Microphone Buying Guide

Capturing the sound of your voice or instrument properly can make all the difference in recording and live performance. This microphone buying guide outlines the various types and features to consider.

Microphones 101

Microphone choice is a critical part of recording and performing. The right microphone in any situation must be technically suited for the purpose, and also gives you the sound you want. Condenser mics are typically used in sound-controlled environments, like a studio, to capture drums and vocals. For live performance, a dynamic mic is ideal for holding in your hand and moving around a stage. A wireless mic gives you the freedom to roam the stage during performance, and a USB mic can help turn your smartphone or tablet into a mini studio. Voices and instruments can sound vastly different depending on which microphone is used, so experiment with different mics as much as possible until you find the right sound.

Types of Microphones


Condenser Microphones

Whatever you're recording, there's likely a condenser microphone designed specifically for the job. Condenser mics are the most common mics used in studios because they generally have a louder output and wider frequency response (the ability to reproduce the speed of a voice or instrument) than dynamic mics. They’re also typically more expensive, though cheaper models are available. Condenser microphones require power from an external power source, internal battery or phantom power from your mixer. Most mixers come with phantom power on the vocal inputs, but some older and basic models don’t. When shopping, be sure the model you're considering is compatible with your mixer. Condenser microphones are a common choice for capturing vocals and drums in a studio. In some instances, it may be suitable to use condenser mics for live performances, such as choirs, pianos and strings. As a rule, condenser mics perform best in very sound-controlled environments.

Dynamic Microphones

Well known for their extreme resilience and versatility, dynamic microphones are an industry standard for miking both instruments and vocals in live performance settings.  Almost all dynamic mics have a built-in shock absorbing system to keep the sound clear and constant through rough or animated handling during a performance. These features make the dynamic mic ideal for the unpredictable nature of live-music performance. Dynamic mics have a limited frequency response and can withstand high sound pressure levels, which also makes them ideal for loud guitar amps, vocals and drums onstage. 

Ribbon Microphones

Ribbon mics are a type of dynamic microphone commonly used for vocal and most instrument recordings in the studio. These mics are designed to roll off shrill noise created by feedback, ring out in the mid-to-high frequency range, and warm up the tone of recorded material. Typically, ribbon mics are not the first choice of live-sound mixers and front-of-house engineers because their benefits are too subtle to be fully appreciated in a live performance atmosphere.  

USB Microphones

USB mics offer simple plug-and-play convenience that complements today’s digital music landscape and the trend toward home recording. They're available in a variety of condenser and dynamic mic types that cater to recording both vocals and instruments. Many manufacturers have taken the USB mic concept a step further by combining the mic hardware with iOS and Android apps to turn smartphones and tablets into portable mini-studios. 

Wireless Microphones

Developed with live performance and professionalism in mind, wireless microphones allow the performer to move freely around the stage or performance environment. These microphones feature a battery-powered transmitter in the microphone body, replacing the traditional cable used by wired mics. The wireless transmitter sends the mic's signal to a receiver attached to a public address system or mixing board. While microphone-receiver sets will operate on matching frequencies, separately purchased microphones and receivers may not. So pay attention to frequency when purchasing these devices individually.

Shotgun Microphones

Shotgun microphones are often used when you can’t position a microphone directly in front of a sound source. For example, if you don’t want a person to hold a microphone up to their mouth during an interview. This accounts for its long, cylindrical shape, which gives the mic a narrower focus to pick up sounds from the front while rejecting sounds from the sides and rear. Shotgun mics are frequently used in film and video production, live theater, and for sound effects. 

Instrument Microphones

Instrument microphones are designed to capture the frequencies created by specific instruments. For example, drum mics come in sets that correspond to the different drums of a drum set. This allows each mic to capture the tone a specific drum while rejecting the sounds from the others. Drum microphones are generally XLR compatible and designed for both studio recording and live performance. Mics for classical and big band instruments like woodwinds, brass winds, strings and pianos are lightweight and usually designed as clip-ons, replacing the need for permanent pickups. These mics come in both wireless and wired versions and are primarily used for live performances.

Microphone Buying Tips:

• Shop for multi-use mics as you build your collection
• Consider compatibility with your other hardware and software components
• Research the microphone preferences of artists in your genre to gain insights
• Explore online forums to read user reviews and recommendations
• Listen to captured audio samples online

Microphone Features

Polar Pattern +

A microphone’s polar pattern refers to how it picks up or rejects sounds coming from different directions. The most common polar pattern is the cardioid pattern, which offers good pickup from the front, less from the sides, and almost total rejection from the rear. This makes them well-suited to live recording, and most other situations where the acoustics are good, but not perfect. Supercardioid and hypercardioid microphones take the concept a step further and work especially well for on-stage vocals and live recording in far-away or difficult acoustic situations. An omnidirectional microphone picks up sound equally well from 360 degrees and work well good acoustic environments, or in a recording situation where an open, natural sound is desired. Omnidirectional microphones are not advised for live sound as they are prone to feedback when amplified.

Body +

Generally speaking there are two microphone body types — wireless and wired. For live performances, your microphone selection will likely be limited to two or three types of microphones, and for the most part, wired via an XLR cable that plugs into the bottom of the mic’s shaft. Wireless mics are a popular option for many live vocal performers, and feature a wireless transmitter built into the microphone’s body which sends a signal from the wireless mic to a receiver connected to the PA system or mixer. While wireless mics are a good option on stage, they are not recommended for studio use, as they can lose their signal.

Frequency Response +

Measured in hertz, the frequency of a microphone is the range of frequencies — from low to high — that a microphone will hear and pick up. Most vocal mics have a frequency response range of approximately 80 Hz to 15 kHz. When miking drums like snares and toms, it’s best to use a model with a lower frequency response than vocal mics, or around 50 Hz. For bass drums you’ll want a mic with a frequency range between 30 and 40 Hz.

Sensitivity +

Different microphones pick up different levels of sound. This is known as the mic’s sensitivity, and is expressed by a number. In general, the lower the sensitivity number the more sensitive the microphone. The SPL, or Sound Pressure Level, is a measure of the maximum sound level a microphone can handle. SPL is most often monitored when miking loud instruments like drums in live-performance settings where volumes range up to 130 decibels.

Proximity Effect +

Microphones with a strong proximity effect will be very sensitive to the movement and distance of sound sources, particularly when tracking vocals. Bass tones are the most greatly affected by proximity. Singers who sing at a consistent distance from a mic will see a level bass tone range, whereas singers who move in and out, or who “work the mic”, will notice a fluctuation in the bass range, spiking as they approach, and dipping as they back off.

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Care & Maintenance Tips:

• Protect your microphones from heat, humidity and rough handling
• Never lay a microphone down on any surface: it can pick up fine particles of iron which will impair performance or damage the mic
• Never blow into your microphones to test them
• Protect your microphones during outdoor use with a semi-closed cell foam windscreen
• Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for care and maintenance
This article is intended as general information. Always be sure to read and follow the label(s)/instruction(s) that accompany your product(s). Walmart will not be responsible for any injury or damage caused by this activity.



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