Once upon a time, the home recording enthusiast could only dream about owning a large capsule condenser microphone. They were prohibitively expensive. Some of them still are. Then, a funny thing happened because of computer audio recording.
The sound of a large capsule condenser is, in essence, a particular color in the recording palette that’s necessary to approach world-class quality. No, not every large cap mic sounds the same. In fact, they often differ greatly. There are technical reasons for this, but in the end, it comes down to another audio ballpark.
Inexpensive dynamic mics are great, but they do the things they do. Same with the under $500 condensers. They do other things. That’s why pro studios have lots of different mics. They each represent different voices. If all you’ve used is the same dynamic mics you might take to a gig, then adding a large cap condenser is like a watercolor artist adding acrylics and oil paints. They’re still painters, but their capabilities expand.
That’s why you need a large capsule condenser. Here are 8 of the best, all of them coming in under $500. Any of them will provide you with quality sound that adds to your audio palette.
Perhaps the primary selling feature for the NT2A from Australian manufacturer Rode is the versatility. Keeping prices down often means reducing features. You’ll see this further down the list when you get to the AKG C214, the budget version of the industry legend C414. However, the NT2-A is, in microphone terms, fully loaded.
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Many mics include a bass roll off switch, handy for taming rumbles and low-frequency vibrations that often plague home studios. Attenuator pads permit you to handle high sound pressure levels easily, and they’re another common feature. The NT2-A has both, but instead of a single roll off frequency, it has two, and instead of a single pad, it has, you guessed it, two. That means versatility, a better match to your sound source with simple flicks of three-way switches.
Yet, the NT2-A doesn’t stop there. It’s also capable of three different polar patterns. Most affordable mics deliver a cardioid pattern, the front-weighted, heart-shaped pattern that’s typically used most often. However, there are cases where you may want a mic to be sensitive in a globe, around the mic, capturing sound from every angle, a pattern called omnidirectional, or equally sensitive front and back, but not sensitive on the sides, called figure 8.
Once again, the NT2-A brings a three-position toggle switch into play. While many people never need a pattern other than cardioid, once you know how to use the other patterns, you won’t want to live without them.
When it comes to sound, the NT2-A delivers full-range response with smooth treatment of high frequency sound content, described as “warm” response in the engineering world. Sometimes, large cap condensers can be sparkly (the polite term) or harsh (less polite) in the top end. That’s often the frequency range where large caps shine, but on some sounds or voices, it can be too much.
The NT2-A is still crystal clear, but rarely strident, an excellent balance of all things a large cap mic should be.
In the history of recording, there are mics that reach iconic status. The Neumann U87 is at the top of many lists as the best of the best, and another solid contender for decades is the AKG C414. However, both mics fall way outside the under $500 parameter.
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AKG, however, gives the budget recordist a little brother of the venerable C414, the similarly named C214. The most obvious difference between the two is that the C414 has a wide range of selectable polar patterns, each of which has its own slightly different voice. That’s very handy to have if you play with such things, but generally, mics get used in the cardioid position perhaps more than 80% of the time.
The advantages of cardioid in a home studio are hard to ignore. Rooms are rarely soundproofed or acoustically treated to any great degree, and using a cardioid pattern close to the sound source focuses on the audio you want while rejecting extraneous noise and room ambience. Sure, you could pay $1,100 for a C414 and use it exclusively as a cardioid pattern. Or you could buy a C214 for $400 with money left over for a LOT of chicken wings.
Here’s another warm and smooth sounding mic. Is really a C414 with no polar pattern selection? Well, no, it has its own voice, but it does have plenty in common with its big brother. It will tame shrill sound sources in a flattering way, and it won’t over-hype singers who sound artificial with mic-generated presence boosts.
One elusive quality of microphones is the ability to deliver sound that seems to have three dimensions. A single mic can’t deliver stereo (unless it’s a stereo mic, of course) but mics like the C214 provide a depth that goes beyond specifications and physics. When you play back a track recorded hours or days before and it sounds like it’s there in the room with you again, you know you used a good mic. This may be the one.
Anytime a mic is described as “warm,” it’s adding its own character to the sound source. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, adding character is part of the large capsule condenser mic mystique, particularly with vocals. You can check out our full review of the AT4040 here.
There are, however, plenty of times when you want that character to be more transparent, particularly when you have a quality voice or instrument working in an acoustically superior space. In that case, you want the mic to stand back and simply capture what’s happening without too much alteration. These mics are called “neutral,” “natural,” “transparent,” or some other adjective of a similar nature.
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One of the powerful things about a mic that leans in this direction is that there’s no concern about compatibility between the sound of the mic and the sound you’re recording. That’s, of course, true only in a hypothetical sense. Until there’s a mic that responds exactly the same way that ears do, there’s always going to be some variance.
Audio Technica’s AT4040 sits on the transparent side of the mic spectrum. For a large portion of the sounds that you’ll put in front of this mic, you’ll hear precisely what you expect through your monitors. That’s not always the situation you want, but it’s an important capability to have under your control. It’s hard to go wrong with an Audio Technica large capsule condenser, and the AT4040 is among their best.
High frequency presence is the general stock in trade of the large cap condenser field. There’s a larger-than-life quality to vocals well matched to a large cap mic, and it’s the quality that you often detect on the vocals of major hits. That presence peak is typically somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Hertz and it’s variously described as “presence,” “air,” or “sizzle,” and it can be the quality that changes a good vocal into a great one.
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It’s generally not a quality you can dial in with equalization. When the magic doesn’t happen at the mic, it can’t be dialed in effectively later. This is a reason why lots of large cap condensers have such sharp peaks. The excess can be rolled off.
The Bluebird SL from Blue Microphones is such a beast. Just as MXL’s green and gold colors give or take visual appeal, Blue Microphones’ “lollipop” design has both fans and foes. Sonically, it’s a bright mic, and that too earns friends and enemies.
Yet the Bluebird SL may be the ideal mic to make things cut through clutter. When you compare mic against mic on a single sound source, it can only suggest how those mics will do in a mix. When you work in busy styles with plenty of complex tracks, pushing a vocal or other solo through the mix isn’t always easy. This is precisely the place where the Bluebird SL can shine.
When the home recording boom emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the mic market became flooded with inexpensive large capsule condensers, many from Chinese factories with unfamiliar branding. These mics fast got a reputation for harsh, strident presence peaks. It was literally too much of a good thing, and there was a minor cottage industry for modifying these otherwise useful mics, improving internal components, and taming the over-the-top screech. The X2 LDC from Stellar harkens back to those days, with an awareness of the shortcomings of its predecessors.
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Much is made in the mic’s literature about its balanced sound that avoids the harsh, fatiguing characteristics of the earlier Chinese mics. With a $200 price point, the Stellar X2 is certainly priced in line with its ancestry, but that’s about where comparisons end.
A peek at the frequency response chart for the X2 reveal why. Not only is there no hyped presence peak in the 4,000 to 10,000 Hz range, but there’s also actually a bit of a cut centered around 7,500 Hz, tempering the boosts at 4,000 and 11,000 Hz. Even then, we’re talking about boosts and cuts of less than 2 dB. This is a very flat mic in the high frequencies and indeed across the mic’s entire response.
That puts the X2 firmly in the same transparent territory as the AT4040 at about half the price. Much of the X2 seems to be mass produced, in terms of the exterior, but there’s no scrimping in the electronics. This is a mic that provides little coloration and even shows low self-noise specs, a notorious weak spot in earlier generations of Chinese mics.
The green and gold appearance of the MXL V67i Tube mic is a bit polarizing. It’s garish to some but glitzy to others. Aesthetics are completely up to you, but the V67i is worth a look, no matter how you feel about its visual style.
When you see the word “tube” associated with a large cap condenser mic, it means a couple of things. Somewhere in its electronics, a vacuum tube features, rather than solid state electronics. This is often located in the microphone body itself. It also means that the mic probably won’t plug directly into a recording interface or mixer.
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Instead, there’s usually a power supply into which the microphone connects. An output from the power supply then connects the way you’d expect. This design follows the Telefunken U47, a legendary mic that’s still available. Currently, it’s listing at about $9,000 new with a major music retailer. By contrast, the V67i Tube is around the $200 price point.
If that makes you think the V67i Tube isn’t in the same league as the U47, you’re correct, but then it’s also not trying to be.
Tube mics are a great way of brining analog warmth into the sometimes clinically sterile world of digital audio. That’s less and less of an issue as digital recording progresses, but it’s still a genuinely nice texture to add for some sounds and genres. It may be just the ticket for acoustic, folksy, Americana styles.
The V67i Tube delivers these warm vibes. However, it also has a dual capsule design and a front-mounted switch to give you the typical brightness of a solid-state large cap. This is like a particularly useful second blade in a quality pocketknife.
The primary benefit is that the V67i Tube can seamlessly switch between vocal styles with ease, but that’s merely the obvious. Double tracking the same acoustic guitar using both bright and warm settings give a depth that’s almost like using two different instruments. Sonically, the V67i Tube is two mics in one package, and that’s a solid selling point on its own.
The Rode NT1000 is the philosophical opposite of its brother, reviewed above. It’s a single-pattern cardioid microphone with no pad, no roll off, and nothing else to spoil its clean lines. Just a basic, no-nonsense mic.
That is, until you put sounds in front of it. There’s simply nothing basic about its ability. The NT1000 handles extremely high sound pressure levels, has extremely low self-noise, has reasonable presence peaks that don’t over-hype vocals, and a flat response that makes it suitable on virtually any sound source typically captured with large capsule condensers.
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The biggest endorsement is how often the NT1000 is mentioned in the same breath as the Neumann U87, generally recognized as the gold standard large cap mic. The NT1000 is in that conversation at 1/10th of the Neumann’s price.
Rode mics hold a well-earned place in the home studio world. For the modest budgets constraining many home engineers, Rode mics hold an exalted place. There’s often a feeling that your home studio reaches another level when you add your first Rode, the same way a budding pro studio covets its first U87. It’s not a bad reputation for a mic maker to have, and the NT1000 does nothing to tarnish this image.
We’ve already looked at the very transparent AT4040 mic above. The Audio Technica mic line increases in price with its higher designations. Thus, the AT2050 comes in about $70 cheaper than the AT4040. However, it’s increasingly difficult to compare mics via price tags, and such is the case here. The AT2050 is aimed at the user who benefits from mic versatility.
While the AT4040 includes pad and roll off switches, same as the AT2050, it’s a cardioid single-pattern mic. The AT2050 adds a switch to add omnidirectional and figure 8 patterns to the mix. For the recordist who knows how to use these features, it might make this mic a must-have. Multiple polar patterns are still a rarity in the under $500 price point, particularly from brand names.
If you haven’t yet explored the advantages of other polar patterns, the overall quality of the AT2050 is such that it’s a strong purchase even if you never switch away from cardioid, but you retain the ability to try techniques like mid-side stereo miking, since you need one mic capable of figure 8 configuration. It’s a good capability that allows you to record a drum kit in stereo using a mid-side pair and a dedicated kick drum mic, a very handy skill when you’re short on XLR inputs.
It’s supply and demand economics. As musicians and engineers realized their computers were capable of world-class recording quality, the demand for the equipment necessary to record world-class quality grew. Manufacturers realized there were dollars to be made. When they had a market that’s comprised only of professional recording studios, all their expenses needed to be amortized over a relatively small number of mics.
Now, since everyone, their brothers, cousins, and other extended family have the means of capturing serious audio, the potential market for mic makers explodes. If they can provide the supply, the cost for the end user goes down, and to get those mics into the bedroom studios of the world, prices had to drop.
So, now, not only can you buy large capsule condensers under $500, some of the best large capsule microphones you can buy are under $500. Sure, there are still mics costing thousands, but with every passing year, the difference in quality between these price points continues to diminish.
A question that often arises from those new to recording wondering why a large cap condenser is so important. After all, the Shure SM57 is a mic that virtually every pro studio has by the handful and their street price is around $100. It’s a pro studio mic, why can’t you use it?
The fact is you can. In a pinch, you can use any mic on any sound source, and you’ll be able to record, the same way you can play virtually any guitar song on virtually any guitar. However, if you’re after the feel of the Foo Fighters at full roar, you don’t grab a nylon string classical guitar.
As listed here, these 8 mics are in no particular order. If you were to close your eyes and simply point at one of them, chances are good you’d be happy with your purchase. There are likely other mics in this price category that compete too. We’re living in an amazing time for affordable equipment, so consider your needs, your budget, and your preferences and then go find the perfect fit. Happy tracking!