The biggest mistake voice over artists make — and that includes some professionals — is using the wrong microphone. It can wreck your work. If you market yourself on Voice123.com or Voices.com, the wrong microphone will insure you don't get hired, or if you do, that you won't get hired by that same person again.
Here we'll look at the three types of microphones most often used, their strengths and weaknesses, cost, and how to determine which one(s) to go for.
We'll talk about the types, then look at specific brands, models, and prices.
Before we start, the most important thing I can say to you is that your microphone is the most important part of your entire audio chain, no exceptions. You can have the most fabulous gear in the world downstream from the mic, but if the mic doesn't cut it, it doesn't really matter about the rest of that gear. On the other hand, a terrific microphone followed by average-priced gear will give you a superior audio product.
What are you looking to do? Are you looking for a mic that's smooth and sweet, or hard-edged and in-your-face? Are you male or female? If you want to do movie trailers and screaming car dealer ads, you need a different mic than if you're doing “guy or girl next door” — realistic — voice work, or standard announce voice work. Here are the types of mics to consider:
Dynamic microphones are what you see in radio stations and are what live vocalists (singers) most often use. They're rugged, reasonably good-sounding, and okay for most voices, meaning one might not sound absolutely fabulous on your particular voice, but it won't sound awful, which is not true of other types, including some very expensive microphones. A dynamic also is not so nuanced. The part that picks up your voice, the diaphragm, is connected to a coil of wire; air movement from sound makes the coil move between the poles of a magnet. The sound has to overcome the mass of the coil, and very small sounds don't get through.
This doesn't make them bad. Rush Limbaugh's Golden EIB microphone is a dynamic, and, again, most radio stations use them. They are good general-purpose mics, and many voice over pros use them. They are equally good for male and female voices, and you can do most any type of style with them.
If you're on a budget, a dynamic is the only choice, because the other two cost a lot more. There are cheap versions of the other two, and you do not want one!
So if dynamics are so useful, why spend more for a condenser or ribbon?
A condenser microphone, of which there are two types, transistor and tube (“valve” in Europe), does not have the moving coil of wire attached to its diaphragm. It modifies an electrical current generated by an external power supply (found in most computer interfaces or with an external power supply, see your dealer for info, or internal batteries). Without the mechanical resistance of a dynamic mic's coil to overcome, a condenser is far more sensitive to nuance, and therefore sounds much more intimate.
Condensers come in two flavors: transistor and tube. A tube condenser, which is an expensive instrument (there are cheap ones and they make good paperweights but not microphones), is almost always the very best way to go. Tube condensers sound intimate and full, and have a great up-front sound without being aggressive. They are quite subject to problems from hard speech components — ‘f', ‘s', ‘p' — and require a pop screen (see your dealer). Tube mics also produce what's called harmonic distortion, which we don't consciously hear but is responsible for what's called “tube warmth” (nothing to do with temperature!) and sounds quite intimate.
Condensers come in two other flavors: large diaphragm and small diaphragm. Large diaphragms are for when you want a big, intimate sound. Small diaphragms are said to be more accurate. However, the right one for you is the one that sounds best after making several-minute recordings with each (more about this later in the article) and seeing if one is more fatiguing or if one just plain sounds better to you than the other. There are no rules. Both kinds are used for voice over.
Many voice over artists prefer tube condensers over transistorized ones, but in all cases, what sounds best on your particular voice is what you should get. How to choose a mic? We'll get to that in a minute.
Here's the third type, in a class by itself: the ribbon microphone. While dynamics and condensers ‘hear' with diaphragms, a ribbon microphone “hears” with a short, narrow, and very thin piece of corrugated, aluminum ‘foil' suspended between the poles of a strong magnet.
You've seen the big, pickle-shaped microphones on Letterman's and Larry King's desks. They are RCA Model 77 ribbon microphones (used as props in this case), invented in the 1930's. They were found everywhere for half a century. RCA quit making ribbons in the 1970's, and an enterprising genius named Wes Dooley bought all of RCA's stock ribbons (the ribbons themselves) and probably single-handedly re-introduced the ribbon microphone to the US market. His company is called AEA, and even the AEA logo is so designed as to closely resemble RCA's logo. There are now several companies making very good ribbon microphones.
Ribbon mics are warm and smooth, jazz guys like to record with them, they're very nice for ladies' voices, and for certain male voices they add a nice satisfying depth. They also have a low output, which means that you have to crank up the input on your system to get a decent level from them. But raising the input raises what's called the noise floor, and you can end up with a recording where you can hear hiss in the background. Wes and other ribbon mic manufacturers deal with this problem well, however, and some companies are making preamplifiers (talk with your dealer about this) designed specifically for ribbon mics.
Whether a ribbon — or any mic, for that matter — will sound good on your voice cannot be known without actually trying one out. Ribbons are quite sensitive to moving air; if you blow into one to test to see if it's on, there's an excellent chance you'll destroy the ribbon. When ribbons were in common studio use, they were ‘bagged' — a fitted bag was put over them — just to move them from place to place in the studio, to avoid ribbon damage from the air passing across them as they were moved.
There are a million brands, which of course goes for condensers, but not that many ribbon brands.
Not to worry, because there are several industry standards with which it's hard to go wrong. Here are the three most popular dynamics, and they probably outsell all the rest put together:
Sennheiser 421U (see dealer about the specific one for your purpose)
Shure SM57 / SM58 — less expensive and can be used if you don't have the money for the others
These mics, except for the last two, are in the $350-$700 range. Though each has a characteristic ‘sound,' they are fairly close together in that respect. Each is well-made and dependable over the long haul, as in decades.
The Sennheiser, and, I believe, the SM7, have what are called proximity effects: if you get right on top of them they accentuate the lows. Many announcers in radio stations like to eat them; they want that deep “Voice of God” sound. They're better used at a distance of 6-10″. The RE20 is known for its lack of the proximity effect. I personally like it better than the others. Electro-Voice has a newer version, called the RE27, which users either really like or really can't stand. Further, the RE20 was also made under a different model name, PL20. The finish color is a bit different, but it's the same mic. The PL line of mics was made for miking drums and musical instruments and is no longer in production. I found a PL20 for $150 and am still jumping up and down, for the average used price of a PL20 or RE20 is double that.
For price-to-quality, none of these mics can be beat.
As mentioned above, two flavors here: transistorized and tube. Again, a tube condenser, like any well-designed tube device, generates overtones, which our ears perceive as “warmth.” I say well-designed, because ever since tubes were “rediscovered” about 25 years ago, a lot of low-priced gear with a tube or two in them has hit the market, but they are not necessarily designed by people who know how to design a tube circuit for best effect. This section deals with condensers in general.
Probably the most-recognized condenser mic name in the world is Neumann (NOI-mahn), and its most popular model is perhaps the U-87. It sells new for around $3500, $2000 or so used. I've found that a Neumann either sounds incredible on your voice or it sounds honky. The U-87 is the microphone National Public Radio uses exclusively.
It is found in just about every recording studio of any size. It will love your voice or hate it.
There are more expensive Neumanns, and a series of low-priced models, some prefixed with the letters TLM. A good number of voice over artists use TLMs (< $1000); in my opinion they are not nearly as natural-sounding as the U-87 or a good dynamic. I had one but sold it after a few months. It could sound really good to your particular ear, however. I make this point because voices and tastes differ, and it is certainly true that one voice can sound bad on a certain mic and superb on the next voice. So how does one choose? We'll get to that in a sec.
First, you must use a pop screen on a condenser. This device stops those blasts of air from non-vocal speech components, most notably “P” sounds, to which condensers are especially sensitive. Put your hand in front of your mouth and say “P.” Feel the air? If that blast hits a condenser, let's just say you don't want to be wearing headphones at the time. Now, it's a good idea to talk across (at 45 degrees) not straight into, any microphone, because all of them will react badly to P pops; it is just that condensers REALLY react to them. Many RE20 users put pop screens in front of their mics even though most people don't use pop screens with dynamics.
Cheap condensers: a big no-no.
Cheap condensers are all over the market. You can buy a microphone with a nice spider shock mount and in a beautiful aluminum flight case all for $75. Um, I don't thin' so, Loooocy. They are unnaturally bright at the top end and boomy at the bottom.
The really nefarious part of this is that, if you're just starting out, your ear is easily fooled into thinking that boosted highs and lows sound good. They do sound sort of exciting, but it is extremely fatiguing to listen to a recording made on one. As Phil Spector famously put it, “It's all in the middle.” Americans like to crank up the treble and bass. If you have a mic delivering lots of highs and lows, and someone boosts the highs and lows on their music system, your work will sound awful. Expensive microphones have rolled-off low ends and smooth high ends. Upon first using one you may even think, “Wow, what's the big deal about this thing? It's boring.” No, it's natural. Unboosted highs and lows. In other words, it sounds like you, not you-through-a-microphone. That's as it should be.
Remember, you are competing with people who own high-end condensers, and that's how they sound. I'll take a $400 dynamic over a $400 condenser just about every time.
March 2018 edit: All of this said, an engineer friend of mine was recording an a capella group. He put Neumann U-87's on everyone. They all sounded good except for one vocalist. He tried every mic he had and nothing sounded especially good. With a what-the-heck attitude, he put his last mic, a Shure SM-57, used extensively for miking electric guitar amplifiers and drumsets, in front of her. It costs $100, the Neumann costs $3500. She sounded perfect, and fit right in with everyone else.
Go figure. Remember, though, that this really is an exception.
I have experience with exactly one ribbon: an AEA R84. It sounds really good. It's an updated version of an industry-standard RCA ribbon mic, the Model 44, invented long ago and used forever, like the 77. It's tres cool-looking, and comes with a snarky-looking padded, fitted maroon bag for transport and protection. It's about $990.
There are other ribbons that have excellent reputations, more hitting the market all the time, see your dealer. I'm not aware of ribbons being used that much for voiceover, but I have an idea that it's because a great number of people don't know about them. I think it's also due as much to inertia as anything — everyone learns what everyone else is using and follows suit. Also, ribbons don't have the in-your-face sound that dynamics and condensers have.
How to choose the right mic for you
The best way to match a microphone to your voice is to call a professional recording studio and book an hour or so of their time. Have them set up an array of mics around you and test read you, each mic going to a different recorded track. It's infinitely better to match the mic to your particular (and unique) voice than to get just anything and try to make it fit using equalization (Google “equalization for voice over” and read it!). I recommend you test no fewer than five mics, making sure to include all the ones listed above except the Shure SM57 / 58. When you listen to yourself recorded on each one, the best one will usually make itself plain (but beware of the unnatural high-and-low-boost wow factor), and it's a good idea to ask the recording engineer's opinion, for s/he knows what to listen for. My method is to listen to the recordings of the first two, choose a winner, compare it to the third one, choose a winner, compare it to the fourth, and so on. Then do it again, only have the engineer mix up the playback order.
Don't try this test in an amateur home studio. They almost certainly will not have the mics you need to make the test meaningful, and the person recording you will almost certainly not be competent to evaluate which mic to use for voice over; most home studios exist for the purpose of recording music and sung vocal, not voice acting and voice over.
What if you don't have a studio within 50 or 100 miles, or their rates are too high (though I think paying $100 to test several thousand dollars' worth of microphones will save you unbelievable headaches, sending mics back, etc.)?
Now, all that said, if your budget allows, buy either a Neumann U-87 or a Lawson L-47 MPII. The Lawson is around $2000, or $1500 bucks less than the Neumann. The Lawson is the mic I have used for nearly 10 years. It sounds like Disney, but even more importantly, I have yet to record a voice on it that hasn't sounded really good.
It is sold factory-direct through a fella named Gene Lawson in Nashville, at Lawsonmicrophones.com. If you call them, you can talk right to Gene. He's a great guy.
Absent that kind of budget, get an Electro-Voice RE20, Shure SM7, or Sennheiser 421U. The Sennheiser comes in a couple of variations so tell your dealer that you're using it for VO.
If you're not sure whether you really want to be a VO artist but would like to give it a trial shot, get a Shure SM57 or 58. They are $100 dynamics. As I said before, they are okay, and never sound bad on anyone's voice.
Where to get it?
If you're going to get an RE20 or Sennheiser or Shure, get it from your local music store (the best choice because service is right there, no mail order hassles). If you don't have a local dealer, go online to one of the big catalog outlets such as Sweetwater, Full Compass, Zzounds, or Guitar Center. They have fairly liberal return policies and are easy to work with. They sell a lot of stuff and have competitive reputations to maintain. Plus, their prices are usually identical from piece to piece so they have to make up for it with really good service, all to your advantage.
If you've got the bucks for a $1500 – $2000+ condenser, go online to SoundPure.com. (Lawson are sold factory-direct only at Lawsonmicrophones.com) Sound Pure has professional sound recordists to talk to, and at those prices you need to talk to pros. Not that the catalog stores don't have pros, but their level of expertise varies. I've talked to guys who knew nothing about what I wanted and guys who knew a lot; at Sound Pure they're all pros and they are truly interested in getting you what you need and not a penny more.
Tell them everything you want to do, what other gear you have, what to buy if you don't have any gear yet. They truly give a great big rip about their customers and about the pro audio business in general. I can't say enough good about them. In case you're wondering about all this nice stuff I'm saying about Lawson and Sound Pure: not only am I not getting paid by them, they don't know I've written this article.
To sum up: If there's a pro studio near you, book an hour and test their dynamics and condensers using the method above.
When you're ready to buy, If you want to spend $200-$700, get a dynamic: Electro-Voice RE20, Shure SM7, or Sennheiser 421U. Check your local music store first — everything's so much easier that way. From $1500 and above (which your local store probably won't have) get a tube condenser: Lawson L-47 MPII from Lawsonmicrophones.com, or for others, go to SoundPure.com and call them. Re the RE20, EV also makes an RE27. Some people really like them, some people really don't. I'd go with the RE20.
I've worked for years to get a good sound and am writing this to try to save you some time in finding your great sound.