January 14, 2021
When it comes to picking your ideal vocal mic, you can read for days about various recommendations, polar patterns, frequency response, mic styles, SPL, response curves, proximity effect, and so on. But since the human voice is so variable, specific recommendations can easily lead you astray.
Instead, we’ll go over the major considerations which will narrow your choices down significantly – and then it’s just a matter of listening.
There are three basic types of microphone: dynamics, condensers, and ribbons. Without getting too technical, the most robust types of mics - capable of handling high volume and rough handling - are dynamics. The cost of this toughness is a little less high-end definition and clarity. Since the stage can be a rough, loud place, dynamics are the mic of chose for pretty much all uses on stage, including vocals. Dynamic vocal mics such as Carvin Audio’s M68 typically include a built-in windscreen and pop filter and some kind of internal shock mount to reduce handling noise. The M68 can even be paired with the Carvin Audio WM5 Wireless Microphone System for a wireless solution. Reliable, great vocal mics for the stage are not expensive.
Condensers are ubiquitous in studio settings, as they tend to offer accuracy and plenty of high-frequency definition and “air”. Condensers can be more delicate than dynamic mics and because they are more sensitive, they’re more prone to feedback issues on stage. In addition, condenser mics require a power source (typically phantom power). So, condensers are mostly for studio use, and vocals are typically recorded with condenser mics.
Ribbon mics are the most delicate type of mic, and they can be highly sensitive to high sound pressure levels. In fact, traditional ribbons mics can be damaged if they’re used on drums, guitar cabinets, or other loud sources. A ribbon mic is almost never appropriate in a stage setting but can be an incredible choice for instruments such as acoustic guitars, pianos (if not too loud), strings, or even vocals. In general, ribbon microphones are the most expensive category (although studio condensers can also range from $50 to $20,000 and more).
Once you know what your use is and have picked a type, the next consideration is polar pattern, aka pickup pattern. Polar pattern is simply the definition of how wide an area around the mic picks up sound.
In a unidirectional mic, sound is only picked up in one direction. Omnidirectional mics pick up sound coming from all directions. The other major pickup patterns are cardioid (a heart shaped pattern in front of the mic) and figure 8 (equal patterns in front and back of the mic).
Every mic’s documentation includes picture(s) of its pickup pattern, which can vary in many ways including width, amount of rear and side pickup, and so on.
Most vocal microphones for the stage lean toward unidirectional or some kind of narrow cardioid pattern. Consider how loud your band is, how much you will move, whether you’ll carry the mic, and so on. If you have the mic on a stand and you tend to sway, for example, a wider pattern may help keep you from fading out when you move out of the pattern.
On the other hand, a somewhat unidirectional mic will better isolate the vocal from the band and crowd and keep feedback to a minimum.
In the studio, a condenser mic with switchable patterns is often desirable, as this allows flexibility depending on the room tone, whether the band is in the room, and whether or not you’re recording up multiple singers at once.
If you’re looking for a stage microphone, the other big question is whether to go wireless. Wireless handheld mics such as Carvin Audio's UX1200MC give a singer the distinct advantage of being able to move freely around the stage without tangling up and even to leave the stage. If you’re a singer who loves to move a lot, or someone who wants to go into the audience and interact, a wireless mic may be just the tool you need to free yourself up and reach the next level.
For most performers, handheld mics do the trick. However, some performers may prefer or even need a headset mic. Wireless headset systems such as Carvin Audio’s UX1200BP1T system are often used in theatrical situations such as plays or musicals, and for professional public speakers. Dancers who need their hands free have to use such a system and speakers who like to roam, gesture with their hands, and forget about the microphone may prefer this kind of mic. Even some music artists who need their hands to play an instrument but want to move around the stage could benefit from a headset mic.
If you’re a guitarist and lead singer who likes to roam the stage and go into the audience, pairing a headset system with a wireless guitar system like Carvin Audio's UX1200BGT would do the trick.
Finally, we come to the most important advice on choosing a vocal mic. Listen. If possible, compare candidates head-to-head to determine which microphone suits your voice, your genre, and your personal preference.
Especially when it comes to studio work, studio condensers have a wide range of character. You may find that the most expensive, sought after vocal mic in the world just doesn’t suit your voice, whereas another lesser-known mic is perfect. Compare multiple mics on the same performance by setting them all up and comparing the resulting recording to see which mic captures you best. In particular, listen for any bad qualities like muddiness, harsh high end, or clipping.
For live performance, make note of your experience with mics in different venues, and use some rehearsal time to compare possible mics for future use. Again, listen for any bad qualities, and make sure the mic you pick gives you the best chance to cut through the noise and be clearly heard. Although most handheld vocal mics look quite similar, you’d be surprised at the difference in character they can have. Be sure to sing like you would in a show and do your best to recreate the dynamics of the band – including the loudness of drums and guitars.
In the end, choosing a vocal mic is like choosing a car or a guitar. There may be some amazing choices out there, but not all of them will be right for you. Take the time to compare and listen, though, and you’ll find the perfect match.
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