Podcasting Mics on the Cheap - dummies

By Tee Morris, Chuck Tomasi

You can choose a cheap mic for your podcasting endeavors. Most of the economical microphones on the market use USB (Universal Serial Bus) hookups. You can go online to any of the computer equipment retailers and type USB microphones in their respective search engines. Make sure you include USB, because a search for microphones can bring up many more alternatives, including video cameras, high-end mics, and other devices that might be way out of your budget.

USB mic ports
The USB ports and connectors on both the computer and the mic.

You don’t have to sacrifice your retirement fund to get started with a USB microphone. Prices start under $20 for a simple desktop microphone. The phrase “you get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply in podcasting. We’ve heard some amazing sounds out of very inexpensive microphones.

When shopping for microphones, you’ll hear a lot of terminology like omnidirectional and unidirectional. These multisyllabic words may look cool to type and are impressive to say, but when you read them or they’re spoken to you, they can be a little intimidating.

Omnidirectional mics for podcasting

Most microphones that come preinstalled in laptops are omnidirectional — they pick up sounds from all directions at once. You can find a fair number of omnidirectional microphones that plug in to your mobile phone for under $10. Omnidirectional mics pick up your voice, along with the television in the background, the traffic outside, the rustling of clothes, the ceiling fan … basically, if it makes noise and is within range of the mic, it’s recorded.

Although omnidirectional mics are ideal for sound-seeing tours (audio tours that incorporate surrounding sounds for ambiance) they may not be ideal for all in-studio podcasting because they don’t capture your sound in detail — even when your mouth is so close that your lips brush against the mic’s screen.

They tend to add a sharp, tinny quality to your voice and cut out on harsh, sudden sounds such as consonants (especially ps and ts). That’s partly because basic omnidirectional mics vary widely in quality and partly because of the limits imposed by their construction. The built-in models, for instance, are sometimes crammed into leftover nooks in their devices, where they’re awkward to use and can pick up internal noise.

The most basic of omnidirectional desktop mics available would be Audio-Technica’s ATR-4750, currently retailing for about $13, compatible with both Mac and Windows platforms, and connecting with a 3.5 mm stereo (1/8″”) mini-plug. There are omnidirectional mics that come with headphones. Logitech offers a wide variety of headsets built with microphones beginning at just under $30, offering you the ability to record and monitor yourself as you do so.

One advantage headsets have over a desktop microphone is that your mouth is always the same distance away from the actual part of the microphone that picks up sound. If you’re an animated podcaster like your authors, this may be useful. On the other hand, they can be very sensitive to breathing sounds. If the mic boom is in the wrong position, the slightest breath from your mouth or nose will sound like an EF5 tornado passing by.

Although purchasing a USB headset is a monetary plus because you’re getting both headphones and mic together with one purchase, this isn’t all you need to monitor yourself as you record. To self-monitor your recording, you need software that offers you an on-screen mixer, a mixing board, or the option to monitor the incoming audio signal.

Installation for these inexpensive investments can be a breeze. Find a USB port on your Mac or PC, plug in your new headset or microphone, and set up your audio preferences in your recording software. You’re ready for recording.

Unidirectional mics for podcasting

Unidirectional mics, unlike their omnidirectional brethren, pick up sound from only one direction: the direction they’re pointing. What makes unidirectional mics a good choice for podcasting is in how by design they filter out surrounding sounds, reproducing only the sound directed to it. For in-studio podcasting, interviews, and quality recording, unidirectional microphones are the best option.

If you want to know exactly what a unidirectional mic is and what it can do, take a look at the Brian DePalma film, Blow Out. John Travolta plays a Foley Artist, a guy who collects random sound effects and then enhances them for particular moments in whatever film he’s working on. One night, he takes a stroll through the park with a shotgun microphone, a certain kind of unidirectional mic that picks up only sounds located where it is pointing.

This microphone is so particular that it concentrates on recording along the line of sight — so it records not only the sound of a tire blowing out, but also the gunshot that causes it to happen.

If you’re out shopping for a unidirectional microphone, watch for the term cardioid. It relates to the pattern and sensitivity of the microphone. And if you have a podcast that’s out in the field and want to be able to surrender the mic to guests and subjects without worry, look no further than the MXL 770. This mic, like many in the Marshall line, offers fantastic audio results for an economic investment. Podcasters can pick up the MXL 770 for under $100 and get years of reliability and quality out of it.

Dr. Stacia Kelly of the Geek Wolfpack Podcast relies on the MXL 770 for all her recording needs.