September 28, 2018

Which microphone is right for you?

We're breaking down how to choose the best microphone for your podcast, while staying within your budget and overall plan.

Dealing with microphones can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. There are lots of options with a staggering range of prices and characteristics. The whole thing can be confusing. So today, let’s break down how to choose the best microphone for your podcast, while staying within your budget and overall plan. We’ll take a look at some options from the most basic to a more complex mic setup.

And for the purposes of this post, we’ll be focusing on recording spoken word in a fairly quiet room. Field recordings and portable interviews would likely require different setups, but that’s a discussion for another week!

Before we get into specifics, I just want to mention that I’m just one person with his own opinions! There are tons of ways to record spoken word audio, and what works for me and sounds good to my ear, might be totally different from what works for you. So experiment with your setup and stay flexible and resourceful!

The microphone in your pocket

There’s a saying in photography that the best camera is the one you have with you. I’d say the same about mics.

If you have a smartphone, you already have a pretty decent mic in your pocket. Just like the camera in your phone has become a really great option for taking pictures every day, phones’ mics have gotten surprisingly good. Obviously they’ve got some limitations, but for portability and convenience, they really can sound perfectly fine for spoken word.

When you record into your phone, hold the mic close to your mouth, but at an angle, so your P’s and B’s don’t blow air onto the mic. And beyond just talking straight into the mic, your phone is a great field recorder in a pinch. If something interesting is happening where you are, or if you want to interview someone on the street, your phone could be the difference between capturing it and not.

If you’d like a little more clarity in your recordings, but you’d like to stick with a low profile, Shure and Zoom both make small mics that plug right into the bottom of iPhones, but capture stereo sound with significantly more range than the built-in mics. Apogee and Sennhesier even make a set of earbuds that double as binaural microphones for iOS.

USB mics

Your phone works well, but maybe isn’t the best microphone for every job. As you get more comfortable with your podcast, you’ll probably start to get pickier about the sound of it, and want to use a mic with more presence, a greater dynamic range, or more detail. So let’s take a step up the ladder: USB microphones.

Many of these are good for podcasters who record alone. They work by plugging a single USB cable into your computer, or even your phone in many cases. One I like is the Audiotechnica ATR2100. It solidly outperforms its price, and as a bonus, it has an XLR jack on the bottom. I like this mic because if you decide later you want to plug it into other audio equipment through XLR, you’re not stuck with just USB; you can gradually build up a little home studio one piece at a time without repurchasing everything.

But lots of companies make USB mics, and they can sound really good! Here are some popular ones:

You could even use most of these with your phone. For iOS devices, you can use Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter to plug USB audio devices right into your phone or iPad. On Android, some mics may work with an OTG adapter or USB-C cable, depending your phone’s ports.

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Types of mics

When I record myself, I use what’s called a dynamic mic. Personally, I like recording podcasts on dynamic mics because they’re generally durable, pretty forgiving of imperfect rooms, and tend to have a lot of presence for vocals. Some folks prefer what are called condenser mics, because they’re more sensitive and can sound more detailed. (The Blue Yeti and Apogee Mic+ are condenser mics.)

But sometimes that detail and sensitivity can be bad if you’re recording, say, near a window, or in an untreated room with some natural reverb or echo; more of that could leak into the recording on a condenser mic. So unless I’m in a well-treated studio, I personally tend to choose dynamic mics for podcasting. The ATR2100 from above is a dynamic, and the Rode Podcaster is a solid dynamic with a big radio-like sound.

Pickup and go

Another thing you may find yourself looking into is the pickup pattern (or polar pattern) of your mic. The pickup pattern is what it sounds like — it’s the shape and size of the area that your microphone picks up. For instance, an omnidirectional mic has a really wide pickup pattern. It’ll be good for recording multiple people, or a large area of sound. But if you’re in an untreated room or speaking alone, it could sound roomy, distant, and airy (in a bad way).

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If you see this on the side of your microphone, it's got a cardioid polar pattern. Yes, it looks like a butt.

If that’s the case, you might prefer a mic with a cardioid polar pattern, which is a bit narrower and heart-shaped (by the way, this is where the word “cardioid” comes from). Most handheld vocal mics (like the ATR2100) are cardioid, or even hypercardioid, and they sound great for spoken word, as long as you stay close to the mic. The tried-and-true Shure SM58 is a cardioid and the BETA 87A is a hypercardioid (this is an especially interesting mic for podcasters); both have solid rejection of room noise and ambience. Some mics, like the Yeti, even let you select from different patterns for different situations.

Connecting “pro” mics

Say you’re ready to graduate up to some kind of “pro” setup, or you want to record a group of people in the same room on a set of microphones. At that point, you’re probably looking at using a mixer or an interface (some devices are both). There are all kinds of mixers, but essentially, they’re pieces of hardware that take a group of microphones or other audio sources, and mix them together into one signal. Today, a lot of them even have USB connections to get that mixed signal into your computer or mobile device. Interfaces are simpler devices with one or more audio inputs that send audio from your mics or other devices to your computer or device.

This is another deep rabbit hole, but Behringer and Mackie make some solid USB mixers. Apogee and Scarlett are both known for their simple and good-sounding audio interfaces.

All of these options will let you plug in any microphone with an XLR connector. Depending on your budget, this opens up a huge number of possibilities, from mics like the Shure options above, to high-end options like the Heil PR-40 or the Shure SM7B (which both require a mixer or interface with very good mic preamps).

Planning your kit

Microphone types and pickup patterns and interfaces are a bottomless well, so I’ll stop here. But if you’re shopping around for external microphones, a good way to hear what you’re getting is to just search for mics on YouTube. A lot of people review these inexpensive USB mics and post sound samples.

I typically record in my bedroom on a pretty high-end mic passed through an external processor and a USB interface. But I’m a huge nerd who does this for a living, and I’d never tell anyone who’s just starting out to buy any of this stuff.

Spend your time and energy on the content of your podcast, not the fiddly tech. Your listeners will appreciate great sound, but above all, make sure you have a great story to tell, or a fascinating interview, or whatever will keep your show interesting.

You can start very basic, even recording on your phone, and there’s a natural, slow path to a more “professional” microphone setup, if that’s what you want. If you care about audio quality, start simple, listen very carefully, and start finding ways to get the sound you want. Listen to what you’ve recorded, decide what you want to improve, and seek out specific solutions. The internet is a great resource, and other Anchor creators are always around to help each other too. Just start small, take it slow, and always try to improve. Your listeners will appreciate the care you give your show.

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