USB Microphones Are Cheap, But Not Always Good
The "silver bullet" microphone for producing a killer podcast does not exist. Sorry. I know people want me to say “buy this mic!” I wish it were that simple. Podcasting will never be as effortless as blogging is now. Audio recording is very very complex. But not scary or hard if you know some things.
Yes, USB microphones are getting better and cheaper and gaining in popularity. Yes, they are great for people who have a budget of zero dollars. But I want to warn unsuspecting people of the tradeoffs in choosing to use all-in-one audio solutions.
I’ve been called an audio "elitist” and I admit I can be an audio snob. I am not an audiophile. I am an audio professional, so it’s kind of my job to scrutinize audio quality! But I genuinely want to help people who are willing to listen. I am not trying to shame people who USB mics.
Most of my comments in this post are not for fledgling or hobbyist podcasters. But see below for things you should know about mics like the Blue Yeti. This post is mainly for the professional podcasters that I listen to every day. There are many times that I cringe when my professional ears hear something that is easily fixed by using a higher quality tool along with a little knowledge.
I agree that most people can’t recognize the difference in sound quality between a $70 mic and a $700 mic. Just as many people choose to eat at Taco Bell instead of Baja Burrito here in Nashville. Just as most people didn’t notice that Mac OS 10.10 Yosemite’s fonts changed from to a customized Helvetia Neue from the long-used Lucida Grande. Just as most cost-obsessed consumers don’t recognize the overall value that Apple products offer compared to their cheaper Android or Windows or Chrome counterparts.
But I and many others can recognize the inferior product that is generated by cheaper audio hardware - even if you can't. And whether or not most people can hear it, if it just costs you a little more money - especially compared to money you've spent on other tools like your computer and standing desk, wouldn’t you want to step up your game and make your podcast the best that it can be in every way? I sure would!
There has recently been a call for more unique and higher quality podcast content. Unique is less important to me overall than quality - and I already enjoy listening to lots of quality professional podcasters every day, many of whom talk about the same thing. I would challenge podcasters who make decent money at their craft to become full-fledged recording professionals and upgrade from using affordable USB mics to proper professional audio hardware.
Here’s the kicker: it doesn’t cost as much as you think!
One of the most popular affordable and decent USB mics is the Blue Yeti. This mic is marketed and believed to be the best podcasting mic for the money. And for $99 or less, it is… fine. It works. But it does have quite a few negative tradeoffs you should weigh against the positives of low price and "plug-and-play" of a single device with a single cable:
1) Condenser mics (as opposed to dynamic), it can pick up EVERYTHING around you.
Even some of the dynamic USB mics pick up more than their XLR counterparts. This can be solved by good mic technique and finding a good quiet and “dead” recording space. Dan Benjamin has a great video on good mic technique. This includes being aware of handling noise and vibrations made by things like typing when using a desk stand. The acoustics of your room are important, so if you have a “live” room that sounds like you are in an echo chamber, you can deaden it by backing up to a wall and hanging blankets or heavy curtains. But getting a quality mic with a tighter pickup pattern is also helpful.
2) Cheap mics tend to sound a bit “harsh” or “brittle."
This is due to cheap electronics including the microphone diaphragm, the internal microphone preamp circuit, and the internal analog to digital converter circuit. That’s a lot of elements to fit into a single chassis. “But look at all that they can cram in an iPhone!” Miniaturizing analog audio circuits plus analog to digital converters has more of an effect on signal fidelity than miniaturizing digital computer and graphics processing and radio antennas. Analog audio still needs a transformer and capacitors and diodes. Audio can’t benefit from miniaturized digital circuits until it goes through the analog to digital processor. Therefore an all-in-one USB mic will not sound as good as distinct microphone plus a mic pre and converter box. Of course if you skimp on these separate components too, you are likely to get similar results.
3) Cheap mics are made of cheap components.
Especially such complex all-in-one products that have multiple parts of a typical audio signal chain. And the Blue Yeti is no exception - having five components of the signal chain (mic element, mic preamplifier, analog to digital converter, digital to analog converter, and headphone amp). There is excessive handling noise, so if you bump it or use a desk stand without a shock mount, you will hear all bumps and loudly. The volume knob is a cheap potentiometer that will start crackling after some time of use - especially if you have it in an abusive environment to electronics (temperature swings, dusty, salt air, etc.). Both the USB and headphone jacks are prone to failing since they are so cheap. Mics can easily get dropped. The cheap circuit board inside and its crammed components will likely get damaged if dropped.
4) Cheap audio gear can be very unforgiving!
The Yeti in particular has what we call “low headroom”. That means it distorts very easily. If you speak at an even volume and don’t have a big voice like I do, it may work fine for you. But for some it will distort no matter what you do. Again, many people will not hear the distortion, but it is there making your podcast sound worse. Cheap mics and mic preamps will also be unforgiving in the tonal quality of your voice. If you have a nasal or boomy voice, or if you have a slight lisp, cheap mics can accentuate the negative aspects of your voice. These can often be fixed in the mix with EQ and compression. But if you can afford to spend a little more, it is always best to get the best possible quality at the top of the signal chain so you have less work to do in post. This of course also applies to having to edit out ambient noises or bumps that your mic may pick up. Like with photos, it’s very hard to get a high quality end product if you start with something that is flawed to begin with.
“So what do you recommend I buy if I don't have much money to start my podcasting setup?” My specific gear recommendations are for another post… It’s not an easy answer. Sorry. But my main goal is to inform you in a way that helps you find what is best for your voice, your recording space, and your budget.
Of course if you know the Yeti is at your price point, by all means try it out! Just be aware that there are other options. And make sure you understand its shortcomings as you record!
Of course the success of your podcast relies most heavily on having quality content for your listeners each episode. A quality recording setup will just help put you over the top, as well as make your job easier in the long run with less editing and having to fiddle with EQ. And ultimately it should also make your experience more enjoyable.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. I'd love to hear from you!