fbpx

JMH Sound Design

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Content like this and more - found exclusively on the JSD Newsletter

[mc4wp_form id="3198"]

If you are searching for your first vocal microphone, this guide should make the decision a fair bit easier on you. All the options can give you a bit of decision paralysis, especially when you are building your microphone collection from the ground up.

6/1/2023 – Guides

The Best Budget Vocal Microphone

How to choose the right microphone for you for under $500

Josh Hamill
Sound Engineer for JSD

Key Points

  • For $500, dynamic microphones are typically of higher quality.
  • Understand your needs before purchasing a microphone – what will you use it for the most?
  • If you are looking to buy your first microphone, choose one that is versatile.

If you are searching for your first vocal microphone, this guide should make the decision a fair bit easier on you. All the options can give you a bit of decision paralysis, especially when you are building your microphone collection from the ground up.

There are a few important ground rules to lay out before we continue. My criteria for a budget microphone is, obviously, the budget. For a ‘budget’ microphone, I consider this to be anything under $500. This price range allows you to consider options that are industry standard, tried and true options. For choosing microphones to place into this list, I am looking for a microphone’s versatility, it’s sound, and it’s features.

$500 Price Point – Dynamic or Condenser?

If you consider the options in this price range, you may question what kind of microphone you want – dynamic or condenser. $500 opens your options up to some really high quality dynamic microphones, and some fairly reasonable quality condenser microphones.

With this in mind, in this price range I would only recommend buying dynamic microphones as in my opinion, a high quality dynamic microphone will outperform a condenser microphone within the same price point. This is simply due to the cost to manufacture. A dynamic microphone is much easier to manufacture, it has less parts, and as such will cost less money – so a dynamic microphone of a higher price will likely contain high quality parts and produce a high quality sound.

However, the scale of condenser microphone manufacturing ranges from the price points of under $100, to over $10,000. The price point of diminishing returns on a condenser microphone is in my estimate to be $2000, for a dynamic, I would say $500 (our budget). This means that to buy a condenser microphone of high quality, you would have to spend more money than if you were to buy a high quality dynamic microphone. Don’t be fooled by clones of classic condenser microphones that can be had at unbelievably cheap prices – they are unbelievably cheap for a reason.

If you are in the market for a microphone primarily for use in live sound or podcasting/dialogue based projects, a dynamic microphone, in any case, would suit you better anyway. The only instance where a condenser microphone would be ideal is in a studio scenario, or if you simply want the sound of a condenser microphone. I will give my pick for the best condenser microphone under $500 in this article, but if I were to buy 1 microphone off of this list, it wouldn’t be my top pick – this isn’t to say that condenser microphones in this price range are bad, they can be quite good, but comparatively to the dynamic microphones available, they aren’t as good.

Dynamic Microphones:

1 - Shure Beta 58a

The industry standard of live sound vocal microphones, the Shure line of vocal microphones simply performs. This microphone is versatile, robust, sounds great, and is found everywhere – look in your pantry and you’ll likely find one (so maybe you don’t have to buy this one). Jokes aside, if you need a microphone that performs well in practically every scenario, this microphone is one for you.

This microphone is closely related to the Shure SM58 – they differ in polar pattern and slightly in frequency response. I prefer the Beta 58a over the standard SM58, I find that it has a smoother top end, and doesn’t sound as harsh.

My main dislike of the Beta 58a is it’s ‘overhyped’ high mid-range frequency response – around 5000hz – 8000hz always seems to present problems. This realistically is no issue once you get to know the microphone, as you can remove these frequencies with EQ.

2 - Sennheiser E945

This microphone is very similar to the Shure Beta 58a. They are both supercardioid microphones, and have a similar frequency response. This microphone is found commonly in live sound scenarios. Like the Shure Beta 58a, it is robust, found commonly, and has a good sound to it for many vocals.

From my personal perspective, the Sennheiser E945 sounds darker than the Beta 58a, it has more low-mid frequency, and can have a more piercing top end. This either works really well on some sources, but I often find myself reaching for the Beta 58a (this can be bias because I know the Beta 58a very well, or simply because the Beta 58a suits a larger variety of sources).

I will admit however, that the E945 works better on female vocals than the Beta 58a from my experience.

3 – Shure Beta 57a

The Beta 57a is not just an instrument microphone. I have experienced a number of occasions where this microphone has been the choice of an artist in at a live event, and for good reason. If you compared the two microphones – the Beta 58a and the Beta 57a – the 58a has less mid-range frequencies, and more top end frequencies than the 57a. This means that, depending on the source, the 57a will be a better pick as it may sound smoother.

I partook in a blind listening test earlier this year where I went through and listened to 15 different dynamic microphones without knowing what they were. Funny enough, I placed the 57a above the rest. Within this test we didn’t have a 58a to test, but a SM58 was tested.

4 – Beyerdynamic M88TG

Again, another instrument microphone. Don’t allow labels to dictate what this microphone sounds like – it is of extremely high sound quality. The M88TG is a very versatile microphone that can have it’s place on a vocal if the situation calls for it. This microphone is found mostly on low-end dominant instruments like kick drums and bass cabinets – meaning this vocal may better serve a deeper vocal. I have found this microphone to sound fairly similar to the Shure Beta 58a on a vocal, but with a more complete low-mid frequency response that may either be additive to the sound, or subtractive. This microphone would be a fantastic first choice for someone who is looking to record a variety of different sources, not just vocals.

5 – Electrovoice RE320

The Electrovoice RE320 is Electrovoice’s more affordable option in their line of RE microphones. Fairly similar to the RE20, the RE320 Is a ‘broadcast’ vocal microphone with uses on low end dominant instruments like kick drums and bass cabinets (like the M88TG). The RE320 has a flat frequency response up to 4000hz, capturing a balanced mid-range. However, the RE320’s frequency response above 4000hz is quite boosted, and can either provide the necessary ‘air’ to a vocal, or it can make the source sound harsh.

If you are after that ‘RE20’ sound, then the RE320 will get close, it sounds great, but it isn’t the RE20. It is unlikely that the extra 10% of sound quality that the RE20 brings to the table will mean much to you once you understand how the two microphones differ. Once you do, you will be able to process the RE320 in a way that will make the two microphones sound indistinguishable. With this being said, the RE320 is a great choice for those looking to record vocals for dialogue based projects.

Enjoying the article so far?

Subscribe to our newsletter for more!

[mc4wp_form id="3198"]

Condenser Microphones:

1 – Audio Technica AT4040 (Second Hand)

The AT4040 is a beautiful sounding condenser microphone for those in the market for one. This microphone can be had second hand for under $500, and it is definitely worth the price. The cheaper option – the AT2020 – in its own right is also a fantastic sounding microphone, although it does suffer from the slightly ‘scratchy’ sound quality that cheaper condenser microphones tend to have.

The AT4040 on the other hand, seems to have few flaws, and many benefits. It is a large diaphragm condenser, so for live sound use I would only consider using them on drum overheads if the stage is large enough and without a large amount of reflections. But in the studio, I would honestly choose this microphone over that of the Neumann U87AI. If you are looking for a studio vocal microphone, and only a studio vocal microphone, I would choose the AT4040 above anything else on this list.

2 – Lewitt LCT441

The Lewitt LCT441 is a large diaphragm condenser microphones of a similar characteristic to the AKG C414 in terms of sound quality and looks. This microphone is a great choice for those looking to record multiple different sources, not just vocals. The LCT441 is a ‘multi-pattern’ microphone, meaning it really can be used as a workhorse microphone in the studio. This is definitely not a live sound microphone for vocals, but it could be used on drum overheads. In terms of its performance on a vocal, this microphone provides a clear and present sonic characteristic. However, the LCT441 does not escape from the usual issue for condensers in that they can sound too harsh, and have too much high-mid/top end frequency response.

It this price point, there is not a much better condenser microphone that you could buy new in my opinion. You do have the option of picking up a second hand AKG C214 for less than $500, but when you factor in how they sound very similar, the LCT441 wins out with its versatility thanks to its ‘multi-pattern’ polar pattern switch.

3 – AKG C1000s

The condenser microphone that, like the SM58, is reliable and robust. For those not looking to capture pristine vocals, and perhaps vocals that carry more aggression and vocal distortion, this is a good pick. You can use this condenser microphone as a hand-held, it doesn’t cause too much movement noise and low rumble (especially if you wrap it with foam if you want to get pedantic).

If you want some proof of what this microphone can do, have a listen to TOOL’s first album Undertow. Because singer Maynard James Keenan was unable to sit still whilst giving his best vocal performances, they couldn’t use microphones such as Neumann’s or Telefunken’s because of the noise these microphones pick up through movement. Due to this, for vocals on this album either an SM57 was used for distorted vocals, and for essentially everything else they used an AKG C1000s (although wrapped in foam as suggested before).

This microphone is a good choice for those looking for a condenser microphone for live situations. I personally would stay away from condenser microphones for use on vocals in a live sound scenario, but you could get away with using this microphone.

What would I choose?

The first thing to think about is what you will be mostly using the microphone for. For me, working predominately as a live sound engineer, I would select a microphone that performs best at live gigs. This microphone would have to sound decent (doesn’t need to sound excellent) and have really good rejection (doesn’t pick up what it isn’t pointed at).

Another important factor to consider in live sound is what the artist wants. Artists can be fussy sometimes, so it is best to play things safe and experiment with different microphones with an artist that knows and trusts you. As such, you would most likely want a microphone that is common, one that most people have used a fair amount.

The third thing I would consider is the microphones versatility. In a pinch, I would like to be able to use this microphone on a number of different sound sources in a number of different scenarios – so a ‘one trick pony’ wouldn’t do.

These are the three factors I would consider for a first vocal microphone in my situation. Factoring in my needs, I would have to choose the Shure Beta 58a. I would choose this microphone over the others because of its wide-spread use (so I can get good experience using one and learning its sound), its ability to reject off-axis sound, and its versatility – I can use a Beta 58a in a studio situation, for dialogue recording, and even on instruments if I must (as it’s capsule is very similar to an SM57).

Now, if I were to choose a microphone ONLY for recording vocals in a studio scenario for under $500, I would choose the Audio Technica AT4040. The AT4040 really is a beautiful microphone, and it is a steal that it can be had for under $500. I would keep an eye out on stores like Reverb.com to snatch up this microphone if it appears under $500. The AT4040 is incredibility versatile, and can be used to great effect on any source that is fitting for a large diaphragm condenser. This microphone also seems to be the go-to for a live sound large diaphragm condenser.

Some microphones I did not include:

  • Shure SM7B – while this microphone is very popular In the broadcasting and dialogue recording community, I personally find it very bland and do not enjoy it’s sound. It also seems to be a ‘one trick pony’ for vocals, so if you ever did want to use it for something else, it probably wouldn’t deliver a satisfactory result.
  • Warm Audio WA47JR – with options such as the AT4040 available at this price point, I would look past this microphone. This microphone attempts to sound like a FET U47, the microphone itself sounds fairly good, but it doesn’t sound anywhere near like a U47 – you’ll have to up your budget to get that sound and consider clone options from Advanced Audio, Wunder, and FLEA.
  • Rode NT1 – if you like harsh sounding vocals, this is the microphone for you. It is very popular, it can do the job of recording vocals, but those recordings require a lot of work in post-production for them to sound decent.

Let us know your thoughts through contacting us on any of our social media pages, or contact us directly. Your input is appreciated.

About The Author

Josh Hamill is the writer for the JSD blog and newsletter. He is a practicing sound engineer, system technician and FoH and Monitor operator. Josh has worked or studied in the industry for the entirety of his adult life and has collected a plethora of knowledge and experience to share with you.
Josh Hamill
Sound Engineer for JSD