Home Studio Step 2: The Microphone

Ask 5 voiceover artists what microphone you should use, and you’ll get five different answers – and then they’ll start arguing with each other about which person is right.

To say that this topic brings out some passionate responses is an understatement.

Buy a microphone that you can afford that makes you sound good. That’s it. That’s the answer.

This means you have to try out a bunch of mics. Good microphones aren’t cheap, so you need to try out other people’s mics.

I know from experience that my voice sounds good on a Newmann U87. Would I love to have one in my studio? Oh yeah. Do I have $3200 to spend on a microphone? Nope. That remains my aspirational microphone. I also like the way I sound on a BCM104, but that mic would set me back a grand.

I know from experience that my voice sounds good on a Sennheiser MKH 416. This is also the mic that Joe Cipriano recommends, and of all the VO artists I know, this is their go-to mic. This mic costs about $1000, but if you know where to shop you can get it around $800. This is a shotgun mic, usually used in film and TV to be held overhead out of the shot. What VO artists like to do is still have it come in overhead but work it at close range. Since the pattern is so tight on the microphone, it rejects a lot of unwanted sounds and just gets your voice, which makes it ideal for a home studio. It forgives a lot of sins in your room. When I started building my studio in the middle of the pandemic, I thought long and hard about buying one until I determined that I was happy with a less expensive mic. I want to wait until I have some more paying gigs before I drop that type of coin on a mic.

The two microphones you find most often in radio stations are the Shure SM-7B and the ElectroVoice RE-20. These are dynamic microphones, meaning they do not need 48 volts of phantom power as the condenser mics that I have mentioned up to this point. Of these two, I prefer the Shure, but this is one of those Coke and Pepsi kind of battles. If you like the RE-20, I’m not going to hate you for it. Both mics are around $400. EV has a new model called the RE-320 that goes for $250; the primary difference is it has a brighter sound to it. The last thing my voice needs is more high end so I didn’t consider the RE-320 even though it was in the price range I was looking in, but your mileage may vary.

What I ended up with was a condenser mic that’s used by a lot of musicians: the AKG P220. I feel just as happy with my vocals on this mic as I am with more expensive ones, and the mic only set me back $150 with shipping. Be aware that this mic really needs a pop filter; it will catch every plosive in your voice (the distortion you get when P and B sounds hit the mic). A Stedman PS101 pop filter will set you back $30-60 depending upon where you shop.

I still have the AKG, but my daily driver is an Audio Technica AT4040. Like the AKG it’s a large diaphragm condenser mic; I got it from a VO friend who upgraded to the Sennheiser MKH416. On my voice, the AT4040 and AKG P220 are very similar, but there’s a tad more warmth on the Audio Technica, which works well with my voice.

The dbx286s, racked up in my studio.

The key piece of gear in my audio chain is a voice processor. I use a dbx 286s. This is a preamp, compressor/limiter, de-esser, and noise gate. Here’s why you need these things:

A preamplifier raises the microphone level to line level so you can feed it into your computer. (Don’t know what mic level and line level mean? The folks at Shure have an article for that.) The compressor/limiter reduces dynamic range, which helps keep your vocals up front in the mix. The de-esser reduces distorted s sounds. The noise gate helps keep background noise out of the recording.

While most digital audio workstations have plug-ins for compression and such, I prefer using outboard equipment. First of all, it’s what I’m used to. Secondly, while I have a room with some acoustical treatment, it’s not completely soundproof, so the noise gate keeps the sound of the air conditioner or cars outside my window from getting into the recording, and that’s something that a plug-in can’t fix.

If I wanted to spend more money I would have bought an Aphex Channel because it’s digital, but honestly, I’m happy with how I sound on the dbx and have no regrets about buying it. It’s a solid piece of gear.