The best mics to buy in 2020: 16 best vocal microphones

Choose the right microphone for capturing exceptional vocal performances.

Vocals are often the most recognisable element in a song – after all, the human voice is our oldest musical instrument. Because of our familiarity with its qualities, it’s also where listeners are most likely to pick up on recording artefacts, mixing mistakes and other oddities. So your vocals must be well-recorded, and choosing the best vocal microphone for your needs is crucial.

Dynamics or Condensers

Vocal microphones tend to fall into these two major categories. Dynamics generally are better at handling high sound pressure levels (SPL), and thus tend to pair well with loud singers in a recording situation. They are also generally robust, making them the best vocal microphones for live purposes.

Condensers, on the other hand, are revered for their sensitivity, particularly to high-frequency details that might be lost on a dynamic. A large-diaphragm condenser mic usually yields attractive results when used on vocals, but that too can depend on environmental and physiological factors. Ribbons are a whole other game, and we won’t be discussing them here.

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In our recent interview with Paul Pritchard, the Abbey Road engineer discussed tracking vocals in a small room. He offered this advice: “Sometimes going away from a condenser mic and towards something more like the Shure SM7B [a dynamic mic] because it’s got a built-in pop filter, you can physically get closer. And it’s slightly narrower in its polar pattern. Sometimes that eliminates a bit of the room sound, but what you gain there, you lose in microphone sensitivity.”

Picking a microphone with the right voicing to match a source’s timbre can also work to the engineer’s advantage. For example, the warm qualities of valve condensers can complement sources with a lot of high-frequency content, such as a soprano vocalist or bright cymbals.

Dynamic Microphones

Shure SM7B

The SM7 has been in production in one form or another since has the 70s, and as far as dynamic mics go, it’s a popular one for vocal tracking. The SM7 or, later SM7A and SM7B versions, have seen their share of famous users, including Michael Jackson and James Hetfield of Metallica. Its low sensitivity makes it ideal for use with loud vocalists, as well as with other loud sources where a sensitive condenser might be overwhelmed.

It features a built-in windscreen, making it resistant to plosives and is the mic of choice for many broadcasters (ahem, Joe Rogan). One thing to note about the SM7B’s lower sensitivity is that some cheaper audio interfaces may not supply enough mic input gain to get a workable level from it. A popular fix for this is to pair it with a Cloudlifter, a low-noise external mic preamp that adds 25dB of clean gain.

  • Price: $399/£349
  • Type: Dynamic
  • Additional features: Bass roll-off, presence boost
  • Frequency response: 50Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar pattern: Cardioid

Aston Stealth

Aston Stealth

This large-chassis dynamic could be the best vocal microphone for music-makers who want more options in a single mic. It offers four switchable voices: two optimised for low and high vocal registers, one for tracking guitars (both acoustic and through a speaker cabinet) and a “dark” voice, which mimics the warm qualities commonly associated with ribbon microphones.

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The Stealth can be operated with or without phantom power, letting users decide between using the microphone’s built-in Class A mic preamp, or an external one. Apart from that, this microphone also comes equipped with an internal Sorbothane shock mount system.

Read our review here.

  • Price: $379/£295
  • Type: Dynamic
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar pattern: Cardioid

Rode PodMic

Røde Podmic

Rode’s commitment to making professional recording tools more affordable is impressive. With the PodMic, the brand has created a no-frills dynamic microphone that could be considered the SM7B’s little brother, for a third of the price. This straightforward microphone pairs well with vocals and comes with an internal shockmount and pop filter. We recommend pairing this with the WS4 windshield, too, just in case you find yourself working with a singer that tends to get too close to the mic, as it eliminates any chance of capturing an errant plosive.

  • Price: $99/£109
  • Type: Dynamic
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar pattern: Cardioid

Condensers

Neumann U87 Ai

Neumann U87

The Neumann U87 is so ubiquitous that we couldn’t possibly leave it off this list. It’s been endearingly referred to as “every engineer’s second favourite microphone” because it’s such an able all-rounder. No matter what you point the U87 at – singer, bassoon, guitar, congas – it just seems to handle it beautifully. And for the price, it absolutely should.

It’s made even more versatile by its three polar patterns (cardioid, omni and figure-eight); a -10dB pad, great for capturing louder sources, and a low-cut for curbing unwanted proximity induced low-mid boost while in either of the directional modes.

  • Price: $3,600/£2,265
  • Type: Capacitor (Condenser)
  • Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Polar patterns: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-eight

Aston Spirit

Aston Spirit

The Spirit is an affordable UK-built microphone with tried-and-true vocal capturing talents, with a similar build and cardioid pickup pattern to the exceptional Aston Origin. Like its sibling, the Spirit focuses on sounding natural rather than flattering, and that’s in part because a crack team of engineers and producers helped decide on its voicing. While this means that you may have to put in more time in post-processing, it does allow for greater flexibility.

The Spirit brings along three switchable polar patterns: cardioid, omni and figure-eight. These increase its versatility around the studio. We found in our tests that its omni mode could have been flatter. But this doesn’t downplay that fact that the Spirit is still a tremendous sounding multi-purpose microphone and a worthy adversary to pricier options like the AKG 414 XLS.

Read our review.

  • Price: $449/£299
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar patterns: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-eight

Sontronics ARIA

Sontronics Aria

The head grille on this large-diaphragm valve condenser looks like a hybrid of the classic AKG C12 and a tapered Neumann design. In our vocal tests, we found that the Aria offered a breathy presence, flattering and subtle mids, excellent detail resolution and no low-end boominess. It handles sibilance very well. The Aria also features a reasonably wide cardioid pickup pattern, with an off-axis response that’s extra forgiving for singers who tend to move around.

Read our full review here.

  • Price: $1,599/£1,139
  • Type: Valve condenser
  • Frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar pattern: Cardioid
  • Additional features: -10dB pad, 75Hz linear filter

AKG C414 XLII

C414 AKG

A real studio workhorse, AKG’s C414 comes in two modern editions, with the difference being capsule design. While the C414 XLS provides a flatter frequency response and is suited to a wide range of sources, the C414 XLII’s capsule design, based on the revered C12, introduces a 3kHz presence boost that’s particularly flattering for female vocalists.

Both versions offer five polar patterns (nine if you include blended options), three pad and low cut filter options that make them applicable on numerous instruments. The 80Hz low-cut, in particular, is handy for rolling off low-end rumble mitigating environmental noise.

  • Price: $1,099/£739
  • Type: Multi-pattern FET condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Omni, Wide Cardioid, Cardioid, Hypercardioid, Figure-eight
  • Additional features: Pad at -6, -12 and -18 dB; Low-cut filter at 160Hz, 80Hz and 40Hz

Lewitt LCT 440 Pure

Lewitt LCT440

The LCT 440 Pure is an affordable large-diaphragm condenser that sports a fixed cardioid pickup pattern. This mic excels for vocal capture, offering a low signal-to-noise ratio and a sound that’s full-bodied and rich, with some subtly flattering highs.

What’s appreciated too is that the LCT 440 Pure comes with some handy accessories, including a shockmount, a magnetic pop filter and a leather carrying bag.

  • Price: $269/£205
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Cardioid

Townsend Labs Sphere L-22

With some smart software, Townsend Labs claims the Sphere L-22 can mimic both the frequency response and polar pattern of many desirable mics. Its dual-channel design even lets it track in stereo. Paired with a companion plug-in that visualises the direction and levels of sounds being picked up, you can ‘virtually’ adjust the axis of the microphone and even change mic models after tracking.

The Sphere L-22 comes preloaded with 30 microphone models, including ones based on the AKG C414 and Neumann U87. Of course, all this does come at a premium, but if your pockets are deep enough to plump for this in the first place, you may never have to buy another vocal microphone.

  • Price: $1,499/£1,379
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-eight
  • Additional features: Modelling, Pad at -10db, -20dB

Warm Audio WA-251

Warm Audio WA-251

Warm Audio is renowned for its affordable reproductions of sought-after studio staples, ranging from some of the best vocal microphones such as the Neumann U87 to rack compressors such as the UA 1176 and LA-2A.

The WA-251 is based on the legendary Telefunken ELA-M251, a microphone so revered in American recording studios that it’s often referred to only by number. Considering that the originals made by AKG in 1959 cost an absolute fortune today, it’s especially comforting to know that Warm Audio’s reproduction is not a bad one at all.

Read our review here.

  • Price: $799/£789
  • Type: Large-diaphragm valve condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20 kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Cardioid, Omni, Figure-eight

Austrian Audio OC18

Austrian Audio OC18

At the core of Austrian Audio’s OC18 and OC818 microphones is the brand’s CKR-12 ceramic capsule, handmade in Vienna and based on the ‘brass ring’ version of the legendary CK-12 capsule found in vintage AKG microphones.

The OC18 is the cardioid-only edition of the two microphones and is well-suited for tracking vocals and other acoustic instruments. When we reviewed both mics last year, we found that the OC18 had a slightly more boosted mid-high frequency than the OC818, which can be flattering on some vocals.

Read our full review here. 

  • Price: $749/£670
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Cardioid
  • Additional Features: Pad at -10dB and -20dB; Low-cut filter at 40Hz, 80Hz and 160Hz

Chandler Limited TG Microphone

Chandler Limited TG

The Chandler TG Microphone is the latest in a long line of products based on historic equipment from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. Instead of being a reproduction of a particular microphone, however, this large-diaphragm FET condenser culls features from the EMI TG12410 Transfer Consoles for a genuinely unique microphone.

The microphone borrows from the mastering consoles’ tape-equalisation systems to give you five EQ options that are distinct in tone. On top of that, the TG Microphone gives you two voicings, A and B. Mode A is ideal for tracking vocals, while mode B is more capable at handling the higher SPLs of guitar amps and drums.

Read our full review here.

  • Price: $1,849/£1,925
  • Type: Large-diaphragm FET condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Omni, Cardioid
  • Pad: -10dB
  • Low Cut: 50Hz, 90Hz

Rode NTK

Rode NTK

Pairing the warmth of a valve condenser with an edgy vocal can be complementary – but valve condensers don’t usually come cheap. That’s possibly why the Rode NTK is one of the company’s best-sellers, coming in at around 500 smackers.

This large-diaphragm condenser benefits from its 6922 twin-triode valve that creates the vintage warmth of early recording eras. It pairs well with vocals, guitar amplifiers and performs ably as a drum overhead.

  • Price: $529/£449
  • Type: Large-diaphragm valve condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Cardioid

SE Electronics sE2300

sE2300

The sE2300 is the multi-pattern sibling of the hugely popular sE2200, famously adopted by vocal powerhouses such as Amy Winehouse. This smooth-sounding microphone builds upon its predecessor by adding an optimised signal path that delivers even lower noise and increased clarity.

On top of that, are all-new pad and filter options that increase the microphone’s versatility. For home producers who don’t yet own a large-diaphragm condenser, this affordable offering could be the best vocal microphone you can add to beef up your mic locker. It also doesn’t hurt that the sE2300 comes with a shockmount and pop filter.

  • Price: $399/£259
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Polar Patterns: Cardioid, Omni, and Figure-eight
  • Additional Features: Pad at -10dB and -20dB; Low-cut filter at 80Hz and 160Hz

Audio-Technica AT-2035

audio Technica at2035

Audio-Technica makes a plethora of excellent condenser microphones – and they’re often overlooked. If you’re looking for a rugged, low-noise option for critical applications such as voice and guitar, the AT-2035 is an all-rounder at an excellent price. This microphone demonstrates excellent SPL handling and offers high-pass and pad options letting you tackle all types of studio sound sources.

  • Price: $229/£149
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Pattern: Cardioid
  • Additional Features: -10dB pad, 80Hz low-cut filter

Neumann TLM 102

Neumann TLM102

Neumann has enjoyed a legendary reputation since the earliest days of the recording industry. While not a vintage microphone from the brand’s golden years, the TLM-102 large-diaphragm condenser microphone still fits in very well with the brand’s heritage both in quality and looks.

It’s an impressively versatile microphone, demonstrating a flat response with a flattering presence boost for vocals. Notably, the TLM-102 comes priced unnaturally low for a Neumann, giving even amateur producers the chance to say aloud to talents: “I figure we’ll use the Neumann on this one.”

  • Price: $699/£549
  • Type: Large-diaphragm condenser
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz
  • Polar Pattern: Cardioid

For more buyer’s guides, click here.

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