Musicians' Guide to Stage Microphones

Choosing the right mic is key to getting studio-quality sound onstage
Author:
Publish date:

No matter how far technology advances, you are going to need microphones to capture acoustic instruments. The variety of mics available for live sound is staggering, both in terms of the available technology and the variations in price. This month, we help you navigate that field and zero in on what you need to make your live performances sound great.

We are limiting this roundup to wired mics only, and all of the listings use standard 3-pin, XLR connectors for the output. Keep in mind that some of these microphones are equally comfortable on a variety of instruments.

The mics, below, are organized by instrument type and presented in alphabetical order by company name.

VOCALS

Without a doubt the most important microphone on a stage belongs to the lead vocalist. We could spend a few pages discussing how to choose a vocal mic, but the basic idea is that you need one that reproduces the voice with clarity, rejects unwanted sound, and flatters the vocalist.

A cardioid pattern will generally have a wider sweet spot but that means it will also pick up bleed from other instruments. Hyper- or supercardioid patterns tend to have better side-rejection but require that the singer stay on-mic for consistent results.

To get an idea of a mic’s rejection properties, speak into it and move the mic so that the sides, and then rear of the mic face your mouth. The volume level should drop off considerably.

High SPL capability may be an issue for a death metal band, but probably not for a breathy singer. Generally, dynamic mics tend to be more rugged and handle higher SPLs while condenser mics have greater sensitivity and may be more suitable for subtle voices. Don’t be afraid to try different options.

AUDIO-TECHNICA AE4100 ($189)

Audio-Technica
 AE4100

Audio-Technica  AE4100

Part of Audio-Technica’s Artist Elite Series, the AE4100 is a dynamic mic with a cardioid pattern and a response extending from 90 Hz to 18 kHz. The capsule is internally shock-mounted for protection from impact and a 3-stage grille reduces popping without compromising the high-frequency response. I’ve found that the AE4100 helps vocals cut through a dense mix without need for much EQ, and it has a rugged build quality, overall.

AUDIX OM5 ($195)

The OM5 is a hypercardioid dynamic mic employing the company’s VLM (Very Low Mass) technology to produce accurate response with quick transient response. This mic is designed for use at close range; its frequency response is attenuated at 120 Hz to control proximity effect. A broad peak from 2 to 10 kHz improves clarity, and the OM5 can handle SPLs up to 144 dB.

BLUE ENCORE 200 ($149)

The enCore 200 differs from most handheld dynamic microphones in that it requires phantom power. An onboard preamp helps the capsule maintain low noise and consistency in sound regardless of cable length, while producing a higher output level than most dynamic microphones. Featuring a cardioid pickup pattern, the enCore 200 exhibits a smooth frequency response across the range from 50 Hz to 16 kHz. In use, I have found that the enCore 200’s definition allows vocals to cut through crunchy guitars, loud drums, and busy arrangements.

EARTHWORKS SR40V ($999)

Earthworks
 SR40V

Earthworks  SR40V

Earthworks SR40V is a hypercardioid condenser microphone with a response that reaches out to 40 kHz. It was designed to capture subtle details of a performance, and its internal circuitry is hand-tuned to each capsule. The SR40V’s tight pickup pattern is maintained across the frequency range, and the mic is extremely accurate in the time domain for accuracy and low distortion. It runs on phantom power from 24 to 48 VDC.

ELECTRO-VOICE ND76 ($183)

Electro-
Voice ND76

Electro- Voice ND76

E-V’s ND76 is a large-diaphragm dynamic mic that can be used for vocalists ranging from singers and rappers to screamers and crooners. It has a cardioid pickup pattern for rejection of feedback and a shock mount to protect the capsule from impact. The ND76 is also available as the ND76S, which features an on/off switch.

MXL LSM-9 POP ($99)

There’s no mistaking MXL’s LSM-9 POP dynamic vocal mic; it’s produced in eye-popping colors including fluorescent blue, pink, neon yellow and neon green. The microphone has a capsule engineered for clarity, presence, and reduced handling noise, and its supercardioid pattern helps reduce feedback and controls bleed from stage sound. Rugged construction ensures that the LSM-9 POP can survive the rigors of the road.

NEUMANN KMS 104 AND KMS 105 ($699)

Neumann
 KMS 104

Neumann  KMS 104

Neumann’s KMS 104 (cardioid) and KMS 105 (supercardioid) microphones employ condenser capsules with low self-noise (18 dBA) for use in critical applications. A built-in highpass filter at 120 Hz helps maintain articulation even when the singer is on the grille, and its transformerless output is relatively immune to signal loss when used over long lengths of cable. The capsule used in the KMS 104 and 105 was designed for uncolored reproduction, and a series of internal filters safely remove plosives without affecting high-frequency response. Both mics are available in silver or black finishes.

SHURE KSM8 DUALDYNE ($499)

Shure KSM8
 Dualdyne

Shure KSM8  Dualdyne

Cited as the first handheld vocal microphone to use two diaphragms in the same capsule, Shure’s KSM8 was designed to combine the sound quality of a condenser microphone with the durability of a moving-coil transducer. The KSM8 features a cardioid pattern with a wide sweet spot: I find that it sounds consistent across a wide angle, at distances from a few inches to a foot away. This is an especially valuable trait when used with singers who have poor mic technique. A hardened carbon-steel grille protects the KSM8’s capsule from damage.

SHURE KSM9 ($699)

Unlike all of the other handheld vocal mics we’ve seen, Shure’s KSM9 has a switch underneath the grille enabling the pattern to be changed from cardioid to supercardioid. The electret condenser capsule contains two low-mass Mylar diaphragms for controlled LF response, and its high-frequency response extends to 20 kHz. A Class A, transformerless preamp ensures low self-noise and a wide dynamic range. The KSM9 is available in charcoal gray or champagne finishes.

SHURE SM58 ($99)

Though it was originally designed for studio use, the SM58 is arguably the most successful vocal mic used for live sound and has been in constant production since 1966. The SM58 features a cardioid capsule with a pneumatic suspension, and its iconic round grille was designed to dent on impact as a means of protection for the capsule. Its frequency response has a gentle rise in the midrange from 2 to 6 kHz for increased intelligibility, and a low-frequency roll-off to reduce handling noise, wind noise, and plosives.

DRUMS

The starting point for choosing drum mics is the style of music and the preference of the player. A traditional jazz drummer may want mics only for kick, snare, and overheads, while an R&B drummer will probably want a mic on every drum, plus a high-hat microphone.

Drum mics have a unique set of requirements due to the nature of the kit’s components. High SPL handling is an important asset not only because drums are loud but also because the mics will be so close. Compact microphones are easier to place on crowded kits, so beware of bulk!

Condenser microphones typically have a wider frequency range and greater sensitivity than dynamic mics, but that sensitivity can result in an increase in leakage, especially in tom microphones. Tight pickup patterns (hyper- and supercardioid) help control leakage from other elements in the kit. Manufacturers have developed mics for specific applications so use that information to narrow your search.

AKG C451 B ($499)

The C451 B owes its heritage to the C451 EB/CK1 capsule, which became a standard in condenser microphones before it was retired in the mid-1980s. The reboot is faithful to that design except for a more reliable fixed capsule.

Featuring a transformerless output, the C451 B has a built-in pad for use on loud instruments and a 12dB/octave highpass filter for reducing wind or mechanically transmitted noise.

AKG D112 MK II ($199)

AKG D112
 MK II

AKG D112  MK II

Anyone who has set foot on a stage is familiar with the D112’s unique look: a cross between an alien’s head and a garlic masher. The D112 MK II preserves the distinct appearance but updates the dynamic capsule’s SPL handling to greater than 160 dB. The combination of a large diaphragm and a low resonant frequency produces extended low end, while a presence boost around 4 kHz enhances articulation. The D112 MK II’s cardioid capsule maintains directionality below 250 Hz, reducing leakage from nearby low-frequency instruments. An integrated stand-mount simplifies setup and placement. Try it on electric guitar: You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

AUDIO-TECHNICA AE2500 DUAL-ELEMENT INSTRUMENT MIC ($549)

Audio-Technica
 AE2500Dual-Element Instrument Mic

Audio-Technica  AE2500
Dual-Element Instrument Mic

Recognizing that many engineers like to use dynamic and condenser microphones on kick drum simultaneously, the AE2500’s body contains two capsules—a small-diaphragm condenser and a large-diaphragm dynamic—arranged for phase coherence. The condenser element provides the air at the top and whump in the bottom, while the dynamic captures the attack and low-mids. A stroke of genius! And you won’t have the hassle of trying to place two separate mics on two separate stands. A breakout cable is included.

AUDIO-TECHNICA AT4041 ($299)

Housed in a pencil-style package, the AT4041 is a fixed-charge (electret) condenser mic with a cardioid pattern and a subtle peak at around 12 kHz for presence. This mic works great for overheads, ride cymbal and hi-hat, and an 80Hz highpass filter helps eliminate mechanical noise. It can handle SPLs up to 145 dB (at 1% THD), and here’s a dirty secret: It’s a really cool snare drum mic.

AUDIX D6 ($255)

The D6 was built to complement instruments with a lot of low-frequency content. The frequency response of the D6 includes a bump around 50 Hz, a dip in the midrange, and another bump around 10 kHz, providing the mic with a “pre-EQd” sound that works great for kick drum. Maximum SPL capability is 144 dB, so it has no problem with being placed close to a raging bass cabinet. The D6 is machined in the USA from a solid block of aluminum and is available in black or silver.

BEYERDYNAMIC M 88 TG ($399)

Beyerdynamic
 M 88 TG

Beyerdynamic  M 88 TG

Is it a vocal microphone or a kick drum microphone? We may never know. Legend has it that Beyerdyamic’s M 88 TG was initially intended for use as a vocal mic, but engineers took to using it on kick and bass amp and never looked back. The M 88 TG’s high SPL capability and pronounced proximity effect at close distances make it flattering both to kick drum and vocals. It has a hypercardioid pattern with greater than 23 dB of attenuation at 120 and 240 degrees off-axis.

BEYERDYNAMIC M 201 TG ($299)

Beyerdynamic
 M 201 TG

Beyerdynamic  M 201 TG

The M 201 TG was my best-kept secret for toms until someone let the cat out of the bag. Featuring a low-mass, moving coil transducer with a hypercardioid polar pattern, the M 201 TG is easy to place around the kit without getting in the way of cymbals or flying drumsticks. It can also be used for snare, or on hi-hats or guitar.

DPA D:DICATE 2011C ($829; $1,739.95 MATCHED PAIR WITH CASE)

DPA d:dicate
 2011C

DPA d:dicate  2011C

The 2011C Compact Cardioid Microphone brings DPA quality to a manageable price point. The 2011 capsule utilizes DPA’s Twin Diaphragm technology whereby two small capsules facing opposite directions are combined into one transducer, delivering the transient response and wide frequency range of a small diaphragm with the high output of a large diaphragm. The dynamic range of the 2011C is 117 dB, and maximum SPL is 153 dB. And because the 2011C is very small, it’s easy to place just about anywhere. I’ve used 2011Cs for drum overheads and they produce crisp cymbals without harshness and a beautiful stereo image.

EARTHWORKS DK25/L DRUMKIT SYSTEM ($1,699)

The DK25/L DrumKit is a package of three SR25 cardioid condenser microphones, a set of windscreens, and Earthworks’ patented KickPad. The system is intended to capture the entire kit with just the three microphones, as opposed to close-miking the drums. Two overhead SR25s—placed carefully per Earthworks’ instructions—plus the third on the kick drum yield startlingly realistic results. The KickPad is intended to be patched inline with the kick mic, where it “pre EQs” the kick and pads down the mic’s hot output, thus avoiding overload of the mic preamp. The DK25/L ships in an aluminum briefcase with a padded interior.

GRANELLI G5790 ($154.99)

Granelli
 G5790

Granelli  G5790

Did someone take a pair of pliers and bend the back end of a ’57? Not quite. The G5790 is a real ’57 that has been transplanted into a body with a 90-degree bend, making it easier to place in tight spaces. A total “I coulda had a V8” moment!

NEUMANN KM 184 ($1,019; $1,919 STEREO SET)

The KM 184 cardioid condenser mic is an excellent microphone for a variety of uses. For a crystal-clear piano sound, place a pair of KM 184s in x/y stereo, 6 to 10 inches above the hammers, roughly two-thirds of the way toward the high keys. The mics will cover the entire range of the keyboard, producing plenty of low end while capturing the impact of the hammers on the strings. The small-diaphragm KM 184s are also at home as drum overheads, on hi-hat or underneath a ride cymbal.

SENNHEISER E 602-II ($159.95)

The e 602-II is a cardioid dynamic mic that excels at capturing low-end instruments, such as kick drum, bass amp, or tuba. The e 602-II is housed in a lightweight aluminum body that won’t tip boom stands; the XLR connector is inset at the end of the body for easy connection. A midrange dip in the region of 150 to 1,000 Hz reduces boxiness, and a peak above 5 kHz adds clarity. Place the e 602-II inside the hole in the front head of a kick and stand back.

SENNHEISER E 604 ($139)

Sennheiser’s e604 is an excellent dynamic mic for rack and floor toms. Its small body stays out of the way of flying sticks and the integrated clip attaches easily to most rims. The e 604 has a cardioid pattern that rejects cymbals very well, and is built into an impact-resistant glass-fiber case. Point the e 604 toward the center of the tom head to capture the body and resonance of the drum: You won’t be disappointed.

SHURE BETA 98AMP ($269)

Shure Beta
 98AMP

Shure Beta  98AMP

The miniature condenser element of the Beta 98 AMP is mounted on a gooseneck connected to the preamp tube, making for easy placement. Its electret capsule features a cardioid pattern with a frequency response tailored for use on drums and percussion. It can run on phantom power ranging from 11 to 52 VDC and ships with Shure’s A75M Universal Mic Mount.

SHURE SM81 ($349)

The SM81 is one of the most popular condenser mics in live sound. A small-diaphragm condenser with a cardioid pattern, the SM81 excels for use on overheads, high-hat, ride cymbals, percussion and (on quiet stages) acoustic guitar or piano. The SM81 has a 3-position highpass filter and a 10dB pad, and it can run on phantom power from 9 to 52 VDC.

GUITAR AMP

Microphones for guitar and bass amps have a slightly different requirement. Most likely you’ll want low-frequency extension for a bass amp mic, but that could be dependent on the bass player. If there’s distortion on the amp treat it more like a guitar amp and get the clean bottom from a DI. If you’re looking for low end, think “kick drum mic” and beware of wind noise from speaker movement!

Amplifier mics will usually be placed close to the speaker grille, so a flat profile may help to keep the mic from being bumped. A guitar amp is really not a high-fidelity device. We’re talking about paper cones that probably roll off around 4 or 5 kHz so you don’t need the ultimate in high-frequency extension. That’s why it’s okay if a mic for a guitar amp has a limited HF response, and that same character probably means less leakage (think dynamic mic). Ribbon microphones can sound really sweet on electric guitar and many have figure-8 pickup patterns. Don’t let that scare you because (1) you’ll be placing the mic very close to the amp, and (2) you can point the null of the pattern at instruments that might otherwise cause leakage.

AUDIX I5 ($119)

Audix
 i5

Audix  i5

Audix’s i5 is an excellent desert-island mic—especially when those desert islands have outdoor stages. I’ve used the i5 successfully on snare, guitar amp, and trombone, where it tames the “blat“ of the instrument. This dynamic mic features Audix’s VLM diaphragm technology for accurate transient response and can handle SPLs in excess of 140 dB, enabling it to be placed close to a guitar amp without worry of distortion. The i5 is constructed using a zinc-alloy body, dent-resistant steel grille, and gold-plated XLR connector.

CAD D82 ($159)

CAD
 D82

CAD  D82

A passive ribbon mic with a flat, square, low profile that makes it easy to place, the CAD D-82 travels under the radar. It has a figure-8 pattern and can be used on a guitar amp by looping a cable through the amp handle and hanging the mic in front of the grille. Its response is flattering to electric guitars and the D82 will handle SPLs up to 140 dB (though it should not be placed in front of instruments that blast a lot of air). The D82 is an excellent, affordable introduction to ribbon microphones.

MXL DX-2 DUAL-CAPSULE VARIABLE DYNAMIC MICROPHONE ($99)

MXL DX-2 Dual-capsuleVariable
 DynamicMicrophone

MXL DX-2 Dual-capsule
Variable  Dynamic
Microphone

The DX-2 was primarily designed for electric guitar and is housed in a D-shaped tube that lays flat against the grille of a guitar amp when hung from a cable over the front of the amp. One of the more unique mics on the market, the DX-2 incorporates two dynamic capsules with an adjustable blend control. The large-diaphragm, supercardioid capsule is tuned to capture the fullness of the amp while a small-diaphragm cardioid transducer captures the midrange detail. Output is via a standard 3-pin XLR connector.

ROYER R-121 LIVE ($1395)

Not shy about taking to the road, the R-121 Live’s ribbon is 4 microns thick (as opposed to the R-121’s 2.5-micron ribbon), increasing durability while also resulting in a slightly reduced HF response that flatters electric guitar and horns. The R-121’s polar pattern is figure-8, and the backside of the mic is slightly brighter due to the transducer’s asymmetrical design. The R-121 Live can also be used for overheads, though you should be careful in venues with low ceilings, which can produce unwanted reflections into the backside of the mic. Don’t worry about the R-121’s figure-8 pattern; careful placement can yield as much (or more) isolation as using a cardioid microphone.

SENNHEISER E 609 ($129)

Sennheiser
 e 609

Sennheiser  e 609

Deriving its profile from Sennheiser’s venerable MD409, the e 609 was designed for up-close use on guitar cabinets. The e 609’s supercardioid pattern minimizes bleed, and a hum-compensating coil reduces interference from stray magnetic fields. An internal shock-mount protects the e 609’s capsule from damage due to impact while its flat shape lends itself to being hung directly in front of a guitar amp without need for a stand. The e 609 can also be used on drums, toms in particular.

SHURE SM57 ($99)

Shure
 SM57

Shure  SM57

Equally at home on a snare drum as it is in front of a guitar cabinet, horn, or in emergency use as a hammer, the Shure SM57 has logged more road miles than Willie Nelson. Nothing fancy but a reliable workhorse mic, the SM57 has a cardioid polar pattern and a frequency response from 40 Hz to 15 kHz. A pneumatic shockmount for the capsule reduces handling noise, and its versatility on a variety of instruments makes it a must-have. Get two while you’re at it.

HORNS

Brass instruments present a few challenges, including high SPLs, possibility of harsh sound from the wrong microphone, and wind noise. Horns can have a lot of energy in the area between 1 and 5 kHz, so it may not be a smart idea to choose a mic that emphasizes that range. In fact, sometimes a dull-sounding mic tames the peakiness of a horn.

Ribbon mics tend to sound really smooth and rich on horns but could be too smooth if you’re looking for a raucous sound. Your choice of pattern may depend on whether you have a single horn, or a section; tighter patterns help reduce leakage in the individual mics on a horn section. On the other hand, a saxophone radiates sound across a wider area, so a mic with a narrow pattern may not be a good choice. For horn players who move around a lot, a miniature condenser mic clipped to the bell could be a good solution.

AKG D12 VR ($629)

AKG
 D12 VR

AKG  D12 VR

The D12 VR is a multiple personality, large-capsule dynamic mic with a thin diaphragm for enhanced low-frequency response. The D12 VR can be used with or without phantom power. Used in passive mode, it’s excellent for brass, producing a smooth response from 20 Hz to 20 kHz with peaks around 4 and 8 kHz. When phantom power is applied, one of three active filters may be switched in, each tailoring the mic’s response for open or closed kick drums, or for a vintage tone. The transformer-coupled output employs the same transformer used in the original AKG C414, and the output connector is designed to allow easy placement inside the drum.

ELECTRO-VOICE ND46 ($226)

Electro-Voice
 ND46

Electro-Voice  ND46

Optimized for use on guitar and bass amps, the ND46 is a large-diaphragm dynamic mic built for use on brass, acoustic bass, guitar and bass amps, and drums. The mic features a supercardioid pattern and can easily handle SPLs upwards of 140 dB. The ratcheted, pivoting head of the ND46 locks for secure placement and its Memraflex grille was developed to stand up to rough treatment.

ROYER R-10 ($499)

Royer
 R-10

Royer  R-10

Royer’s R-10 brings the company’s level of quality to a price point that’s very reasonable. The R-10 is a ribbon mic that can handle SPLs up to 160 dB so you should be able to close-mike just about anything except a jet engine. A patented offset-ribbon transducer gives the R-10 higher SPL handling on the front side and a brighter response on the backside. An internal shockmount protects the transducer from mechanical impact, resulting in increased durability, and a multilayer screen protects the ribbon from wind blasts. Applications for the R-10 include drum overheads, brass, percussion, strings and acoustic piano. It can even be used on kick, though Royer stresses following placement instructions outlined in the manual.

Manufacturer Websites

www.akg.com
www.audixusa.com
www.audio-technica.com
www.bluedesigns.com
www.beyerdynamic.com
www.cadaudio.com
www.dpamicrophones.com
www.earthworksaudio.com
www.electrovoice.com
www.granelliaudiolabs.com
www.mxlmics.com
www.neumannusa.com
www.royerlabs.com
www.sennheiserusa.com
www.shure.com