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A Guide To Choosing Microphones For Your Podcasting Setup

So you’re looking to start podcasting, producing audio dramas, voice acting, or just make a general nuisance of yourself and you’re in the market for a decent microphone to get the job done. The trouble is there are so many different types and styles of microphone and the quality varies greatly. More confusing yet, the old standby that you get what you pay for doesn’t really hold water any more as the cost of gear comes down considerably as new technology develops.

Since cost is no longer a reliable characteristic in determining quality, let’s look at what qualities to look for in a microphone.

USB vs XLR

A question that a lot of beginners have is the difference between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone. While there is a notable difference in both cost and quality between the two, the real difference comes down to compatibility.

XLR microphones cannot plug directly into your computer, but instead must be routed through a recorder or mixer first. This results in a considerable cost increase, but also means that you are able to control the sound directly, rather than having to rely on being able to fix it in post. This also means you are able to run multiple mics through the mixer, making it more ideal for recording multiple people and managing their levels individually. This also gives you the option to swap out microphones, XLR cables, and mixers as the situation calls for it.

USB mics on the other hand are designed with a very plug-and-play style. They connect directly to your computer, and so are compact and easier for traveling, as well as easily compatible with both PC and Mac computers. However, their general quality and limitations make them best suited for online communication, or a single speaker recording directly into a program such as Audacity or GarageBand.

On the whole, it is recommended you invest in a XLR microphone. While more expensive and difficult to lug around, it would be more universally useful to whatever project you’re working on, be it a one person podcast or a large musical group, and you’ll find your setup compatible with nearly any studio, stage, or recording software. However, if you wish to be really efficient, some microphones come with both an XLR and a USB output, allowing your set up to be as flexible as you need.

Condenser vs Dynamic

Microphones are a form of transducer. There are three transducer types commonly associated with microphones: condenser, dynamic, and ribbon transducers. For most vocal applications dynamic and condenser microphones are used. Ribbon microphones, while excellent in quality for sound reproduction, tend to be very expensive and extremely delicate.

Dynamic Microphones

Dynamic microphones are good for general vocals that don’t necessarily need accurate and smooth reproduction, such as interviews, hosting, and live venues.

Due to the rougher sound characteristics, dynamic microphones with a cardioid pattern eliminate more background noise, at the cost of some nuances in detail. This makes them well-suited to podcast hosting, general voice recording, and recording voices outdoors for voiceover or interviews. They are also suitable for recording very loud items, such as drums, guns, and explosions.

Condenser Microphones

Condenser microphones are good for most studio applications, including voice acting. They produce a clarity of voice while giving it both warmth and presence.

Condenser microphones are also excellent for field recording. They are more sensitive than dynamic microphones and have a flatter response suited to capturing detailed audio.

Polar Patterns

Polar patterns illustrate how a microphone reacts to sounds coming from different directions. There are several polar pattern types, but our main focus for vocal microphones is on omni and cardioid polar patterns.

“Polar pattern omnidirectional” by Galak76 – self-made, Adobe Illustrator. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polar_pattern_omnidirectional.png#mediaviewer/File:Polar_pattern_omnidirectional.png

Omni

An omnidirectional microphone receives sound with equal sensitivity from all directions. This means that audio coming from the rear and to the sides of the microphone will be picked up with equal volume and clarity.

Characteristics

  • pick up of room reverberation
  • extended low-frequency response
  • lower cost

Applications

Omni microphones are good for recording situations where sound isolation is not needed or wanted. They are particularly useful for interviews and situations where more than one vocal needs to be recorded but sound isolation is not a factor.

Cardioid

Cardioid microphones are most sensitive at the front of the microphone, typically about 6dB less sensitive to the sides, and around 20dB less sensitive to the rear of the microphone.

Characteristics

  • less reverb pickup than omni
  • less room noise pickup than omni
  • minimizes off-axis pickup

Applications

Cardioid microphones are ideal vocal microphones for one-voice-one-microphone applications. Voice actors and show hosts benefit from off-axis pickup reduction focusing the sound on what matters most: the speaker’s voice.

The majority of studio-based professional audio requires unidirectional microphones (cardioid, hypercardioid, or supercardioid). Voice actors and podcast hosts (and vocalists!) are likely to find that microphones with a cardioid polar pattern will suit their needs best. Hypercardioid and supercardioid mics work well, too, depending on your voice and application. However, they tend to be more expensive and lack the warmth that a large-diaphragm cardioid delivers to more resonant male and female voices.

Simply put, frequency response show how a microphone affects the way your voice sounds. In general, when looking at a frequency response graph, you want the graph to be as flat at possible in the frequencies the microphone is being used to produce. In terms of voice, we are most concerned with the frequencies between 80Hz and 12kHz: the human vocal range.

In order to reduce low-frequency rumble and high-frequency hiss, microphones that roll off below 80Hz (high pass) and above 12kHz (low pass) are best suited for voice. This is especially helpful in cutting down on noise from vehicles and HVAC systems. However, this can also be accomplished by using an EQ high pass and low pass to filter out these frequencies.

Other Factors

Beyond the questions of condenser vs dynamic, polar pattern, and frequency response, here are some other factors to consider when researching and purchasing a microphone.

Impedance

Impedance is a measure of a microphone’s resistance. Higher resistance in a microphone introduces hum and reduces high frequencies, making the recording sound noisy, or thin. Low-impedance, or low-Z, microphones allow long mic cable runs without introducing noise or reducing frequencies.

Sound Pressure Levels (SPL)

Sound pressure levels indicate the maximum sound intensity a microphone can handle before distorting. In general, a spec of 120dB or greater is preferable. For podcasters miking loud instruments, such as brass or drums, microphones with a higher maximum SPL are best.

Equivalent Noise Level

Also known as self-noise, the equivalent noise level is the electrical noise or hiss a microphone produces. In general, a self-noise specification of 28dB and lower is acceptable for quality recording.

What’s Next?

All this information is meant to help you narrow down the type of microphone you’re looking for, but it still doesn’t fully narrow down your choices. We’ve helped you understand the fine print on the back of the box sure, but several microphones can share the same stats yet still sound completely different. How do you go about finding the right microphone from here? How do you avoid spending an exorbitant amount of money buying every flavor of microphone?

If you live in a major city, you’ll have a store such as B&H or even a recording studio near you, where the staff will typically have an array of equipment that they can help you get familiar with. The informationwe have given is meant to help you narrow down what you’re looking for, but the ultimate decision will depend on what you feel creates the best sound for your project. However, if you don’t live in range of a shop or studio, you may have a harder time testing the microphones before purchase. Luckily, we’ve done some experimenting ourselves, and came up with these great mics to help you get started.

Condenser Vs Dynamic: Mic Recommendations

Of course, we won’t leave you completely in the dark, so here are some great microphone options to help you get started.

Great Condenser Mics

MXL 990

  • Condenser
  • Cardioid
  • XLR
  • 30Hz – 20kHz
  • Best Used for Voice Acting And Podcasts

Accessories include a custom shock mount, mic stand adapter, and protective case.

Samson Satellite

  • Condenser
  • Swap between Cardioid, Omnidirectional, and Figure 8 Polar Pattern as needed
  • USB
  • 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Integrated Stand and Headphone Jack
  • Good for voice, interviews, online meetings, and podcasts

MOVO VSM-7

  • Condenser
  • Swap between Cardioid, Omnidirectional, and Figure 8 Polar Pattern as needed
  • XLR
  • 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Versatile Use, good for Voice and Instrument alike

Accessories include a XLR Cable, Shock Mount, and Pop Filter

Great Dynamic Mics

Samson Q2U

  • Dynamic
  • Cardioid polar Pattern
  • XLR and USB Compatible
  • 50Hz – 15kHz
  • Best used for Instruments, Vocals, and Podcasting

Accessories include a windscreen, mic stand, cables, and mic clip.

Samson Q9U

  • Dynamic
  • Cardioid Polar Pattern
  • XLR and USB Compatible
  • 50Hz – 20kHz
  • Integrated Handling and Pop filters
  • Good for Podcasts and Interviews

Accessories include a USB cable and a foam windscreen.

Presonus PD-70

  • Dynamic
  • Cardioid
  • XLR
  • 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Integrated Mount and Wind Screen
  • Best Used for Vocals and Voice Acting

Authors

  • Matthew is a writer with an obsession for "the right word", storytelling, and communicating big ideas in accessible ways. He's a fierce advocate for the written and spoken word, striving to inform and support the voices of other creators in his role as a Communication and Content Specialist. As a sound designer, Matt also crafts soundscapes and edits dialogue for audiobooks and fictional podcast productions. He has lived all over the United States and travels with his wife and son in search of craft beer and great stories.

  • Javert is a Sarah Lawrence graduate with a focus on the creative arts. He is most often contracted for writing, editing, and voice acting, but is also experienced with music and recording. When not working on a project, he often pursues his own blog articles or stories.