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Music

How to Choose the Right Microphone for a Voice Over

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:

The internet is full of awful voice recordings. That may sound harsh, but it’s very true. 

Now that pretty much every device includes some kind of microphone, it’s easy to be lazy and neglect this critical element of recording equipment. 

To produce good content, high quality audio is key. To achieve high quality audio, you need to use a dedicated microphone.

Of course, there are many elements to making a high quality voice recording, not just the microphone. But this is perhaps the easiest element for us to control and improve. 

Other elements such as recording technique, EQ and compression are vital for manipulating the sound that the microphone captures. You can't completely change the sound with these other things, only improve it.

The character and tone of a voice recording is decided by the choice of microphone—ensure you get it right.

Microphone Type

You may be aware that there are different types of microphone. I won’t go in to the finer details of how they work, and I won’t discuss the boring stuff. What I will do is tell you what you need to know:

  • Dynamic microphones are great for getting warm sounding voice recordings.
  • Condenser microphones are great for getting clear and natural sounding voice recordings.

One is not better than the other; they each have their uses. It is also worth noting that condenser mics require phantom power, whereas dynamic mics don’t. To use a condenser mic you will need to use an audio interface that supplies phantom power—such as the amazing PreSonus AudioBox—or a USB microphone.

These categories can be split further as there are in fact two different types of condenser microphone: 

  • Large Diaphragm Condenser, and 
  • Small Diaphragm Condenser

Large diaphragm microphones give the most natural and clear sound, whereas small diaphragm microphones tend to boost the top end slightly and give a brighter sound.

Shotgun mics also have a use in voice recording in a studio environment—not just on location—as they give a sound that cuts through really well for adverts.

But the main thing to remember is dynamic for warm—think audio books, podcasts—condenser for clear—think videos, online courses.

Mic Pattern

There are numerous different mic patterns, but here I'll primarily address one: Cardioid.  

It’s easy to remember—the word cardioid is derived from the same Latin word as cardiology, referring to the heart. As you can see below, the pick-up pattern of these microphones is almost heart shaped.

Image of a cardioid microphone polar pattern from Wikimedia
Image of a cardioid microphone polar pattern from Wikimedia

This is the best pattern to use in pretty much all home studio situations. Cardioid microphones reject sound from behind so are best used in rooms that are un-treated or don’t sound particularly good.

Another highly popular pattern is omnidirectional. These mics record sound from all around them equally. This is perfect for a studio environment where we want to capture as much of the room as possible, but not in a home studio environment. Stick to cardioid mics when recording at home—not just for speech, but for pretty much everything.

Applying these two rules you can come up with a list of great microphones to use for voice recording depending on what sound you want to achieve.

Warm Sound (or a Particularly Bad Room)

To get a nice warm sound that is perfect for radio, audiobooks, or anything that you wanted to sound comforting and friendly, use a dynamic microphone.

Dynamic mics are also less sensitive to high frequencies so capture room abnormalities less than condenser mics, so if you have a weird or unpleasant sounding room, pick up one of these. 

If you want to make the sound even warmer, exploit the proximity effect and increase the bass by moving the mic closer to your mouth—but don’t get too close as you could exaggerate the low frequencies too much and get a muddy sound.

Sennheiser MD421

A Sennheiser MD421 Microphone
A Sennheiser MD421 Microphone

This is a classic mic commonly used on drums but has a wide range of applications. This is great for spoken word and was original designed for speech. 

It even has a switch on it with two positions—one for speech labelled S and one for music labelled M. If you're using it for speech, experiment with both positions, don’t just automatically go for S.

Shure SM7B

A favourite of many a vocalist, this mic sounds awesome on sung vocals too. This is my personal favourite for getting that warm radio sound. And it's not just me—these mic's are used in radio stations around the world.

Clear and Natural Sound

In this case, pretty much any cardioid large diaphragm condenser will do. These mics can be used for absolutely anything, and wherever you want to get a natural representation of a sound, a large diaphragm condenser can be used. 

A large diaphragm condenser microphone
A large diaphragm condenser microphone

AKG C414

An old classic, this condenser has been used in studios for decades—and for a reason. It’s relatively small compared to other large diaphragm condensers so is easier to position and store. 

It also has a switch-able pattern—I’d recommend leaving it on cardioid, but you have other options available if you need them. The figure-of-eight pattern is great for one-on-one interviews.

Røde NT1

A highly affordable condenser and the staple of a good percentage of home studios. Everyone should own one of these.

Bright Sound

If you want to achieve a bright, shiny sound (more treble and high frequencies) go for a small diaphragm condenser. Any will work, but here are two particularly effective and popular models.

A small diaphragm condenser microphone and me
A small diaphragm condenser microphone (and me)

AKG C1000

Arguably the most common small diaphragm condenser in existence. It is a quite large for a this mic type, but still has that classic pencil shape. Another word for this type of mic is pencil condenser.

Oktavia MK-012

Somewhat of an under dog, I have owned a pair of these Russian made mics for years and they have never let me down. Highly affordable, great sound, and switch-able patterns—with additional modules—awesome.

Avoid Dedicated Live Vocal Microphones

...Unless you're recording live

A dedicated live vocal microphone
A dedicated live vocal microphone

One of the worst mics you can use at home or in a studio is a purpose made live vocal mic, such as the Shure SM58. These mics are designed to cut through in a loud environment and work best when you get right up to the mic.

Due to the proximity effect evident in cardioid microphones, the closer you get the more bass you get. To compensate for this these microphones are made with a lower responsiveness to bass frequencies, so as soon as we move the mic away from the speaker you'll lose all of the bass. 

In a studio situation where you are trying to capture a more natural sound, this is not what we want at all.

These mics usually have a colouration in the mids to help cut through on a PA system—another reason we don’t want to use them in a studio environment.

Mic Shoot-out Video

Now listen to how different each of these microphones sound. 

In this video you can also hear how a dedicated live vocal mic, such as the SM58, sounds odd in a quiet environment.

Conclusion

So now you know which mic to use in which situation. The important lesson here is that most microphones will work for recording speech and spoken word—it just depends what kind of sound you want to achieve.

A big part of the sound that you get is also down to the room and mic positioning. When recording speech you want to have the mic at least 5 inches from the speakers mouth if you want to get a natural sound. With a dynamic mic, you can get closer—one to two inches—and use the proximity effect to get an artificial warm sound. But more on that another time.

To tell me which mic do you use to record your voice overs, leave a comment below, I’d love to know.

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