Want to Start a Podcast? First, Choose the Right Microphone!
(Editor Note: This article was created by Steve to be included in my upcoming book "Novel Idea to Podcast: How to Sell Books Through Podcasting." I'd like to thank Steve for his time and for offering his expertise on such a deep & helpful level. Please see the credits at the end of this article for Steve's existing and upcoming body of work, which is quite impressive. For writers looking to learn more about podcasting, keep your eyes out for the book this fall. Be notified when it goes on sale by signing up for the newsletter.)
You don't need a degree in engineering to find a good mic for podcasting. What you need is a little research, a lot of patience and a firm budget. The problem most people encounter when they look for their first microphone is there's a lot of noise to sift through. By noise, I mean misinformation, dis-information, opinion, advertising disguised as advice and plenty of plain old internet stupidity. Let me clarify this statement for you: The best mic for podcasting is the one you can afford!
That said, we’ll look at some good choices depending on your budget. A realistic budget will streamline the rest of this process.
What should you expect to spend? Realistically, this could be anything from $50 to $3500, depending on your desired level of audio quality versus your level of comfort recording audio. We don’t have the luxury of exploring all of that here. We’re just going to skim through some good choices for microphones at various budget levels.
Set your budget first. This will help eliminate some poor choices. Plan to spend $100-$300 on your first set up- and if you can afford it, more. This is realistic, as you’ll soon see. A microphone is not the only thing you will need. Do you need headphones? A microphone stand? A pop screen? There are dozens of options to talk about. If you can afford to spend more, I'll mention a few other choices that can serve you well. I'm not going to go into “full review” on these choices. You can find plenty of detailed information on about each suggestion I'll offer. My goal is simply to suggest a few options for each level of budget.
There’s lots to consider but, first, a brief education:
Dynamic Mics: Dynamic mics typically sound more “focused” and “warm.” They’re a good choice for poorly treated spaces where “room sound” or background noise may be a problem. Podcasters love Dynamic mics! Marc Marron, Joe Rogan and countless others use Dynamic microphones.
Condenser Mics: Condenser Mics are more “open, clear,” or “natural.” They sound “brighter” and are more commonly used in professionally treated spaces. They are good for recording musical instruments, singing, narrating audiobooks, and can often be used for podcasting.
Pop screen & Shock Mount: A pop screen goes in front of your microphone. Condenser mics are more sensitive to plosives (popped P, B and other hard sounds.) Pop screens help prevent plosives. Shock Mounts prevent sound from traveling up the mic stand. A shock mount is often included with a mic but BE SURE TO CHECK BEFORE YOU BUY!
Don’t buy a microphone until you can answer these questions:
How will you record? Into a computer? A portable recorder? A tablet?
Where will the recording take place? Same place each time? Different places?
What is your podcast about? Will you have a co-host? Guests? Going solo? Multiple people at once?
XLR vs USB? (What does this mean? Why do I care?)
Why isn’t Amazon the best place to shop for microphones? (Don’t Panic-buy!)
If your head is about to explode, stay with me - we're going to going to get through this bit by bit.
If you will be the sole host of your podcast (most of the time) a USB Microphone and computer or tablet, may be all you need. A USB microphone plugs directly into your computer and should be automatically recognized. This is the least expensive option we'll explore.
Luckily, there are several great options here. USB mics are typically plug and play. You plug it in and your computer does the rest. (Most USB mics do not require a mic stand. Be sure to budget for a mic stand if you go with XLR mics.)
The Blue Yeti: One of the best-known USB mics out there at the moment. It's priced affordably, offers sturdy construction, works with Macs or Windows and is designed to sit on your desktop with no other accessories needed. It is a tri-capsule mic with a changeable polar pattern. This is important to learn about. The Yeti has a built-in shock mount and is even available in a myriad of colors like Teal! (If microphone color matters to you, stop here. You found your mic!) This a good mic to start with for most people with little or no recording experience.
The Blue Snowball: While not as "full featured" as its big brother, (the Yeti) the Blue Snowball is a condenser microphone designed to sit on your desktop, and costs about $50. I have heard many recordings made with these. It is absolutely fine for podcasting but may require a lot more effort to get the most from it. Recommended for people with some experience recording.
Apogee Mic +: At $249.00, the Apogee is not the low-price leader of this group, but this mic does offer many advantages for its price tag. It offers 24bit/96k quality - best in class recording quality for audiophiles and professionals. It can be used with Mac or Windows and is among the smallest mics available, making it a great choice for mobile use, travel or for recording from an iOS device like an iPhone or iPad. This mic is favored by professional voice actors and narrators who travel. May be overkill for newbies but great for experienced folks.
Rode NT-USB: With a street price at about $170, Rode's NT-USB offers a nice package including a pop screen, desktop stand, and mix monitoring. It can be used to record on iOS devices such as an iPad, making it well suited to minimalist studios. This mic is also suited to recording instruments so if you're looking for those options, this is a great choice for both experienced and inexperienced folks.
Rode Podcaster: The Rode Podcaster is one of just a few Dynamic USB microphones available. At $229, it’s almost at the top of the price line, too. While this mic has a generally good sound and could be a quick solution to a noisy environment, its reputation for longevity isn’t as good as I’d like to see. Before buying this mic, I’d recommend investigating XLR Dynamic mics.
AT2020 USB: At about $150, the Audio Technica AT2020USB is another stalwart of the podcasting realm. It's a solid mic for podcasters and includes a desktop stand. It does not include a pop screen and is limited to 16bit/48k maximum quality. Not a huge deal for podcasting but not a good choice if you plan to use the mic for anything else. This one is probably best for beginner and intermediate folks.
Can’t I get anything cheaper? Yes. Of course, you can. There are a few very inexpensive mics that could work for you. Just keep in mind; the risk with less expensive gear is, you will keep replacing it. That $50 microphone becomes a $150 microphone if you have to replace it 3 times in a year while the $150 microphone generally will give you many years of trouble free service. Ready to level up? Why choose XLR?
If you plan to work alone but would like the option to have guests or a co-host or maybe narrate your own audio book one day -or – if you already have some recording experience, an XLR system may be a good place to start.
You will need an interface and an XLR microphone – and most likely, a microphone stand, and microphone cable. XLR simply refers to the type of connector you need. XLR is a 3 pin connector system found on nearly all amateur and professional recording equipment in use today. The microphone connects to a cable. The cable connects to an interface and the interface connects to the computer (or recording device) typically by USB, or Thunderbolt connection.
Many interfaces allow for the connection of two or more microphones. Most also provide 48volt (phantom) power for microphones. While we won’t spend much time on this, I’ll just suggest that there are some excellent interfaces available for about $100 to $2000, depending on how many people you want to record at once. For the budget minded Mac owner, Focusrite is an excellent brand. For Windows systems, there are also many excellent choices including Focusrite, PreSonus and many others that all range from about $100 up. Maybe you already have some recording gear or an interface? XLR microphones will make much more sense for you.
Tools of the Trade
Microphones are like tools, like pliers or paint brushes. If you choose the right tool, you can paint an entire masterpiece. You could also paint the Mona Lisa with a set of pliers, but not without some kind of struggle. Certain tasks require certain tools. For our purpose, we’re looking for a microphone that compliments the human voice without introducing a lot of extraneous background noise and one that sounds good in a poorly treated acoustic environment. Anything else is a bonus.
Dynamic microphones are good choices for podcasters because they tend to sound good anywhere. The trade-off is, you have to be close to the mic and the mic has to have plenty of power (Gain) or volume.
Shure SM7B: At the top of my recommendations for a dynamic microphone is the broadcasting and podcasting stalwart, the SM7B. This mic has been around for decades and is found in radio, television, voice-over and podcasting studios throughout the world. It is not cheap at an average street price of $399. It also requires a significant amount of gain so, plan to purchase something called a Cloud Lifter to go with the mic. Now you’re at $550 and you still need an interface and mic stand!
Sennheiser 421 MD II: is another very good Dynamic mic with a lengthy history of utility in voice work. At about $379, again, not the low-price leader.
Electro Voice RE320: comes in with a price tag of $299 and could be a good Dynamic mic for podcasting. Though I have no personal experience this particular mic, its older brother, the EV RE20 was found in every single radio station I ever worked in back in the day, and the newer 320 version sports some refinements that make it good value for the money.
Shure SM57: Not a sexy mic by any stretch, but one of the most ubiquitous for certain. With a street price of about $150, this little Dynamic mic is worth considering. Feed it plenty of power and you’ll be fine. For this one, I strongly urge you to get a foam mic cover to help avoid plosives and excessive mouth noise. These foam covers come in many bright colors and can double as an impromptu clown nose when posing for publicity pics.
Shure Super 55: This is the classic “Elvis” mic. Perfect for podcasters concerned about their visual appeal. It’s cool, iconic “desk candy.” I bought one to be used as a photo prop. Like the other Shure products, it requires a lot of gain. This mic is not bad for podcasting. It just isn’t my first choice. At $250, I feel like you’d get better utility from some of the other choices. But hey, if Elvis, is your thing, man … go right ahead. If you want your podcasting space to look cool and retro, there’s no reason not to try this mic.
With good mic technique, Dynamic mics generally do not usually require the use of a pop screen, however, you may find you still want one. These can be purchased separately.
HOT TIP: Good mic technique can be learned regardless of the type of mic you choose. I also strongly encourage you to learn to edit your own podcasts! You’ll learn to be a better podcaster by becoming one of your own listeners!
Many Condenser mics offer “kits” where things like pop screens and shock mounts are included. Starting off with a kit is a great way to get all of the basics together in one package. Condenser Microphones are better for a more natural, brighter sound. The trade-off is that many condenser mics are more sensitive and prone to picking up background sounds and “room” noise.
Knowing how a mic will sound in YOUR environment is impossible to predict so, I strongly advise buying your first microphone from a reputable dealer with a liberal return policy. Some reputable internet retailers, like AmericanMusical.com have a 45 day return policy. Try a Dynamic, then a Condenser. See which one works best for you.
sE X1S: This is great entry level mic “kit” for people with a budget of about $229. The microphone is a large diaphragm condenser mic which sounds on most voices. The Vocal Bundle includes a shock mount and pop screen and mic cable - which is nearly everything you’ll need in one box. What’s more, this mic has a very directional polar pattern that rejects a lot of room and background noise, making it very desirable for most bedroom podcasters. It “acts” a lot like a Dynamic.
sE 2200: The next level up in the sE Electronics line is a very good choice for just $299. Though not as well-known in the U.S., this microphone has been adopted by the U.K. voice-over community as a great choice for those looking for the best in value for the money.
Rode NT1A: At $228, the Rode NT1A is a solid mic from a company with an excellent reputation and an amazing 10year warranty program. The kit includes the mic, shock mount, pop screen, dust cover and mic cable – making this my “best value” choice among condensers.
Rode NTG3 Shotgun Mic: Nearing the high end of the budget line at about $699, the Rode NTG3 is a shotgun mic which uses a Super Cardioid pick up pattern. For earthlings, this means it’s highly directional, making it good for certain environments or podcasts where video, outdoor or location recording plays a major role. While not for everyone, this or the even more expensive Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic are used in professional sound recording daily on movie sets, television studios, field recording and professional voice over. Having invested in both, I can say with certainty, they will serve you well for many many years.
German condenser microphones like the Neumann TLM 103, TLM 49 and fabled U87 are preferred by professional voice artists and start at about $1000 and go up. These are excellent mics but wildly over-qualified for podcasting. Since we’re getting up into the stratosphere of pricing …
Townsend Labs Sphere L22: Ok, lets face it, at $1500, this is insane for podcasting. So why am I even listing it? Well, oddly enough this microphone is actually about 30 microphones in one, including some of the Neumann’s mentioned above! It uses modeling technology to emulate some of the most sought after vintage and legendary microphones known to man. If money is no object, or you record musical instruments, vocalists, voice over, Foley work and other uses, this may be an option. I have been using one of these for a few months now and you’re going to have to rip mine from my cold, dead hands to take it away from me!
Opinions Are Like ...
People get passionate about microphones. I’ve seen grown men reduced to tears over the battles that can ensure over the question “Which mic is best?” You will encounter this passion at some point in your podcasting career. Do yourself a favor. Steer clear! Please keep in mind that almost every microphone ever made is capable of recording something. Don’t get too worked up about microphones. They’re just a means to an end.
Now, before anyone starts lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks to come after me, remember this is merely a digest of suggestions, a road map, not a finite list. You will find hundreds of microphone choices at various price points that are capable of being used for podcasting - and many may be excellent choices. What I’ve provided should give you a basic starting point and something to compare your considerations against. Remember to budget first to help narrow down your choices!
Amazon is an authorized retailer for some brands of microphones, like Sennheiser. However, they are not authorized for every brand, nor are they the actual seller in many cases. If buying from Amazon, be sure you are buying from a reputable, authorized dealer! I cannot stress this enough. Just because you can buy it on Amazon, doesn’t mean it’s a good buy. Don’t panic buy. Take your time, investigate your options and you’ll probably be happy with your purchase.
HOT TIP #2: Now a final word about desktop mic stands: Many podcasters prefer this kind of spring loaded bendable arm that can be mounted to a desk. This kind of mic stand has an inherent issue: it transfers sound from the desk into the microphone. So, if you bang on the desktop, it will sound like you just dropped a seven ton dumpster on your mic. You MUST use a shock mount system with this kind of mic stand. I recommend the Rode PSA1 arm but you need to be sure your mic has a shock mount.
There are literally hundreds of choices. Many can work well for you. However, if you have doubts, you should rely on the assistance of others. Trusted people you know who have successful podcasts, have extensive audio experience and/or work in the recording industry. Sweetwater Music is an excellent source of information with reputable salespeople who actively educate themselves on products for podcasting. I get no kind of compensation or recognition from them. I have just had good personal experiences and I would like to have the same thing happen for you.
Finally, you can email me or check out my website, where you’ll find gear reviews and personal experiences with podcasts and recording gear and you can follow some of the various shows that I’m involved with. I wish you great success in your podcasting journey!