Choosing a microphone and other podcasting hardware

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac, Second Edition, a $10 electronic book available for download from TidBits Publishing. The 118-page ebook explains everything you need to know about podcasting, from planning and assembling tools to recording, editing, and publishing your podcast.

The format for your podcast determines the technical setup of your studio. Some people want to record while mobile. Most people podcast in front of a single computer with a single microphone and mix in sounds from other applications, such as iTunes, Skype, and iChat. In this excerpt from Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac, we’ll focus on the hardware side of things.

Choose a microphone and supporting hardware

The only truly essential tools for podcasting are a computer and a microphone. A breakout box designed to provide external inputs of various kinds, including those used in more traditional audio, may be a helpful addition. Some podcasters find an external mixer useful for controlling multiple sound inputs as well. Let’s start with the mic, and then decide on a breakout box or mixer.

Pick a mic

For podcasting, two types of microphones are important: a directional mic, which records sound from one specific direction, and an omnidirectional mic, which picks up sound in all directions.

Directional: This kind of mic, sometimes called unidirectional, filters sound from all areas except for one primary direction. Directional mics are great for general speech because you can focus them on your voice and make many nearby sounds, including your computer’s fan, not as intrusive. But directional mics can be a liability: for example, in an interview, each subject or speaker would need his or her own directional mic. Also, directional microphones are generally more likely to distort wind noise, plosives, and sibilants.

Omnidirectional: An omnidirectional mic works well for recording ambient sounds outdoors, such as when you create a “soundseeing” tour. It’s also good for an interview if you have only a single mic. However, omnidirectional mics pick up surprising amounts of sound from all around, including room noise, computer fans, traffic, and chair squeaks.

Sennheiser e835 microphone

Pick a price: Microphone prices range from cheap to astoundingly expensive. The main difference, of course, is sound quality. Low-end mics pick up only the most basic sounds and provide adequate, but not great, sound. Higher-end mics capture a much wider spectrum of sounds. For my home studio, I used to use a simple headset mic that retailed for $12 and was perfectly happy with the sound. More recently, I bought a $120 Sennheiser e835 directional microphone, and I just love how much richer my voice sounds. Ultimately, you need to decide what sound you want for your podcast.

To learn more about choosing the right mic, read the excellent article What Microphone Do I Get? by Jeff Towne at Transom Tools. The article offers great detail about types and uses of different microphones.

If you can get a mic with a windscreen—a foam shield that covers the mic—that helps a great deal in preventing plosives or wind noise when used outside.

Tip: Some people swear by a windscreen variation made by stretching a piece of nylon pantyhose over a hoop in front of the mic. These can be made easily and are available commercially—they’re often called pop filters or popper stoppers.

The subjectivity of sound

“Great sound” is highly subjective. What one person hears as fantastic may sound terrible to another. Some people prefer the sound of vinyl LP albums to CDs. Other people think that Apple’s encoding of songs in the iTunes Store sounds great (I’m one of them), but others find it unacceptable and prefer CDs. (Of course, a CD itself is usually of lower quality than a master recording.)

When I write that something produces great sound, I mean most people would agree that it sounds good to them. Some people will never accept the quality of any compressed format. When I write that something sounds bad, I mean that I can identify certain characteristics that most people would agree reduce the sound quality. The audio may be noisy with hisses or strange high-pitched warbles, or it may have odd noises like loud pops or static. Great sound starts with audio that is free from these defects.

Once, in desperation, I employed the mic on my digital camcorder to interview someone in the same room. For my tastes, the audio quality was excellent, but it is possible that a professional would cringe at it. As always, you need to decide what level of quality you desire. Or, more to the point, you need to decide what your listeners will enjoy.

Ideas for choosing a mic

I had a tough time deciding on a mic for mobile podcasting. I got a great deal of help (and mics to try) from my friend Jim Van Verth, host of The Vintage Gamer who, along with his wife Mur Lafferty, does plenty of mobile podcasting. They both use iRiver portable recorders, but with very different mics. He uses the Giant Squid, and she uses a more professional mic that is double the price. He and I discussed the pros and cons of both at length in an episode of the companion podcast to this book, Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac: The Podcast. The podcast also includes clips of interviews he and Mur have conducted using both mics.

Meanwhile, TidBits publisher Adam Engst loves his Blue Snowflake Microphone, and says he gets great sound and it’s cute too.

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