High-End Mic Options for Podcasting - dummies

High-End Mic Options for Podcasting

By Tee Morris, Chuck Tomasi

So you can go cheap and pick up a microphone for as little as ten dollars to record your podcasts, but let’s be honest here — you’re going to sound like you’ve been recorded by a ten-dollar microphone. Say, however, you really want that sharp, professional sound for your podcast, and the cheaper microphones just aren’t cutting it for you.

As you shop for an upgrade, you see mics ranging in price from an inexpensive $70 and reaching up to $3,600! (No, you’re not seeing a typo involving an extra zero.) So what defines a microphone? Price? Manufacturer? Look?

What truly defines a microphone is how you sound in it and how it reproduces the sound coming in. Based on how mics work, prices vary, but as you can see from our recommendations, plenty of high-quality microphones that are out there can pick up nuances and details and remain in the range of affordability.

When you purchase a higher-end microphone, keep in mind that you probably will receive no additional cables for hookup, a jack that does not fit into your computer, and no stand. That’s because you’re upgrading to professional equipment. The manufacturer is assuming that you already have the tools, bells and whistles, and extra do-dads to make this mic work for you.

Remember those three questions a few pages back? Question #2 — Do you plan to use the mic primarily in the studio or on location? — helps narrow your search even more for the microphone that’s the right investment for you. At this level, there are two kinds of mics you will hear people talk about: dynamic and condenser mics.

Although dynamic microphones are marketed more for on-location recording and condenser mics are considered best for in-studio recording, these aren’t fast-and-hard rules for what mics should be used where. Sometimes, podcasters use condensers in outdoor settings, and some podcasters prefer the sound of dynamic mics in studio over condensers. When picking a microphone, you want a mic that not only suits your needs but also makes you sound good. Really good.

Dynamic mics

Dynamic mics are what you see everywhere from speaking engagements to rock concerts. In fact, when someone mentions the word microphone, the image that comes to mind is probably a dynamic microphone. These mics work like a speaker in reverse. Sound entering a dynamic mic (by speaking directly into it) vibrates a diaphragm (a small plate) attached to a coil. This is located within proximity of a magnet, and the vibrations that this Wile E. Coyote setup makes create a small electric current. When this signal runs through a preamp or mixer, the original sound is re-created.

This system sounds complicated (and if you’ve ever looked inside of a microphone, it is), but the internal makeup of dynamic microphones is such that they can take a lot of incoming signal and still produce audio clearly. They’re also rugged in build so they can be manhandled, making dynamic mics exceptional for outdoor recording.

If you’re working in-studio, consider working with Heil Microphones’ PR40. This mic offers up a clean, rich sound and picks up incredible details for a dynamic microphone. For microphones you may want to use out in the field, the Røde Reporter, is specifically designed for handheld interviews, and delivers broadcast-quality results within any environment.

Dynamic mic podcasting
Brandon Kelly, co-host of Happy Hour from the Tower: A Destiny Podcast, records his own deeds in the Crucible on the Heil PR40.

Condenser mics

When podcasting happens in studio and you’re looking for the subtleties and nuances of the human voice in your recording (the more detail you get, the better!), you may want to shop for studio condenser microphones. The anatomy of a condenser microphone is very different from a dynamic one. In the condenser, a diaphragm (similar to the dynamic’s) is suspended in front of a stationary plate that conducts electricity.

As a signal enters the microphone, the air between the diaphragm and the plate is displaced, creating a fluctuating electrical charge. Once given a bit more power (phantom power), the movement becomes an electrical representation of the incoming audio signal.

This setup sounds very delicate, doesn’t it? Guess what — it is! This is why condenser mics are transported in padded cases; they’re not really built for hand-held use and are best used in a studio application versus an on-location kind of podcast. If manhandled or jostled around, plates can be knocked out of whack or damaged, causing problems in the pick-ups.

MXL990 condenser mic
The MXL 990 captures professional quality sound in home studio settings for a reasonable investment.

The advantage to this delicate setup is that condenser mics are far more sensitive to sound, and they pick up a wider spectrum of audio. These microphones are so sensitive to noise around them that some come with shockmounts — spring-loaded frames that suspend the mic when attached to a microphone stand, providing better reception while reducing any noise or vibration from your microphone stand. Think of a shockmount as a shock absorber for your mic.

If you plan to have a studio with multiple guests, the sensitivity of several condenser microphones can be a liability and will degrade the overall sound of your podcast. The sound from one person’s voice will be picked up not only on that person’s mic, but also on the other mics as a “distant” sound. For multi-mic podcasts in the same location, consider dynamic microphones.

MXL microphones, along with being affordable, reliable, and popular, often come bundled with mixer boards. Online vendors like BSW offer podcast bundles featuring another MXL microphone, the BCD-1. With each bundle offering new accessories, cost and features go up, but the quality sound that the MXL line captures remains the same.

USB Studio Condenser mics

Microphone vendors are noting the popularity of podcasting, and now USB Studio Condenser microphones are becoming more and more prevalent. Blue’s Snowball iCE ($50) and Yeti Pro ($270) are solid examples of what is now available for podcasters working on tight budgets.

With these microphone models, podcasters can now record studio quality audio without an additional audio card, a mixer, or any of the go-betweens once considered essential for connecting audio gear to a computer. With USB condenser microphones, the audio signal now has a direct connection to the computer. It makes your podcast production extremely portable.

Two drawbacks of USB microphones:

  • Latency is the slight echo you hear in your voice as you record. This is your computer trying to re-create the signal in real time for monitoring purposes. The recording itself will sound fine, but as you’re monitoring yourself, you may hear yourself echoing, and the echo may progressively get worse the longer you record one session, depending on your computer’s performance. A faster computer can reduce the latency but likely not resolve it completely. You can side-step the latency problem by disabling the recording application’s monitor or use the built-in headphone jack provided with many USB microphones.
  • Expandability is another issue. While USB microphones are quick and easy to set up, there’s no good way to connect more than one to a computer at a time. If you are planning to have your best friend as a co-host or have an in-studio interview guest, then consider microphones that connect to a mixing board.

High end is relative. Professional recording studios can spend hundreds of dollars on a single microphone. Fortunately, the MP3 format isn’t so finicky.