Affordable condenser mic for vocals, acoustic instruments

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Joined: 02/12/2009

A common question I hear is, "There are so many recent condenser mics under $1000. Which ones are good?" While we'd all love to stock our collections with $2000+ mics, reality usually disagrees with us.

What follows is a number of good mics to choose from, with one clear frontrunner, the Neumann TLM-103.

These are all large-diaphragm condenser mics, which means they are more sensitive and detailed than small-diaphragm condensers or most dynamic mics. These will be perfect for acoustic instruments, voice, drum overhead mics, etc.

This type of mic used to cost over $1000 but they make cheaper versions now. The prices of the ones I've listed are in line with their relative quality. Condensers require a mic preamp that can deliver +48v power. Most mixers have phantom, and some computer interfaces with mic preamps do too, such as the MOTU 896, Digi 001/002/Mbox.

A few of these are "tube" mics (vs. the rest which are "solid-state"). Here come the buzzwords. In brief, a solid-state mic is more accurate (clinical), but a tube mic of equivalent price has more character. Tube mics have a "warmer" sound which is a nice complement to an all-digital recording system. Terms like "warm" are very subjective and a tube mic's character can sometimes be emulated with EQ or a plug-in. But the accuracy of a solid-state mic can't be easily recreated when using a tube mic.

The dealer I've chosen, zZounds.com, is tax-free unless you are in New Jersey. Shipping is free on these items unless you need it 2-day. They have a match-any-price deal too! Note that they don't accept returns of microphones. I checked a bunch of other dealers; they all had the same or higher prices than zZounds and they charged for shipping or tax.

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The front runner:
I love the Neumann TLM-103... it's my favorite affordable mic. It sounds excellent on voice, acoustic instruments, drum overheads and more. Plus, it's extremely affordable for the sound quality.

[The following price info was edited 8/2005...]
Zzounds used to sell the TLM-103 for $830, it listed for $999 elsewhere. But now [8/2005] Zzounds only lists the $1150 "Anniversary 103" package, which also includes a shockmount and aluminum case:

https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--NEUTLM103ANN

The $999 BLUE Blueberry is built with better components than the mics which follow:
https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--BALBLUE

@ ~ $599, the Audio Technica AT4050 is cool because it has a switchable pickup pattern (rare at this price), allowing lots of different uses:
https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--AUTAT4050

@ $499, the Shure KSM32 is a very good quality mic becoming popular with studios and live stages. As of 3/2005 it's marked down a LOT from ~$1070:
https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--SHUKSM32SL

@ $399, the Audio Technica AT4033CL is a nice classic-design mic:
https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--AUTAT4033CL

@ $299, the Marshall MXLV69 (Mogami Edition) is a tube mic and has extra features like a shockmount, cables and a nice case, all of which is almost suspiciously inexpensive:
https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--MSEMXLV69ME

@ $299, the Rode NT1000 is a straightforward mic which doesn't have the extras that the others have. It's marked down a bunch from the list price:
https://www.zzounds.com/a--3778/item--RODNT1000

Also check out this longer, up-to-the-minute list of condenser mics, and read the many user reviews.

If you need a vocal mic for a live stage, or if you must have a handheld mic for rap in the studio, try the Neumann KMS105. That mic kicks the Shure SM58 to the curb.

[Side note: These links tell the dealer that I referred you. If the price isn't listed on the site, call them but please mention my affiliate number, 3778 ("Silent Way"). Buy it on the website if possible, using the same browser.]

Good luck, and I hope this helps.

[This article has been updated since it was first written.]

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Joined: 01/12/2004

Thanks for the detailed rundown of cool and affordable mics.
Based on your recommendation and what I've read so far, the
Neumann TLM-103 does sound like the definitive winner.
If we can manage the expense we will probably go with this mic.
Otherwise we'll go with one of the other mics on your list.
We'll keep you posted. Thanks again!

-Ernesto

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Joined: 05/30/2004

Just a general comment about mics.....

While the trend seems to be moving every closer to the 99 cent condensor mic, that might not be the best choice for project studio owners. Instead of asking "what's the cheapest conderser?" you might be better served by asking "whats the best mic I can afford?" and there's a very good chance that it won't be a condenser.

In the under $1k category, there are a LOT more good dynamics than good condensers. A Sennheiser MD 421 or 441 costs as much as most of the new 3rd world condensers, but unlike any of the cheap condensers, you will find the 421 and 441 in just about every pro studio in the world. Many great vocal tracks have been cut with these two mics and they are also useful on an unusually wide variety of sources, from kick drum to brass. And if you ever decide that you don't like them, for whatever reason, you will have no troulble unloading it for about what you paid for it. Try that with a $299 condenser (it becomes a $79 mic as soon as it leaves the store).

There are lots of places to save money in this life, cheap mics aren't one of the smart ones. Ask any pro if he'd rather have two $75 Shure Sm57s or one $150 condenser mic. There are just too many good dynamic and ribbon mics available for very little cash to spend good money on "semi-pro" mics.

Good luck.

steve
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Joined: 02/12/2009

hollywood_steve wrote:
There are just too many good dynamic and ribbon mics available for very little cash to spend good money on "semi-pro" mics.

Great points. I agree, dynamic mics are not to be overlooked. I should have started the article with the point that every mic closet must first start with a good complement of dynamic mics. It's sort of an "apples and oranges" point to me. Oooh, and ribbons, yes! Another delectable flavor. Now it's "apples, oranges, and bananas"...

I also agree that the cheaper mics I listed above are in the "you get what you pay for" category. A condenser mic for under $400 will certainly not last forever or compare to the classics.

But the better mics I listed (Neumann, Blue, AT) are definitely NOT cheapo knockoffs. Sure they aren't as sweet as a Neumann U87, U47 or an AKG C12, but at 1/3 to 1/20th the price, It's essential to round out the "condenser" shelf of any mic closet.

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Joined: 02/05/2005

I own a pair of CAD GXL-2400 and I love them. As long as the the program material doesnt excede their dynamic range limitations they are wonderful mics ($90 with the shock mount @ Woodsys Music). I have used them sucessfully with choirs, ac guitar, flute, overhead drums ( for drums in a med or low volume) voice overs and piano. I also like AKG 535s and the Audio Technica AE-3000 and AE-5400. The 3000s are great for bass Amp or guitar Amp and fantastic on brass. AKG-535s ($279 ea) work for drum overheads, choir, tympani, hi-hat l and misc percussion.
I agree with the other poster, Sennheiser dynamics are fantastic recording mics for Horns, Reeds, Toms and Guitar cabinets. Dynamic mics are vastly underrated since Mic pres these days have plenty of gain they are a better choice than condensors for many situations. In addition to MD421s and md442s I have a pair of SM-59s that I use alot. I also like Audio Technica ATM-25s for low brass and toms.
Audix D-6 is my goto bass drum mic.
And the Audix SCX-25 kit is the most wonderfulest piano mic kit ever (they are however a too pricey to be considered cheap by anyone).

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Joined: 02/12/2009
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