Content Creators Month Part 2: The ultimate guide to choosing a podcast mic
Thinking about Podcasting? Well, you are going to need a mic or two. However, it’s not as simple as ‘grab any old mic and point it at the presenter’. On the contrary, the battle for audio quality in the realm of podcast (like all dialogue heavy applications) starts at the microphone, and with so many contributing factors (room, presenter positioning, frequency/transient response, proximity, shock absorption and that’s just the beginning!) it really makes a tonne of sense to put a bit of thought in and assess what’s out there.
With such a plethora of options available (and in the context of an application as intelligibility dependent as podcast), choosing the correct microphone is serious business, requiring a degree of strategic thinking and tact. When thinking about a mic for podcasting, it’s probably best to approach it with the same ‘measure twice, cut once’ level of seriousness that we find in the world of professional broadcast, rather than just reach for something with a decent Amazon review.
- USB Microphones are best suited to small-scale creators that will use one or two microphones while recording and XLR based microphones are recommended for content creators who will expand their inputs over time.
- Dynamic microphones will suit content creators who are working in less than ideal acoustic spaces who will want to speak closely to the microphone while condenser microphones are better suited to people working within a more professional creation space.
- Choosing a microphone can be a daunting task, but being informed about what the difference between connection types and microphone elements will help you understand which one suits your setup.
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Why you may ask? Well the world of professional broadcast (television, radio, news gathering etc.) have spent the last 100 years refining their recording methods and workflows, continually revising their production budgets and equipment itineraries to extract every bit of value possible, whilst allowing for the highest levels of audio quality in the shortest amount of turnaround time.
This means that when it comes to the production of dialogue heavy content, the broadcast engineers have it down to an art form, to the point where we as the viewing public often take their brilliance for granted.
While we may not have access to their six-figure equipment budgets, there is a lot we can learn from these masters of the craft, especially in a burgeoning field like podcasting that borrows so heavily from traditional media in terms of workflow and equipment design. Thinking in the context of broadcast-specific concepts like scalability, upgrade path, shot composition, and redundancy is extremely beneficial for all content creators, least of all podcasters who are so reliant on audio quality to get their message across. Mic selection may be the most important technical decision within all of that. After all, there is every likelihood you will end up with a half-dozen of the same model, if everything goes according to plan.
When it comes to choosing a mic for a podcast, a little planning goes a long way, and making the right choice at the beginning of your project can definitely save you a tonne of time at the backend, so it pays to invest some time and research into your options before pulling the trigger.
What is your format?
Before we even start talking about mics, you probably need to ask yourself the very simple question, ‘what am I actually trying to achieve here?’
This sounds like a simple enough question, but it’s actually amazing how many people blaze through it at the planning stage only to end up with a bad sounding, disengaging podcast and a bunch of useless gear taking up valuable space.
With podcasts being such a buzzy platform right now and with so much conflicting information out there about best mic, best podcast interface, best editing platform etc., it is so easy to jump into a setup too hastily, only to find yourself having to upgrade almost immediately (while also having a tough time selling on your misguided initial purchases), so it makes sense to lay it all out ahead of time and bypass any potential teething issues you may have.
This is exactly the kind of conversation a professional broadcast engineer will have with a producer before they even think about reaching for the equipment.
Simple questions about format, studio plot, and budget can save you a whole bunch of time and money and all it takes is jotting down exactly what you envision your podcast to be and letting that guide your purchases, rather than leaving it up to chance.
How many presenters will you have? How many guests will you be able to cater for at any one time? Will you be interjecting other compiled media and sound grabs into your production? Will it be easier to route all of these sources to the same central location?
Multiple guests mean multiple mics, which in turn means multiple inputs, multiple cables, larger physical footprints, and more editing. With most multiple mic setups, you are almost always going to want to go with one particular model across your whole fleet, to allow for continuity of things like input gain and mic distance. Do yourself a favour and check out as many multi-presenter podcasts as you can on Youtube and notice how hardly any mix and match mics. There is a reason for that.
What is the topic/genre? For intimate genres like self-help, true crime, and sleep specific podcasts (yes they exist), it’s probably inappropriate to have random ambient artefacts detracting from the potentially sensitive content matter. We can sort this almost instantly, simply by selecting a microphone with a tight polar pattern and reduced sensitivity to room ambience.
What is your average episode length and will you be seeking paid sponsorships and ads? The longer the podcast, the more likely it is for listening fatigue to set in, and thus the greater an onus placed on audio quality. Same goes with anybody looking to pursue commercial interests with their podcast. Presentation is everything, so it makes sense to fork out a little bit more at the front end and nip the audio quality thing in the bud.
Also, if you are planning on filming your pod for Youtube/video syndication, then that as well brings a bunch of other considerations into the fold. Do I want my mic off-screen or on-screen? Do I have enough space in-frame for this many boom stands? Are we going to be wearing headphones for monitoring and if not, do we need a wider pan as a failsafe?
Do I have a small head? Will a big-bodied large diaphragm condenser completely eclipse my small head in the frame? These are exactly the kinds of simple pre-production questions you should be asking yourself before you start forking over cash for microphones.
USB vs XLR/TRS Connectors
Once we have our statement of intent and have started to put together something resembling a production plan, then it’s time to talk mics.
Now a microphone doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table in isolation. It’s only when we integrate our microphone into the broader context of a studio setup or audio signal chain that we are able make full use of its transduction capabilities. This means that every connection from the microphone, to the cable, preamp, digital conversion, and choice of recording medium has to be accounted for in order to build an effective recording system, end-to-end.
Regardless of the complexity of your recording setup, one of the more obvious points of difference comes in the form of the connectors themselves, namely the age-old question of USB vs. XLR and what this means in the grand scheme of things.
Historically speaking, USB microphones have been the primary mode of entry for most podcasters, due to their ease of connectivity and the relative simplicity they provide as an all-in-one solution. While this option works well for single microphone set-ups, it becomes a lot more complicated if you need two or more microphones to record multiple presenters.
It is still possible to set this up, but it will depend on the capabilities of the software that you’re using to record and the number of USB ports available on your computer. Some software will only allow you to record multiple USB microphones to a single track, limiting your post production options. If you’re using an Apple computer it’s possible to use the audio/midi set-up in the applications/utilities folder to configure additional USB microphones as aggregate devices. This would enable you to record multiple audio tracks, but if you’re looking for a simpler connectivity option, then perhaps you might want to steer clear of this. It creates an additional layer of complication that you don’t need, particularly if digital audio isn’t really your main focus.
One takeaway in regards to going with a USB connection is the fact that in doing so, you are inadvertently placing your porting options in the hands of big tech, (and as we all know) they aren’t necessarily designing their products exclusively with the audio enthusiast in mind, so you are really at their mercy in regards to planned obsolescence and connectivity support.
XLR on the other hand is in no danger of going away. Though the downside is that you’re going to need to spend additional dollars on a mixer or audio interface to enable connectivity, this almost always brings with it a level up in audio quality. A basic XLR adjacent interface will set you back around the $200-$300 mark for two independent channels of connectivity, and only increases depending on how many additional input channels you require. The good news is you are always going to find a way to connect your mics to your computer, regardless of where we are in the evolutionary chain. A single interface is much easier to replace than an entire fleet of microphones and their relevant connectors.
There are also many analogue mixers on the market that have standard XLR input connections, but with digital output capability. This could be a great option if you need to record multiple microphones at once.
Ultimately it’s deciding how many microphones that you need that will determine what the simplest option will be. If it’s just one presenter that you need to record then going with a USB microphone will be simpler to manage and cheaper to set up without the need to also incorporate a mixer or audio interface into the set-up.
Dynamic vs Condenser Microphones
The next question you’re probably going to need to ask yourself is whether you should go with a dynamic or a condenser microphone. Partly, this decision is something that’s going to be informed by the space that you’re working in. Condenser microphones are designed to pick up more detail and are much more sensitive than dynamics. If you’re working in the garden shed and not an acoustically isolated space, then this could be a big issue. You don’t need your podcast to be filled with background noises that detract from the quality of the audio. Cleaning up the audio quality in post-production can quickly become an exercise in compromise, as you pull out frequencies to try to mask unwanted sounds. If you don’t have a quiet space to work in, then a good-quality dynamic microphone is likely going to be your best option. There are some other positives about going with a dynamic microphone that make them well-suited to podcasting,
- Dynamic microphones are generally more economical to produce and can offer high-quality results at a budget price. It can definitely be a great starting point, particularly if you’re just setting up your podcast studio.
- Dynamics can also handle higher sound pressure levels, meaning that they are able to withstand level fluctuations and are less likely to distort and overload. This also opens up the option of using what’s commonly referred to as the “proximity effect”. This is when the presenter works in close proximity to the microphone, producing that classic radio sound, with warm, low frequency overtones.
- Dynamic microphones are generally more rugged than condenser microphones. They can withstand more rough treatment and are less likely to break, meaning that you’re likely to get more years of trouble-free operation.
- The pick-up patterns of dynamic microphones are generally very directional, meaning that they will pick up what is directly in front of them, rejecting unwanted noise from the sides.
The downside of working with a dynamic microphone is that they often have a more noticeable sound “flavour”, with the frequency not being as flat as most condenser microphones. This can involve a bit of additional equalisation treatment, through setting a high pass filter to eliminate unwanted bottom-end frequencies and a parametric equaliser to “notch” out problem frequencies. For most podcast applications, it’s a large diaphragm dynamic that you will be looking for, with their broad response and ability to flatten and fatten proven to be ideal for maintaining that ‘voice of god’ capture so favoured by podcasters and radio announcers alike.
Given their larger, heavier moving coil, generally higher impedance and presence of additional internal components like transformers and Variable D porting, they generally require some pretty generous amounts of input gain to get them up to recording level, so be prepared to introduce a cloudlifter or similar device into your chain if your interface doesn’t have enough juice.
If you have the right space and budget to go with a good-quality large diaphragm condenser, then it’s definitely worth considering, especially for off-screen capture or to maintain sightlines in the case of a video podcast. Using a condenser microphone with the right placement and gain structure settings will produce a very nice conversational tone, and will almost always add a lot more high-frequency detail to your recording, giving you very high quality results. Though you’re going to need to have a suitable environment to work in. When choosing a condenser microphone for podcasting it would be advisable to be looking for a large diaphragm option. This would give you the broadest possible frequency response, enhancing the overall quality of the audio. Also important to note is that XLR condenser microphones will require phantom power (+48V) to operate, which is industry standard on most consumer interfaces. If you are looking for a content-specific condenser, they do indeed exist. 512 Audio’s plosive-resistant Skylight Large Diaphragm Condenser Mic is an awesome example of a modern podcast adjacent condenser and it’s affordable price-point means that it’s easy to grab a couple for well under the thousand dollar mark, leaving plenty left in the production budget.
Choosing the correct microphone for your application is really going to enhance your output, though as we all know, mic technique and correct application are equally as important to creating a successful product. A quality shock mount is going to be well worth the investment. It’s going to eliminate any potential noise from unwanted movement to the microphone. In the same respect using a pop filter is also going to up your podcast quality. Pop filters help by minimising any unwanted noises, brought about by fast-moving air hitting the microphone diaphragm. Once these noises have been recorded they are hard to remove, so you are far better off getting into the practice of using a pop filter. In conjunction with these accessories mounting everything on a reliable stand is also a great habit to get into. Pay for quality when it comes to this, as it will give you years of reliable service, if treated well.
In conclusion, choosing the right microphone for your situation is a highly personal thing and will differ greatly depending on the nature of your podcast and the room in which you record it. A bit of forethought and future proofing at the planning stage will ultimately help you escape the online furor that generally accompanies bad audio quality, but also allows your setup to expand and evolve as your podcast grows. After all, when it comes to anything even resembling broadcast, a bit of scalability and a baseline level of audio quality generally goes a long way!
Check out our guide for avoiding the pitfalls of podcast editing in post-production.