Text and Video by Nicolas Grizzle
Raise your hand if you’ve been making more cell phone videos of yourself playing music lately. Now, keep your hand up if you wish they sounded better. While the microphones in our smartphones have certainly gotten better, they’re still not the best for music. Not that your home recordings have to be perfect—the adage of “don’t let perfect be the enemy of done” comes to mind—it is possible to make them significantly better without spending too much time or money. With that in mind, here’s a comparison of the sonic qualities of some popular home recording microphones: a stereo flash recorder, a cardioid dynamic microphone, and a cardioid condenser microphone.
In this article we compare the audio from the cell phone that recorded the video (Google Nexus 3a) with three different types of external microphone: a stereo mic (Zoom H4n), cardioid dynamic (Shure SM57), and cardioid condenser (Audio Technica AT2020). The audio was recorded into a Zoom H4n flash recorder. There are no effects (EQ, compression, etc.) on the audio, and volume levels were mixed to be the same for each mic. Mics were aimed at the same place on the instrument, with each mic equidistant from the sound source. The audio was recorded simultaneously, so the comparisons are of the same exact performance. As this is an article about home recording, it was recorded in a carpeted living room, away from the walls to avoid sound reflection as much as possible.
The on-board mic in your smartphone is serviceable for recording practices or sharing clips with friends, but it doesn’t really capture the full sound of your music. For starters, the mic’s frequency response is limited, and does not pick up the lowest and highest frequencies. Since it’s tailored to pick up human voice, music recorded on the phone tends to sound boxier than it should. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you want vocals to stand out, but it’s not an accurate representation of what your instrument—or your voice—sounds like. Many phones have two microphones and will record in stereo, as did the one used here.
Stereo Flash Recorder
Most flash recorders use two microphones in an XY pattern for stereo recording. The mics tend to be “flat,” that is they are designed to capture an accurate recording without coloring it too much. The Zoom H4n is one of the most popular recorders available, and it did a good job of recording an accurate performance. It was a noticeable improvement over the smartphone mics, with a wide, natural stereo field. The audio sounded closest to being in the room during the performance out of all we tested. To my ears, these mics did add a bit of brightness—perhaps crispness is more appropriate—to the natural sound. This unit, like many other handheld flash recorders, mounts on a standard camera tripod mount (including flexible mini-tripods designed for smartphones). Having the mics and recorder all in one adds to the ease of use.
For this test, we used the most popular instrument mic ever made: the Shure SM57. These veritably indestructible mics are a standard in the studio and on stage for acoustic instruments, and chances are you have one in your home, studio, or instrument case right now. This mic gave us the most “direct” sound in our testing, purely focused on capturing the audio with no frills whatsoever. It didn’t color the sound in a negative or positive way, though it was the least “lively” of all recordings in this test. It’s easy to use, fits into any standard mic clip, and does not require phantom power.
Condenser microphones usually give more detail and clarity than dynamic mics. For this article we used another studio and home recording standard, the Audio Technica AT2020. For roughly the same price as an SM57 (about $100), this mic provides lower lows, higher highs, and more of everything in between. The instrument sounded natural and the detail was very clear. It picked up the most nuance in vocals, too. But in a home recording situation, nuance and detail are double-edged swords. Unless your space is acoustically treated, or you’re recording in a very quiet space with little to no reverb, you’re going to hear that room. Even in a carpeted room with furniture, sitting away from the walls, the acoustics of the room were audible and colored the recording in our test.
Dynamic & Condenser Together
Since we had the audio from all the mics in one performance, we decided to experiment a bit. With the audio from the SM57 in the left channel, and the AT2020 in the right channel, we made our own stereo recording. This gave an added sense of space to the recording, but the sonic differences in the mics were quite audible. Without using any effects like EQ, reverb, or compression, it doesn’t have the same cohesion as the other recordings. If you plan to make your own stereo recording with two mics, it might be a good idea to use two of the same model, or at least the same style.
Conclusion: Use Your Ears
All external mics we tested were an improvement over the smartphone mics. But what works best for you will depend largely on what instrument and style you are playing. More dynamic pieces might need a condenser to capture the nuances of those quiet parts; loud, boisterous, foot-on-the-gas type of songs may need a dynamic mic aimed at the sound source. Larger groups might benefit from a stereo pair placed to pick up a good balance of all instruments. If you can use more than one mic, experiment with placement; maybe one near and one far sounds best to your ears. You may also achieve different results by adding some effects or spending more time mixing. But if you spend the time in picking the right microphone and mic placement for your recording, hopefully you won’t need to do too much to your recording to get it sounding the way you want it to.