Choosing a microphone for podcasting can be tough for new podcasters. Microphones are the piece of equipment podcasters tend to obsessed over the most. This is for two good reasons:
- It is the first piece of equipment in a chain of equipment you’ll use to record your voice.
- It is the most expensive equipment you’re likely to buy at first.
However, the majority of podcasters are selecting their microphones for the wrong reasons. But we’ll come back to this point last.
First, understanding some fundamentals is called for. There are seven steps in the process of producing a podcast episode. And it starts with inputting your voice: the microphone.
Microphones are sound input devices, simply put. They are not exclusively input devices for voices. And this distinction is an important point to keep in mind when selecting yours.
Sound input vs. voice input is where the sound of a room comes into play. Your microphone will record you, and it will record any other noises present in the room you record in along with the echo and reverberation of your voice.
Here’s the reality: The room you record in will be 80% of the reason your podcast sounds the way it does. So we’re going to spend a bit of time talking about this first.
Where Room Mode Meets Listener Expectations and Desires
Room sound (aka “Room Mode”) may or may not be desired. If you are recording a choir, the audience expects to hear a distinct sound associated with churches and large halls, for example. A lack of hall sound in the recording of a choir would be perceived as sounding flat and lifeless.
But if you are recording a voice-over actor reading To Kill a Mocking Bird, the same hall sound would be bizarre and out of place to the audience. Instead, they’d expect and want to hear a dead room sound. Think of dead as meaning an absence of room noise.
Podcast listeners, on the whole, expect a radio sound. This means a mostly dead sound to a sound with some reverb depending on your show’s voice.
Listener Expectations Should Inform Your Decision
If your sound lacks room noise, the listeners may experience it as serene in nature; think NPR. Conversely, a sound with some reverb lends itself to a lively experience; think radio morning show. Seeking an entirely dead sound, which many podcasters chase, may not be right for your show; consider carefully.
The sound of a room goes beyond the audiences’ expectations and desires. It also comes down to rooms with lots of outside noise, bad harmonics, too much reverb, and harsh echoes making it difficult to understand the recorded voice. (Imagine what it might sound like if a podcast was recording in a tiled bathroom.)
We come to another important point here: It’s not about how expensive the microphone is; it’s about choosing the right microphone for podcasting and using it in a decent recording space. (We’ll come back to home podast recording studios in more depth in a future post.)
But perfecting a room can be more challenging and expensive than buying a microphone. And because of this, most podcasters record in a room with less than ideal harmonics.
I’ll make things a little better here: A decent amount of bad room noise can be overcome with the right microphone and a bit of microphone discipline.
A Simple Criteria to Follow
The simple answer for most podcasters looking for a microphone for podcasting is to use a dynamic microphone with a tight cardioid pattern. Then use good microphone discipline by keeping your mouth within 6″ of the microphone, keep your head steady while recording, and set levels appropriately.
Using this setup assumes you’re sitting at a desk or table; a common setting for podcasters. If you are recording in different conditions with other needs, we’ll cover that in subsequent scenario based microphone articles.
I’ve created a PDF with The 9 Best Microphones for Podcasting.
A Cardioid microphone has a heart-shaped pattern. This means the microphone will be most sensitive with-in this heart-shaped field. Better microphones will also reject much of the sound outside of this area — not all.
There is a lengthy list of microphone polar pickup pattern types available:
- Bi-Directional / Figure of Eight
Don’t worry; we’re not going to cover microphone polar patterns in this post because…
For most podcasters, they’ll be recording while sitting at a desk or table with a less than great recording room. This is where the cardio pattern microphone for podcasting excels: Close range and small pattern, a single direction of the sound pickup, and a good amount of extraneous noise rejection.
Note: This is not intended for audio engineers wanting to get into the weeds. This post is meant to explain things for podcasters starting out or seeking better audio quality without a lot of hassle. With that said, let’s move forward…
Dynamic vs. Condenser Microphones for Podcasting
Some of the highest quality and most expensive microphones are condenser microphones. They tend to be more sensitive than dynamic microphones, more fragile, and require 48-volt phantom power.
Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, tend to be more rugged, less sensitive, and don’t usually need phantom power.
Condenser microphones present a few challenges for most podcasters:
- The higher sensitivity is likely to mean more room noise and needs better microphone discipline.
- The need for phantom power will require equipment that can supply the power such as a microphone pre-amp and or a USB audio interface.
- Some podcasters don’t have a dedicated space where they can leave their equipment setup. The breaking down and putting back up on a regular basis introduces opportunities for the often more delicate condenser microphone to get damaged.
There are exceptions to everything, but that’s the basics most new podcasters will need and want to know at this stage.
Let’s not even go into Ribbon microphones; it’s just a rabbit hole.
Here’s the bottom line: If you’re a podcaster on a budget without a well-designed studio to record in, stay away from condenser microphones. (When you make it big, you can instruct your audio-engineer to get you a Neumann U87 for that NPR sound.)
The Color of Sound
Audio engineers will often speak about how the sound from a microphone is colored. You’ll also hear microphones being said to have bright, warm, dark, or a flat sound.
You may be wondering how sound can be “colored” or how sound can be “warm”. The answer is this: A Microphone’s sound is colored by how the microphone responds to the frequencies of the sound it’s taking in and sending to the recorder, in simple terms.
- A microphone with a bright sound will have an emphasis on the highs: a bump in the 3KHz – 9KHz range, approximately.
- A microphone with a warm sound will have an emphasis on the lows: a bump in the 200Hz – 80Hz range, approximately.
Why Podcasters Tend to Choose the Wrong Microphone for Podcasting
Here is where male podcasters tend to go off the rails: They buy a warm microphone to sooth their vocal egos with the added bass. (It’s a bit like an audio comb-over.) Podcasters should be using a brighter microphone instead because of where most podcast listeners are and what they’re doing while listening.
Make the Show for the Listener
You’ll often hear about podcast coaches and consultants carrying on about the marketing concept of listener avatars or personas. The strategy is to develop a detailed profile of your ideal listener and then make content, brand, and business decisions based off that Avatar. But this powerful avatar concept gets tossed out the driver’s side window when it comes to the show’s sound.
I conducted a survey after reading an interview with an NPR engineer about how they get the distinctive NPR sound. What was more interesting than “What microphone does NPR use” was the story of how and why they came up with it in the first place. In a nutshell, the engineers first considered where people were, what they were doing, and what kind of ambient noise was present.
It turns out, the majority of their listeners were engaged with NPR while commuting. So the ambient noise present was road noise which falls in the lower spectrum.
Why does this matter?
Competing Sounds Hurt Clarity
The audio would compete with that low-end noise often referred to as rumble. And this low-end was going to make voices harder to understand. So NPR opted for a brighter overall sound. In fact, they even went so far as to glue down the bass roll off switch on the microphone killing off some bass. (They did this after repeated finding the bass roll off switch flipped off and made the solution permanent so the male talent couldn’t get their audio comb-over on.)
And this goes for playing with the EQ too. Just a slight bump in the 130 – 100Hz range is plenty. If you can hear it, the bump is probably too much. But I digress, so this is another topic we’ll cover in more detail in a future post.
Understanding Where and How Your Audience is Listening
Now about those survey results. Forty-one percent my listeners reported listening to the show while commuting. The next most common scenario was during house chores which came in at 19%. And only 10% reported sitting in a quiet space just listening to the show.
So this confirmed my listeners have the same experience as NPR. And the listeners would best be served by going for a brighter sound. Your podcast may be different based on the demographic you serve. But you’d be the exception.
There was a second question on the survey. It asked what kind of speakers they listened to the show through. Here’s how those numbers broke out:
- Car Stereo = 35%
- Standard Headphones = 48.8%
- High-end Headphones = 7%
- Home Stereo = 7%
- TV via AppleTV or Chrome Cast etc = 3%
What does this mean?
Another great question…
You don’t need pristine audio quality; good audio quality, absolutely. NPR level audio quality, probably not. They’re listening through headphones that don’t give that great of detail, to begin with, and they’re a little distracted doing other things.
So take the Neumann U 87 out of your shopping cart and spend the money on voice acting lessons instead.
XLR Microphones vs. USB Microphones for Podcasting
There is a use case for both connection types for podcasters.
USB Microphones tend to be more budget friendly and do not require any additional hardware between the microphone and the recording device. They are a great option for podcasters where a co-host or guest will not be physically present, the budget for a microphone is between $50 and $300, and the need for mobile recording is not a requirement.
Professional grade microphones will use an XLR connection type. There are sound quality advantages which can be gained, but generally, these are not a concern for podcasters.
There are two main advantages XLR gives Podcasts that USB can’t:
- The ability to connect with and use additional audio enhancement hardware like USB audio interfaces, Mixers, and Compressors.
- The capacity to have a multi-host and or guest recording environment when combined with a USB audio interfaces or mixer.
As podcasting puts pressure on audio equipment makers, this may change in the future. But for now, USB is limiting.
The Best Budget USB Microphone for Podcasting
An exception to the USB vs. XLR decision is the Audio-Technica ATR2100. It a great microphone for podcasting that swings both ways: XLR and USB. This also happens to be what we’d suggest for most podcasters starting out, on a budget and wanting a simple solution that can grow with you till you are ready for a broadcast quality microphone.
For the rest of our top microphone picks, get our 9 Best Podcasting Microphones review here now.