The quality of your podcast production may be a criterion people use for choosing their podcasts, but how much does it really matter? Dynamic microphones are also praised as the best microphones (with the Heil PR40 being the “golden standard”). But is this really the kind of microphone you should consider?
Challenging the Podcasting Assumptions
This is a special miniseries to challenge the ideas podcasters have accepted as truth for years. Some will stand up against the challenge while others crumble, and some will reveal new options you may have never considered.
- Are you really a “podcaster” and should you really be podcasting? – TAP182
- Does your podcast NEED interaction or an email list? – TAP181
- Is iTunes really THE place for podcasts? Do you NEED a mobile app? – TAP180
- Does SEO really matter in podcasting? – TAP179
- Do you REALLY need to edit your podcasts? What about authenticity? – TAP178
- Do you REALLY need audio/visual branding or promos for your podcast? – TAP177
- Should you launch your podcast with Episode 0? Does iTunes New and Noteworthy REALLY matter? – TAP176
- Are episode numbers REALLY necessary? – TAP175
- Does audio/video quality ACTUALLY matter? Is a dynamic mic REALLY the best? – TAP174
- Do you REALLY need passion? Is consistency THAT important? – TAP173
Does audio/video quality actually matter?
There are over 300,000 podcasts in iTunes now (not all active). You'll find a variety of audio and video quality levels. You don't have to sound amazing to be in iTunes, but some other podcast directories—like Stitcher—do have quality requirements.
How important—really—is your production quality for having a successful podcast?
What affects production quality?
There are potentially three production-quality areas of focus for podcasts:
- Audio quality (audio or video)
- Lighting quality (video)
- Video quality (video)
For each of these areas of production quality, the podcasting gear you use has the greatest impact—not the software or editing skills. There are many kinds of gear people use to record audio or video podcasts.
- Studio equipment
- Smartphone or tablet
- Built-in computer microphone
- Telephone conferencing
Each equipment option has its own advantages and disadvantages. In general, you'll find that more convenience has lower quality and lower cost, and higher quality has less convenience and higher cost—but there are some powerful alternatives that break this generality!
When it comes to video, the most expensive camera will be worthless if you're not well-lit.
You can enhance just about anything with software, but how well you can enhance it depends on how well it was recorded. “Garbage in, garbage out” still applies. You can spray-paint garbage and surround it with scented candles and beautiful landscaping, but it's still garbage—just “enhanced garbage.”
Does the audience care about quality?
The most important thing to your audience will always be your content. There are some successful podcasts that have terrible production quality. But the audience keeps coming back for the content or the personality presenting the content.
Where your audience will care about your quality is when its lack becomes distracting. For example, a quiet or muffled microphone may sound okay in a quiet office with noise-canceling headphones, but it may be completely unlistenable at fast speeds or in a noisy environment (like driving or mowing). Consider all the ways people consume podcasts and ensure you provide a great experience.
Think about how the entertainment industry performs. It's common to see high-quality productions fail for lack of a great story (content) and story-telling technique (presentation). But it's also common to see productions with great content and presentation struggle to gain an audience because of poor production.
When you're competing for an audience (depending on your perspective on competition), you don't want anything working against you. Your quality could be a major reason someone will chose another podcast over yours.
How to improve your quality
Remember this production-quality waterfall:
- Audio quality
- Lighting quality
- Video quality
Practically, this means your microphone(s) will be the best thing to upgrade first.
If you're producing an audio-only podcast, follow the chain of devices from your microphone to improve the quality.
The microphone's connected to the preamp, the preamp's connected to the mixer, the mixer's connected to the compressor/limiter/gate (effects), the effects are connected to the EQ (equalization), the EQ's connected to the output, and the output's connected to the recorder.
If you don't have all of those pieces in your audio chain, adding or upgrading them may improve your quality.
It doesn't matter how high-definition your camera is, if you're not visible or poorly lit, no one can appreciate the camera's quality—or maybe even see you!
If you need a cheap lighting kit with a lot of light output, look at the Fancierstudio 3800-watt kit (2 softboxes, 1 hairlight) or the ePhoto 4500W kit (3 softboxes). These kits are cheap in every way, but they put out a lot of light for under $200! (I recently bought the Fancierstudio 3800-watt kit and will have a initial video review soon.
For a camera, your webcam will be probably the worst quality (though the HD webcams, like the Logitech C920 can be quite good!). You may already have a great camera in your smartphone. If you want the best video quality, look at a dedicated camera like a Canon DSLR (what I use) or an Canon HD camcorder.
Conclusion: production quality is important!
Your best investment will always be to continuously improve your content quality and presentation skills. But if your production quality is bad, you'll have to work really hard to attract and keep your audience.
Is a dynamic mic (especially the Heil PR40) really the best?
Let's dig into a controversial subject in audio quality! You'll hear most podcasters say to only get a dynamic microphone. A lot of podcasters will also praise the Heil PR40 as the “golden standard” podcasting microphone. You may be surprised at some of the truth!
What's the difference between condenser and dynamic microphones?
There are a few styles of microphones with über-technical differences in how they capture sound. For our sake, let's look at the practical side.
Condenser microphones capture a very wide range of frequencies (high and low tones). They also often capture a wider area of sound: often omnidirectional (all the way around the microphone), or can easily capture distant sounds.
Dynamic microphones usually capture a slightly smaller range of frequencies than condenser mics. They often have a more narrow area of sound: usually end-fire and cardiod (meaning primarily the area from the end of the microphone), as well as a greater falloff for distant sounds.
Other kinds of microphones
Besides studio microphones on a stand or boom, you could also find lavaliere (or lapel) mics, shotgun mics, surface mics, headset mics, and more.
Each microphone has its place depending on your needs. For example, shotgun mics are best to position out of the camera frame, away from the audio source.
Which microphone has the best quality?
This is actually a misleading question because different voices, environments, and goals require different microphones. What may be the “best” microphone in one situation could be the worst in another situation. For example, you may sound the best with a condenser microphone in your closet, but if you record video, the microphone may cover too much of your face and the closet may be horrible for video.
I'll leave the full quality debate to more experienced audio engineers. But here are some general guidelines.
- Studio condenser microphones: best for sound-proof studios or for intentionally including environmental sounds—Blue Mouse
- Studio dynamic microphones: best for “studios” without sound-proofing with small background noise (like a computer)—Audio Technica ATR2100-USB / Audio Technica AT2005USB (whichever is cheaper), Electro Voice RE320, Electro Voice RE20, Røde Procaster, Heil PR40
- Lavaliere/lapel microphones: best for out-of-the-way recording in video in a quiet environment, great for wireless recording—Røde Lavalier, Giant Squid Audio lavalier, Sennheiser EW 112P G3-A (ME2 mic)
- Shotgun microphones: best for out-of-frame recording in video, but the speaker must either remain in the target, or else someone will need to follow them with the microphone—Røde NTG-1 or Røde NTG-2
- (Professional) headset mics (not USB headsets!): best for a more active and moving speaker, but visible in video, great for wireless recording—Countryman E6, Audio Technica Microset, Rode HS1-P
- Dynamic handheld/interview microphones: best for hand-holding (like performers) or interviewing in a noisy environment—Electro-Voice RE50N/D-B, Røde Reporter
The particular microphone model for your needs depends heavily on your budget and your own voice. But let's challenge one of them!
Is the Heil PR40 really the “golden standard”?
If you listen to any other podcasts about podcasting, you'll most likely hear the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB and Heil PR40 praised as the microphones to get. The ATR2100-USB for starting out, and the PR40 for when you have “arrived.”
But how about the Heil PR40? Now that I've experienced many other dynamic microphones, I think the Heil PR40 is overhyped, primarily because of its massive endorsement from two people: Leo Laporte and Cliff Ravenscraft. I highly respect both men for what they've done in podcasting and I applaud their success (Cliff is a true close friend and lives not far from me!); I'm not here to say their advice is bologna. But I have discovered a problem with so many podcasters going through the same blanket school of thought.
When I listen to podcasters who use the PR40, I hear the same range of audio “enhanced” and everyone's voices are sounding too much alike—and too much like a radio DJ. Many voices will also have problems with sibilance (the “S” sounds) being too harsh.
Before you rush out to buy a Heil PR40 just because someone else recommended it, I think you should try your own voice on it, if possible. Or save a little and get a more standard microphone like the Electro Voice RE320 (watch my video review of the RE320).
Conclusion: a dynamic mic is usually the best
There is no absolute rule on audio because every voice and environment is different. But in general, a dynamic microphone will be better for most audio podcasters recording from their home or office without a sound-proof studio. But for video podcasting, you should really consider a completely different style of microphone, such as a shotgun, lavaliere, headset, or even a condenser in some cases.
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