A great sounding mix starts with a great sounding recording. Several variables play into achieving quality recordings, such as acoustic room treatment, preamps and interfaces, durable cables, and performance. But at the center of every good recording is a reliable microphone.
If you’re putting together your home studio for the first time, you might not know what to look for in a microphone, or what it should cost. While you can spend a pretty penny on some major league mics, you don’t have to go so far to get a great sound.
With its flat frequency response, durable build, and versatility, the Audio Technica AT2020 (Amazon) is the best vocal mic you can purchase for just around a hundred bucks.
We’ll dig into the specifics a bit later, but the bottom line is that the AT2020 is a great vocal mic that can be used for plenty of other applications in a home recording studio.
Before we get into the AT2020, let’s go over what makes for a good vocal mic. These will hold true regardless of cost.
A good vocal mic will pick up a large range of frequencies and not accentuate or minimize certain ones. This is important whether you’re recording vocals or instruments. You want your mic to capture what you hear, after all.
Even if you purchase a microphone for the sole purpose of recording vocals, many mics can record other instruments as well. The more your mic can do, the better. Versatility can also refer to a mic’s range of polar patterns, frequency response, and usefulness in both live and studio settings.
Every purchase you make for your home studio should be an investment. You don’t want to constantly buy new gear out of necessity. So, your vocal mic needs to hold up over time. It should feature a strong, durable shell and a sturdy mount.
Lastly, you have to pick between a dynamic or condenser vocal mic. The jury is forever out on this one. When it comes to inexpensive mics, some engineers swear by dynamic vocal mics like the Shure SM58, while others prefer condenser mics like the AT2020.
Without getting too technical, dynamic mics don’t require external power while condenser mics do. This results in slight tonal differences between the two types. There are several great vocal mics of both varieties, so it’s worth doing some research and assessing your needs when making this decision.
While the popular Shure SM58 deserves an honorable mention, we chose the Audio Technica AT2020 for the best vocal mic under $100.
No matter what you’re recording, the AT2020 will serve you well. While it’s primarily used for vocal recording, it also does a good job of capturing instrumental sounds. This is mostly due to its flat frequency response. This means the microphone picks up a large range of audio frequencies (20 Hz – 20kHZ, or just about every sound audible to the human ear) without favoring or diminishing any of them within it. In short, whatever sound goes into the mic (input) will come out the same (output).
In addition to its flat frequency response, the AT2020 is a cardioid condenser microphone. Remember, condenser mics need external power to function properly. Therefore, the AT2020 requires 48V of phantom power from a preamp. “Cardioid” refers to the mic’s polar pattern, or area of highest sensitivity. The cardioid pattern captures the most sound from directly in front of the mic and prevents most of the sound coming in from the back and sides.
In other words, you’ll want to record head-on when using the AT2020. When recording vocals or anything else with this mic, you’ll get a clear, direct sound with minimal reflections coming from the sides or behind the mic, even without a vocal booth.
We tend to associate inexpensive with fragile, flimsy, and unreliable. But the AT2020 is a durable microphone. Its strong metal shell and sturdy attachments make for a long lifespan. Plus, out of the box, the mic comes with a protective case and mount. It does not come with an XLR cable, however. So, in order to use the mic, you’ll need to purchase an XLR cable and a preamp separately.
A solid mic like the AT2020 won’t be of much use to you if you don’t know how to record a great vocal take. Make sure to do these things:
1. Keep the Right Distance from the Mic
Whether you’re recording vocals, an instrument, or an amplifier, the source of sound must stand about 10-12 inches from the mic. Too close and you’ll end up with a harsher tone, violent plosives (popping “P” sounds), and risk losing some frequencies and natural reflections along the way. Too far and you’ll lose the sound itself, capturing more of the room’s sound than the audio source.
2. Always Use a Pop Filter
Those plosive sounds can only be truly mitigated by using a pop filter. These simple devices block that burst of air from reaching the microphone, softening plosive sounds. For the best results, the filter should be placed about a closed-fist width away from the mic.
3. Understanding Acoustics
Aside from a great performance, nailing the perfect vocal take requires an understanding of acoustics, or how sound interacts with space. For the purest vocal take, you’d ideally want to have a vocal booth. These are small enclosures lined with sound absorbing/dampening foam, designed to remove unwanted external sounds or reflections from the recording. However, high-end booths don’t come cheap. Fortunately, you can rig up a cheap makeshift treatment with moving blankets to absorb sound. Do what you can to hang a few of these blankets in your home studio. Use a door or extra mic stands to prop them up, for instance. Make sure you place one on the floor as well. Pay attention to the polar pattern of your vocal mic so you know from which directions sound will be captured the most, and place the blankets accordingly.
For just $100, you can record a clean vocal take in your home studio. The Audio Technica AT2020 (along with a preamp and XLR cable) is all you need to get started. Also, remember that your method matters, too. By following the three above steps in conjunction with this mic, you’ll be well on your way to recording high-quality vocals at home!