Why is a good podcast microphone important?
Why should you even care about getting a good microphone for your podcast?
1. We have stronger physiological responses to audio than video
Do you want your audience to innately feel something when they listen to your podcast?
As part of a study, researchers from University College London made participants watch and listen to several videos and audio books. The material that participants engaged with included short snippets from Pride and Prejudice and Game of Thrones.
The participants later reported that they found the videos to be more engaging than the audio books. However, their bodies reacted differently:
- Their average heart rate was higher when listening to the audio books by around two beats a minute.
- Their skin conductance was higher and their bodies’ warmer in temperature when listening to the audio books, compared to watching the videos.
Participants thus had stronger physiological responses from audio stories rather than videos.
If our bodies naturally react more to audio than video stimuli, shouldn’t you make sure that you are delivering great sounding audio?
The fundamentals of great sounding audio begin with crisp and clear recordings of you, your co-hosts and your guests speaking. That comes down to your microphone and podcast microphone set up.
2. Good audio quality is no longer the exception, but the norm
If you listen to the top podcasts on iTunes or Spotify, you will find that they have one thing in common - good audio quality. While you may argue that good audio quality with a great microphone is not the sole reason for their success, the fact that the most popular podcasts deliver superb-sounding audio inadvertently shifts the reference point of a good podcast.
Good audio quality has become a pre-requisite to running a great podcast.
3. Have your podcast taken seriously
If we assume that all the other things that make a podcast great are in place, great quality audio is going to give your show more legitimacy. Why?
Good quality audio not only makes you sound more professional, but also signals to your audience that you are serious and sincere about delivering a high quality podcast.
As you try to build up credibility in your genre of podcasting, good audio quality is a must.
It helps to show that you are dedicated to providing your audience with a pleasant auditory experience.
Can you use your iPhone as a podcast microphone?
Good quality audio is important, but what if you only have a phone lying around? Can you just use your phone as your podcast microphone?
If you want to test the waters to determine if you like podcasting before fully investing into a proper microphone, using your phone’s microphone to record your first few episodes could make sense.
However if you are serious about podcasting, we recommend that you eventually get a dedicated external microphone that has the proper hardware to record your podcast.
Now, how should you decide what external microphone is the best for you then?
Important points to consider when choosing a microphone
Essentially, different microphones have different features, making them great for different purposes. Thus you have to be clear on what your purpose and budget are, in order to figure out which microphone is the most suitable for you.
Here are some questions that you should ask yourself, to get started with understanding what type of microphone you will need:
Where are you recording?
- Are you going to be recording in a studio, your bedroom, your office, or in a public space?
- How noisy is it in the space that you plan to record in? Are you situated next to a busy road where you can hear cars or people go by?
- Will you have other roommates or family members in the same house as you when you are recording?
- Are you recording in one location, or will you be moving around frequently to different spaces to record?
What are you recording?
- Are you recording voices talking?
- Are you recording ambient noises for effect?
- Are you recording a live podcast?
Whom will you be recording with?
- Are you recording a solo cast?
- Are you recording with a co-host or guest(s) in the same room?
What is your aim?
- Are you planning on keeping your podcast style constant?
- Are you planning on bettering your gear after you have launched a few episodes of your “minimum viable podcast”?
- Are you planning on producing a narrated storytelling podcast?
- Are you planning on including live podcasts in the future?
- Is your podcast for a business?
What is your budget?
- What kind of budget do you have?
- $100 USD? $200 USD? $500 USD? $1000 USD and over?
We do need to stress though - you do not need to spend a lot o get a good microphone. However what you do require is to understand what you need out of your microphone and microphone set up. That will in turn inform what kind of microphone you should get.
When you are ready, you may continue to the next part of the article where we will delve into the basics of sound…
The basics of sound and microphones
What is sound?
Sound is a form of energy. It is produced when air molecules vibrate. When you clap your hands, you make the air molecules around your hand vibrate. These sound waves or air vibrations enter your ear and your brain processes them as sound that you hear. (Recall those dreaded physics classes you had as a child? They’re finally being put to good use!)
What do microphones do with sound?
Microphones convert sound waves (mechanical energy) into electrical energy. This electrical energy is also known as analog audio signals.
One key part of a microphone is the microphone diaphragm.
The microphone diaphragm is a thin membrane that vibrates when it gets struck by sound waves. When the diaphragm vibrates, the other components vibrate. The vibrations are then converted into an electrical current (the analog audio signal).
How is recorded sound sent to a computer?
In order for your computer to read the analog audio signal from your microphone, the analog signal must be converted a digital signal that your computer can understand. These digital signals are basically the 0s and 1s that every computer uses to store and understand data.
Cool! How is this done?
There are two usual methods to this:
1. Some microphones perform the analog-to-digital conversion
Some microphones are able to fully perform the analog-to-digital conversion. The microphone first records an analog audio signal, and then converts it to a digital signal with its built-in analog-to-digital (ADC) converter. The digital signal is directly sent from the microphone to the computer. In such cases, the microphone normally outputs the digital signal a USB connection (more about that later).
2. External devices can perform the analog-to-digital conversion
An audio interface is an external device that helps perform the analog-to-digital conversion. In such a set up, a microphone is typically connected to an external audio interface, and the audio interface is connected to a computer. The audio interface converts an analog signal to a digital signal, and sends the digital signal to the computer.
This external audio interface can either be a dedicated standalone audio interface, a USB mixer, or a mixer connected to an audio interface. We generally recommend a dedicated standalone audio interface for most podcasting purposes (more about this in our audio interface vs audio mixer article). In such cases, microphones normally output the analog signal via XLR or TRS connections (more about that later too).
What is your ideal microphone type?
Now that you have a basic understanding of how sound is recorded, let’s get your ideal microphone type.
Microphone type formula: Polar Pickup Pattern + Dynamic or Condenser + USB or XLR = Your Ideal Microphone Type
Your ideal microphone type is a combination of the polar pickup pattern, the category (dynamic or condenser) and the connection (USB or XLR).
In the following sections, we will explain what all of them mean to you and present our recommendations for each variable.
If you’d like to jump ahead, here are our recommendations on the types of microphones for various purposes:
- Recommendations – Polar pickup pattern
- Recommendations – Dynamic vs. condenser microphone
- Recommendations – USB vs. XLR microphone
(A) Polar pickup pattern
Ever seen this beast of a chart?
This is the polar response chart of a Shure SM7B.
Are you now thinking - “the chart looks complicated, technical and honestly probably something I don’t need to know about”?
We will show you why polar pickup patterns will be useful for you as a podcaster, and how easy it is to understand the polar response charts.
What is a polar pickup pattern?
A polar pickup pattern describes how much sound a microphone will pick up in each direction. Essentially, different microphones respond to sounds coming from various directions differently! Thus a polar pickup pattern helps you to understand how a particular microphone responds to sounds coming from different directions.
Microphones can have varying levels of sensitivity to sound coming from different directions. Sensitivity, is the amount of output for an input.
- When there is high sensitivity, there will be a strong output signal vis-à-vis the input signal.
- When there is low sensitivity, there will be a low output signal vis-à-vis the input signal.
Understanding polar pickup patterns will help you choose a microphone that picks up sound in the manner that you want.
- For instance, if you are going to be the only one talking directly into your microphone, you would want a microphone that picks up the most sound from the front of the microphone, not the back. This microphone would be the most sensitive to sounds coming from the front.
- If you are new to microphones, you would also want the microphone to give you a bit of leeway such that even if you don’t position the microphone 100% perfectly in front of you, or if you like to move around as you speak, you would still be able to hear your voice at a decent volume. This microphone would be quite sensitive to sounds coming from the front and area nearing the sides.
It is also good for you to bear in mind that all microphones also respond to differently to different frequencies.
What is a polar response chart?
Thankfully, there is an easier method to understand and visualize microphone’s pickup pattern.
Behold… A polar response chart!
A polar response chart is the standardized way of displaying a microphone’s directional characteristics, or the sensitivity of the microphone in different directions.
The following is the polar pattern of the Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB.
How do you read it?
Here are some tips on reading a polar response chart:
- The dark curved lines represent the sensitivity of the particular microphone when sound arrives from different directions
- Innermost circular ring represents low sensitivity
- Outermost circular ring represents high sensitivity
- Straight lines represent direction of incoming sound
- 0º - Straight into microphone diaphragm
- 270º and 90º - From the side of microphone diaphragm
- 80º - From the back of microphone diaphragm
- As seen in the legend, the different line styles (dots, dash etc.) represent the polar pattern for varying frequencies
Let’s do a quick read of the ATR2100x-USB microphone!
From the chart, we can tell that the ATR2100x-USB picks up the most sound when you speak directly into the microphone from the front, 0º on-axis, for all frequencies. It rejects sound from the back of the microphone, and to a lesser extent, from the sides. There is leeway when using the microphone, as there is relatively good pick up from 300º to 60º.
Type of polar pick up patterns
Let’s proceed to learn about the six main types of pickup patterns that you will encounter when searching for a microphone.
- Omni-directional microphones
- Directional microphones - Bi-directional (Figure 8)
- Directional microphones - Cardioid
- Directional microphones - Hyper-cardioid (Mini shotgun)
- Directional microphones - Super-cardioid
- Directional microphones - Lobar/Shotgun
1. Omni-directional microphones
Omni-directional microphones are designed to be equally sensitive to sound from all directions.
- They are good for picking up an overall room sound or groups.
- They are thus great if you are recording at a specific location and want to capture the background ambient noise for effect.
- They are not good for selective sound pickup or isolating certain sounds.
- If you use one single omni-directional microphone to capture the multiple people talking, you will not be able to isolate each voice during post-production and make isolated adjustments.
- If you are looking at capturing more than one voice, do not go for an omni-directional microphone. Opt for one directional microphone per speaker instead.
2. Directional microphones - Bi-directional (figure 8)
Directional microphones are in general more sensitive to sounds coming from specific directions.
What are they: Bi-directional microphones are designed to pick up sound from the front and the back of the microphone, and reject sound from the sides. This is also known as a Figure 8 pattern.
- They are good for Q&A style discussions, such as an in-person lecture where a lecturer asks the audience questions and accepts questions from them.
- These microphones are commonly used for musical instrument recordings.
- If you use a bi-directional microphone to capture the sound of two people talking, you will not be able to isolate each voice during post-production and make isolated adjustments.
- Even for interviews, stay away from bi-directional microphones. Use one microphone per speaker instead, such as a cardioid microphone.
3. Directional microphones - Cardioid
Cardioid microphones are designed to pick up sound from the front, and reject sound from back of the microphone.
- They are fantastic for podcasting, be it for a solo cast, pure interview, or mini group discussions where each person has their own microphone.
- The pickup pattern allows you to capture less unwanted noise and produce a cleaner recording.
- You also would not have to worry too much about positioning the microphone perfectly to capture your voice, given that there is some leeway for sound pickup even if you are not angled 0º at the front of the microphone.
- Additionally, cardioid microphones supposedly pick up less echo in rooms with a lot of echo. Here’s more information if you are interested.
- Do note that cardioid microphones can still pick up some background noise if the surrounding environment is relatively noisy.
4. Directional microphones - Hyper-cardioid (mini shotgun)
Hyper-cardioid microphones are designed to reject more sound from the side compared to a cardioid, and pick up slightly more sound from the back of the microphone. They are also known as “mini shotguns”.
- They are also great for podcasting.
- The pickup pattern minimizes unwanted sound capture.
- You also would not have to worry too much about positioning the microphone perfectly to capture your voice, as there is still some leeway for sound pickup even if you are not angled at 0º at the front of the microphone.
- Hyper-cardioids supposedly capture more echo than cardioid microphones. Thus consider going for a cardioid microphone instead if you will be recording in spaces that potentially have a lot of echo.
5. Directional microphones - Super-cardioid
Super-cardioid microphones are similar to hyper-cardioids, with a narrower pickup from the front.
- They deliver excellent audio quality for podcasting.
- You can stand farther away from the microphone and still get good sound quality.
- They are unforgiving if positioned incorrectly. You must position the microphone accurately, such that you speak straight into the front of the microphone, 0º on-axis.
- It may be difficult to start out with a microphone with this pickup pattern, as there is little room for error.
6. Directional microphones - Lobar/shotgun
Lobar microphones are the extremes of hyper-cardioid and super-cardioid microphones. They pick up most sound from the front, and reject sound from the sides. Although the lobar pattern illustrates multiple sensitive lobes, it is a uni-directional pattern with the greatest sensitivity 0º on-axis.
Lobar microphones also use interference tubes that use phase cancellation which help to reject more sound from the sides, narrowing the pickup pattern. Lobar microphones are also known as “shotgun microphones”.
- The best for focusing on specific sounds and blocking out unwanted ambient noises.
- They are often used in film and television, mounted on boom and camera poles.
- However, they require skilled operators to capture good sound, as the microphone must be directly pointed at the subject.
- There is little room for error. The pickup pattern is the least forgiving of them all.
Microphones with multiple pickup settings: multi-pattern microphones
Some microphones even have multiple polar pickup patterns, depending on what pattern you choose. For multi-pattern microphones, you can switch to your desired pickup pattern, which changes the areas surrounding the microphone that it picks up audio from.
Considering that you probably do not have a full team with a boom operator, a sound recordist and an audio engineer, we recommend the following:
- Only capturing speech, without background noise: Cardioid microphone
- Capturing speech together with background noise: Omni-directional microphone
- Multiple modes of recording (e.g. speech in a quiet room and background noise in a public setting): Multi-pattern microphone
Here are the links to our other recommendations on the types of microphones:
(B) Category - Dynamic vs. condenser
Next, we move on to another key distinction between microphones: dynamic microphones and condenser microphones.
Dynamic microphones and condenser microphones capture sounds differently.
One rejects background noises well, and the other does not.
So, should you go for a dynamic microphone or a condenser microphone?
A dynamic microphone has a wire coil that amplifies signals picked up by the microphone’s diaphragm. The output signal is much lower from a dynamic microphone compared to a condenser microphone.
- Dynamic microphones reject background noises very well.
- They are perfect you are going to record in a spaces where may be ambient or distracting noises, such as your bedroom or office.
- They are also great at capturing loud and strong sounds.
- A power source is not required.
- Not as sensitive to quiet, delicate or high-frequency sounds, compared to condenser microphones.
A condenser microphone has a lightweight diaphragm suspended by a plate, which moves when sound waves put pressure on the diaphragm. Condenser microphones require either a battery or phantom power (power supply) to work.
Phantom power is normally supplied by the audio mixer/audio interface. For instance, take a look at the Audient ID4 audio interface where there is a “+48V” button that powers a condenser microphone when it is connected.
- Condenser microphones capture delicate sounds and high frequencies very well.
- Good for use in quiet spaces such as studios.
- As they are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, they tend to capture more background noise.
- A power source is required.
- Recording in a noisy environment, and intending on reduce background noise: Dynamic microphone
- Capturing very delicate sounds, within a quiet setting: Condenser microphone
Here are the links to our other recommendations on the types of microphones:
(C) Connection – USB vs. XLR
The last technical detail that you need to look at is whether you want a microphone with a USB connection or an XLR connection.
The connection type can alter the quality of sound that you would get from a recording.
The connection type would also determine whether you would need another external device, to send the captured audio signals to your computer.
Should you get a USB microphone or an XLR microphone?
USB microphones are microphones with a USB connection output. USB microphones have a built-in analog-to-digital converter, converting analog sound waves to digital signals for your computer to process. This means that a dedicated separate device (an audio interface) is not required, as seen in the above section on how “Some microphones perform the analog-to-digital conversion.”
- USB microphones are plug-and-play, allowing you to easily plug the microphone into your computer and begin recording.
- A dedicated separate device (an audio interface) is not required.
- Given that a separate external audio interface is not required, they are also convenient to carry around, especially if you record in different locations often and have to travel with your gear.
- Great for if you are looking for the easiest and most hassle-free method to record your podcast.
- If you are budget-conscious, USB microphones could be a good option, as they are generally cheaper than XLR microphones.
- You can normally only record with one USB microphone connected to a computer at a time. They thus are not good for recording multiple participants on-premise.
Related article: Best USB Microphones to Buy in 2021 [Podcasting & Recording]
XLR microphones are microphones with an XLR connection output. XLR microphones are dedicated microphones that record analogue audio sounds. They do not have a built-in analogue-to-digital converter.
XLR microphones thus require a separate device called an audio interface, as seen in the above section on how “External devices can perform the analog-to-digital conversion.”
A 3-pin XLR connector, the most common for podcasting XLR microphones, carries balanced audio and is grounded. There is also a spring lock, ensuring that the XLR connector fits tightly into the plughole of the microphone. This reduces static to a minimum, and you would generally get less static compared to a USB microphone (assuming that everything else is the same).
- XLR microphones generally offer better sound quality than USB microphones, as the audio conversion is performed by a dedicated audio interface.
- Due to the nature of the connection type and the spring lock, you would also normally get less static compared to a USB microphone.
- Great for all types of recording. You can record both a solo cast and episodes with multiple participants recording on-premise. For the latter, you will need a multi-channel audio interface.
- You can host a live podcast and adjust your audio EQ on the fly, using an XLR microphone with an audio mixer and an audio interface.
- They are generally more expensive than USB microphones.
Related article: XLR Microphones: The Best Ones for Podcasters of All Levels
How about other types of connections?
Apart from USB and XLR connections, there are indeed other connections such as TRS and TRRS (such as the one found on the omni-directional Rode smartLav+).
So why aren’t we talking about TRS or TRRS connections in this article?
TRS and TRRS connections tap onto the analog-to-digital converter of your computer. This is something you generally want to avoid. Such connections will typically give you lower sound quality compared to using a USB microphone with a built-in analog-to-digital converter, or an XLR microphone paired with an audio interface.
Therefore, most microphones suitable for the majority of podcasts feature USB or XLR connections.
If you are starting out and may scale in the future:
Microphone with both USB and XLR connections + audio interface in the future. Our tried-and-tested favorites are the Audio-Technica ATR2100x and the Samson Q2U.
These two microphones are relatively affordable. They are perfect for you to grow into your podcasting career as you scale. With both a USB and XLR connection, you can use the same microphone should you upgrade from a USB setup to a XLR + audio interface setup. Sweet deal!
If budget is your concern: Microphone with both USB and XLR connections + audio interface in the future (optional)
The Audio Technica ATR2100x and the Samson Q2U retail for under $100 USD. Awesome!
If you want a microphone that gives you amazing audio quality:
XLR microphone + audio interface
If you mainly care about portability of the microphone:
If you are recording with multiple participants on-premise:
XLR microphone + multi-channel audio interface
If you are recording a live podcast:
XLR microphone + audio mixer (optional depending whether you want to adjust your EQ) + audio interface
Here are the links to our other recommendations on the types of microphones:
How do you use an external microphone for a remote podcast or a remote interview?
What if you want to record a remote podcast where your podcast participants are located in different locations? Can you use any microphone for that? How will the video podcast platform detect the microphone that you think best fits your purpose?
This depends on your video podcast platform.
And at Riverside, we get you.
We want you to be able to not only find the microphone that suits your purpose, but able to use it for all your podcasting purposes, including remote podcasts. That is why we have created our platform, which allows you to record remote podcasts with any microphone that is compatible with your computer.
The riverside.fm platform automatically uses the default microphone of your computer. You can also switch between microphones directly within the dashboard when you are recording. Thus you can easily use your external microphone if it is plugged in to your computer, even if it is not your default microphone.
Again, just make sure that your microphone or audio interface is compatible with your computer!
It is as simple as that!