Whether you’re shooting a short film or starting a new podcast, audio is super important. It isn’t going to ruin your short film or podcast and plenty of great content is made using just the microphone built into your smartphone, but having great sound can really take your project up to the next level. The problem is trying to figure out which microphone is best for you can be a daunting process.
Plenty of technical jargon isn’t important, but it can be hard to tell it apart from the important stuff. Plenty of salespeople will just assume you know all of it when you ask about mics. So what do you need to look for in a microphone? Whether you’re shooting a short film, starting a YouTube channel, or upgrading your podcast setup, these are a few things you should know.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on July 21, 2020, to include information about the differences between USB and XLR microphones.
What’s your intended use case?
Arguably the most important step in getting good audio is figuring out exactly what kind of audio you want to record. You can get the most expensive microphone you can find and still not get crispy clear audio if you’re in the wrong environment. There are some special cases, but I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this you mainly only care about how to record vocals or instruments. Knowing which one is most important to you will then help you decide the type of microphone to get.
What are the different kinds of microphones?
Once you know what you’re trying to record, we can get into the good stuff. The gritty details can be a little confusing if you’ve never encountered the terminology before. There are two main kinds of microphones (there are others but these are the ones you’ll usually come across unless you’re spending thousands).
The first kind of microphone is a dynamic microphone. If you picture the mic that a singer or even your favorite comedian uses on stage, you’re most likely picturing a dynamic microphone. These microphones do great in noisy environments. They have a small coil on the inside that’s sensitive to sound vibrations. As the soundwaves move the coil it gets converted into an electrical signal that can be recorded. You can use these to record a performer on stage, if you’re interviewing someone on the street, or even a guitar or drum kick.
These are also great for all of these environments because the magnets and coil inside of dynamic mics are a little more durable compared to other microphones. They’re not exactly rugged, but for the most part they can take a beating without getting completely destroyed. Most people recommend the Shure SM58, as it’s a pretty tough and versatile microphone that works well whether you’re on location or recording at your desk. Plus, it’s only $100.
If you like the idea of a dynamic mic and want something a little higher up on the spectrum, the Telefunken M80 Dynamic microphone is another great pick—in fact, it’s the microphone of choice for our executive editor Chris Thomas. Just know if you decide to follow his lead, you should probably also invest in this Cloudlifter preamp to help power it.
The other type of popular microphone type is a condenser. This works slightly differently and uses capacitor plates instead of a coil and magnets. It’s easy to go further down the technical rabbit hole, but the practical thing you need to know is that condenser mics are more sensitive to smaller vibrations than dynamic mics. Where dynamic mics are fine to use with bass drums and guitars, condensers are not. You’ll want to use these if you’re trying to pick up the subtleties in a voice like for example when recording a podcast or a singer in a booth.
The use cases for condenser microphones are typically much more static than those of dynamic mics, mainly because capacitor plates are not as durable as magnets. The exception to this is shotgun microphones, which are the giant mics you see people holding on movie sets. Because they’re so sensitive to softer sounds, it’s worth the risk of carrying it around just to make sure you capture everything that the actress is saying.
If you’re looking for a solid all-around mic to use at home for vocals or string instruments, my personal mic of choice is the Rode NT1-A condenser mic which does a fairly good job with almost everything.
Condenser mics require a little more power than dynamic mics to power them, so you’ll need something that can provide phantom power to your mic, like an audio interface. Phantom power is also just a cool name for something that isn’t as cool as actual ghosts. All it means is that whatever you plug the microphone into has the ability to send +48V of power through the cable into the mic. Usually, this is found in audio interfaces or some portable recorders like the Zoom H5.
Should you get a USB or XLR microphone?
USB microphones are not only convenient and easy to use, but are also typically cheaper than XLR microphones. Most USB mics have a cardioid polar pattern, meaning they pick up sound from the front, so they’re great for making podcasts or voiceovers.
However, if you’re looking to record vocal or instrumental music, or want a higher quality sound for your podcast, you’ll want to go with an XLR mic. XLR mics can be pricey and require the purchase of an audio interface, but they produce audio of much higher quality than USB microphones.
The reason for this is due to the inner mechanisms of each type of microphone’s output. In a USB mic, the electrical currents that exit the microphone share a single channel with the currents that enter it, which can result in in distorted sound. XLR microphones, on the other hand, have two channels for the incoming and outgoing currents (which is why it is called balanced), and they cancel out unwanted noise. Though it’s a little more complicated than this, it’s easy to think of it like a roadway: if you’re driving up a very narrow road and a car coming the opposite direction is trying to pass you, it’s likely you’ll scrape against each other. However, on a highway, the oncoming traffic is separated from your lane by a median, so there’s no danger of collision.
What are polar patterns?
Once you’ve figured out what you want to use the microphone for and where, the next step is to determine what you want your microphone to record. Do you want your microphone to record only what is perfectly in front of it or if you want to pick up sound all around you?
These recording patterns are called polar patterns, and they’re easier to read than they look. I’m sure no one reading this was confused by what I just explained. The names for the different kinds of patterns can be intimidating, but they don’t get any more complicated. They’re all just different names for asking “What do you want the microphone to record?”
One fairly common polar pattern is the cardioid. This one is super easy to understand as the root wood in which the pattern gets its name from means “heart-shaped” in Latin, so these microphones pick up sound in a heart shape. Another fairly common kind of polar pattern is omnidirectional mics which, as you may have guessed by the name, pick up sound in all directions. There are a few others such as super-cardioid and bidirectional, but I’m willing to bet you can guess what those look like. If you want to dig a little deeper we have a full explainer on the different types.
What is frequency response?
Frequency response gets tossed around a lot, but not everyone actually knows what it means. The practical part you need to know is the frequency response of something refers to how well the components of the microphone can reproduce the signals it is picking up.
In a perfect world, it’d be a one-to-one reproduction. The microphone will hear a sound and perfectly convert it into an electronic signal that’s perfectly transferred into the recorder. In reality, vibrations get lost along the way and some of the data never makes it to the final recording.
The way we measure how well a microphone can transfer the signal is what we visualize as a frequency response graph. If a certain note of a signal comes out of the mic slightly weaker than it went in, this is visualized as a slight dip in the graph. If it comes out more powerful then it went in, then that is visualized as a slight hump. This is the simplified practical version of what you’ll need to know.
To get a deeper understanding of how this affects your sound and your music, it’s worth reading this great piece on frequency response by our own Robert Triggs.
What is sensitivity and SPL?
When you’re looking at tech specs, two terms come up fairly often: sensitivity and SPL. They sound fancy, but they’re actually very straightforward. Believe it or not, sensitivity refers to how sensitive the microphone is—I know, shocker. It’s a measurement of the quietest sound that the microphone will still be able to pick up. The lower that number is, the more sensitive the microphone is, and the quieter the sound can be that will still end up in the final recording.
On the other end, SPL stands for Sound Pressure Level. This number is just a measurement of the loudest sound and it is measured in decibels.
Tips and tricks
Knowing the ins and outs of a microphone is important if you’re serious about your craft, but knowing what everything means isn’t going to turn you into an audio engineer overnight. You need to mess up and then mess up again before you know exactly how each of these factors will affect your final product. Luckily, plenty of people (like myself) have messed up countless times and there are plenty of tips and tricks all over the internet so you don’t make the same mistakes we did.
Treat the room
Treating the room is the most important and underrated tip no one talks about. I’d argue that it’s more important than what mic you pick up on your audio journey. Microphones like the Telefunken M80 we mentioned earlier can do a good job in crappy situations when you can’t control the environment, but if you take that microphone into a properly treated room, your audio will go from good to great. You can spend thousands properly soundproofing your room, but if your funds are limited make sure to foam the corners of the room first.
This is where most of the sound will bounce off and end up causing problems in your recording. Once you’ve done that, then you can move forward with covering the flat surfaces of the room with foam. As I mentioned, that can get expensive.
To keep some money in your pockets, one tried and true method, believe it or not, is a simple blanket fort. You’d be surprised how much throwing a blanket over you can improve your sound quality. My personal favorite is to also flip up my mattress to help absorb even more of the ricochetting sound. If all else fails, you can always try to fix what you have in post with software.
Lavs shouldn’t be bumped
Ever wonder why lavalier mics are always positioned right under the chin in the chest area? There’s a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with being closer to the mouth of the person speaking (Okay, that’s one of the reasons). Lavalier mics have little to no padding or protection against bumps, unlike dynamic mics, which can be bumped around without too many issues. Lavalier mics have to be small and innocuous, which doesn’t leave much space for any padding, so placing them in an area that isn’t often hit (like on the chest) is one way of avoiding ear-popping issues.
Do you need an audio interface?
Unless you opt for a USB microphone, chances are you’re going to need an audio interface, as most microphones come with an XLR connection. To record anything digitally into a computer, you’re going to need an interface that you can connect to your computer. Some of them can even provide the phantom power needed for condenser microphones.
One classic audio interface you can go with if you don’t want to break the bank is the Scarlett 2i2 interface, which—assuming you didn’t blow all your money on a top of the line microphone—should work perfectly with most microphones. Of course, an interface is only necessary if you’re going to be recording at a set location as carrying one around in a backpack can be a hassle. If you’re going to be recording on location you might want to look into a portable recorder that can also accept XLR inputs.
Aim shotguns mics down at the chest
If you’re going to record actors or yourself on camera, a shotgun microphone is a great way to go. Shotgun mics are a type of condenser microphone, so they’re usually fairly sensitive to loud noises. If you’ve ever seen a behind the scenes video shoot, you’ll usually see that the person holding a shotgun mic over the heads of the actors pointing down.
This is done for two reasons. The first is to ensure that it doesn’t get in the shot. The second is because pointing the microphone down in direction of the chest of the person speaking means it is will only pick up the voice before reaching the ground.
If you point the microphone upwards into the person’s mouth instead of their chest, you’ll also be picking up everything behind the person. If you’re outside, that can be a lot of extra noise you might not want in the final recording. If you’re inside, that can mean a lot of extra room tone that you’re going to have to get rid of in post.
Look into getting a Cloudlifter if you have a powerful dynamic mic
While condenser microphones usually need some extra juice in the form of phantom power, high-end dynamic microphones are no walk in the park either. In the case of the Telefunken M80 or the popular Shure SM7B, you also might want to pick up a trusty little device called the CL-1 Cloudlifter. You can read all about it in our full review, but it basically just gives the audio signal a little boost before it reaches your interface to be recorded.
Now that you know the important aspects of what to look for in a microphone, it’s going to be much easier to figure out which is the right one for you. You might also want to look into some USB microphones, as there are some truly great options that don’t require anything other than a computer.