Microphones come in all shapes, sizes and price points—and naturally, they can differ quite a bit. Some are high-performance instruments used in professional studios, while others are utilitarian devices made for live sound, entry-level recording or even karaoke.
When most people think of a “studio-quality” microphone, they picture a shiny large-diaphragm condenser mic in a pro vocal booth. But the truth is, even many of today’s USB mics are considered studio-quality. So what actually separates studio microphones from the rest? In this article, we’ll investigate how factors like frequency range, build quality, musicality and more determine whether a mic is studio-quality or not.
Before we get into it, bear in mind that plenty of great recordings have been made with lesser-quality mics, whether due to budget constraints or creative decisions. A fancy studio condenser microphone certainly isn’t required to make great music, podcasts or streams, but if you want to know what difference a good mic makes, read on to learn what exactly “studio-quality” means.
BROAD FREQUENCY RANGE
The range of human hearing spans from 20 Hz on the low end (think low sub bass) to 20,000 Hz on the high end (nearly inaudible “airy” sounds). That’s why it’s important for a studio-quality microphone to be able to capture most of this range. Even if you’re recording a bass guitar, you still want to be able to capture the higher-frequency content like the pick attack, overtones and natural reverb in the room.
While some microphones don’t capture this entire range, most come close, and that’s what’s important. For example, a dynamic mic with limited bass response could still be useful for recording treble instruments, while a ribbon microphone with limited high-end might be perfect for taming harsh cymbals on a drum kit. On the other hand, the built-in mics in smartphones and laptops are often lacking in low- and high-end, giving everything a closed-off sound with little to no body or life.
The electrical components inside a microphone have a big impact on sound quality.
From the capsule or diaphragm that captures the sound to the capacitors and wiring that the electrical signal passes through, every single component contributes to a mic’s sound. Each mic’s unique assortment of components influences the frequency response, noise floor and other characteristics. Think of it like a recipe—it doesn’t matter what you’re cooking; if you don’t use quality ingredients, it’s not going to turn out well.
The best studio mics are made with high-quality components, including gold-coated diaphragms, reliable capacitors, precise resistors and sturdy output jacks to ensure a good cable connection. All of these components add up to become more than the sum of their parts, resulting in not only great sound, but also consistency between individual mics produced, which is important when using a stereo pair.
LOW HARMONIC DISTORTION
Although it’s not usually part of the marketing, Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) is a key specification for microphones. In simple terms, THD measures how much a microphone corrupts the signal going through it. This is calculated by comparing a clean input signal to the output signal and measuring the amount of extra harmonics added to the signal. Essentially, it’s the opposite of a tube amplifier—the goal is for the signal to pass through as cleanly as possible.
While it’s not possible to achieve 0% THD, studio-quality mics typically measure lower than 1%, which is an inaudible amount of distortion to most ears. The greater the number, the more distortion a mic imparts to the signal, and on some lesser-quality mics, this distortion is audible enough to disqualify the mic from “studio-quality” status.
In addition to sounding great, studio-quality mics must be built to survive daily use in the studio.
No matter how good a mic sounds, it’s not studio-quality unless it’s sturdy enough to stand up to use in the studio. Some original Yetis are still going strong after more than twelve years in service, and certain well-built vintage mics are 70 or more years old and still seeing use. Sturdy construction may add to the cost of a mic, but it pays off when you’re able to keep using that mic years later instead of buying a replacement.
Studio-quality mics usually have a robust metal body to protect the parts inside, a strong wire mesh grille to protect the capsule without impacting the sound, high-quality switches that won’t snap off and a tightly fit output jack that won’t wiggle loose over time. Even the build quality of the accessories is critical: shock mounts and other mic stand adapters must be made of robust materials and feature tightly locking joints as well as durable threading that won’t strip after repeated use.
Musicality is the least quantifiable of the “studio-quality” attributes, but probably has the biggest impact on your recordings. A “musical-sounding” mic is one whose tone enhances the sound of the source. Some high-end mics focus on ultra-clear, transparent sound, but the best studio microphones feature thoughtfully sculpted tone that flatters instruments and voices. Non-studio-quality mics do neither—instead, they have unintentional bumps and dips at unflattering frequencies.
For example, Mouse excels at drum recording because its broad low-frequency bump captures the lows of kick drums and floor toms while the extra emphasis between 5-15 kHz enhances the cymbals and snare overtones. Even better, Yeti X and Yeti Nano feature Blue VO!CE broadcast effects, which includes built-in EQ so you can tailor the sound to flatter whatever you’re recording.