First impressions are very important! Content is king… but presentation is definitely queen! First impressions are important. If someone takes the time to tune in to your show, you’ve already done the hard the hard part—you’ve hooked them, you’ve attracted their interest. Far too often, my first impression is, “What were they thinking?!” Knowledge is power: It’s not about having the greatest equipment–though that helps–it’s about being smart, and making the most of what you have. Don’t be “that guy”!
This episode features an overview of microphone mechanics, including a comparison of condenser and dynamic microphones and pickup patterns, microphone techniques for getting the best sound, a review of secret budget-conscious podcasting microphone, and how to best deal with ever present background noise.
All microphones work by picking up sound vibrations and converting them to an electrical signal, but before you go and pick up the latest and greatest microphone you can afford, understand how they work. There are two principal microphone technologies, condenser and dynamic, each with their own inherent strengths and weaknesses.
Condenser microphones active and rely on phantom power, or a 48 volt electrical signal, which can be provided by a battery or from the mixer or audio interface, and are relatively fragile and used in controlled recording studios. They are highly sensitive, precisely capturing sounds, so they will pick up your voice great, but can also pick up all kinds of unwanted background noise if you have a less than ideal recording environment, like most podcasters’ home studios.
Dynamic microphones are passive and utilize a moving coil, and are used in live sound (e.g., concerts) and in radio broadcasting due to their durability and noise rejection. They are generally less sensitive than condenser microphones, but as such are less susceptible to picking up unwanted background noise, but usually have a lower output, requiring more gain at the possibly noisy preamp stage.
Far too often, when someone’s looking to improve their sound, I see well-intentioned people recommending a condenser microphone (such as the MXL 990), and then they struggle with background noise ranging from their computer’s fan, their air conditioner or heater, squeaking chair, or their neighbor’s barking dog! You can get great sound out of a condenser mic, but it’s important to be aware that there can be pitfalls. It doesn’t matter how high-end a condenser microphone is, if your recording is cluttered with background noise, it will sound worse than a (relatively) inexpensive handheld dynamic microphone. The best way to eliminate background noise might be to change your microphone!
That’s how microphones pick up sound, no where microphones pick up sound, which is determined by their pickup pattern. Omnidirectional microphones pick up sound from everywhere, in all directions equally. Directional microphones, such as cardioid microphones–so named because their graph looks like an upside down heart shape–pick up sounds at the front of the microphone, but attenuate sounds behind it, which is desirable for podcasters.
Finally, a stereo mic is a lot less useful than you might think–You only have one mouth, one set of vocal chords! Stereo mics are really just two microphone elements in one assembly.
Regardless of what make, model, or type of microphone you have, there are some universal techniques to get the most out of it.
First, while it might sound obvious, it’s important to make sure that you’re talking in to the “business end” of the microphone. Some microphones are side address, while others are end address, and if you talk in to the side of an end address microphone, you will get far from desirable results.
You can’t be afraid to of the mic; you want your mouth to be approximately 4-6 inches away from the microphone, or approximately the distance between your outstretched thumb and pinky finger. The farther away you are from the microphone, the more you will have to compensate by increasing the gain, bringing up the noise floor. Additionally, many microphones have a “proximity effect” which boosts bass frequencies when you get close, which may be desirable on some voices.
Plosives are bursts of air from your mouth, most commonly from “p”-sounds, that hit the microphone and cause a big rumbling spike, or “pop”. Talking “across” the microphone at an angle can help, but nobody’s perfect. Use a pop filter (or at least a foam windscreen) to dissipate plosives, which can also help maintain the correct distance from the microphone. Headset users, position the boom mic slightly away from your mouth, such as above, by your nose, or below, by your chin.
Handling noise is rumbling caused by vibrations from the body of the microphone from being moved and handled being transferred to the element itself. This might seem obvious, but even if it’s a handheld microphone, unless you’re doing a man on the street style interview, don’t hold the mic, put it on a stand! Not only will this eliminate handling noise, it will help ensure consistent voice pickup with the microphone being at a fixed distance. Even if it’s on a stand, some microphones, especially large diaphragm studio microphones can still be prone to picking up vibrations, so using a spider-style suspension “shock mount” may be advisable.
Finally, when at all possible, do not share microphones between individuals, you want one microphone per voice!
If at all possible, always monitor with headphones while you’re recording. (On some USB microphones, this may not be possible, such as ones with no headphone output.) This isn’t to hear your dulcet tones, it’s to hear what’s being recorded, as the microphone hears it. This can save you from many issues, allowing you to fix potential issues before they become a problem, potentially ruining a recording.
Ideally, you want headphones that are designed for monitoring, to faithfully reproduce a sound, instead of “hi-fi” headphones, which are designed for pleasurable listening, as well as headphones that are closed so that they don’t have sound “leak” that can be picked up by the mic.
Sennheiser HD 202 (~$25)
Sony MDR-7506 ($99)
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($99)
Dealing With Background Noise:
I’ve all the questions I’m asked, “How do I get rid of background noise?” has to be one of the most frequent. What’s the secret? Well, there is no secret. It’s all about your environment. Garbage in, garbage out–you can’t polish a turd! No amount of post-processing can automagically remove background noise from your recording; stop noise before it’s captured by the microphone!
Keep your cell phone away from the microphone, or better yet, turn it off (or at least put it in airplane mode), or your microphone might pick up some electromagnetic interference, especially if it’s a GSM phone.
Eliminate all sources of noise that you can control: turn off unnecessary computers to eliminate fan noise, and if you record using a computer, try recording on a quiet laptop instead of a noisy desktop; turn off your air conditioner or heater; and try recording at a different time of day (or night), when there are less outside sound sources that you can’t control. Monitor with headphones, and listen critically for any potential culprits.
If you’ve done everything that you can, and there’s still noise in your recording, and you have to use post-processing, it is important to remember that “noise reduction” is not “noise removal”–to reduce background noise, it’s reducing audio information, including your voice! You must use noise reduction with subtlety–it’s a scalpel, instead of a sledgehammer. Overusing or abusing noise reduction will result in a warbly, underwater effect.
Another type of processing that can be used is an expander or gate. More advanced processing techniques will be covered in a future episode, but using an expander/gate will not reduce or eliminate background noise, it will only lower the noise floor when you’re not speaking, when the gate closes. When you speak, and the gate opens again, any background noise that was originally present will still be audible, and there can be an audible “click” on and off as the gate opens and closes.
Sometimes, aggressively trying to eliminate background noise can actually make things worse, but making things sound worse and more distracting. A constant low background noise is preferable to artifacts or it going on and off, as we can tune it out.
When people ask me what equipment I use when they’re looking to improve their sound, I’m hesitant to answer, because I’ve gradually built-up my studio over the years and have accumulated some quality, professional-level gear–audio is what I do. When I first started podcasting, I was using a $30 USB headset, and it got the job done!
When you’re first getting started, unless you’ve got money to burn, I usually don’t recommend plunking down the big bucks for equipment to build a professional studio. The harsh reality is, most would-be podcasters don’t make it past their fifth episode.
The legendary Shure SM-58 handheld dynamic microphone has been the gold standard across the world for decades,
What’s the catch? The SM-58 is priced at $99 (USD), and if you’re on a budget, that can be a tough pill to swallow. There are countless lower-priced alternatives that imitate the SM-58, but with little success–it’s still a standard after all these years for good reason.
Enter the GLS Audio ES-58, an imitation SM-58 with a much more friendly $30 price tag
Does it sound as good, or better, than the SM-58? Probably not. Does it sound good enough? Sure. Does the SM-58 sound more than three times better, with its higher cost? Definitely not.
As a dynamic microphone, it is much less prone to picking up unwanted background noise as competing condenser microphones.
It does suffer from some handling noise, so it might not be the best choice if you’re planning on using it for handheld use, such as “man on the street” style interviews, but in most cases, you should be using it on a stand anyway, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
I know full well what it’s like to be on a tight budget. At such a low price, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better sounding microphone for less. I use it as a secondary microphone and I love it, and recommend it.
Bottom Line: The GLS Audio ES-58 is a great microphone for podcasters on a tight budget.
Without On/Off Switch – $29.99 (Three Pack – $79.95)
With On/Off Switch – $29.99 (Three Pack – $79.95)
(Compare versus $99 for one Shure SM-58!)
Share Your Thoughts!
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Suggestions? I welcome your feedback! Send your written text or recorded audio to [email protected]
or call 424-254-9763, or leave a comment below!
I am available for one on one podcast consulting, audio production, and voice over work. I’d love to work with you to make your podcasting dreams a reality. If you’re interested, please contact me!
Subscribe to Podcast Perspective: