Great microphones are abundant in the world of professional recording. Renting out a studio gives you access to their selection, usually including such staples as the Neumann U87, AKG C414, sometimes dozens of Shure SM57s and a whole collection of other microphones that the studio has picked up over the years.
Make no mistake – these microphones are legendary.
There’s a reason artists and engineers pay hundreds of dollars just to use them for a few hours, and why every independent engineer and producer should consider the value that a great microphone or two could add to their home productions.
At the same time, we need to be realistic that these mics aren’t attainable for everyone. Until you start making at least some of your livelihood off of a career in music, it can be impossible to justify spending a thousand dollars or more on a studio-grade microphone.
We need to use what we’ve got.
And for hundreds of artists, that means utilizing a cheaper mic in their home studio setups until they’re able to afford a better one. So when you find yourself in this situation, what can you do to make that cheap mic sound good?
The Difference Between Cheap & Expensive Mics
In order to answer that question, you first need to understand why your cheap mic doesn’t sound like the expensive mics on the market. It all comes down to the components that go into them.
For most inexpensive microphones, that large body contributes a lot to the “look” of a professional microphone, but most of the time they’re going to be pretty empty inside. That’s not to say they need tons of internals to function, but large diaphragm condensers usually utilize that space for all of the components that go into making each microphone sound a certain way. Resistors, capacitors & more are all customized and selected to help give each mic a specific frequency response (sometimes referred to as a microphone’s “curve”).
The main component of them all is the capsule, which is where many clones of famous microphones start when trying to recreate the magic of an expensive microphone. Capsules range in size, construction, density, and material and range in value from mere cents for the cheapest ones to hundreds of dollars. Their sensitivity and quality is directly tied to their cost.
Simply put – good microphones use good components.
As a result, the quality control and consistency of cheaper microphones is never going to be on par with the more expensive models. There’s even a stark contrast between microphones that cost a few hundred dollars versus the ones in the sub-$100 price range. Spending just a bit more on a quality mic can save you hours of tweaking to get it to sound “right”.
Changing A Cheap Mic’s Frequency Response
Regardless of how cheap your mic is, the reality of modern recording is that just about anything recorded with that microphone can be turned into something usable with enough effort. Even the most budget-friendly microphones today sound better than some of the ones used in the early days of recording.
Two character flaws usually define cheap microphones. Both are particularly noticeable when used on vocals: they are noisy and they have a harsh/brittle top end.
Fortunately, both can be treated with EQ if you know what you’re doing.
High-pass filters can often clean up a lot of the low-end content picked up and amplified by cheaper microphones. Things like buzzing and humming that better microphones fight at the source might be recorded, but your EQ can eliminate them right from the start of your mix.
Often, to offset this low-end build-up, these cheaper microphones overhype the high end of the audio spectrum to make things sound brighter than they really are. In a high-quality mic, this brightness translates to airiness, but with cheaper components, it’s extremely brittle and sometimes even piercing.
For this reason, low-pass shelves can be utilized to lessen that top end and give you a more even response across this part of the spectrum. Again – it may be in your source, but it doesn’t have to affect your mix.
The rest of your EQ decisions can be made to give you the sound you’re really after with the mic. Cutting out problem frequencies and boosting parts of the spectrum that help make things sound clearer are common approaches to EQ, and ones that are essential when working with cheaper mics.
Once you’ve found an EQ curve that helps offset the problems in your microphone’s frequency response, save it as a preset. You’ll have a great starting point for your next session.
Tighten Things Up With Compression
To drive home your newly shaped recording, compression should be applied to both cheap and expensive microphones to smooth out overly dynamic signals. Think of it as a way to bring down any extremely loud levels and a tool that lets you raise your overall volume so your softer parts can still be heard.
Compression is especially important on cheaper microphones that might not be as forgiving on extremely dynamic sources. Often, transients can clip a microphone if the preamp gain is set too high and the result can be harsher with cheaper mics. By relying on compression, you don’t need to record at the hottest levels possible – dial that gain back a bit to get a clear signal, then utilize compression in the box to get a fuller sound with more perceived loudness.
What Tricks Are You Using?
Even in major studios, producers and engineers are always seeking out new and interesting ways to capture and create sounds. For many, this means testing new mic positions, using new plugins, and stacking plugins in new ways to achieve a different color.
If you’re looking for some inspiration to help you find your sound, be sure to check out Virtual Signal Chain Secrets – our guide to getting any sound you want out of your inserts & send in your DAW.