Podcasting Part 2: Microphones

My advice about how to select a microphone when starting a podcast, and what I use.

This is the second in a periodic series of posts about podcasting. Read part 1: Why I podcast.

The following are my opinions based on my experiences. I am not an audio expert, just a guy whose been podcasting a while sharing my experiences on how to do it without it breaking your budget. If you want to hear microphone advice from professionals, there are many videos on YouTube from professionals. Just keep in mind that someone who makes their living in broadcasting or voiceover work has different needs than a casual podcaster.

So you want to do a podcast. The first thing that you will need is a microphone. Going with a cheap microphone, like the microphone in your apple earbuds or the built-in microphone in your computer will result in bad sound. If you listen to some of my earlier episodes, you can find some examples of this–“tinny” or garbled audio.

You might be tempted to go out and buy a $500 microphone to get the best sound quality that you can.

However, I would avoid the temptation to go out and buy an expensive microphone when you get started. While a very cheap microphone will give you bad sound, a $300 microphone won’t necessarily make you sound better than a $75 microphone. Getting started, you don’t know what you are doing, so I recommend that you look for a microphone in the $50-$100 range. Then optimize the sound quality of the microphone by learning how it works–learn the settings, watch videos on Youtube. Make sure you are using it in the right mode and have it optimally positioned.

Diminishing returns: while a terrible microphone will lose you listeners, but a great microphone will not get you more listeners than a good microphone.

Rule of thumb: beyond a minimally acceptable level of sound quality, content is more important than your microphone. People will listen to an ok sounding podcast with good content delivered in a non-boring manner. People will not listen to a great sounding podcast that is boring.

Maximize your microphone

When you get started in podcasting, buy a microphone in the $50-$100 range and learn its settings and how to optimize them. And remember that the microphone is only part of the sound quality equation. The room you are in can make a good microphone sound bad, or make a mediocre microphone sound better. When I bought my first microphone, the sound quality was bad, but I found that the noise was related to the white noise machine in the room, not the microphone. I’ve also at times had buzzing/humming in my audio that was not related to the microphone. This can happen if you have noise in your electrical line or “ground loops.” Ensuring that you have enough battery charge in your computer so you can record without plugging in, or using a hum eliminator like Ebtech Hum X Voltage Hum Filter can help.

Content > sound quality

Beyond the minimally acceptable level of sound quality, content is more important than your microphone. People will listen to an ok sounding podcast with good content delivered in a non-boring manner. People will not listen to a great sounding podcast that is boring. Buy a microphone in the $50-$100 range and learn its settings and how to optimize them. Once you are a successful podcaster delivering quality content, then upgrade your equipment.

Use the right microphone for the job

It’s also important to get a microphone that works well for the setting that you will be recording. Are you the only person on your podcast? Will you have multiple people in the same room? Will you record at different locations, like conferences? You may need more than one microphone.

Microphone Pickup Patterns

As you plan your podcast recording setup, you need to understand basic microphone pickup patterns–this means in what direction the microphone will pick up the sound. Note that there are more than just two, but these are the primary two that you will find in inexpensive podcast grade microphones. Also, many microphones will support multiple settings–it’s important that you understand how to change these settings and know which setting to use, depending on your recording scenario

Cardioid

Cardioid microphones record sound in one direction. This means that if you are recording audio by yourself, cardioid is usually the best setting. Cardioid is also good when you have a noisier setting, as it will block the sound coming from behind the microphone.

Omni Directional (or omni)

When your microphone is set to omni pickup pattern, it will record sound from all directions. This can be good if you have more than one person sitting around a table, and you want to record the full 360-degree sound.  A good example of this type of podcast is Matthew C. Anderson’s Gameshelf podcast.

So while omni pattern can be best for recording multiple person scenarios, it isn’t always. If you are recording in a noisier room, such as in a coffee shop, omni pattern will pick up more background noise than cardioid setting. In those cases, you may get better sound using cardioid and sit on the same side of the table.

USB or not USB

Another decision point is whether or not to use a USB microphone. If you are recording a podcast where you will be the only person talking, or you are recording a podcast with other people, but they are not in the same room with you, a USB microphone will be the easiest type of microphone to use.

In some scenarios, you may want to consider a microphone with a traditional XLR connector. One of the main reasons you might want to do this is if you are recording multiple people in the same room and you want to have each have high levels of sound quality. With USB, you can’t easily record two or more microphones on the same computer. With XLR, you can run multiple microphones into a mixer, and then connect the mixer to your computer via USB and have more granular control over recording levels for each microphone.

This is what I do when I record the If You’re Like Me Podcast with Rome Maynard. Rome has a deeper voice than I do, so if we record via the same microphone in an omni setting, it is very difficult to get consistent sound levels for both of us. With separate cardioid microphones and a mixer, I have more granular control and can get optimal volume settings for each voice.

But in other podcasts like CRM Audio, I am the only one in the room, and I’m talking to people in other parts of the world. For this scenario, USB is much more convenient to set up, and using a mixer when you are the only person talking is overkill.

So if you will be doing a variety of podcast scenarios, you may need more than one type of microphone.

What I use

As I mentioned above, I do multiple podcasts, some with people in the same room and some with people remotely, and sometimes the people who are normally remote will be in the same room with me. The following are the microphones that I use in various scenarios.

One person in the room

If I’m the only person in the room, I use a USB microphone in cardioid pickup mode. My go-to USB microphone is Blue Snowball USB Microphone. At under $70, it is within my target of $50-$100.  There is also a less expensive version called the Blue Snowball iCE — be aware that this version only works in cardioid, while the Snowball offers more pickup pattern options.

Things I like about the Snowball:

  • Inexpensive
  • Decent sound quality
  • Can pivot/tip to optimally position
  • It looks like a cool Sci-Fi pod

Things I dislike about the Snowball:

  • Depending on your table/desk, it may be too low–adding a microphone stand or arm will help so you don’t have to hunch over.
  • For optimal sound, you should be fairly close to the microphone.
  • The standard snowball stand is sensitive to desk vibration–if you are typing or searching Google for answers during your podcast, the thumping of the keys may be audible. using a separate mic stand or arm not connected to your desk will help.

You may also want to consider the snowball’s big brother Blue Yeti USB Microphone. The Yeti supports more recording patterns, has a knob to control gain, and you can plug headphones into it for real-time monitoring.

Multiple people in the same room

If I have multiple people in the same room, I use two BEHRINGER C-1 cardioid condenser microphones. I connect them via XLR cables to a Alesis MultiMix 4 USB Four-Channel USB Mixer, which connects to my computer via USB.

You will need to have a stand or suspension arm for your microphones. For that, I use the Neweer Mic Microphone Suspension Boom Scissor Arm Stand Holder.

So you can have a halfway decent multiple microphone studio setup for around $150.

Multiple people in different locations

When I record CRM Audio, I’m usually in South Carolina, Shawn Tabor is in Tampa, and George Doubinski is in Sydney, Australia. This presents challenges, like trying to find a time of day that works for everybody and trying to record all participants.

The first thing we tried was Skype. Skype does not offer native recording options, but there are third party tools like Call Recorder that can be used to record Skype conversations. Ultimately, these solutions were unsatisfactory, as the audio quality was inconsistent, and typically the person recording the sound was better sounding than the remote participants.

We moved to Zencastr, a great online service that makes recording with people in multiple locations as simple as possible. Users don’t need to install anything on their computers–just open a link in Chrome or Firefox. Zencastr records each participant’s audio on their local computer, then when done, the separate feeds are uploaded to Dropbox. This allows me to edit each individual audio track and accommodate for differences in recording quality and makes the podcast sound like all participants are in the same room. Zencastr can also do a postproduction merge of the audio files to create a single combined audio file.

Zencastr is a freemium service. Start with the free version, which gives you up to 8 hours of recording time and two guests per month. Move up to the professional version if you need more guests or recording time, want to record WAV format, or want to use the postproduction services.

On the road

If you travel (as I do), you may find yourself in situations where you want to podcast, but it isn’t practical to lug your normal microphones along with you. Say you are at a conference and you have a chance to interview some VIP in your industry that you would not otherwise have the opportunity to talk to. Like with cameras, the best microphone is usually the one you have.

I’ve found that the iPhone 7 has a remarkably good microphone for its size, and I have recorded entire podcast episodes using just my phone. While not quite as good as my normal microphones, the iPhone microphone works well for interview and “man on the street” type scenarios.

If you are going to record podcasts with your phone, you will want something better than the standard voice recorder app. My recommendation is Twisted Wave, a surprisingly full-featured audio recording and editing app. The standard voice recorder app records low-quality mono, which can sound like a recorded telephone conversation. Twisted Wave allows you to control the sampling frequency, going up to 96 000 Hz stereo. Twisted Wave also provides audio editing functionality–I’ve edited a complete episode of a podcast on my phone during a flight using the app.

I also have the Blue Mikey , which is a microphone that connects to an iPhone or iPad lightning connector. It works well, but in many scenarios, I find the standard iPhone microphone produces better sounding results. I recommend doing a test in the room in which you are recording, listen to both through a good set of headphones, and go with which sounds better for the room in which you are located. If you are outside or in a windy situation, the Blue Mikey gives you options to use a windscreen.

One nice thing about the Blue Mikey is it gives you a standard 3.5 mm audio input for your phone, so if you want to capture audio from another source, like a YouTube video or a musical instrument, it gives you an option to capture those audio sources on your phone.

Wrapping it up

When you are starting to podcast, microphone selection is very important, but it can be easy to spend more than you need to, or get something that is not optimal for your recording scenario. The following are my recommendations:

  • Buy a good quality, inexpensive microphone and optimize it.
  • Use a good set of headphones to monitor your microphone. I love the Behringer HPS3000 Studio Headphones. They are well made, sound fantastic, and you cannot find a better set of headphones for under $20.
  • Consider your recording scenario. No one microphone will be good for all scenarios. If it is just you or you are connecting with friends via Zencastr, a standard USB microphone will work. If you are regularly talking to people in the same room, consider a multiple microphone setup.
  • For most people, a pop filter is a good idea. Something like the Dragonpad USA Pop filter will help avoid your plosives from popping out listener’s eardrums.

How I stopped procrastinating

Earlier in my life I had a big problem with procrastination–putting off doing things that I needed to do. I think I mainly did this because I was anxious about actually doing the thing, or I felt I would not do a good job, which prevented me from getting started or finishing.

In the latest episode of the ProdCast personal productivity podcast, I discuss how I broke the procrastination habit.

Listen to ProdCast episode 4: Procrastination.

Episode #55: Alabama House of Turkey, Russell Johnson, and Skunks

It’s been a while since I’ve caught up with Rome Maynard, due to sickness, travel, and birthday parties. We have a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from identification of wildlife in National Parks, Attack of the crab monster, and executioners.

Source: Episode #55: Alabama House of Turkey, Russell Johnson, and Skunks

Be more productive

Over at CRM Audio, we launched a new podcast series with Matthew C. Anderson. Matthew is one of my colleagues and probably the most productive person I know.

I am fascinated by finding ways to be more effective at what I do and take control over the things like e-mails and meetings that can sometimes fill up my time and get in the way of being effective. There are some good resources out there about productivity, but there is also a lot of hype and many “productivity” tools that don’t really make you more productive.

I’m looking forward to these episodes with Matthew. ProdCast will be released every other Wednesday.

ProdCast is available from the following sources:

Or if you subscribe to CRM Audio, you will receive ProdCast episodes along with the other podcasts on the CRM Audio Network.


 

 

 

 

Podcasting Part 1: Why I Podcast

I have been a fan of podcasts since I heard my first podcast in 2004. This was prior to iTunes adding podcast support and unlimited data plans, and finding and subscribing to podcasts was a much more cumbersome process. You had to download a podcatcher app, find the RSS feed for a podcast, add the RSS feed to the podcatcher, then add the downloaded files to your music application or MP3 player. Back in those days, podcasting was more of a niche/geek medium.

What attracted me to podcasts was the sheer variety of podcasts, and how virtually anyone with a microphone could podcast. They provided an amazing variety of content compared to the stale world of local radio.

In the subsequent decade, podcasting has become much more mainstream, with many of the top podcasts lists comprised of recordings of professional radio broadcasts. Yet it remains a medium with a low barrier to entry, allowing anyone with an idea to create a podcast and be listed in the same venue as popular podcasts like This American Life.

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But my love of audio broadcasting goes back further than 2004. I grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota. When we had a television, we only got three television stations, two of which were CBS. When the president or Billy Graham were speaking, they were the only thing on. When I was in second grade, our television broke, and my parents didn’t replace it.

This meant that my entertainment medium was radio. I spent many nights when I was supposed to be sleeping listing to my radio, navigating around the AM band. In the midwest where everything is flat, during certain times of the year, you can pick up AM radio stations from across the country. I heard many broadcasts of CBS Radio Mystery Theater (which is pretty scary if you listen when the lights are turned off during a thunder storm), I heard weird late night call-in talk shows from Denver and WLS in Chicago. When my friends were watching He Man and the Masters of the Universe, i was listening to Paul Harvey The Rest of the Story.

I had dreams of working in radio when I grew up, and I studied radio broadcasting in college. When I found out more about the reality of how modern radio industry works, reality took over, and my career took me into sales and then software consulting.

Fast forward to 2015, some friends asked me how to start a podcast. While I theoretically knew that podcasts were audio or video filed distributed via RSS feeds, I didn’t know the specific steps to take a recorded file to a feed that could be downloaded in one of the common podcast apps. And I also found most of the guides out there explaining how to podcast to be incomplete or overly technical.

So I decided to learn how podcasts work by creating one myself.

In this series of posts, I will detail my podcast journey, including how I podcast, equipment you need (and don’t need), podcast production tips, getting listed on leading podcast applications and directories, and how to avoid mistakes that I have made.