Brief guide to microphones

Gain a better understanding of microphones, why there's no one 'best microphone for voice overs', backed with first-hand experiences of successful voice actors.

What’s the best microphone for voice overs?

When aspiring voice actors start asking questions like, “what’s the best microphone for voice over?” they are confronted with an almost infinite number of answers that often end up being more confusing than helpful.

Sorry to break it to you but there is no ‘best microphone’. Everybody has a different voice, and everybody will require different mics. So good thing you’re here, because this microphone guide will cover the fundamentals.

The microphone is the single most important tool in a voice actor’s recording chain. Why? Because it captures their voice in all its raw, persuasive glory. Even more than that: it both presents and represents them as storytellers while they’re making the sale – whatever that sale may be. It follows by implication that the better a voice actor is at the art and craft of making the sale, the more likely a client is to book them for voice overs repeatedly. That’s why we’ve sat some voice actors around a (virtual) table to hear about their experiences with their microphones of choice.

Every voice is different. So is every microphone.

As the heading suggests, even a question like ‘what microphones do professionals use?’ can be problematic. Some pros use microphones that are eye-wateringly expensive. Others don’t. Some even swear by their Blue Yeti’s ability to get them jobs.

So what does that mean for you? It means sometimes you’re going to hit the jackpot, and sometimes you’re going to end up with a mic you’d like to upgrade as soon as you can. Luckily, the differences between good mics aren’t so dire that they’re going to jeopardize your job. But they will affect how your voice sounds, depending on your natural pitch and tonal quality. 

Your best bet would be to sample, compare, explore your options, and see what works best for you. Granted, that’s pretty difficult during a time when we can’t physically visit stores and sample mics. So before then, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the reality of choosing a mic.

For starters, if there’s anything you take away from this microphone guide, don’t make the mistake of thinking that by simply investing in a microphone that professionals seem to prefer, you’re ready to record voice overs. Like most simplifications of complex ideas, that kind of logic can only get you so far when it comes to choosing the best mic for your professional voice over career.

Debunk the concept of a ‘best microphone for voice over’

While there’s so much to say on which mics are best and why XLR is better than USB, ultimately it’s important to remember one thing. The mic is just a tool. It’s a tool for a voice actor to use, to emote with the voice and provide an auditory experience. What is it that makes the experience an excellent one? Is it the shiny nickel sheen of the Neumann TLM103, the shape of the Sennheiser Shotgun, or the passion and authenticity that’s heard and felt in a voice over? 

While it’s important to feel good about your purchasing decisions, and to feel good about equipping yourself with the best you can in order to succeed, it’s also important to remember that having a successful voice over career is going to rely much more on your skill as a voice actor, and as a business person. No amount of money spent on a super premium mic can save someone if their voice acting is subpar, or they procrastinate on running their voice over business. The mindset has to be both artistically inclined, and business-oriented.

Not everyone gets the same value out of an expensive microphone

“I would say, people that are new to VO, should not be buying a very, very expensive microphone… if you’re new to something you want to give it a bit of a go before you kind of jump in and buy the most expensive equipment, right? Because you don’t want to sort of realize that you’ve spent all this money on something that you’re not really gonna use,” Matt muses.

What Matt says is applicable to any industry, but it is especially applicable to the voice over industry, where the equipment is expensive. Not everybody is going to know how to get the same value out of a top-quality, premium mic like the Neumann U87 — retailing at around $3600 USD. Buying it as a beginner is like giving a grand piano to a child who’s still taking piano lessons. Unless the voice talent is like a child piano prodigy, they’re not going to get the value from a premium mic.

So no matter which price point you’re at, whether it’s entry level at $200, or premium at $3600,  knowledge and skill are what elevates performance on the mic. Which brings us to our second point. Voice over entrepreneurship is the foundation of a successful voice over career, not fancy gadgets and top-tier equipment, although they certainly help when you’re at the appropriate level.

Experimenting and sampling microphones is your best bet when determining the best mic for you. Otherwise, it’s helpful to watch mic comparison videos with a voice similar to yours, and to imagine how your voice might sound if you were testing them. It’s even more helpful to remember that hearsay about the best mic can only mean so much to your mic choosing decision. 

Spotlight on the community: Women on Mic Project

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely made it hard to do anything in person… so for us, finding this resource has been incredible & we’d like to highlight it:

The Women on Mic Project is creating a free to access audio resource of raw spoken word audio samples recorded by women on various types/brands of microphones that they have access to. The aim is to help women (and others) hear a reference of other female voices on different microphones to help them make decisions when they are purchasing or deciding which microphone to use.

Check out our list of recommended voice over microphones.

Found on 'Equipment for a home studio set up.'


Dynamic vs. condenser microphones

As said at the beginning, the microphone guide will equip you with the necessary knowledge for you to make your own decisions. Let’s touch up on some technical knowledge – dynamic and condenser microphones. 

In short: a dynamic microphone operates almost like your home stereo speakers, but in reverse. Instead of an electrical input signal moving the speaker’s diaphragm to produce sound, the sound of your voice moves a small diaphragm to produce an electrical signal. Behind the protective grill is the microphone capsule, and inside the capsule is a magnet. Around the magnet is a small and movable induction coil that is attached to the diaphragm. When sound waves vibrate this diaphragm, it moves the coil – and this movement creates a voltage as a result of the magnetic field. That tiny voltage is amplified by a transformer inside the microphone housing and sent to the output. 

Condenser microphones operate quite differently: the principle of variable capacitance is involved. In simple terms, variable capacitance can be explained as “storing energy in an electric field between two conductive plates”. The diaphragm of a condenser mic is one of these plates. When sound makes it vibrate, the distance between the plates changes. These minute changes vary the capacitance and thus, the output voltage of the microphone.

Dynamic mics are tougher and better for stage use. Condenser mics are much more sensitive and better for studio and voice over work because they have a wider dynamic range; their sensitivity allows them to pick up every nuance of the voice across the entire audible frequency range.

Our recommendation for voice overs is to look for a condenser. While more expensive than a dynamic mic, you’ll find pretty decent ones at most reasonable budget levels.

What is an audio recording chain?

Finally, everybody asks which microphone to pick, but it’s likely people aren’t focused on the entire recording chain. The chain goes from mic to audio interface, to digital audio workshop (DAW). This 3-part chain is important to note, because the mic, audio interface, and DAW are all variables. And they’ll all affect how your voice over sounds. 

voice over industry
Audio recording chain: microphone, audio interface, digital audio workshop.

The DAW for example, can certainly influence the way your mic sounds. Kabir says that “each DAW has its own plugins, stuff that makes your mic sound better, or make your [voice] sound better. A plugin might have a noise gate, and that’s important for certain microphones. Like I mentioned, if you had a certain microphone that’s picking up [sound from] all directions, and you didn’t have the [recording studio] like I did… then you might incorporate a plugin such as noise gate. The noise gate might help you cut that noise out in the background.”

So the idea of the best microphone has its importance, but it’s only a part of the bigger picture.

“...As the business grows, you want to invest back into the business... so it's natural to feel like, ‘let me reinvest in a new microphone, let me go and try some new stuff…” Kabir Singh

Relative to microphones, it’s important to remember that every voice will sound different on every mic. That’s the nature of the beast that is the human voice. Just as the uniqueness of human voices is infinitely varied, be open minded with your mic selection, and recognize that each purchasing and trial experience will be different. But whichever microphone you pick, take care of it, and it’ll serve you well for years to come.