Despite the constant influx of new and improved recording gear, today there are a handful of old-reliable microphones that continue to be the go-to models among prominent engineers and practicing musicians alike. Together, these mics can handle the full range of recording needs, and, best of all, won’t create a budget shortfall in the process. Four of them include the Shure SM57; the AKG D112 (or its older brother, the D12); the Sennheiser MD421; and the ElectroVoice RE20. Among newer mics, the Australian-made RODE NT2 (and its successor, the NT2-A) offers studio users a lower-priced entry into the once-prohibitive condenser market.
While all of these models can be purchased new from your favorite equipment dealer, don’t be afraid to check the pre-owned listings first. Dynamic microphones like the Shure, AKG, Sennheiser and EV have a rugged outer casing that has allowed them to survive many years of studio (and stage) punishment; their sturdiness makes them better suited to handle high-volume sources such as instrument amps and drum kits as well. The SM57 and EV RE20 are virtually indestructible; if you find a good deal on an older model that’s been properly cared for, go for it—chances are it’ll keep on ticking for years to come.
Prices on used mics can vary wildly depending on age, condition and type of mic, so check online sources such as eBay or musicians classifieds to get a feel for the current selling range of a particular model. However, there’s plenty of supply out there, so be patient and don’t be afraid to shop around.
The world’s most popular budget microphone, the SM57 is the ultimate dynamic model that produces clean sound and is ideal for both stage and studio. Though typically used for miking guitar cabs or snare drum, the highly durable SM57 can handle just about any task, from acoustic guitar to brass instruments and even vocals. Priced around $80. Alternatives: Shure SM58, SM7, Beyer M88, Audix i5
In 1953, AKG introduced its famed D12 large-diaphragm dynamic microphone, its low sensitivity and high wind resistance making it a leading choice for recording upright bass or bass drum; its successor is the D112, nicknamed “the egg.” “The D112 is a good, serviceable microphone,” says Matt Wallace, producer for Maroon 5, Paul Westerberg and others, “though the D12 is a much better microphone for recording bass amps and bass drums.” The older D12 can be found used for anywhere between $250 and $400, the D112 about half that, less if you’re lucky. Alternatives: EV N/D868, Audix D4, D6, Sennheiser e602
Those looking for good definition without sacrificing bass tone often go with the multipurpose MD421, introduced by Sennheiser way back in 1960. The top studio choice for miking tom-toms (and bass drum as well), the 421 also works nicely on amps and other voluminous sources. Comes with a five-position frequency control switch. Priced around $350, less for older models. Alternatives: Sennheiser MD441, Shure SM58, Shure SM57, Audix i5
Built like a tank and versatile to a fault, the professional quality EV RE20 has been a mainstay in studios (as well as broadcast facilities) for well over 35 years. Great on low-frequency instruments such as bass cabs and kick drum, the RE20 also excels as a tom mic and can also be used for recording electric guitar. “For that close, intimate kind of sound, the RE20 is a great vocal mic as well,” notes producer/engineer Robert Margouleff, who used the RE20 throughout Stevie Wonder’s classic Talking Book and Innervisions sessions. “Because it’s a very directional mic, Steve was able to find its axis quite easily—plus he could sing right up against the windscreen without having to worry about pops or anything.” Includes a bass roll-off switch. Priced around $400, slightly less for older models. Alternatives: EV RE11, Sennheiser MD421, Shure SM57
Discontinued but still widely available, the RODE NT2 is a good, affordable condenser mic capable of providing vocalists with the characteristic warmth and body typical of pricier condensers. A dead-ringer for the classic Neumann vocal mics, the FET-based NT2 comes with a two-position polar-pattern switch for alternating between cardioid and omni settings, a switchable filter for rolling off low end, plus a -10dB pad for handling high-volume sources. The upgraded NT2-A includes three individual three-position slider switches covering polar pattern (omni, cardioid, plus figure-of-eight), high-pass filter (flat, 40Hz, or 80Hz), and pad (0, -5, or -10dB). The NT2 typically runs between $250-$300; the new NT2-A is yours for around $400. Alternatives: Samson CL8, Shure KSM27.
Finally—some additional older models worth tracking down:
Altec 633a: Known as the “salt-shaker,” this beloved mic from the ‘40s and ‘50s has been used for vocals but really works best on snare drum, bass drum and guitar cabinets. Cheap for a vintage mic—less than $100 in some instances
Electro-Voice 666: A fantastic all-purpose ‘60s microphone suitable for nearly any studio applicatio—drums, bass, acoustic guitar, piano, vocals, you name it. Perhaps its greatest attribute is its rock-solid casing. “When the guy from EV came in to demonstrate the mic,” recalled engineer Larry Levine of the famed Gold Star Studios, “he actually used it as a hammer! We were sold.” The 666 sells for around $300 on average, and is worth ever penny.
AKG D19: Another popular vintage dynamic, the D19 gained notoriety during the ‘60s when Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick began using it over Ringo’s drum kit during the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. Good for vocals, too. $200-$400, depending on age and condition.