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Choosing a Podcast Microphone

Choosing a Podcast Microphone

What type of podcast microphone should you get?

Confused about what podcast microphone you should get for your podcast?

We understand that it can be hard to discover the best podcast microphone for you.  We know it’s a challenge with the technicalities of microphones and the barrage of advice out there. Don’t worry!

We will take you through all you need to know about choosing a microphone type for your beloved podcast.

PS - If you are pressed for time or already know your stuff, here are the links to our recommendations on the types of microphones you should go for: 

How can this article help you? 

  • This article will help you save money by not buying the wrong microphone for your podcast. 
  • You can save time, knowing that you will only have to read this article to figure out what type of microphone you need.
  • You will learn how to quickly decipher complex-looking graphs (e.g., polar response charts) so that you can make an informed decision on choosing the best podcast mic. 
  • Be confident that you have chosen the correct type of microphone suited for your purpose and podcast.
  • Most importantly, you will sound super cool when talking about your podcast microphone set up!

What are you waiting for? Read on to get started!

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 listening to your podcast?

As part of a study, researchers from University College London made participants watch and listen to several videos and audiobooks. The results showed that participants had stronger physiological responses from audio stories rather than videos. Their heart rate was higher and their bodies were warmer when listening to the audiobooks compared to watching the videos.

If our bodies react more to audio than video stimuli, shouldn’t you make sure that you deliver 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 choosing the best recording microphone set up for your podcast.

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 prerequisite to running a great podcast.

3. Have your podcast been taken seriously

If we assume that all the other things that make a podcast great are in place, excellent quality audio will 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 podcasting genre, 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 essential, but we know podcast equipment can be expensive. So, what if you only have a phone lying around? Can you just use your phone as your podcast microphone instead?

It depends…

If you want to test the waters to determine if you like podcasting before entirely investing in 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 with the proper hardware to record your podcast.

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 various purposes. Thus, you have to be clear on your purpose and budget 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 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 or streaming 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? $200? $500? $1000 and over?

We do need to stress, though - you do not need to spend a lot to get a good microphone. However, what you do require is to understand what you need from 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. When you clap your hands, you make the air molecules vibrate around your hand. These sound waves or air vibrations enter your ear, and your brain processes them as sound. (Recall those dreaded physics classes you had as a child? They’re finally 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

Sound waves going through a microphone transducer to become microphone output signal
Source: mynewmicrophone.com

One essential part of a microphone is the microphone diaphragm

The microphone diaphragm is a thin membrane that vibrates when 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?

For your computer to read the analog audio signal from your microphone, you must convert the analog signal to a digital signal that your computer can understand. These digital signals are the 0s and 1s that every computer uses to store and understand data.

Analog sound signal converting to digital signal

Cool! How is this done?

There are two usual methods to this:

1. Some microphones perform the analog-to-digital conversion

Some microphones can 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. The microphone normally outputs the digital signal with a USB connection.

USB Blue Yeti microphone turning analog signals to readable digital signals a laptop is recieving.
Source: Blue Mic

2. External devices can perform the analog-to-digital conversion

An audio interface is an external device that helps perform analog-to-digital conversion. A microphone is typically connected to an external audio interface in such a setup, 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 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 typically output the analog signal via XLR or TRS connections (more about that later too).

The samson Q2U microphone sending analog signals to the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio mixer which converts the sounds to digital signals for the laptop to read.
Source: Samson; Focusrite; Apple

What is your ideal microphone type?

Now that you have a basic understanding of recording sound, 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 combines the polar pickup pattern, the category (dynamic mic or condenser mic), and the connection (USB or XLR).

In the following sections, we will explain what they 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:

(A) Polar pickup pattern

Ever seen this beast of a chart?

The polar pickp pattern of the Shure SM7B.
Source: Shure

This is the polar response chart of a Shure SM7B, one of the most popular podcast mics.

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 helpful 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 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.

  • There will be a strong output signal vis-à-vis the input sign with high sensitivity.
  • There will be a low output signal vis-à-vis the input signal when there is low sensitivity.

Understanding polar pickup patterns will help you choose a microphone that picks up sound in the manner you want. 

  • For instance, if you will 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 sensitive to sounds coming from the front and area near the sides.

It is also good to remember that all microphones also have different frequency responses.

What is a polar response chart?

Thankfully, there is a more straightforward method to understand and visualize the microphone's pickup pattern.

Behold… A polar response chart!

A polar response chart is a standardized way of displaying a microphone’s directional characteristics or sensitivity in different directions.

The following is the polar pattern of the Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB.

The polar pattern of the Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB microphone.
Source: Audio Technica

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
  • The innermost circular ring represents low sensitivity
  • The outermost circular ring represents high sensitivity
  • Straight lines represent the direction of incoming sound
  • 0º - Straight into a microphone diaphragm
  • 270º and 90º - From the side of the microphone diaphragm
  • 80º - From the back of the 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 a relatively good pick up from 300º to 60º.

Type of polar pickup patterns

Let’s proceed to learn about the six main types of pickup patterns that you will encounter when searching for a microphone.

  1. Omni-directional microphones
  2. Directional microphones - Bi-directional (Figure 8)
  3. Directional microphones - Cardioid
  4. Directional microphones - Hyper-cardioid (Mini shotgun)
  5. Directional microphones - Super-cardioid
  6. Directional microphones - Lobar/Shotgun

1. Omni-directional microphones

Omni-directional microphones are designed to be equally sensitive to sound from all directions.

The Polar pickup pattern of an omni-directional microphone.
Polar response chart

Pros:

  • They are suitable 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.

Cons:

  • They are not suitable for selective sound pickup or isolating certain sounds.
  • If you use one omnidirectional microphone to capture the multiple people talking, you will not isolate each voice during post-production and make isolated adjustments.
  • If you capture more than one voice, do not go for an omnidirectional microphone. Opt for a one-directional microphone per speaker instead.

Examples: Blue Snowball, Rode smartLav+,Movo HM-M2

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.

A bi-directional figure 8 polar pattern chart.
Polar response chart

Pros

  • They are suitable for Q&A-style discussions, such as an in-person lecture where a lecturer asks the audience questions and accepts them.
  • These microphones are commonly used for musical instrument recordings. 

Cons:

  • If you use a bi-directional microphone to capture the sound of two people talking, you will not 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.

Examples: Blue Yeti & Warm Audio WA-47jr

3. Directional microphones - Cardioid

Cardioid microphones are designed to pick up sound from the front and reject sound from the back of the microphone.

Polar response chart of a cardioid directional microphone.
Polar response chart

Pros :

  • They are fantastic for podcasting, be it for a solo cast, pure interview, or mini-group discussions where each person has their 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 many echoes. Here’s more information on mics for rooms with an echo, if you are interested.

Con:

  • Note that cardioid microphones can still make background noise if the surrounding environment is relatively noisy.

Examples: Audio-Technica AT2020, Rode PodMic, Shure SM7B

4. Directional microphones - Hyper-cardioid (mini shotgun)

Hyper-cardioid microphones are designed to reject more sound from the side than a cardioid and pick up slightly more sound from the back of the microphone. They are also known as “mini shotguns.”

Polar response chart of a hyper cardioid directional microphone.
Polar response chart

Pros

  • 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.

Con:

  • 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 echoes.

Examples: Audio-Technica AT4053b, Neumann KM185, Audix D4

5. Directional microphones - Super-cardioid

Super-cardioid microphones are similar to hyper-cardioids, with a narrower pickup from the front.

A polar chart of a super cardioid directional microphone.
Polar response chart

Pros:

  • They deliver excellent audio quality for podcasting.
  • You can stand farther away from the microphone and still get good sound quality.

Cons:

  • 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 challenging to start with a microphone with this pickup pattern, as there is little room for error.

Examples: Shure BETA® 58A, Sennheiser e 845, AKG D5

6. Directional microphones - Lobar/shotgun

Lobar microphones are the extremes of hyper-cardioid and super-cardioid microphones. They pick up the most sound from the front and reject sound from the sides. Although the lobar pattern illustrates multiple sensitive lobes, it is a unidirectional 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.”

Polar chart of a lobar or shotgun directional microphone.
Polar response chart

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • However, they require skilled operators to capture good sound, as you must directly point the microphone at the subject.
  • There is little room for error. The pickup pattern is the least forgiving of them all.

Examples: Rode NTG-2, Audio-Technica AT897, Sennheiser MKH 60

Microphones with multiple pickup settings: multi-pattern microphones

Some microphones even have multiple polar pickup patterns, depending on what pattern you choose. You can switch to your desired pickup pattern for multi-pattern microphones, which changes the areas surrounding the microphone that it picks up audio from.

Examples: Blue Yeti, HyperX QuadCast, Shure KSM

Our recommendation

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 critical 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?

Dynamic microphones

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.

Pros

  • Dynamic microphones reject background noises very well
  • They are perfect if you will record in spaces where there 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.

Con:

  • Not as sensitive to quiet, delicate, or high-frequency sounds as condenser microphones.

Examples: Audio-Technica ATR2100x, Samson Q2U, Rode Procaster

Condenser microphones

A condenser microphone has a lightweight diaphragm suspended by a plate, which moves when sound waves pressure the diaphragm. Condenser microphones require either a battery or phantom power (power supply) to work. 

The audio mixer/audio interface usually supplies phantom power. For instance, take a look at the Audient ID4 audio interface where a “+48V” button powers a condenser microphone when connected.

The Audient ID4 audio interface with +48V microphone power supply

Pros

  • Condenser microphones capture delicate sounds and high frequencies very well.
  • Suitable for use in quiet spaces such as studios.

Cons:

  • They are more sensitive than dynamic microphones, and they tend to capture more background noise.
  • A power source is required.

Examples: Blue Snowball, Audio-Technica AT2035PK, Neumann TLM102

Our recommendation

  • Recording in a noisy environment, and intending on reducing 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 mics vs. XLR mics

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

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 separate dedicated device (an audio interface) is not required, as seen in the above section on how “Some microphones perform the analog-to-digital conversion.

Pros:

  • USB microphones are plug-and-play, allowing you to plug the microphone into your computer and begin recording quickly.
  • A separate dedicated device (an audio interface) is not required.
  • Given that a separate external audio interface is not required, they are also convenient to carry around, mainly if you often record in different locations and travel with your gear.
  • Great if you are looking for the easiest and most hassle-free method to record your podcast.
  • USB microphones could be a good option if you are budget-conscious, as they are generally cheaper than XLR microphones. 

Con:

  • You can normally only record with one USB microphone connected to a computer at a time. They thus are not suitable for recording multiple participants on-premise.

Examples: Blue Yeti, Samson Go, Rode Podcaster, Rode NT-USB

Related article: Best USB Microphones to Buy in 2021 [Podcasting & Recording]

XLR microphones

XLR microphones are microphones with an XLR connection output. XLR microphones are dedicated microphones that record analog audio sounds. They do not have a built-in analog-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 than a USB microphone (assuming that everything else is the same).

Three pin XLR connector cable for XLR microphones

Pros:

  • XLR microphones generally offer better sound quality than USB microphones, as a dedicated audio interface performs the audio conversion.
  • Due to the nature of the connection type and the spring lock, you would usually get less static than 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. This makes XLR mics ideal as live streaming microphones.

Con:

  • They are generally more expensive than USB microphones.

Examples: Audio-Technica ATR2100x (also has a USB connection), Samson Q2U, Shure SM7B

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 omnidirectional Rode smartLav+).

TRRS (Tip Ring Ring Sleeve) Microphone cable with descriptions on the rings, tip and sleeve.
Source: Customcableconnection.com

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 than 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 most podcasts feature USB or XLR connections.

Our recommendation

If you are starting 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 and perfect for growing into your podcasting career. With both a USB and XLR connection, you can use the same microphone should you upgrade from a USB setup to an 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. Awesome!

If you want a microphone that gives you outstanding audio quality:

XLR microphone + audio interface 

If you mainly care about the portability of the microphone:

USB microphone

If you are recording with multiple participants on-premise:

XLR microphone + multi-channel audio interface

If you are recording a live podcast and need an excellent streaming microphone:

XLR microphone + audio mixer (optional depending on 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 you think best fits your purpose?

This depends on your video podcast software.

And at Riverside, we get you.

We want you to be able to not only find the microphone that suits your purpose but be 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 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 recording. Thus you can easily use your external microphone if it is plugged into 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! You can even do a podcast microphone test to check everything is working.

It is as simple as that! 

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