Podcasts, mics, and you

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Reader Chris Eschweiler would like to go on the air. He writes:

I’m chomping at the bit, wanting to start a podcast. When I comes to mics, I’m leaning toward a USB headset mic for portability. In fact, I bought a Plantronics Audio 500, but it had a constant hum that I couldn’t seem to get rid of.

Should I change my plan and just get a good mic and a mixer, or are there any good USB headset mics you could recommend?

Good timing! Now that I’m hosting the Macworld Podcast I’m thinking long and hard about microphones. Because I haven’t tested loads of USB headset microphones, I’ll offer advice that’s a little more general and hope that the Great Commentors of the world will pipe in with more specific recommendations.

I’ve participated in a number of high-grade podcasts as well as have done a reasonable amount of audio work in other areas and I’ve found that it doesn’t pay to scrimp on the mic. This device (in addition to the device you use to transfer its sound to your computer) is your voice to the world. Record through a cheap mic and your podcast isn’t going to sound as good as it could.

There are some decent USB microphones out there—my colleague Dan Frakes looked at a couple of them recently. But there are so many more good microphones that you can plug into a USB audio interface that I think you’re unnecessarily limiting yourself by going with a USB mic.

I understand the desire for mobility. In such cases I might recommend you get a small MD or Flash recorder and a good handheld microphone and then transfer your recordings to your Mac when you come back to your studio. You could even get a 5G iPod or new iPod nano and record CD-quality audio to it with a compatible iPod microphone adapter such as XtremeMac's MicroMemo or Belkin's TuneTalk.

In podcasts where I dial in via Skype, the host and other panelists invariably remark on the quality of my voice. No, not because I have a luxurious baritone, but rather because I’m using a great microphone—an old AKG 414. I still have plenty of work to do on the sound of my voice, but any failings I have are due to my pipes and halting speech, not my gear.

Along with that microphone I use an Edirol UA-700 USB digital audio interface. There are loads of good USB interfaces out there from a variety of manufacturers. I chose this particular interface because I can use it with my music work—it includes MIDI in and out as well as built-in effects such as compression and de-essing to help clean up your voice as it goes into your computer.

This gear isn’t cheap—a new 414 runs around $1,000 and the UA-700, which I believe is now discontinued, cost around $600 list. You can go with far less expensive gear—a good condenser microphone can be had for under $200 as can a USB audio interface. If possible, visit a local music store that deals in professional audio gear and run through a selection of mics, jacked into your laptop (if you have one) and audion their sound. Find one that you think accurately reflects the quality of your voice. And if you expect to conduct interview in person, look for a microphone that offers omni-directional recording (meaning that it records out of the front and back of the mic—perfect for recording two voices at a table). Note that if you use a single mic, you need to be sure that all participating parties are speaking at about the same volume as you won’t be able to ride the gain on separate tracks.

The long and short of it? Buy decent gear and you’ve taken a good first step in ensuring that your podcast is listenable. After that, it’s only a matter of making the content as good as the gear.

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