On Podcasting

Asking what the "best" microphone is for podcasting is misunderstanding the problem. Here's how to sound good without spending a ton.

Chances are, you're not recording in a studio. You also probably don't have the budget or inclination to build a home studio. But you've got a unique new spin on making an RPG advice podcast that's sure to stand out and you need to start recording soon.

The bad news is that not having a studio means you're never going to get studio quality sound. Accept that and we can move on.

The good news is that it's your environment, not your microphone, that will make you sound good, and you can go cheap on the equipment if you learn how to eliminate noise and you record externally.


Let's start by talking microphones

Everyone thinks microphones are the answer to a good sound, so let's start there and explain why that's not the case.

When we talk about what separates different microphones, we're generally talking about four attributes - assembly, or how well the microphone is made, clarity, which is the amount of distortion the microphone's diaphragm produces, sensitivity (or frequency response), how wide the microphone's dynamic range is, and impedance, the strength of the microphone's output signal.

You're not singing, so you don't need a high dynamic range. In fact, if you're running a high-impedance, high-sensitivity microphone and you're not in a controlled audio environment, you're going to pick up a lot more background noise and you'll end up sounding even worse. You're probably not recording to a sound board, so signal output can be low. You can pay more for a microphone that's made from quality materials, but if it's just sitting on your desk recording you talking, you probably don't need to.

A cheap condenser microphone or a decent dynamic one will have all the clarity you need.

So what should you be looking for in a mic? Well, that depends on your editing style. A condenser microphone has power, so you get a stronger output signal; that means you can spend less time balancing levels when editing. A dynamic mic, on the other hand, produces its signal using magnets - it doesn't need power, but you get a tighter range and a lower signal - these are not problems if you've got a strong voice and you don't mind balancing in edit.

I'd personally recommend the condenser for spoken-word podcasting. You can usually find decent low-end condensers from brands like InnoGear and Neewer. I myself use a Fifine 5v USB powered condenser. If you've got the budget, you can spend a little more on something like a Blue Snowball - they're better made and will last a lot longer, but won't necessarily get you better sound.

Be careful when going cheap, however, as many brands of condenser don't include power and that's a sure way to sound like crap. Condensers need power, don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Power supplies for microphones currently run about $20 US.


Eliminate mic noise

So if your microphone isn't the key to sounding great, you might be wondering what is. The answer is noise elimination. There are two sources of noise that will screw up your sound - you and your environment.

To eliminate noises coming from you, the first thing you need to do is minimize your microphone's contact with the table with a stand and mount. Get yourself either a tripod with soft feet or a scissoring swing arm mount. These stands separate the microphone from vibrations in the table, such as those caused by you taking notes, and bumps and knocks such as those caused by a foot bumping the table leg or a drink being set down.

Avoid the solid plastic C-clip microphone mounts as those can also carry vibrations. Go with a shock mount - basically a system of little bungees that keeps your microphone from being bumped and fidgeted.

Also, if you're like me and you say your P and B sounds forcefully, or you have a lisp, or you're more sibilant than most people, you're going to want a wind screen on your microphone. Most mounts come with one these days, but if yours doesn't, Dragonpads are worth the extra few bucks.

Lastly - use earphones. You don't want speaker sounds ending up on your recording, it's terrible. If you're not the only person on your end of the recording, get a Y-splitter cable and attach multiple sets of earphones.


Eliminate environmental noise

It should go without saying that recording in a Starbucks is bad, and turning off the background TV, the dishwasher, and the dryer are all good ideas. But just finding a "quiet" place isn't enough.

You need an open area to record in. You don't want to record in a closet because you'll sound muffled. But if your space is too open you'll get echoes. A typical bedroom or dining room is prefect as long as you can avoid flat walls - particularly flat walls directly behind you. Try to angle yourself so there's at least a few feet between yourself and the wall, and if at all possible choose a wall with a book shelf blocking it. Flat walls make echoes. If you can't avoid flat walls, hanging a blanket or towel between yourself and the wall will help slightly.


Record the right way

You want good audio? Stop recording on computers. Quit leaving your recordings at the mercy of memory balancing systems or processor and RAM speeds. Get yourself a digital recorder - yes, this is going to be the most expensive part of your setup but it is super duper worth it.

When looking for a recorder, make sure it has a removable microphone or a line in - you don't want to go to the trouble of setting up your swing arm and pop screen on your new condenser microphone only to not be able to use it. Also make sure it has a solid battery life. Some digital recorders offer noise-cancelling and other features and these are fantastic ... if you know how to use them properly. If you don't, don't sweat it.

You can pick up a refurbished Olympus recorder that will work a champ for $30. If you want to spend more you can, but you're not going to see a benefit to a higher price until you get to the stand-alone recorders. You can spend $100 and up on a digital recorder that can be used to record on location - something like a Zoom H2n or a Tascam portable recorder would be perfect if you're also planning on doing on-location interviews at a convention.

But if you're not doing on-location work, stick with a basic digital recorder.

If you're recording multiple sources - if you're doing Skype interviews, for example - buy multiple recorders. You'll be thankful you did when you're editing your recordings. Or your editor will be thankful when they have to clean up your audio. Again, Y-splitters are cheap and split your audio so that you can record a stream and while listening to it with earphones. Also, make sure your recorders are the same brand, as different brands have different sampling rates - trust me, I speak from personal experience when I say that it's seriously annoying trying to get getting to match up when they've been recorded at speeds just slightly off from each other.

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