more compatible with a greater range of voice types.
The NT1 is supremely quiet. Rode claims it’s the world’s quietest 1 inch cardioid condenser with a noise floor of 4.5dBA. It’s sensitive too – make sure your studio’s quiet – and don’t drop any pins!
In the bundle you get the mic itself obviously, the excellent SM6 shockmount with popshield plus a high quality XLR cable.
It’ll also handle 132dB of sheer vocal rage thrown at it if that’s your thing. This is the worthy winner of our top pick award.
- Flat frequency response for a multitude of vocal ranges
- Decent shockmount
- Quieter than the proverbial mouse
- Extended 10 year warranty if you buy from an authorised seller
- Great for other instruments as well as vocals
- Hardly any
Consider this product if:
You want a mic that does just about everything pretty well. It’s hugely versatile, is built like a tank and the kit is only about $40 more expensive than the NT1-A. For the money, in our humble opinion, this is the best microphone for recording vocals. Check out our full review here.
2. Recommended: Aston Origin
Let’s deal with the specs: this is a 20Hz – 20kHz XLR cardioid large diaphragm condenser mic capable of handling 127dB sound pressure levels (SPLs). It requires 48V phantom power.
Also included is a 10db pad switch for high octane singers and a 80Hz high pass filter to reduce low end when you get up close and intimate with the mic.
Now things get really interesting. The appearance is well, funky to say the least.
The first thing you’ll notice is its elastic, bendy waveform mesh head protecting the 1 inch capsule inside. We really liked the retro, industrial look of this microphone. It’s cool and distinctive.
Under that, there’s a built-in stainless steel mesh knit pop filter. Aston says this negates the use of an external filter but whilst it does a pretty good job on reducing plosives and sibilance, we’d still recommend using an external filter.
Adding further to the funk – you won’t find the faintest whiff of a paint job here – the chassis on the origin is manufactured from vibration tumbled stainless steel that’s really difficult to scratch.
In the sound department, the Aston Origin really excels. It offers a slight boost on upper mids which sounds pleasing on vocals, really cutting through a mix without sounding harsh. It provides a sound that is surprisingly warm and detailed – despite its low price point. See and hear for yourself!
- The best sub $300 large diaphragm condenser around in our opinion
- Highly affordable and high quality. Ideal for hobbyist and pro alike
- Offers surprising warmth, clarity and detail
- Versatile. Great on vocals but good on just about anything
- We’re being picky but a bit light on bass with some voices. Easily remedied with Eq
- A tad noisy compared to other mics in this list
Consider this microphone if:
You want the best condenser microphone available under $300.
A large diaphragm cardioid condenser, the Audio Technica 2035 sits snugly between its cheaper sibling – the AT2020 and the more expensive AT2050 which features switchable polar patterns.
Actually on price alone, the AT2020 is probably the best sub-$100 mic out there but seeing as we’re not judging this purely on price, we would go for the AT2035 every time. You’ll get change out of $150 and we reckon it hits the sweet spot between excellent performance and value for money.
Other advantages over the AT 2020 include a -10dB pad switch which helps when mic’ing loud sound sources like a guitar amp or you’re singing up close to the mic; and a low cut filter switch which cuts low frequencies below 80Hz to eliminate unwanted bass rumble.
The sound of the AT2035 is excellent. A 20Hz – 20kHz frequency response ensures it’s great not only for vocals, but on a variety of instruments like acoustic and electric guitars. It’s a great choice for musos that can’t afford a zillion different mics.
It’s not as quiet as the NT1, but with a self-noise of -12dBA, it’s no slouch. It’ll handle 148dB of vocal bellowing if you’re that way inclined.
- Excellent balanced sound across the spectrum. No artificial flavoring added
- For the money, this really does take some beating. The deal comes with a pop filter and 10ft XLR cable
- The 10dB pad and low cut filter switches really add the versatility
- Great on other instruments
- Sensitive to sibilance
- Actually, this is sensitive mic – period. It will record next door’s dog barking. You’ll need a quiet recording environment
Consider this microphone if:
You want performance at a great price. Sub $150, we believe there isn’t a better mic out there and with a pop shield and XLR cable thrown in for good measure, this is a great deal.
Neumann microphones are legendary in recording circles. Their top end products, like the U87 large diaphragm condenser are industry standards in pro studios, renowned for their warmth, character and purity.
The big problem is that this quality comes at a price – a price that is likely to be beyond the home recording enthusiast or semi-pro studio.
But I don’t think we could look ourselves in the mirror if we left Neumann out of this review, so we haven’t. Their entry-level TLM 102 is every ounce a Neumann thoroughbred and whilst it’s the most expensive mic in this review, its price is justified – because it’s a Neumann.
The TLM 102 is a no-nonsense 20Hz – 20kHz XLR cardioid microphone with no additional bells and whistles. Self-noise is a very respectable 12dBA.
Its real strength lies in its velvety sound. Smooth lows combine with balanced mids and crystal clear highs to produce a really pleasing sound that’s excellent not only on vocals, but also acoustic and electric guitars and drum overheads.
The high end is defined without being harsh or brittle – due largely to a slight boost on the frequency curve at 6 – 10kHz. Up to 6kHz things are pretty linear. Despite its precise manufacture, it can handle a bit of abuse too – up to 144dB in fact.
It has to be said that whilst this is entry-level for Neumann, it’s far from cheap and the box is pretty naff too considering the price. It’s just cardboard.
- Legendary Neumann quality. As a primary mic in a home or semi-pro studio, this will do you proud
- It has a foam-filled grill for reducing plosives and sibilance. We’d still recommend a pop shield though. Comes with a stand mount.
- It’s surprisingly effective on guitar amp cabs. Great on grunge
- Yep OK, we have to say the price. For a Neumann, it’s cheap. But it’s the most expensive on this list and may be beyond the budgets of many
- The box. It deserves better to be honest
Consider this microphone if:
You want Neumann quality and don’t mind paying for it. Dollar for dollar this is an excellent vocal mic – but whilst it’s recommended, it doesn’t feature in our top picks.
This is the second microphone from Australian manufacturer Rode, and this is a different beast to the NT1 because it’s a cardioid pattern valve condenser microphone.
Valve amps are often favored by many guitarists for their warmth and character and it’s the same scenario with microphones – the NTK comes with a hand-selected twin-triode 6922 valve.
At 760g, it’s a bit of a monster so you’ll need a decent shockmount and mic stand to stop the thing toppling over. Like many large diaphragm condensers in this review, frequency response is a wide 20Hz – 20kHz. Self-noise is pretty good at 12dBA.
But what does it sound like? Well, like a fine wine it’s warm, clear and full-bodied and that tube warmth really does shine through especially on vocals. With a maximum SPL of 158dB, the NTK can take a battering – and it comes with a 10 year warranty from authorised dealers.
It’s not all rosy with the NTK’s sound however. Its frequency curve features some presence boosts that can make some voices sound harsh. This can be negated by replacing the tube but be aware that this may invalidate warranties – and it’s an added cost.
The Rode NTK comes with its own power supply (and cable) so you won’t need phantom power – which is nice. Great storage case too.
- The sound. Lots of audiophiles swear by the warm qualities of the NTK
- Built like the proverbial brick ****house
- Not cheap – but still value for money in our opinion
- It’s got valves in it – so it’s best to warm up the tube for at least 30 minutes before use
- The sound is too brittle and bright on some voices
- Be prepared to change the tube for optimum results – which is extra cost
- Best to get a dedicated shock mount – also extra cost
- Uses a non-standard 7-pin XLR cable. Guard this with your life as it’s expensive to replace
Consider this microphone if:
You want that warm tube sound. However for some, its colored sound and presence boosts on certain frequencies will sound harsh and over-trebly. Replacing the tube will mean extra cost.
The NTK is a welcome addition to any recording studio. Try before you buy if you can.
However, depending on your voice and style of music, especially if you’re into crazy, rockier, rappier or shoutier stuff (invented words alert) a dynamic mic could well be the option to go for. You lose some of the clarity and shine of a condenser but that may suit your style.
For $99, the Shure SM57 is a legendary cardioid dynamic microphone. Although it’s more widely known for mic’ing guitar amp cabs, it’s also an excellent vocal mic. There’s a video on YouTube showing an SM57 being run over by a tour bus and still working afterwards. This mic is hard as nails.
Being a dynamic mic, the SM57 requires no phantom power, but be aware that ideally you’ll need a decent audio interface to power this thing properly.
That’s because cranking up the gain will introduce some noise – perhaps not good if you’re a silky smooth crooner, but hardly a problem if you’re a death metal screamer or a raucous rapper.
Why did we choose this over the more vocally oriented SM58? Well we prefer it. It’s quite flat in the lower mid-range unlike the 58 so the sound is less colored, and it has a wider range in the high frequencies which gives a ‘sweeter’ sound.
Because of a lack of a ‘blast’ windscreen on the SM57, on vocals, it’s prone to plosives – ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds. For this reason, the purchase of a Shure A2WS windshield is highly recommended.
- For certain rockier styles, only a dynamic mic will do
- It’s a legend for a reason and hugely versatile. If you were stranded on a desert island and was only able to take one microphone, this would probably be it
- Has a multitude of uses. The de facto standard for mic’ing guitar cabs
- Value for money and then some
- It generates quite a bit of self-noise – but then it’s designed to work in noisier environments
- Beware of cheap, counterfeit imitations. There’s a ton of them out there
- You’ll definitely need a windshield to avoid excessive ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds
- Mic positioning will take some experimentation. Singing close to the mic introduces more bass because of the proximity effect
Consider this microphone if:
You’re more interested in character than a perfect, noise free recording. SM57s are built like tanks and found in just about every studio in the world. Good on just about anything.
The Bottom Line
There’s really not much to choose between the Rode NT1 and Aston Origin. We were torn. We’re impressed by the honesty of the Rode, but we like the quirky Britishness of the Aston. Getting off the fence, our top pick for the best microphone for recording vocals is the Rode NT1. Just.