In my previous article, we reviewed some of the most popular microphones, at different budgets, for recording vocals. In this article, we’ll offer some guidance for recording another common audio source, acoustic guitar.
What type of microphone is best for recording acoustic guitar?
If you’ve read my article earlier in this series, Microphones 101, you might recall that condenser microphones offer superior performance in capturing transients. With that information in mind, imagine the sound of someone strumming an acoustic guitar. Every strum up and down is creating a transient, and you’ll want a condenser microphone to capture all of that detail.
In my Microphones 101 article, we compared condenser and dynamic microphones, but there are also two distinct types of microphone designs within the condenser microphone category! These are referred to as large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm (sometimes called SDC, which stands for small-diaphragm condenser). Aptly named, these monikers describe the size of the capsule utilized in the microphone’s design. And while you can produce a gorgeous acoustic guitar tone with either type, a small-diaphragm condenser is inherently better at capturing transients like those generated by strumming an acoustic guitar. If you’re wondering why that’s the case, it’s simple physics. A small diaphragm requires less energy to move and produce an electrical signal compared to a large diaphragm, thereby making a small-diaphragm microphone capsule more sensitive to transients.
The Best Microphones for Acoustic Guitar
A setup for recording acoustic guitar can involve anything from one, lonely microphone to more complex arrangements that involve different combinations of microphones. If you do a search, you may come across terms like X/Y, ORTF, Mid/Side, and others. While these stereo recording techniques can help you capture a more complete range of detail, they are indeed more advanced and beyond the scope of this post. You can be sure that any of the mics on this list have the capacity to get you a great recording of your acoustic guitar all on their own.
Budget Small Condenser Microphones for Acoustic Guitar
Avantone CK-1 ($149)
Although the Avantone CK-1 is the least expensive mic on this list, it provides great value and performance for the price. Oftentimes, many budget microphones of a particular style literally come from the same factory in China. They’ll often share the exact same internal design across multiple brands, and the only way you’d know the difference is by the color of the paint on the outside. Avantone differentiates the CK-1 from other budget pencil microphones by using high-grade polystyrene and metalized polypropylene capacitors in the audio path. They have chosen to upgrade these specific components at the time of manufacturing, which makes them comparable to what you might see in a basic aftermarket microphone upgrade mod. It’s nice to see that Avantone is making an effort to bring better performance to an economical microphone. For my money, I still think this is one of the harsher sounding microphones on this list, but it makes for a solid choice if you’re just getting started on a budget.
sE Electronics sE8 ($249)
The sE8 from sE Electronics is another SDC that gives you a great blend of performance and value. Like the Avantone CK-1, you get a switch for 10db and 20db attenuation (the CK-1 only offers 10db), as well as a high-pass filter switch. sE Electronics likes to highlight the fact that every capsule for the sE8 is “handcrafted and individually tuned” in their own factory. Overall the sE8 is an admirable performer for the price and captures a sound that is generally natural in its tone.
Mid-range Small Condenser Microphones for Acoustic Guitar
Audio-Technica AT4033 ($399)
Although it looks like a large-diaphragm microphone, the AT4033 is indeed technically a small-diaphragm condenser. And if you read my article on vocal microphones, you know that the AT4033 has a special place in my heart. I include it in this list because at $399, it’s ol’ reliable and it’s pretty much guaranteed to give you a useable recording of your acoustic guitar. It’s just one of those mics that may not blow your socks off, but it’ll never be a stick in the mud either.
AKG C 451 B ($449)
First introduced in 1969, the original AKG C 451 was known for capturing a great sound with a largely flat frequency response aside, from a mild treble boost around 10k. The updated version, the AKG C 451 B, maintains this signature frequency response. Today’s C 451 B continues to offer impressive performance and excels at capturing sources, like acoustic guitars, that generate transients. Beyond that, AKG says that the 451 is capable of handling up to 155db SPL, which allows for close-miking of high-energy sources without distortion.
Miktek C5 ($699)
The Miktek C5 is similar to the 451 B in that it provides a “super-linear, full-bodied response”. You’ll find that as you increase your budget that the manufacturing process for microphones becomes more stringent. In the case of the Miktek C5, the company touts tight tolerances, special attention to precise machining, and acoustical porting that results in an off-axis response that is incredibly accurate and predictable. You also get an interchangeable omnidirectional capsule, their MK5b. Overall, the Miktek C5 will be right at home when recording acoustic instruments like acoustic guitar, violin, brass, woodwinds, or piano.
Neumann KM 184 ($799)
The Neumann KM 184 is one of the best known small-diaphragm condenser microphones in the world. As the successor to the legendary KM 84, the KM 184 shines on acoustic guitar and other acoustic instruments like drums, brass, strings, and piano. The KM 184 offers an incredibly natural, transparent sound with very low self-noise and good SPL capability, up to 138dB. If you are looking to capture a performance or sound with a microphone that neither adds nor removes anything, the Neumann KM 184 is where it’s at; no coloration here, just a true reproduction of whatever it is you are recording.
High-End Small Condenser Microphones for Acoustic Guitar
TELEFUNKEN ELA M 260 ($1,495)
As the only tube-based SDC on this list, the reissue of the ELA M 260 is inspired by the original model of the same name, though not a historically accurate reproduction. Like the original 260, this reissue from TELEFUNKEN captures a variety of sources in impeccable detail and clarity while adding plenty of unique own tone and character. If you’re after a microphone that will give you plenty of vintage vibe and color, the ELA M 260 is a great choice for acoustic guitar and a plethora of other acoustic instruments. While this is one of the more expensive mics on this list, TELEFUNKEN does include three interchangeable capsules with every ELA M 260: a cardioid, omni, and hypercardiod.
Schoeps CMC641 ($1,655)
Microphones from Schoeps are considered to be the gold standard by many engineers around the world, particularly in classical music and media production. The CMC 6 is the result of nearly 50 years of constant refinement by the design engineers at Schoeps. These microphones have set new standards for low distortion levels and the rejection of RF interference. The CMC 6 utilizes a transformerless design and capacitor-free output stage to achieve a remarkably natural sound that can be transmitted cleanly even over long cables. It’s a versatile microphone system, with Schoeps offering over 20 different microphone capsules, for everything from omnidirectional and supercardiod pickup patterns to several capsule types designed for close speech.
This was just a small sampling of the many choices you have when choosing a small-diaphragm condenser microphone for recording acoustic guitar. If you’re on a budget, the Avantone CK-1 is an appropriate starter mic. It won’t give you the same full, natural, and uncolored tone that you’ll get from more expensive options, but it also won’t break the bank. I am pretty impressed with the sE8, and at just $249, it actually offers performance that isn’t all that far off from microphones twice its price. Beyond that, it’s a matter of personal preference. The KM 184 and Schoeps CMC 641 microphones are standard-bearers when you’re after the most accurate, neutral, recording, but you’ll certainly pay for that privilege and branding. In the end, any microphone on this list above $300 will equip you with what you need to capture a great acoustic guitar sound for your music productions. After you’ve chosen your mic, it’s all about room acoustics, the quality of your instrument, and microphone placement. The important thing is to remember to have fun, always keep an open mind, and never stop learning. Enjoy!