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Hearing is Believing

How to choose the right mic for your application

June 01, 2020

Hearing is Believing
 By guest blogger, Alan C. Brawn, CTS, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME, DSSP

We have all heard the adage that seeing is believing … but today in the age of podcasts, video conferencing, webinars, and distance learning, that is not enough. Hearing is believing now takes center stage, perhaps even becoming more important than the video component. If you attend a webinar or participate in a videoconference (Skype, Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Webex, etc.) and cannot properly hear the presenter, then the point of attending (not to mention participating) becomes moot. In this situation, audio is the necessity where video becomes optional. For each of the videoconferencing systems noted earlier, an audio only option is available. If you think about your experiences for a minute, you will likely agree that it is the quality of the audio that often makes all the difference.

Increasingly our communications today fall under the category of web-connected presentations and collaboration. This can be one on one, one to many, a few to many, or many to many. A significant number of us are now working from home … but even in traditional offices, colleagues will join the meeting remotely. From a technology perspective, other than the network connection (which is an obvious make or break), the microphone becomes the most important single communication technology to “get right.” The microphone “hears” the sound of your voice and encodes it to transmit. If the microphone is not up to the task, then it cannot transmit a quality audio signal. This relates to the quality of the microphone, type and positioning. If the microphone is not adequate, then audio quality transmitted to others will suffer. This relates to your voice, quality of the microphone, your position relative to the microphone and how you use it.
 
Suffice it to say that all microphones are not created equal. Truly you get what you pay for. For casual use, the microphone built into your laptop or the one integrated into your webcam might be adequate. Adequate in the sense that you can hopefully be heard at some level and intelligibility. If the desire is to go beyond adequate and “iffy” performance, you will need an external microphone. The good news is that they are readily available and high-fidelity quality mics and support gear are available at less than $200.
 
This begs the question, what to look for in a mic
At the entry level of appropriate microphones are ones that are plug and play using a USB connection to your PC or laptop. No external power is required; simply plug them in and set the microphone as your default audio source. Most do not even require drivers. The benefit is a higher quality of audio, versatility and simplicity. As with all microphones, there are quality variations from entry level to higher performance.

For that higher level of performance, a traditional microphone with an XLR connector will give you more choices and control. This may require external power (aka phantom power) and will require an audio interface. This allows you to match the characteristics of the microphone to your voice. For example, if you have a higher pitched voice you may want to select a microphone that records at a lower frequency. What it lacks in simplicity it makes up for in the end result.
 
Dynamic vs. condenser mics
As you look at the myriad of microphones that are available, you will be confronted with two basic types.  One option is a dynamic microphone and the other is a condenser microphone. In basic terms, a dynamic microphone does not require external power, handles very loud sound sources and is more rugged.  A condenser microphone requires external power, is more sensitive to variations in sound pressure levels but due to its construction is less rugged. Our advice is to use a condenser microphone in a controlled environment (your office) which is much more useful for capturing the subtle nuances and crisp detail of both voices and instruments.
 
The next choice will involve the sensitivity of the mic to the direction of the input of sound. You will see what is referred to as a polar pattern. This is often accompanied by a diagram showing the microphone and the pattern of audio the microphone is designed to pick up. If you are a single presenter, stick to a cardioid pattern which is unidirectional. The mic picks up the sound coming directly from the person speaking. If two of you are speaking into one microphone, use a bi-directional mic. Once you have stepped up your audio game, it is time to fine-tune how you use the microphone. For casual speaking, the mic can just sit on the desk in close proximity … but if you are wanting the best audio quality or you are recording for production, then more is called for. The “more” in this case involves the use of an arm or boom to position the mic closer to your mouth. The mic should be placed in a shock mount to account for vibrations and you working on the desk it is mounted to. You should also use a pop filter in front of the mic to prevent the negative effects of vocal popping or breathing into the mic. If your room has a lot of echo, you can use a sound baffle to reduce that effect. Experimenting with location, positioning and distance from the mic will yield your best results.

Listen to yourself
One last recommendation will stand you in good stead. Even if you do not participate in recordings, get a free program like Audacity and record how you sound. These tend to be super easy to use and can help you determine not only how you will sound on air, but how the ambient noise in the environment is affecting your audio quality.
 
My personal audio journey began with using the mic in my PC. I “graduated” to using the mic in my web camera. I then upgraded to a cool-looking USB microphone. Recently I have upgraded to a name brand condenser mic running through a compact audio interface. It is attached to a boom arm with a shock mount and a pop filter. The quality difference is astounding and as your use evolves your experience will mirror my own. It is good to be heard. Clearly!

 
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