Podcast Equipment Primer: Microphones

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Podcast-Equipment-Primer--Microphones-and-HeadphonesThere are only a few basic things you’ll want to invest in when you’re getting started with a podcast: a computer that can handle some light audio processing and a microphone that’s a little more advanced than the one that comes built into your computer.

We’re not going to choose one side or the other when it comes to computers or operating systems, but we do have some educated opinions when it comes to microphones. You may be surprised to learn that good mics don’t have to cost a fortune. That being said, you should still be wary of ones that are too cheap. Aim to strike the right balance between cost and quality. Top-notch microphones that sound like they cost an arm and a leg can be had for a little as $100.

Because you’re recording a podcast and not just video conferencing, you’ll want to get a microphone that focuses on the sounds in a tight space, like the voice coming out of your mouth. Those inexpensive built-in microphones on your laptop aren’t suitable for the high-quality audio recording you’re aiming for because they pick up noises coming from anywhere in the room. Unless you want to capture the scrape of your chair on the floor or your drumming on your desk during those inevitable long pauses in conversation, you’ll want a dedicated microphone.

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Connection Types: USB vs XLR

USB microphones are convenient, all-in-one solutions that tend to be inexpensive. In exchange, they don’t produce the best quality recordings and don’t have the highest standards for quality and durability. They’re also not very versatile, making some special situations (like recording multiple people in the same room) difficult or impossible.

XLR is a common three-pronged audio connector that provides power and carries an analog audio signal from the microphone to whatever it is plugged into. An XLR microphone setup is made from multiple components that can be separately bought and upgraded as necessary. This usually results in higher cost and complexity because there are more components, wires, buttons, and knobs to deal with. XLR mics are typically built to last forever and span a much larger and better range of sound quality.

If you’re just getting started with podcasting, a USB mic is probably good enough. If you’ve been at this for a while and are looking to upgrade your quality, you’ll likely find the jump to XLR worthwhile.

Microphone Types: Dynamic vs Condenser

The two main types of microphones are dynamic mics and condenser mics. A dynamic microphone doesn’t usually require any additional power, and it typically does a good job using its compact design to pick up a limited range of sound. Condenser microphones usually need power from an external source, but they provide richer, fuller tones.

Dynamic mics can be more practical for podcasters because they’re much better at eliminating background noise and room echo (two of a podcaster’s worst enemies), but the sound quality can come off as dull, flat, or muffled. Dynamics don’t usually sound wonderful, but they are good enough for most hobbyist podcasters.

Condenser mics record with much more detail but tend to be extremely unforgiving. They easily pick up any background noise, room echo, vibration, and those loud popping sounds on the letter “P” (called plosives). These microphones are best in ideal recording circumstances, but are worse than others in less-than-perfect sound situations.

Most inexpensive microphones are condensers, including most USB models. Beginning podcasters often pick an USB condenser mic because they are less expensive than a dynamic mic. Proceed with caution: without a careful ear in post-production, these mics might make your job more difficult.

Our Top 3 Picks

Audio Technica ATR2100

For a little over $50, you can pick up a great introductory microphone that has features typically saved for mics that cost four times as much. The Audio Technica ATR2100 has both USB and XLR connections. If you decide to go big at the beginning and get a mixer, you can use the ATR2100’s XLR connection, but if you just want to plug it right into your computer, you can do that via USB.

The ATR2100 also offers a high quality analog-to-digital converter for excellent sound quality, and a headphone output with level control for listening back to your audio with no delay. Its cardioid polar pattern reduces pickup of unwanted sounds from the sides and rear (which is great for people who record outside of a recording booth or a coat closet).

Shure Beta 87a

The Shure Beta 87a is a professional-quality XLR microphone for a reasonable price (even for beginners). The sound is rich and smooth, and it strikes a good balance between warmth and detail. In addition to sounding great when it comes to vocals, the 87A is much less sensitive to off-mic sound. That means less room echo, less dogs barking outside, and less background noise overall.

This can be both a positive and a negative. This microphone is very sensitive to how near/far you are to the mic. Moving just a little off mic will be noticeable and annoying to listeners, so you’ll need to keep your face right in front of the mic and not move around much when you record.

Rode Podcaster

If you’re looking to take the plunge into high-end dynamic mics, you’ll appreciate the Rode Podcaster ($220). This USB mic features high-quality sound similar to what you’re used to hearing on the radio. Because it’s a dynamic mic, you’ll need to stick pretty close to the microphone itself if you want your voice picked up, but that can be a benefit. It means less background noise will make its way into your podcast.

Like the Yeti, the Podcaster also offers a headphone jack for live monitoring of your audio.

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Which is Right for You?

There are plenty of options out there besides our Top 3 picks. If you’re looking for an easy and inexpensive choice that’s a cut above the built-in, the Audio Technica ATR-2100 is great. If you see a major future in podcasting or audio recording, it may be a good idea to take the plunge into the world of XLR and pick up a Shure 87a and a mixer (may we suggest a Behringer or Mackie for easy of use?). What kind of equipment are you using to get your voice heard? Tweet at us at @podcastmotor or leave us a note in the comments!

(The links to these fantastic mics above are to Amazon.com and are affiliate links.  We will receive a small commission if you purchase through these links, but no extra cost will be passed on to you.  Thanks for your support.)