Tube microphones are considered by some an ancient artifact, while others (including us) say they’re just the right solution if you’re aiming for a particular sound and feel of your recordings. Whether you’re recording vocals, playing string instruments such as violin, piano or acoustic guitar, or even some for drums, the best tube microphones are going to give you that extra edge and “feel” many of us are all in love with when it comes to specific microphone personalities. Since we think tube mics still have a use today in today’s “advanced” and “electronic” movement, we wanted to compile a list for those who are still searching for their timeless solution. Let’s get into today’s picks.
What is a tube microphone?
A tube microphone is a condenser microphone that has a literal tube (or valve amplifier, if you will) inside of their body that were around before “transistors” were placed inside of microphones, which is now the more modern-approach to creating mics. Back in the day, they had to make preamps built around small tubes in order to amplify the signal it was sending out (it was their only option) before these “transistors, solid-state electronics and FET pre-amps” were created that allowed a stronger signal with larger internal organs.
We’ve seen the popular FET vs. Tube debate for decades and will probably continue to do so for years to come. So what gives? What’s the point of being concerned with what your condenser microphone is made of? Why regress to how mics used to be made? For one, and most importantly, the sound. They’re said to have a natural compression and tonal response, as well as be “warmer” (you’ll see this term thrown around a lot in our guide as well around the net in tube mic articles and forum posts, so how that’s defined is up to you), “bright”, “airy”, and “crisp”.
We’ve learned in our microphone types guide that mics come in different shapes, sizes, internal builds, personalities, specificity when it comes to particular instruments and overall mic applications, and of course, sounds. Although this next statement might not help much, we can’t give you complete and forth-coming advice when it comes to which mic is best for you — it depends on your subjective ear, style preferences and how you want your recordings to sound. At the same time, we know some who own both a FET condenser as well as tube to have some options around the studio, depending on not only the, but perhaps the particular vocalist or even instrument. What we’re trying to say is, don’t think you have to go one way or the other. Many own both.
Hopefully we haven’t confused you further (or perhaps we’ve helped which is our main goal). Regardless, grabbing a tube microphone is for a special type of sound and feel (many describe them as ‘vintage’ or ‘old-school’ for a reason) that you’re aiming for in your recordings. We think these are going to be around forever because the latest technology and electronic-based VST and software sounds may sound great, but still don’t give us the exact, real feeling a true tube mic can give us.
The top 10 best tube microphones
To kick off our guide and get things going, the Rode K2 is in our opinion one of the best tube microphones to date. It’s known by many as equipped with a wide dynamic range enabling listeners to obtain low noise and low distortion along with great SPL (sound-pressure level). The K2 is incredibly quiet and versatile, delivering incredibly low self-noise (10 dBA) while still having high max SPL (162 dBA). The microphone features a sound quality that is tough to beat, although this is where the subjectivity comes in and how tube mics actually “sound”. This particular model is known to be very “warm” and “rich”. It’s preferred the vocalists, guitarists (acoustic mainly), violins, and more strings out there. The high SPL is also useful for recording drums if you’re in need of a solution for percussion as well — this one is very versatile. It isn’t necessarily “cheap” as compared to the microphone game in general, however with tube microphones, this one does sit in the middle price-range. If your budget allows and you’re able to afford it, adding this large condenser tube mic into your studio setup is surely going to elevate it. We all know how amazing Rode mics are.
Avantone Pro CV-12
Old school is back! Look no further when searching for yet another one our picks as the best tube mic on the market. The Avantone Pro CV-12 is a new and improved classical style tube mic that brings your modern sound to life, while sustaining a price that does not require you to break the bank. The beauty of Avantone’s Pro CV-12 is that is very dynamic and also equipped to support a various range sounds. Whether you are a singer, a pianist, or a heavy metal drummer, this microphone will flex and adapt to your particular sound. The talent is in the artist, but a good mic can take your sound and subsequently turn it into something next level. This tube mic comes with 9 polar patterns allowing your sound to be recorded with optimal quality. In addition, the mic’s dual 32mm gold-sputtered Mylar capsules have a great response to transients in order to absorb the true sound of whatever recording that is offered. It’s also known to have a decent proximity effect, so if you want to tweak or customize the tone shifts you can move the mic a few inches closer or further from your vocalist or instrument. It’s known to have an “open presence”, meaning the midrange won’t need to any EQ post-production and your highs are going to “shine” and sound “bright”.
Neumann M 147
Next on our list we have the Neumann M 147. Here we have a high-end, luxurious cardioid condenser tube microphone that brings a warm and clear sound that amplifies your passion and beautiful music. This state of the art model is by far the best tube microphone for artists and musicians of all sorts if money isn’t exactly an issue and you’re willing to place more cash into your mic investment. The M 147 brings a high quality, low self-noise solution while sustaining a high dynamic range that many have become infatuated with. At its core, the true beauty of this mic is the K 47 capsule that it contains. This might be familiar to you regular Neumann users as it has used this in prior editions like the U 47 and the U 47 FET. It’s latest 147 editions, however, features a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHZ and an overall balanced and solid bass response (great for male vocalists or even those females who love the tenor range). For those of you looking to cultivate the best quality sound, Neumann M 147 is a phenomenal choice if your cash flow allows.
The MXL Genesis brings us back down to earth in terms of price-points for the best tube microphones but here we have a top of the line sound that is well-loved by MXL fans like us. With that said, it’s the mic’s versatility and dynamic approach that truly makes it the best tube mic on the market. If you are a hip hop and R&B singer, or just like to sing in the church choir, this tube mic offers a sound quality that can be universally enjoyed, no matter what the music genre might be. The MXL Genesis has a relatively standard 140dB Max SPL, known to have a slightly brighter tone to the K2, natural-sounding balance for vocals, and some low-end warmth that’s known to help with its overall clarity. When you combine the sound quality with the reasonable price, this tube mic screams steal of a deal, not to mention the feel-good factor that comes with it.
Mojave Audio MA-200
Next up, we have the beastly Mojave Audio MA-200. Although considered high-end but not necessarily on Neumann’s level (especially when it comes to price), for those with about a grand or more to spend on theirs, this will not disappoint. This is a tube mic that is engineered with 3 micron capsules, as well as Jensen audio transformers, creating a beautiful sound that is going to bring you back to the golden age sound of music. The MA-200 has been battle tested in various venues and by artists worldwide. When you consider the mic’s internal military-grade JAN 5840 vacuum tube as well it’s exceptionally clean signal path, it’s hard to deny that the MA-200 is the best of the best with it comes to tube mics. Even if you are not an electronic, or even a mic guru, just by listening to MA-200 you will quickly take note of the difference between this mic’s sound from the rest (which we recommend doing so before your buy). Whether you are a classical singer or a rock band artist, this is a mic that is equipped with all of the necessities to make your recording professional and clear.
The Nady TCM-1150 is Nady’s best tube microphone that is yet again another cost-controlled mic in this list with enhanced sound quality. This one is definitely our favorite for those who didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg on their tube mic yet still grab a powerful solution to bring some warmth into their recordings. The TCM-1150 is equipped with a state of the art 6072 vacuum tube creating high quality warmth and analog saturation. This mic contains selectable different polar patterns, which can be selected on-the-fly creating not only better quality depending on the application but an increase in the mic’s overall versatility. Whether you are a vocal artist, playing instruments in a band, or just need a microphone for general use, Nady’s new TCM is a versatile option for a wide array of applications. The microphone is truly unique in that it contains its own customized output transformer creating a powerful transparency, and a genuinely smooth reproduction sound. This is one of the best tube microphones being sold today in the low-end and is a picture-perfect fit for most rigorous applications, whether you are playing on an instrument or singing a song.
Next on our list, we have the M-Audio Sputnik, a rare solution in our guide that if found for a solid price, can provide some excellent and unique sounds to your music. Sputnik is a high-performance microphone that uses a switchable 10dB pad and an 80Hz high-pass filter and is delivered with a built-in military-grade 6205M vacuum tube. Like a lot of tube mics, Sputnik comes with three selectable polar patterns, but also a tuned brass back plate allowing it to provide a better sound, regardless of the application being used. M-Audio’s Sputnik is arguably a classic and makes its way into our best tube mic guide for a reason — although more scarce, still a classic in today’s electronic-dominated game. It’s known to be great for not only vocals, but harmonica, bass, and grand piano. It’s sound is described as “crisp”, “full” and “deep”. The lower ends are a bit dark and the higher ranges with that “bright” and “airy” sound we’ve seen in a few previous mic choices as well. This mic also features a dedicated power supply, a seven-pin cable, shock mount, soft bag and also your very own flight case, so you’re good to go right out of the box.
Next we have the MXL 9000 tube condenser microphone, another MXL mic which is regarded by many as one of the best tube microphones in today’s day in age. This large diaphragm condenser tube mic contains a 12AT7 tube which is a bit more circular than most, yet still gives us such a vintage sound that we often might forget what decade of music we are enjoying. The benefit of this particular tube is a warm yet transparent mid-range response. What makes the 9000 so highly reviewed is the smooth response in which the tube displays, as it’s so easy to differentiate the voices and instruments that are being played. The mic features XLR connectivity, a max SPL of 122dB, and cardioid polar pattern all housed in a metal silver-finished shell. There are a lot of options out there and it’s always important to choose a microphone that will best create that sound you desire, however, we are pretty confident that the MXL 9000 is your one stop spot if the previous picks were a bit too expensive for you and a budget-friendly tube mic was in your vision. Not to mention it also comes with a preamp for phantom power and shock mount so you can get going right when it gets to your studio.
Studio Project T3
The Studio Project T3 is one you’ll see mentioned by those who are microphone enthusiasts and pay attention to the fine details. With a classical design that can be used with much adaptability and can adjust to any sound that is thrown its way, the T3 is still a viable option despite being out for years. This mic is based from the 1950’s era and is designed with more of a modern touch. The T3 has upgraded to a 1.35-inch precision dual membrane capsule integrated with a tube circuit designed around the 12AY7 triode, as well as a balanced transformer output. This is an incredibly versatile mic that can be utilized best by a vocalist (it’s been said to use EQ for each different singer to make sure it’s fine-tuned to their personality), but is often used for instrument play as well, such as other instruments we’ve mentioned with other picks, such as acoustic guitar and piano. The T3 also features 6072 dual triode vacuum tube for optimal low noise and added reliability. This is an all-purpose mic that simply can amplify your sound no matter what the purpose is. Although it is most common to see this as one of the best tube mics for musical purposes, this is a microphone that simply can create your perfect sound in any manner necessary. We get excited just talking about it, and it’s pretty affordable in the middle price-point if you have a few extra bucks to spare.
Lastly, but certainly not least, we have AKG’s P820. This is a highly rated tube mic equipped like a few others we’ve mentioned with multiple polar patterns enabling it to have staggering versatility if you foresee yourself recording different types of instruments aside from just vocals. You have a unique choice of cardioid, figure-8 or even omnidirectional polar patterns, as well as a low-cut filter with a 20dB pad. Simply put, there isn’t much to complain about in terms of the P820’s creativity. This mic offers so much to its design that it is also incredibly durable and will sustain decently high sound pressure levels (up to 155 dB SPL) so you can get away with using this one for drums as well. Like many others, it’s perfect for vocalists, instruments, as well as electric guitar cabs. The P820 is designed as one of the best performing tube mics on the market, and is also being sold at an OK price for now. This caps off our best tube microphone guide for a purpose, especially if you like to tweak your sound here and there when it comes to polar patterns and the low-cut filter. We’re big fans of AKG.