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6 of the Best Microphones for Recording Vocals Under $1,500

May 12, 2020
Learn about vocal microphones like the AT2020, SM7B, C414 XLII, Clarion FC-357, TLM 103, and Sphere L22. Discover which microphone is right for you.
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Finding the right vocal microphone can be stressful because there are so many microphone options out there. It’s challenging to determine which vocal microphone will suit your needs the best when you haven’t recorded with very many microphones before. In this guide, we’ll take a look at 6 of the best microphones for recording vocals, while investigating how they sound, along with the unique features they provide.

Microphones are very much like guitars in the sense that after a certain price point, one guitar doesn't necessarily sound better than the other; they just sound different. The price tag of certain high-end microphones, like the Telefunken ELA M 251E ($9,495), is so exorbitant that it's not within the price range of many home studio owners. To avoid providing you with unrealistic mic recommendations, I took price into consideration when putting together this mic roundup. For between $100-1,500, you'll able to find a great studio microphone for recording vocals.

A reverberant room can destroy vocal recordings and make the differences between microphones negligible. To make the most of the microphones on this list, make sure you apply acoustic treatment to your home studio. If you don’t have the budget to sound-treat an entire room, consider build a cheap and effective DIY vocal booth instead.

1. Audio-Technica AT2020 (Best Budget Microphone) - $99

An image of an Audio-Technica AT2020 microphone.

The Audio-Technica AT2020 is a medium-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone that’s perfect for vocalists on a budget. It’s an affordable home studio microphone that handles high SPLs well and delivers a wide dynamic range. You can use it to record vocals, acoustic guitar, amps, and to capture overhead drum recordings.

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This microphone requires phantom power, so you’ll need to connect it to an appropriate budget-friendly audio interface. Alternatively, you can get the AT2020 USB version and forget about an audio interface altogether.

With the current state of recording technology, even entry level studio mics like the AT2020 are capable of providing professional-quality results. Although, manufacturers are somewhat limited by what they can do with microphones at this price point. You don’t gain access to multiple polar patterns and various microphone types, such as tube mics, until you jump to the $400-$1,000+ microphone range.

There’s nothing incredibly unique about the sound of the AT2020, but it gets the job done. If you’re new to recording vocals, need a general-purpose microphone, and you’re on a budget, the Audio-Technica AT2020 is the vocal mic for you.

Kelli has a great video in which he demos the the Audio-Technica AT2020 with and without effects applied.

2. Shure SM7B (Best Microphone for Rap and Metal Vocals) - $399

An image of a Shure SM7B microphone.

The Shure SM7B is a cardioid dynamic microphone that’s perfect for recording rap and metal vocals. Its dynamic design minimizes clipping and signal distortion from loud outputs, allowing it to handle up to 180dB. There are also bass roll-off and midrange emphasis controls that let you modify the frequency response of the Shure SM7B to suit a wide range of voices.

Radio hosts and podcasters often record with a Shure SM7B because of its cardioid polar pattern. Off-axis sounds are primarily rejected, which helps reduce unwanted room tone. You’re also able to move around the head of the microphone quite freely while maintaining a strong input signal.

The Shure SM7B includes a pop filter that sits over the head of the microphone. For broadcast usage, this pop filter is often effective at reducing plosives. To play it safe when recording extremely aggressive vocals, you may want to make use of a standalone pop filter as well.

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This microphone requires a lot of gain. Unfortunately, most audio interface preamps aren’t capable of providing the Shure SM7B with enough clean gain to produce a signal free of significant noise; this is why I recommend you connect the Shure SM7B to a CL-1 Cloudlifter and then connect the Cloudlifter to your audio interface.

A Cloudlifter lets you get the best possible output from low-output dynamic mics like the Shure SM7B. It provides up to +25dB of noise-free amplification, which means you won’t introduce hiss and crackle to your recordings by pushing the preamp you’re recording with.

The following video by Spectre Sound Studios includes some helpful tips for recording extreme vocals using the Shure SM7B.

If you need to record rap and metal vocals on a budget, consider recording with a Shure SM58. This microphone is often used as an on-stage vocal mic, but it’s a cardioid dynamic microphone, just like the Shure SM7B, and it only costs $99.

Happen to have a Shure SM57 laying around? Well, you’re in luck because it’s quite similar to the Shure SM58. According to this help article published by Shure, “The SM57 and SM58 microphones are based on the same cartridge design. The main difference is in the grille design. The SM58 was designed for vocal application and it uses a ball grille that acts as an effective pop filter. The SM57 was designed as an instrument microphone where a smaller grille size is preferred. In this application, pop and wind are not usually a concern.”

In the following video by Podcastage, you can hear a head to head comparison of the Shure SM57, SM58, and SM7B.

3. AKG C414 XLII (Best Multi-Purpose Microphone) - $899

An image of an AKG C414 XLII microphone.

The AKG C414 XLII is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone that includes nine switchable polar patterns, making it the best multi-purpose microphone on this list. You can use it to record a single vocalist, duets, choirs, and more. It lets you switch between an omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hyper-cardioid, and figure-8 polar pattern, as well as make use of four intermediate settings.

A pair of C414 XLIIs will provide you with access to an array of stereo miking techniques. The C414 also includes a -6db, -12dB, and -18dB pad, along with a 40Hz, 80Hz, and 160Hz bass-cut filter. There’s a lot of room to sculpt vocals at a recording level with this mic.

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I find the AKG C414 XLII generally compliments female vocalists well due to its naturally bright character. For male vocalists, this isn’t the first microphone I tend to reach for, but it can certainly get the job done. If you record a lot of female vocals and acoustic instruments like guitar, it’s certainly worth the investment.

The AKG C414 XLII is a must-have for budding recording engineers building a collection of microphones. The versatility it provides ensures that you’re never left high and dry without an appropriate microphone option.

Often, this microphone is referred to as a “studio workhorse” due to the full range of applications it can tackle, which includes recording vocals, acoustic instruments, drum overheads, guitar amps, room ambiance, and more.

Podcastage is back again, comparing the AKG C414 XLII to a variety of popular mics priced from $269-3,600.

4. Lauten Audio Clarion FC-357 (Best Microphone for Rock Vocals) - $1,099

An image of a Lauten Audio FC-357 microphone.

The Lauten Audio Clarion FC-357 is a large-diaphragm FET condenser microphone with cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8 polar patterns. It delivers tremendous warmth that beautifully compliments both male and female rock vocalists. This microphone provides a classic FET condenser sound with a touch of smooth modern airiness.

Musical to its core, the Clarion FC-357 provides vocals with rich and boisterous tonality. This microphone’s frequency response slopes downward as frequency increases, which is part of what gives it the smooth, natural character found in classic FET condenser microphones.

The Clarion FC-357 includes a unique 3-way gain switch (-10dB, 0dB, and +10dB). Using the +10dB gain option makes the Clarion FC-357 less dependent on preamps, whereas the -10dB pad has the opposite effect.

This mic tames high-end harshness well and delivers buttery recordings. Running a voice with lots of grit and raspiness through this microphone will accentuate the natural flavor of the voice while keeping your recordings controlled.

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The following video demonstrates various types of recording captured by the Lauten Audio Clarion FC-357.

Another colorful option to consider is Warm Audio's WA-47 tube condenser microphone. It uses a JJ Slovak 5751 vacuum tube that helps the mic deliver a huge, bold sound similar to that of the original '47 that was prominent in the 1960s. The WA-47 actually takes the sound of the original microphone a step further by providing nine switchable polar patterns, along with 140dB SPL handling. It provides the versatility of an AKG C414 XLII and the deep warmth you'd expect from a tube mic.

5. Neumann TLM 103 (Best Microphone for Pop and Country Vocals) - $1,100

An image of a Neumann TLM 103 microphone.

The Neumann TLM 103 is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone that produces a transparent sound, making it perfect for capturing clean male and female pop and country vocals. It uses a capsule drawn from the Neumann U 87 and delivers classic Neumann sound at a fraction of the cost of the Neumann U 87.

The TLM 103 provides articulate vocal recordings that shimmer their way through mixes, thanks to the mic’s transformerless circuitry. When you want to capture an accurate representation of a sound source, free of excess color, the TLM 103 is a great option. It’s easy to steer your pristine vocal recordings in any direction you like once you start mixing.

If the TLM 103 were an ice cream flavor, it would be vanilla—it’s simple, clean, and pure. Some people view vanilla as a classic loveable flavor, while others see it as somewhat boring. Many recording engineers tend to lean one way or the other regarding the TLM 103 as well.

The precise nature of this mic makes it a popular choice for recording voice-overs, foley, and classical music. It has a self-noise level of 7dB, which is incredibly low, meaning that even the smallest signals are reproduced basically noise-free. Rear sounds and off-axis sounds are rejected, which makes this mic usable in live situations where loudspeaker playback is a factor.

I was considering adding the Neumann U 87 to this list, but given it’s $3,600 price point, and stunning similarity to the Neumann TLM 103 ($1,100), it just doesn’t seem worth the extra $2,500. If you have $3,600 to blow on a microphone, I think you’re better off spending it on two TLM 103s so that you can make use of stereo miking techniques. You’ll even have money left over for a third mic.

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The following video by Sjef van Leeuwen, featuring Jennifer Lynn, does a great job of demonstrating the transparent nature of the Neumann TLM 103.

6. Townsend Labs Sphere L22 (Best Virtual Microphone System) - $1,499

An image of the microphone part of the Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone system.

The Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone system models the characteristics of some of the most coveted large-diaphragm condenser microphones with stunning accuracy. The Sphere® system consists of a high-precision dual-channel FET condenser microphone paired with Townsend Labs’ Sphere plug-in.

It provides you with access to the transient response, harmonics, proximity effect, and three-dimensional polar response of over 20 different mics, which are some of the most expensive and sought after mics on the planet. These include rare vintage tube mics in perfect condition to classic vibey ribbon mics, worth over $100,000 in total.

This microphone system lets you change mic type, polar pattern, and other microphone characteristics, even after tracking. You can audition the sound of different microphones without tiring your vocalist, reduce bleed and undesirable room coloration using Off-Axis Correction™, and record in stereo from a single microphone.

To use the Sphere L22, you need an audio interface with at least two mic inputs. The Sphere plug-in runs on any major DAW, as well as Universal Audio’s UAD platform. With a Universal Audio Apollo audio interface, you can expect an approximate 1.6ms round trip at 96kHz, which means latency isn’t an issue.

The L22 capsule is double-sided, and both sides are recorded separately, making it necessary to always record to a stereo track. To accurately reproduce a microphone’s three-dimensional pickup pattern and proximity effect, the front and back of the mic need to be recorded separately.

You can blend two mic models using Sphere, which is a unique feature. For example, when recording guitar amps, it’s common to record using two different microphones and then blend them in the mix. Combining mic models using Sphere ensures perfect phase alignment as well.

The L22 lets you capture vocals using a cardioid, omnidirectional, and figure-8 polar pattern, making it usable for all sorts of studio applications.

The software that makes this microphone system great is the same thing that might turn some people off of it. Software requires ongoing developer support, which always leaves a bit of room for uncertainty in the future. Having said this, the concept of a hardware/software integration is nothing new, and it looks like Townsend Labs has a bright future ahead of them.

While the Sphere L22 is the most expensive option on this list, it provides unheard of value. If you work with a variety of vocalists, and want access to a large high-quality microphone collection, the Sphere L22 is the perfect solution for you.

Want to hear how these microphones sound in comparison to one another? Check out Sweetwater’s vocal mic shootout to compare many of the microphones on this list.

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