Choosing the right microphone can be challenging. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have friends who swear by one kind of mic, your favourite podcast uses another and your go-to reviewer on YouTube says they’re both awful.
The truth is – and this is a truth that many fail to mention when discussing microphones – what works for one show might not work for yours. Many factors are involved, including your presentation style; the acoustic properties of your room; how portable you want to be. Not to mention your budget.
By the end of this article, you won’t know for sure which microphone you want to use, but you will be able to make an informed choice based on your circumstances.
How loud is your room?
How large is your room? How echoey is it? Can you hear traffic through your window?
If you have an imperfect space like most of us, you’ll want to consider a microphone that picks up the sounds closest to it and not much else. Your first option is a dynamic microphone. These are hard-wearing and usually don’t pick up much background noise. They aren’t the most detailed microphone but, to be honest, they will be fine in 90% of cases. A couple great brands for dynamic mics are Shure and AKG.
Your second option is a lavalier mic attached to or around your lapel, which captures sound from your chest meaning that you can keep your gain levels relatively low. Believe it or not, the majority of your voice propagates from the chest, not the mouth. Sure, if you’re doing ASMR, you’ll need a mouth mic for all those lip-smacking brain-tingles, but a lav mic will be just the ticket for every other purpose. RØDE and Sennheiser make excellent lav mics.
If you’re lucky enough to have a well-treated room where the extra noise level depends on how hard you blink, you can go for a large-diaphragm condenser mic. These microphones capture a great level of detail which is a real advantage if the only thing they’re capturing is a human voice. If there’s any kind of background sound, rest assured that a large-diaphragm condenser will pick it up. Condenser microphones are also fragile compared to their dynamic cousins, which can be thrown around a stage without any real damage. If you throw your condenser mic anywhere, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll need to replace it. My go-to brand for condenser mics is SeElectronics who offer great value for the quality of their products.
What’s your Setup?
Specifically, what recording device are you using? The first consideration is power. Condenser microphones require Phantom Power so you’ll want to be sure your recorder can provide this, (often written as +48v). Most audio interfaces for PC and Mac will provide +48v, as will most portable recorders but it’s worth checking before spending any money.
Most battery-powered recorders can provide +48v, but it will drain the batteries, so lengthy recordings on-the-move might not be possible. Furthermore, if you have a portable setup, you’ll usually want the smallest mics possible. Lav mics are great in this instance because of their discrete size and because they won’t require any kind of mic stand. You can get XLR lav mics that connect to your recorder in the usual way, or battery-powered radio lavs common amongst TV productions. If you and your guests are stationary, then XLR lavs are your best bet, but if you’re recording whilst walking you’ll definitely want to go for radio lavs.
The final option here is a USB mic. These are relatively new contenders in the market and certainly have their uses. Great for live streamers and any podcaster who’ll be based exclusively at their desktop, not least because they don’t require any sort of audio interface – you plug your mic directly into your computer and your headphones into the mic body. These function similarly to condenser microphones, so you’ll want to make sure your room is relatively quiet and, ideally, your PC tower wouldn’t be anywhere near the microphone. USB mics can be tricky to set up in my experience, and a user’s success will somewhat depend on the recording software. One brand to keep an eye on is Blue Yeti.
What’s your Budget?
Let’s be honest, this is probably the most significant factor in whether or not we get a new microphone. Whenever someone asks what microphone to buy the first reply is almost always “what’s your budget?”, so let’s make this as simple as possible. If you’re buying a condenser microphone, you probably don’t want to spend under £80 ($110 USD); if you’re going for a dynamic mic, don’t go under £40 ($55 USD).
There are some outliers, for example I use XLR lavs by MOVO which cost around £30 each. Now that you have a clearer idea of what to consider when buying a new mic you can make an informed choice about whether to try a more affordable microphone because you know it’s more appropriate to your setup.
You may have seen how expensive microphones can get, but you certainly don’t need to spend money on a set of Neumann condensers to have a high quality podcast. Remember that your listeners will be streaming or downloading your show, so you need it to be available in an accessible format – usually mid-to-high quality MP3. That being the case, spending over £300 ($410 USD) on a mic that exclusively used to record podcasts would be wasteful.
A matched set of microphones is, for me, the primary concern. I know many podcasters are recording with guests in separate locations, especially during lockdown, but having matching microphones, when possible, will be a huge benefit. Having all contributors record with similar microphones will provide a great deal of tonal consistency and make for a much better listening experience.
Depending on your industry, your guests might not use microphones very often, if at all. I work a lot with comedians and musicians who tend to know what they’re doing, but authors and marketers might not know that if they point their face away from a mic, it’ll affect the clarity of their voice. Some people find microphones intimidating – a form of stage fright, I think. For both these reasons, I tend to rely on XLR lav mics because I can attach them to my guests and forget about them. If there’s no visible mic, you can just have a conversation.
Pop filters will hugely reduce vocal plosives and sibilance, which can be really annoying to listen to. If you’re using a lav mic, then you don’t need one because the mic is picking up the sound from your chest rather than your mouth. Otherwise, they’re not expensive so there really is no excuse not to use them.
I hope now you have a clearer idea of what microphones are available and understand why different podcasters and content creators might choose to use different kinds.