Choosing a Microphone for Podcasting
Most podcasters start with an idea, a topic or genre that they are passionate about. They just want to create. The fact that at its simplest, it is very easy to speak into a microphone and publish the recording means that there is a very low barrier to entry into the market.
In many ways, this is great. There are many creators out there with a great talent to share. It does however lead to a lot of podcasts sounding terrible. I’ve often heard it said that content is king, and to some extent this is true, but if you look at the most successful podcasts you tend to find that they all have great or at least good production.
I’m willing to forgive quite a lot in terms of production if I really want to listen to something, but sometimes, no matter how interesting the subject, I just can’t listen to it if it sounds terrible. Everyone has their own standards as to what they will put up with, but one thing is for sure – having great quality audio is not going to hurt!
One of the first steps in getting great audio is choosing your microphone. In a perfect world, you would get to test out a microphone and choose one that suits your voice best. Sadly that is not often an option, especially if you also need to test it in your own recording environment. There are also few hard and fast ‘rules’ with regards to microphones and often various ways to reach a desired sound.
I am going to be deliberately simplistic and make generalisations so there will be exceptions. I am also going to concentrate on microphones most suitable for podcasting and within a reasonable budget so don’t expect me to recommend an AKG C12 (at around £4k a pop, I’m not expecting that they’ll be in budget for many people not working in a professional recording studio).
Most microphones used for podcasting are either side or front address like the one shown here. Front address means that you speak into the 'front' of the microphone.
The other type of microphone is a side address microphone as shown here
Polar patterns - Cardioid
Polar patterns are a 2D representation of the 3D space that the microphone is sensitive to sound relative to the direction of the source of the sound. Shown here is a cardioid pattern, so named because it looks heart shaped, and one of the most common polar patterns.
Polar patterns - Supercardioid
Supercardioid microphones have a tighter pickup pattern and rejects more sound to the sides than a microphone with a cardioid pattern. They do however have a slight sensitivity to the rear that a standard cardioid does not.
Polar patterns - Hypercardioid
Like the supercardioid, the Hypercardioid rejects sound from the side well and is resistant to feedback. It does however have an even greater sensitivity to the rear than even Supercardioid.
Polar patterns - Bi-directional
The Bidirectional or figure 8 pattern is equally sensitive to sound from the front and rear and rejects more sound from the sides. Ribbon microphones are commonly, but not exclusively, bidirectional.
Polar patterns - Lobar
The lobar pattern is unique to shotgun microphones. It is highly directional and whilst it is occasionally used in podcasting, it is most often used in filmmaking.
Polar patterns - Omnidirectional
Omnidirectional microphones are equally sensitive to sound from every direction. This means that the direction the microphone is placed is not of great importance, but it is also the most likely to pick up unwanted ambient or intrusive noise.
There are three main types of microphone that we will be looking at: dynamic, condenser and ribbon mics. Each has advantages and disadvantages in certain settings and of course there is variation within each group between different makes and models.
First we will look at dynamic mics. For the beginner podcaster, I would suggest that a dynamic mic would be the safest bet. They tend to be simple and rugged, they are more resistant to humidity, they tend to have better off axis rejection (this means they pick up less unwanted ambient noise) and they are generally cheaper.
A good choice for an entry level dynamic microphone would be the Samson Q2U
It is reasonably priced and can be used with either USB or XLR allowing you to invest in an interface, pre-amp or mixer without having to purchase a new microphone at the same time.
If you already have a mixer or interface with an XLR input, the Shure SM58 is a good reliable choice for a dynamic podcasting microphone. It is an industry workhorse and frequently seen on stages around the world.
Considering it’s pedigree it is also quite reasonably priced, can manage some rough handling and has an integrated pop filter.
If you have the cash to spare, the Shure SM7B is a great microphone for podcasting. Designed for close talk applications, it provides a warm radio ready sound.
Be warned though that this microphone needs a lot of gain! Make sure that your pre-amp can deliver at least 60db of clean gain. If your pre-amp cannot provide 60db of gain without distortion, you can supplement this with a Microphone activator, basically an additional low noise pre-amp, like a Cloudlifter or Fethead.
The second type of microphone that we will be looking at is the condenser microphone. They tend to be more sensitive, especially in higher frequencies giving a richer sound. They are also much more prone to picking up unwanted ambient noise as well as being more susceptible to feedback. They are more fragile than dynamics and I would normally only recommend them for a recording space with good acoustics and sound treatment.
A good entry level condenser microphone is the Standard Electronics X1. There are various versions of this microphone, including tube and ribbon as well as a usb version for those without a pre-amp or interface.
I would suggest starting with the basic X1, which is often bundled with a shock mount, pop filter and reflection filter. For the majority of recording environments, I wouldn’t suggest using a condenser microphone without these accessories.
There are a considerable number of low to mid priced studio condenser microphones. Comparable in price to the SE X1 is the Rode NT1A which is also a good quality microphone. They are also often sold in bundles, though I would also recommend that you invest in a reflection filter if this is not included in the bundle you purchase.
At the higher end of the scale is the Neumann TLM102. You will need a vocal booth or a well acoustically treated room to really make the most of this microphone, but if you really want your vocal to shine it is a good choice.
Like all the other condensers in this list, a shockmount, pop filter and refelection filter are highly recommended.
The third type of microphones are ribbon microphones. As the name suggest, ribbon microphones use a thin electrically conductive ribbon, normally made of aluminium, to capture sound. Because of the design, ribbon microphones are normally figure 8 or bi-directional in pickup pattern. They tend to excel in capturing high frequencies and are often sought after for their pleasing sound.
Care should also be taken to ensure that phantom power is not used in conjunction with ribbon microphones as it can damage the ribbon element. More modern ribbon microphones are less susceptible to issues with phantom power and are much more durable than older models that tended to be quite fragile.
For those with some experience or recording and microphone handling, the ribbon microphone can be a great tool, but they are not something I would necessarily suggest for a first microphone. If you ever get the chance to try one, do see how it suits your voice though as you may be pleasantly surprised!
A variant of the Standard Electronics X1, the SE X1R is a reasonably priced ribbon microphone with a smooth natural sound.
Like many ribbon microphones, you will likely need a mic activator such as a Cloudlifter or Fethead to provide enough clean gain for a good signal.
The first of two recommendations from Beyerdynamic, the TG-V90R gives better rejection that the SE-X1R with a rare cardioid pattern ribbon microphone.
The second option from Beyerdynamic, the M160 provides even better off axis rejection that the TG-V90R and has a fantastic sound.
Whilst there is no one size fits all approach to microphones and in an ideal world you would take into account your voice, recording environment, the number of people involved etc. But, if there was only one microphone I could recommend, without knowing your situation, it would be a dynamic microphone with a cardioid pickup pattern, in particular the Shure SM58. It is the most forgiving, durable and flexible. It isn’t the cheapest, but it is far from expensive. It has earned a reputation as an industry workhorse for a good reason and will reliably produce quality audio.