Cheap Microphones for Recording: The Definitive Guide

R ecording music is awesome.  Spending money on a recording studio isn’t.  The market for microphones is massive and it’s near impossible to find one that doesn’t suck and doesn’t break the bank at the same time.

Well, it turns out that there are a few treasures out there that fit right into that finicky little space of being pretty solid and not costing $2000.

In today’s post I’m going to walk you through the in’s and out’s find some cheap microphones that don’t suck.  For a quick list, check out the chart right below.  For a bit more detail, scroll on down a bit and for specific mic reviews, scroll all the way to the bottom.  The mics shown in this chart are listed in no particular order.

 

Microphone Review Interface Price
Blue Yeti USB Microphone
4.5 USB $$$
 Audio-Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser

4.4 XLR $$
 Blue Snowball USB Microphone
4.5 USB $
 Samson C01U Pro USB

4.5 USB $$
 MXL 770 Cardioid Condenser Microphone
mxl770
4.7 XLR $$

 

The Basics of Microphones

 

So before we get to finding you a cheap mic, we need to do a bit of housekeeping.  There’s a few basic things you should know about microphones if you haven’t shopped for one before.

First thing’s first, the two types:

USB vs. XLR

 

Standard Audio Interface

There are two main interfaces that you’ll be using to connect your recording device to your computer (laptop, desktop, etc.).  That’ll be the USB port or the XLR interface.  You’ve probably heard of a USB port before – that’s the small rectangular square that’s literally impossible to plug something into the first time.  The convenient thing about getting a USB mic is that you don’t need anything else – just the mic and a computer.

That’s it!

Your USB mic’s are likely to be more on the less expensive side ($50-200) which is perfect for a home recording studio.  The lower price range doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in quality either.  You can pick up some pretty fantastic USB mic’s for a pretty cheap price.

The biggest issue with getting a USB microphone is that if you’re looking to upgrade to something a bit more robust in the future, there’s a good chance you’ll need to hop over to an XLR mic and get an audio interface.

Speaking of XLR mic’s and interfaces…

That’s our second category of microphones.  An XLR microphone won’t work just by itself – you’ll need an audio interface to get it working.  An audio interface is essentially a small box that will be an intermediary between the microphone and the computer.  Their price ranges can vary but you can pick up a very simple one for around $100.

 

An XLR microphone won’t work just by itself – you’ll need an audio interface to get it working. The advantage to buying an audio interface right off the bat is that if you ever want to upgrade to a more powerful microphone in the future you’ll already have everything you need to get it working.  USB mic’s are great, but there is certainly a quality ceiling.  If you want the creme dela creme then you’ll eventually need to jump over to an XLR mic and an audio interface.  Purchasing that up front might be a smart idea depending on what your end goal is.  Either way, for starters both options will yield success.

Main Takeaways
USB Microphones

  • Can plug straight into the computer
  • Will likely be the cheaper option – less expansion capabilities
  • Generally cannot be used with an audio interface

XLR Microphones

  • Usually more expensive and higher quality options now and down the road, but more money upfront
  • Requires an audio interface in order to connect to the computer
  • Not necessarily higher quality than a USB

Frequency Response

 

The term “frequency response” may sound confusing but it’s actually really simple on the surface.  It’s just a representation of how well the microphone picks up different frequencies.  Sound, in its basic form, is just a wave.  Waves vibrate at different frequencies and thus make different pitches.  You may have heard the term “A440” before – that’s a sound wave that vibrates 440 times per second and it creates the note A4 (the note of A in the 4th octave of a keyboard).

Microphones capture sounds by converting these sound waves into electrical signals and then sending those signals into your computer.  The problem is sometimes they don’t capture all of these pitches in a consistent fashion.  Some microphones will have a bias towards lower pitches or higher pitches.  Ideally you’d like to get a microphone that has a even frequency response, meaning it picks up all pitches evenly.  However, a microphone with a truly even frequency response is a bit of a fallacy.

Frequency response of two microphones.

Most microphones will have a “frequency rolloff” at around the 50 Hz mark.  This is done on purpose to keep really low sounds from drowning out the rest of the mix.  Human hearing generally spans a range of 20-20,000 Hz, so losing that little 30 Hz area at the bottom isn’t something to be worried about, especially if you’re looking to record vocals.  The human voice usually ranges between 100-300 Hz, but important harmonics (which can significantly change how you sound) can span all the way up to 10,000 Hz and beyond.

Ideally you’d like to get a microphone that has a even frequency response. Of course, as always, sometimes you want to break the rules.  Some people will look for microphones that are biased in a certain way to “enhance” their recording, but that’s usually done for a pretty specific purpose.  Generally speaking, you’re likely to want an even response in your mic.

Main Takeaways
  • Generally a flat frequency response is desired
  • Most microphones will have a 50Hz rolloff (dampened volume below 50Hz)
  • Human hearing is from 20-20k Hz
  • Human voice has harmonics up to 10 kHz
  • Some mics (dynamic) will have less precise high frequency response

Condenser vs. Dynamic Microphones

 

There are a number of different types of microphones, but for the subject of cheap recording microphones there are two main types you need to pay attention to – the condenser (also known as the capacitor) and the dynamic microphone.  We’ll go over the basics of each.

The Dynamic Microphone

 

The dynamic mic is probably what most people are familiar.  Remember that black mic that’s got a metal little ball on the end that’s use at every live performance ever? Yup, that’s a dynamic mic.  Live performances almost always use those things because they can be damn near indestructible.  Dynamics are generally pretty inexpensive and don’t need any external power supply.  A pair of batteries will power your mic just fine (or a USB connection).

You’ll sometimes see dynamic mics in recording studios, but much more frequently on the stage.  The reason for their lack of studio use is their general weak frequency response at the higher end.  Because of the specific construction of a dynamic mic they’re less likely to pick up high frequencies really well.  This may or not be an issue for you, but it’s something to be aware of.  Dynamic mics also have a tendency to pick up a bit more unwanted noise.  Usually there isn’t a tremendous amount of that in a recording studio or in a home studio but depending on your environment it might be an issue.

Dynamics are generally pretty inexpensive and don’t need any external power supply. A pair of batteries will power your mic just fine.

The Condenser Microphone

 

The domesticated brother of the dynamic mic is the condenser microphone.  These guys feel much more at home in a recording studio.  They’re certainly a bit less tough than dynamic microphones, but they make up for it with precision.  Condenser mics are known to have a much better frequency response, especially in the high end.  This will fix any high end frequency issues that your dynamic mic is giving you.

There are a few things to keep in mind when looking around for condenser mics.  First is the diameter.  A larger sized diameter is usually used more for vocals whereas a smaller diameter mic is used more frequently for various instruments due to its higher accuracy.  Again, this isn’t likely to be a huge issue starting out, but if you ever get into more advanced recording it’s certainly something to keep in mind.  Also, many condenser mics will require an external power source called “phantom power”.  Pretty much any audio interface you buy nowadays will have a phantom power input port, but you are likely to need an interface for these types of mics.

Condensers generally run a bit on the pricier side, but there are some high quality ones on the lower end.  If you ever look to upgrade your studio though, these guys are probably the way to go.

Main Takeaways
Dynamic Microphones

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Hardy, heavy
  • No additional power supply needed
  • Most live performances use them
  • Some studio use, but not as frequent
  • Frequency response on the higher end suffers
  • Possibility of additional unwanted noise

Condenser (Capacitor) Microphones

  • Less weight
  • Diameter size used for various purposes
    • Larger diameter used for vocals
    • Smaller diameter for high accuracy
  • More efficient – can capture higher frequencies more accurately
  • Often uses phantom power
  • Generally more expensive
  • Most likely will need a pre-amp

Cheap Recording Microphone Reviews

 

Alrighty, so if you’re looking for a bit more depth than the chart above, here it is.  We’ve picked out five cheap microphones for recording that you can look through.  It is important to keep in mind that these reviews are listed in no particular order.  Good luck!

Note: It is important to remember that amazon tends to have a number of package deals that will include everything you need to sound great, including things like mic stands, pop filters, and cables.  You’ll end up saving money overall if you get everything in a package instead of buying it separately.

Blue Yeti Microphone

 

Ahh, the Blue Yeti.  If you’ve searched for cheap recording microphones even a tiny bit, you’ve probably heard of this guy.  It’s one of the more well known USB microphones out on the market right now, and with good reason. The structure of the Blue Yeti is fantastic – a solid 7 inch tall stand made of metal with an adjustable axle on top allowing the mic to pivot back and forth. The mic is removable from the stand if you happen to have a different stand or supporting device you’d like to attach it to.  On the bottom of the mic is a mini USB port to connect to your computer as well as a headphone jack so you can get real-time feedback on what the mic is picking up.

The back of this guy is where things really start to shine.  There are two knobs on the back – one for the gain (basically, how loud the outgoing sound is) and one to select which recording pattern you’d like to use.  These different patterns will possibility of where the mic is picking up sound from.  There are four possible recording patterns: stereo, cardioid, omnidirectional and bidirectional.  If you’re into picking up a podcasting microphone or a youtube microphone then you’ll be interested in the cardioid setting – this will pick up noise only in the front of the microphone, so any extra background noise from your surroundings is much less likely to be heard.  The bidirectional setting is very useful for any interviews – it’ll pick up noise from the front and the back of the mic.  Omnidirectional can be heard from all sides and the stereo setting will sync up with a speaker or stereo setup and make it seem as though the sound is moving from one area to another.  Overall, this is a very well built microphone that can be used for a variety of purposes.

 

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Audio-Technica AT2020

Another strong competitor for a cheap studio microphone is the Audio-Technica AT2020.  This is a relatively cheap condenser mic that is available with both a USB and XLR interface.  The USB mic is a bit more expensive, so if you’re really interested in picking this guy up, it’d probably make the most sense just to go ahead and get yourself an audio interface and get the XLR version.  The build of the AT2020 is universally fantastic.  Weighing in at 12 oz the cast metal frame will keep all the important bits protected from just about anything.  The wire mesh over the capsule will help to significantly reduce popping for vocal recording, but as always, you’re much better off purchasing a dedicated pop filter if you’re going to record any vocals.

The AT2020 has overall fantastic clarity for its price range and is an excellent multipurpose tool for recording a variety of sounds – not just vocals.  It’s somewhat well know for having “no character” which at its surface sounds like a detriment, but as noted in the frequency response section of this post, that’s actually a pretty great thing to have in a microphone.  This mic in particular doesn’t have any added recording patterns like the Blue Yeti does – you’re just getting a solid quality multipurpose microphone.

 

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Blue Snowball

 

Back to the Blue! The Blue Snowball is the little brother to the Blue Yeti listed just above.  Why do we have this little guy posted here? Well, at just around $50, the Blue Snowball is an excellent starter mic for anyone interested in doing podcasting or youtube commentaries.  You’re not as likely to want to pick this up if you’re interested in recording vocals for musical purposes, however that’s certainly not out of the possibility.

Similar to its brother, the Blue Snowball interfaces with your computer using a USB interface.  The mic will sit atop a small tripod which will elevate the microphone a bit higher towards your mouth.  The software drivers will install automatically whether you’re on a Mac or a Windows machine, so this mic is about as plug and play as you can get.  Similar to its big brother, but Blue Snowball comes with the ability to switch which direction the microphone is picking up noise from.  This again is very valuable if you’re looking to conduct interviews, podcasts or youtube commentary.  It’s important to note that there are two very similar Blue Snowball microphones.  The standard version and the iCE version.  The iCE version is just a tiny bit less expensive but will not come with the option to switch between the audio recording patters.

Overall, for the price, it’s hard to go wrong with the Snowball.  If you’re looking to start up a small podcast or your own youtube channel, picking this mic up will afford you a significant upgrade over your computer’s standard microphone.

 

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Samson C01U Pro USB Microphone

 

The Samson C01U Pro USB Microphone is another fantastic contender for all of us microphone seekers out there.  Similar to a few others, the C01U Pro features a plug-and-play USB interface that will allow you to start recording instantly.  The mic comes with a relatively robust mic stand with a swivel mount for added maneuverability, but if you’re interested in doing anything other than sitting at your desk, you’ll likely want to get a better stand to hold it.  It comes wrapped in a solid die-cast metal exterior with your standard heavy gauge mesh grill.  As before, this will filter some of the popping, but not all of it.  On the back there is a standard 3.5 mm audio jack with zero latency, so you can monitor your recording real-time.  The build quality and performance is very similar to the Blue Yeti, so if you don’t want to pay quite as much as you’d need to for the Yeti, this would be a fantastic second.  The out of the box setup would be perfect for any podcasting or youtube recording and with an additional mic stand and pop filter it would be great for recording music vocals as well.

 

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MXL 770 Cardioid Condenser Microphone

 

As far as style points go, the MXL 770 certainly wins the race between this lot.  The charcoal brown finish with the gold detailing gives off supremely classy and high quality feel.  If you buy the MXL 770 it’ll arrive at your studio in its own protective case filled with the mic and its complementary shock mount.  The mount isn’t the best you could buy, but for the price it’s a steal and you already know that it will fit your mic perfectly.  The mic itself has a very sturdy build that is comparable to the other microphones we’ve talked about here.  The interface that will connect it to your computer is XLR, so an audio interface with phantom power will be needed to operate this mic.

Musically speaking the MXL 770 has a very strong treble end that will allow you to produce really hard hitting sounds like rap and rock, but also has the low body capability to pick up nearly any other instrument you’ve got sitting around.  It’s a fantastic all purpose microphone that will not only just pick up vocals well.  On the podcast/youtube side of things, this mic has been known to be used frequently for those purposes as well, so you’re very well off purchasing it for those needs. The biggest issue that first-time or generally newer recording engineers will have is that you’ll need to dial in the tone a bit for this mic.   Audio peripherals  such as sound absorption foam, EQing and  mic position will be a lot more important to getting a good sound out of this guy.  If you get the setup right, this has the chance to sound the best out of all the mics here.

 

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Conclusion

 

If you’re just starting out recording, just about any of these mics will likely do what you want.  The thing about recording though is it can come down finding out exactly what works best with you, your style and your goals.  If the mic you get isn’t working well for you, don’t be afraid to return it and try out another one.  It can sometimes be a long journey, but if you stick with it the results will be well worth it.

Additionally, we do our best here at Techzono to keep our articles up to date and relevant.  If we missed something or have the wrong information, feel free to contact us and point it out!

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