From news and entertainment to educational and informative topics, podcasting has become an increasingly popular medium for delivering captivating content. But no matter how interesting your podcasting content is, it is always vital to ensure that the audio quality is top-notch if you want to maintain your listener’s interest and engagement.
That’s where proper microphone technique comes into play. Whether you’re a seasoned podcaster or a beginner, understanding effective mic techniques will make a huge difference in the overall quality of your podcast. But don’t stress―there’s no need to apply to audio school yet; here at B&H, we have your back and are ready to show you the ropes. In this article, we’ll explore some tips and tricks for proper mic placement, distance, and technique to help you take your podcast audio to new levels.
One of the most important aspects of any audio recording scenario is mic placement. Ask any engineer, and they will tell you that you can buy as many expensive preamps, mics, and audio processors as you want, but none of those things will come close to the importance of mastering proper mic placement techniques. Podcasting is no different, and one of the primary reasons why it makes a night-and-day difference is the tendency of dynamic mics, the most common podcasting mic, to be affected by what is known as the proximity effect.
Put simply, the proximity effect describes how a dynamic microphone tends to pick up significantly more bass frequencies when placed closer to a sound source. Ever wondered how modern rap vocalists get such a detailed sound to their voice or how radio announcers and commercial narrators get such a rich, booming vocal tone? This is often achieved by exploiting the proximity effect with dynamic microphones like the Shure SM7B and the Electro-Voice RE20.
With the SM7B for example, the ideal range between the mic and the speaker should be 1 to 6", so the pickup captures the fullness of your voice. If you move the microphone 4 to 6" away from your voice, you will notice how the sound response changes, dropping much of the low end and producing a brighter sound.
Within the 1 to 3" domain however, you will get a deeper, more nuanced response with more of a boomy sound. This can also be a great way to get more mouth sounds, ideal for applications like ASMR or a more intimate feel to your podcasts. Experiment with mic distance to find the best match for your content.
But don’t think your mic placement concerns end with distance and position. Another important factor can be accessories, because they will determine your ability to position the mic, as well as provide vital protection when placed close to a human voice. Shockmounts, for example, are important tools for isolating your microphone from excessive vibrations that may arise from movement of your desk, nearby trains, mic handling during recording, and even gusts of breath from the person being captured.
Some products like the Shure SM7B come with an integrated, internal shockmount to ensure vibration-free recording right out of the box, but many other products, such as the popular RØDE NT1 5th Generation (shockmount included) and the Audio-Technica AT2020USB-X benefit greatly from a shockmount to produce clean podcast recordings.
Another important accessory is a boom arm. When podcasting, a boom arm is easily the most useful and versatile mic stand option. With multiple points of articulation and the ability to attach to most desks and surfaces reliably, no podcaster should be without a handy boom arm for optimal mic positioning.
A pop filter is the final piece you should consider buying for your podcasting setup. While getting in close to use the proximity effect for a bigger sound can produce great results, it also can introduce its own problems due to the potent effect of pesky plosives such as P or T consonants that tend to overload even dynamic microphones. These plosives will cause sudden spikes of clipping and distortion, and as the mic gets closer, it becomes increasingly vulnerable to this effect.
That’s why it’s vital to obtain a pop filter or windscreen to mitigate this effect, especially when miking closely. These accessories also act as an added layer of protection for more sensitive condenser microphones, such as the Blue Yeti, RØDE NT1 5th Gen, or RØDE NT-USB Mini, which are considerably more vulnerable to the moisture from one’s mouth than dynamic mics. These sensitive, delicate microphones are an investment worth protecting, so a pop filter is a great choice to secure both your microphone and your podcast recordings.
Gain vs. Volume
Now we get into the nitty gritty. An important technique that most audio amateurs are unaware of is gain staging. This refers to the gain levels you will be targeting while recording your podcasts. You may notice on a mixer, audio interface, or DAW input that when you record audio with a microphone, a meter will jump up and down, displaying the volume level of your audio signal. In some cases, the signal may seem very low, and in others, it will be very high, with most meters becoming red when a signal clips.
Clipping means that your audio signal is so loud that it has exceeded the maximum headroom available on a circuit and begins to sound distorted, producing an unwanted and unusable recording. This behavior will depend greatly on settings engaged on your capture device (whether it be hardware or software), and your microphone.
When you are recording podcasts to your computer using an analog microphone with an XLR connector, you will need an audio interface. An interface will feature a preamp to boost the gain of your mic along with an analog to digital converter for recording to your DAW. Sometimes, you need to squeeze more gain out of your mics than the preamps on your interface can provide. This can be a particular problem with passive dynamic microphones, which often produce relatively weak signals. In this case, stand-alone preamps are a viable solution; simply connect one between the output of the mic and the input to the preamp built into your interface to provide more headroom and gain, and many products, especially those that utilize vacuum tubes, help you get a big, warm sound to your audio input.
A simple, cost-effective and popular alternative preamp for podcasting is a device called a mic activator. The mic activator lifts the gain of the signal using various FET or JFET circuits to provide you with clean, noise-free gain that boosts the available headroom of your microphone, bringing dynamic mic signals to higher, more usable levels, while also giving you more space to boost your gain without distortion.
There are many ways to measure audio levels, but for the purposes of this article, let’s stick to common decibels, or dB. For podcasting applications, an ideal peak gain level to shoot for on your meter is typically around -3 to -1 dB. To get here, you should start by setting your monitor level fader to unity gain, which means you aren’t boosting or lowering the level, (0 dB) and leaving it there, then just dial up the input gain knob on the preamp until you get a robust, distortion-free signal that never exceeds -1 dB at the absolute maximum.
Why do this? Because at this level, you get plenty of rich detail without letting excessive distortion cause the human voice to become grating or scratchy, while still leaving you with enough headroom for processing your audio and easily mixing it up to a level commonly used by other podcasts you may be competing with.
At -1 dB, you are also assured that your audio will sound good when converted to common lossy audio formats like AAC and MP3. This should be your absolute peak level, and as such, we want to emphasize that your meter should never exceed -1 dB during a podcast recording.
Importance of Monitoring
When you are recording a podcast, what you hear in the room will be very different from what you hear through your mics. That’s why it’s very important to maintain a latency-free, clear monitoring solution so you can critically listen to your recordings in real time and address any issues that might crop up.
For podcast applications, the limitation of recording in the same room that you are monitoring in means you will always be limited to using headphones. In this case, where you plug your headphone in the signal chain will make all the difference in the world.
For example, if you plug into an audio interface, you may begin to experience latency. This refers to the delay between the capture of your voice and the playback in your ears. Since an interface must receive your signal from a mic, convert it to digital, and then re-convert it to analog for you to hear. A noticeable amount of delay may be introduced, making it difficult for you to record your podcasts and listen at the same time.
Here are a few crucial steps you should take to mitigate this effect. First, always check the system specs of your computer to ensure they at least meet the minimum requirements of your interface. This can be everything from CPU and RAM to hard drive space and operating systems. On top of this, it is always important to keep your audio drivers up to date, which is particularly important for Windows computers.
You can also adjust the buffer size and sample rate of your DAW to make it easier for your computer system to pass data in real time. If you are experiencing latency, try lowering the sample rate (though for quality purposes, you should never dip below 16-bit / 44.1 kHz), and adjusting the buffer size. A lower buffer size will increase the usage of computer resources but decrease delay, while increasing the buffer will do the opposite. Most interfaces will allow you to dial in a latency-free monitor mix of your voice, usually with the ability to blend it with audio coming from your computer if you’re using music or sound effects.
Finally, if you have access to a USB microphone, you may be able to sidestep this issue entirely with the benefit of on-mic monitoring. A wide array of USB microphones on the market today, such as the Audio-Technica AT2020USB-X, RØDE NT-USB Mini, and the Shure MV7 offer direct monitoring through a 3.5mm jack on the mic, allowing you to monitor your audio with near-zero latency during a podcast. Especially in the case of small setups, this can be an optimal setup to reduce headaches.
General Room Treatment
This brings us to the final factor to consider, one which is often overlooked by first-time podcasters: room isolation. With so many amateur podcasters and streamers working out of their homes, environmental noises are a serious issue. Whether you are recording out of a house in a small town, an apartment in a big city, or simply have a lot of extraneous noises in your recording environment, it is important to treat the room you record in with acoustic isolation panels.
These humble yet crucial products mount directly on your walls and help to reduce reflections in your room, as well as isolate the space from exterior sounds. Whether you have children, animals, or roommates outside your room making noise or a large, reflective room that produces excessive reverberation, these panels will help you control your sound and produce cleaner, more professional content.
Not only that, but they will often improve the look of your space, as well, imparting a professional atmosphere that can often be customized to fit the theme of your workspace. If you are streaming or video recording your podcasts, this can be especially important to make you stand out against the competition. As an alternative to a general room treatment with panels on the walls, you could use a reflection filter around your microphone to ensure the clearest possible audio quality of your capture, but it might not provide the most visually appealing experience.
That wasn’t too bad, was it? It might seem like a lot to cover, but once you get the hang of it, you will be setting up pro-level podcasts in no time at all. From mic placement to room treatments, these techniques will become indispensable for creating quality-sounding content. If you have any further questions, feel free to drop us a line below, and we’ll do our best to answer all your questions and comments.
Great article! I've saved it because if I ever resume my short-lived podcasting project, I think this article does a better job than most of providing an overview of the basics. I was getting increasingly worried about the "head-room" and "monitoring latency" there, until I got to the paragraph that said people with USB microphones will be okay. Phew! I have a Samson Meteor that I bought from B&H years ago; I bought it to make a podcast with my friend, but Events Intervened and now the microphone helps me out with videoconferencing calls and some voiceovers for slide decks. But someday…