It is true we often learn more from failures rather than successes, and my experiences with podcasting microphones provide several cases in point.
The first 100+ podcasts I made were created using just the built-in microphone in my (then) iBook and (now) MacBook laptop. After making so many podcasts, at some point I realized I needed to take my podcasting to “the next level” with a better microphone. (My experiences at TCEA last year with Tim Wilson were certainly strong influences along that line.) My first foray into more advanced podcast microphones came after several visits to our Oklahoma City Guitar Center as well as Best Buy stores. I purchased a M-Audio Mobile-Pre, which offered the capability to connect two XLR microphone inputs into my computer via USB, and also offered “phantom power” in the event I was able to purchase a more expensive condenser microphone which needed it sometime down the road. The Mobile Pre cost about $180. I could have gotten by with a less expensive ($99) M-Audio Fast Track USB, but I figured I’d rather purchase the additional microphone capacity at that time, and avoid having to purchase another pre-amp in the future.
Along with an inexpensive $30 microphone stand from Best Buy, I felt like a much better equipped amateur podcaster than I had been using just my built-in laptop mic, but certainly not at the level of Tim Wilson and his infamous “Podcave.”
My wife made fun of me quite a bit for setting up for podcasts with my newly purchased microphone and stand in the recliner in our bedroom, but despite her teasing I felt the expenses and effort was worth it in terms of improved podcast audio quality. (My kids also thought it was REALLY cool for dad to have a “real” microphone too. Since then, my daughter has actually sung during several workshops I’ve shared, demonstrating the recording potential and capabilities of GarageBand software. As a seven year old who loves to sing, she LOVES to use my Shure microphone!)
In April last year, I obtained a foldable Platronics USB headset (specifically the Plantronics 400 DSP) and started using that headset for most of my podcasts. I LOVE the small footprint of the Platronics headset, as it folds neatly into my backpack and permits me to take it everywhere. I have been pretty impressed with the audio quality it provides as well, and have used it extensively in podcasts as well as Skype and iChat audio conferences– both audio-only and video conferences.
About a month ago, possibly on our return trip from Hawaii for the USS Oklahoma Memorial Dedication, the small, foam cover on my Platronics headset microphone came off and was lost. I continued to use the headset for podcasting, but without the foam windscreen my podcast quality REALLY dropped, in my opinion. I haven’t received any direct feedback on this, but I know my “t’s” and “p’s” caused whistling in the microphone, and I find that to be both distracting and less professional sounding. As a result of this problem, I embarked on a quest to both find a replacement foam cover which would render my Platronics headset useable again for podcasting and audio/vidoeconferencing, as well as possibly purchase a new microphone to add to my podcasting collection.
I did not have initial luck finding a foam cover for my Platronics headset mic, but I did find some new microphones at Best Buy which looked like they might be worth checking out. One of the best things about podcasting, from a classroom perspective, is that it is relatively inexpensive and therefore “do-able” by teachers with limited budgets. With this in mind, and wanting to test “low-end” podcasting equipment, I purchased the Samson Model R21S dynamic microphone for $22 and gave it a try.
Unfortunately, this low-end Samson microphone did not come with an XLR to XLR connector, but instead had an XLR to 1/4″ connector. I thought this would still work fine with my M-Audio Mobile-Pre, but it did not. Disappointed, and not wanting to purchase a different XLR to XLR cable (which would have rendered the Samson microphone useable with my setup) I decided to return it to Best Buy.
The same initial trip to Best Buy after Christmas when I purchased the Samson microphone, I saw the “M-Audio Producer USB Microphone” in the store’s Macintosh area, and tested it using GarageBand on a new iMac. I was VERY impressed, but unfortunately, the store was out of stock of Producer mics.
When I returned the Samson microphone this weekend, however, I was pleased to see the store had one Producer USB Microphone in stock. Even though the price was considerably steeper ($99) compared to the Samson, I reasoned this microphone would be easier to use since it does not require the Mobile-Pre, has its own small mic stand, and also comes with M-Audio’s Session software. I’ve heard about Session and recommend it as the “GarageBand for Windows” musical creation program in my workshop “Digital Music Creation: Engage, Inspire, Have Fun!” To date, however, I have not had an opportunity to play with Session. Session software lists for $50 by itself, but is now available in several hardware bundles from M-Audio at Best Buy– you can get it as I did with the Producer USB Microphone, or with a Fast Track USB converter (which works with guitar or other 1/4″ inputs as well as one XLR audio input) or with a M-Audio keyboard. I am DELIGHTED to both have the Producer USB, as well as Session software. Now that I have made a couple podcasts using two USB microphones with GarageBand, I can see the utility of having a table-set microphone like the Producer USB rather than a headset when I’m interviewing a guest in-person for a podcast.
The other microphone I considered based on the recommendations of others, and looked at briefly at our local Apple Store several weeks ago, is Blue Microphones Snowball Microphone. Like the M-Audio Producer USB it runs $99, but it does not include Session software.
Today at Radio Shack, I was delighted to find some earphone/headphone foam replacement pads for about $4 which DO work effectively as a windscreen on my Platronics headset microphone. I also discovered, later, that Radio Shack sells (online only) a “Plantronics® 24316-01 Foam Wind Screen Replacement Kit” for $3. As long as my headphone/earbud foam covers work I’ll just stick with those, but it is good to know officially sized windscreens for Platronics headsets are available.
I titled this post “lessons learned about podcasting microphones,” so what are my lessons? There are many, but several which seem most apparent are:
- Don’t lose the foam windscreen for a USB headset microphone. If you do, don’t use it until you purchase replacement foam covers. Cheap ones are available from Radio Shack.
- Consider the benefits of purchasing a USB microphone which does not require an analog to digital signal converter, like a Fast Track USB or Mobile Pre. If you do purchase a M-Audio USB mic or Fast Track USB, be sure to purchase one that comes bundled with M-Audio Session software. (If you are a Mac user and don’t use Windows, you can always pass along this “GarageBand for Windows” program to a Windows-using friend.)
- Steer clear of cheap Samson microphones with 1/4″ adapter cables.
- Don’t let a lack of a “perfect microphone” hold you back from jumping into podcasting! You don’t need an expensive microphone, and whatever microphone you have can probably work just fine. More expensive mics can produce better results, but don’t put off a podcasting project just because you don’t have a fancy/expensive microphone. If you have a mic and want to podcast, get started!
A final microphone which I saw for the first time at Radio Shack today, but have not purchased or tried yet, is the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone. For $20, it looks like a good classroom microphone that, as a USB mic, is likely superior to the cheap $10 variety from Wal-Mart or Target.
Have you had good or bad experiences with microphones used for podcasting? I’m eager to make my first podcast with the M-Audio USB Producer. Hopefully I’ll be able to make one later this week!
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If you're trying to listen to a podcast episode and it's not working, check this status page. (Wes is migrating his podcasts to Amazon S3 for hosting.) Remember to follow Wesley Fryer on Twitter (@wfryer), Facebook and Google+. Also "like" Wesley's Facebook pages for "Speed of Creativity Learning" and his eBook, "Playing with Media." Don't miss Wesley's latest technology integration project, "Mapping Media to the Common Core / Curriculum."
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