Useful Stuff to Know » article » Best Vocal Microphones under $500 » Jun 1, 08:47 PM

Best Vocal Microphones under $500

Not all mics will work on all voices in all situations. For that reason, when you look up mic reviews, you will always find negative reviews for every mic out there, even though some will rave about how great that mic is — on their voice.

That said, there are some mics that work on more people more of the time and hence have become staples of the home recording and even professional studio environments. I’m listing a few below for your consideration.

1. Rode NT1 Kit ($269 @ Amazon)

The new 2014 edition of the Rode NT1 has been redesigned from scratch for a more realistic, neutral, balanced, warm sound than the previous NT1A. This mic takes EQ well and is an all around good mic for home recording. The new manufacturing technology allows Rode to offer this mic under 300 dollars, whereas the actual sound and circuitry are on par with mics in the 500 to 1000 dollar range.

It comes with a shock mount and pop filter, so all you’d need is the XLR cable, mic stand, and USB audio interface. The cheapest interface that sounds good and works well is the Shure X2U and that’s about the lowest cost, high quality sounding setup I can imagine.

2. Shure SM7B ($349 @ Amazon)

Do you have an interface/preamp with 60 to 70 db gain? Then this mic will work for you. If not, you can use the Cloudlifter CL-1 to boost the signal by a clean 25dB, allowing most USB interfaces to be used with the SM7B.

This is a dynamic microphone. That means it uses a membrane, coil of wire, and magnet to turn sound into electrical signals. Compared to condensers, the SM7B gives a smoother, more up-front, slightly middy yet scooped, and drier sound. Notable artists who use it: Michael Jackson, James Hetfield, Anthony Kiedis. But it’s been used on thousands of records.

What’s good about it? It doesn’t pick up room reverb as much, it doesn’t have sibilance issues like a lot of condensers, and it tames really harsh sounding voices. This is the kind of mic where you just set it up and record without having to be anal about your room’s acoustic qualities (though room treatment never hurts, even just a heavy blanket hung up behind you while singing can make a difference). And once recorded, the SM7B takes very well to the brightening effect of the 1176 compressor or a simple high shelf EQ. I wouldn’t find myself cutting the highs ever with this mic, or using a de-esser for that matter. This is unlike a condenser where some cuts / de-essing are common.

It also gives you a natural vocal sound that stands out in a mix. It does an aggressive, up-front, in-your-face sound really well if you need it (think death metal vocals) but equally excels at spoken word, melancholy indie type vocals, and pretty much every kind of vocal except for operatic and distant sounding epic stuff. If you really want to do the latter, then put a room reverb before the main reverb, as the SM7B is a little too up-close sounding for the epic operatic stuff.

You can record close to it for a “live vocal” type sound, or hang back six inches for a more open sound. Again, this mic is also more resistant to room echo versus condensers, so for people who don’t have decent sound treatment in their rooms, the SM7B is the easiest and cheapest mic that gives a vocal tone no casual listener will complain about.

What’s not so good about it? It is sensitive to mouth positioning, since the area of sound it picks up is narrow. That means if you’re just a few inches away, it won’t pick up both your head and chest resonances at the same time. For people who have an open sounding voice, this is not a problem. If you have a high, blaring, honky voice that’s too strident in the 1 to 2k range, then this mic may not suit you, though EQ or multiband compressors can easily fix that.

This mic requires 60 dB of clean (non-hissing) gain from your interface. Beginner recorders may not own interfaces capable of that. Check the specs of your interface before buying this mic. Otherwise you will find your vocals are way too quiet.

3. Shure KSM32 ($499 @ Amazon)

This is probably the best single pattern condenser under $500, and you can find them new/used for cheaper if you look around on eBay.

What’s good about it? The sound is natural, has a wide field of sound pickup (can capture your head and chest in one snapshot for a more natural tone), is low noise, doesn’t require high gain preamps in your interface, and can double on acoustic guitar or even drum overheads. This mic gets the least complaints versus similar condensers in the price range.

What’s not so good about it? Because it picks up sound from a wider angle, you will hear more of the room in your recordings, hence you may need to be more conscious of sound treatment. A heavy blanket placed a meter behind you, and another blanket placed a meter behind the mic (or a reflection filter mounted behind the mic) can help a lot with that. The more echoey your room, the more treatment you will have to set up, such as another pair of blankets to the left and right so that you’re singing in a cubicle-like tent.

If you need a condenser under $500, this is among the best, though the Rode NT1Kit is a close runner up.

4. ADK Thor ($399 @ Amazon)

The ADK Thor is several mics in one. It has three polar patterns (omni, figure-8, cardiod) and three voicings (bright, mellow, neutral) as well as some pads so that you can record loud sources if needed. This mic works on everything – vocals, instruments, drums. The sound is very linear, without any major resonances or ear-piercing sibilance regions, and also without any honkiness. It’s not as bright as an AKG 214, not as mellow as the KSM32, but somewhere in between, while being just as accurate sounding as those two mics. For an all-arounder, this is a great multipattern mic. The simpler cardioid-only version, AKG Odin is only $299.

5. Studio Projects CS5 ($349 @ Amazon)

Here is another underrated and underpriced multi-pattern condenser mic. It’s a little darker and more colored sounding than the ADK Thor, but is just as versatile. Great on guitar cabs and non-metal vocals.

What’s good about it? It is versatile and well featured, has high quality construction and components, comes with a very solid shock mount and a metal case to carry it all in, and for a condenser it has a smooth and slightly dark sound which is good if you’re facing sibilance problems. Any shortcomings in ‘darkness’ is easily fixed via a high shelf EQ. This is also a natural sounding mic.

What’s not so good? It’s heavy. The original prototype was made with a lightweight metal, but testers said it felt cheap due to lack of heft, so they unfortunately went with a heavier alloy and that means keeping it positioned without drooping or falling over is harder. It’s not a big deal, really, as a sturdy mic stand can handle it fine, but personally I would have liked the lighter version.

So what you’re getting here is a higher end condenser at budget prices, multiple patterns and various EQ switches and volume pads, and very solid construction.