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.

M-Audio Mobile Pre

For a microphone, I purchased a Shure PG-58 for $50 at Best Buy. As a less expensive microphone, the PG-58 is a dynamic mic.

Shure PG-58 vocal microphone

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.” :-)

Tim Wilson's 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.

Samson Model R21S dynamic microphone

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.

M-Audio - Producer USB Microphone

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. Steer clear of cheap Samson microphones with 1/4″ adapter cables.
  4. 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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  • Pam

    Thanks for the detailed information about your experiences with podcasting mics. I’ve used the m-audio fast track mic that came bundled with Podcast Factory and it does a nice job, but I have to watch the students because they tend to get too close to the mic and then we get the hisses and pops. When recording a podcast that involves several students, I’ve had good luck with the Belkin Tunetalk mic attached to my ipod and then using Audacity to edit.
    Thanks for all you do for the edtech community!

  • http://www.videointheclassroom.com Mathew

    I use an iMic with which you can use any XLR microphone and I’ve had excellent results. Ted Lai recommended this mic: http://tinyurl.com/2f72bu but I already had one I use with my video camera that I wanted to be able to use.

  • http://learninginhand.com Tony Vincent

    I’m using the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone with students. While I usually prefer a headset mic, a desktop mic allows for recording more than one person at a time. I’m happy with the sound quality, though I always run audio through the free Levelator software. It does a fantastic job of leveling out soft and loud student voices.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Pam: You are most welcome! You might try a $20 pop filter that you can buy at the Guitar Center, or you can make one with an embroidery hoop and panty hose (so I’ve been told.) That will deal with the pops and hisses. Matthew, I had heard of the Griffin iMic before but hadn’t checked it out. I will look into it! I’d seen the R0DE mic you linked to and it looks good, though about twice the price of the M-Audio Producer or Snowball mics. There is another USB microphone that Jamey Osborne has used and he told me about at TCEA last year, but he’d had a lot of background static with it that at the time he hadn’t resolved.

    Tony, I’m glad to hear you’ve had good success with both the Logitech USB mic and Levelator. I haven’t used Levelator much myself, so I probably need to revisit and use it again!

  • http://www.speakingofhistory.blogspot.com Eric Langhorst

    My current favorite is the Logitech Premium Notebook Headset – http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-980445-0403-Premium-Notebook-Headset/dp/B000HCRVQ2

    It is USB based, folds up into a small hard plastic case that is great to take on the road and has a sort of built in windscreen along with the micrphone so that it won’t fall off like a foam one. The box stores carry them for around $50-$60 but Amazon currently has them for right at $40 – I just bought three for our classroom through a grant.

    I have heard great things about the Snowball but then in reading reviews at the end of the summer – when I was looking to buy a microphone – many people were having problems using Vista with the Snowball. This might be fixed by now.

    As Tony commented above – Levelator really makes up for a lot of volume problems. Great program.

    Thanks for your great review. I just purchased a H2 from Zoom to help “up my game” with mobile recording and am eager to see if there is a dramatic increase in quality from what I am doing now using mostly i-Rivers.

  • http://musicisnotforinsects.blogspot.com Ken

    Wes-

    With my students, I use a Logitech USB Mic you referred to in your post. It works best if I tell my kids to “point it at their nose” to avoid popping and hissing. I think your Plantronics windscreen might be a good solution for popping and sibilance on the Logitech also…

    But I really love my Zoom H2 because it doubles as a great stand-alone portable digital recorder and USB mic. See my review of it here: http://musicisnotforinsects.blogspot.com/2007/11/great-digital-recorder-zoom-h2.html

    Thanks for these great tech posts. Keep ‘em coming!

  • http://www.learningwithlucie.com Lucie deLaBruere

    Wes,
    My son (music production technology major) bought me the SnowBall podcasting microphone for Christmas last year and the Coolness LOOK was the most exciting thing about it. My students all wanted to use the COOL microphone at first, but quickly resorted back to the inexpensive $5 – $15 microphones to use with Audacity. We could barely hear ourselves — a firmware upgrade helped a little. Of course, we are doing classroom level podcast projects and are not at a level where we are critiquing our hisses. The same son and his band did teach me about wind shields one day when they borrowed pantyhose and a coat hanger to record the vocal tracks of their first album “In the Basement”.

  • http://macadder.blogspot.com Danny Rose

    Just a few things:

    The foam windscreen could be replaced with a standard piece of foam and a few well placed rubber bands. If the color of the foam puts you off, you can usually get windscreens in different colors at any place that sells mics and cut them up as needed.

    The few podcasts I’ve done have been done on a standard CD recorder. We’ve got a few with XLR inputs that make it easy to just plug in a mic and go (although they were on the expensive side). Editing was done by ripping the CD and using any audio or video editing package (I used Vegas but Audacity will work just as well for something like this). This approach can allow you to splice an interview together using one mic and no one will be able to tell. I’ve even seen mics that allow one to record on the mic itself and extract the file with a USB connector. Very cool.

    Finally, try the condenser mic before you buy one. We use them for normal sound reinforcement, but never had to use one for voiceover work, at least the kind of stuff we do. Not sure if it would be worth the extra money. The Shure SM 58 is a wonderful dynamic mic that has been around for years and might be worth considering if you want to venture into professional equipment. If you do get a condenser, make sure Phantom power is available on the mixer or via some other means. They (condenser mics) are a lot more sensitive, which can be both good and bad.

    -D

  • http://missprofe.wordpress.com Miss Profe

    Enjoyed the post, Wes. I always try to learn vicariously through you tech folks!:)

    Anyway, as a FL teacher about to step into podcasting, and who uses an iBook G4, and doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, which usb condenser microphone would you recommend?

    I look forward to your reply.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Well, the only condenser mic I’ve used to date is the M-Audio Producer, and I haven’t used it that much yet to form an opinion about it. My recommendation now based on what I know would depend on the setting you want to use it. My Platronics USB headset has been GREAT, but it is just for use by one person at one time. If you want to use a mic for classroom podcasting, I would check out the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone that Tony Vincent mentioned and recommended in his comment above. I saw that recently at Radio Shack for $20. Good price and reportedly good performance. Tony is a mac user also and a super-guru for classroom podcasting, so I trust his opinion!

  • http://missprofe.wordpress.com Miss Profe

    Wes, it would be for my own use to record podcasts for my students.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    I’d definitely go with a Platronics headset then!

  • http://missprofe.wordpress.com Miss Profe

    Thank you, Wes. I really appreciate your time and patience with my questions.:)

  • http://room114.wikispaces.com Jim Cottrell

    Information about equipment to record high quality phone interviews.
    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/find/newsLetter/Telephone-Interviews.jsp

  • http://room114.wikispaces.com Jim Cottrell

    FYI, Ideas on equipment for recording high quality phone interivews.
    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/find/newsLetter/Telephone-Interviews.jsp

  • http://www.calavera.com/skullblog/ kalavinka

    Have you had experience using 2 USB microphones at the same time to Garageband? I don’t own any good mics and am looking at options. I’ve only plugged in a guitar with a USB converter to Garageband. I am thinking of connecting 2 microphones for podcasting but thought it would have to be XLRs to pre-amp.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Yes, my son and I were able to record with 2 USB mics in Garageband back in December, and I wrote a post about our experiences. It is a little tricky but definitely possible and doable. Good luck!

  • Sammi

    Hey! I just bought the Producer USB Microphone from M-Audio and it seems when i sing into it i just get like some screeching static noise on some parts but not on others. hass this happened to you? if it has how can you fix it

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    I haven’t had that problem– try using it on a different computer to see if it is an issue with your local system or with the mic itself. If it’s the mic go exchange it! I have been VERY pleased with mine, works great with WinXP computers as well as Macs.

  • Clint Bradford

    Great info – thanks! Although I am using a Heil PR40 (into a ProSunos TubePRE with TingSol 12AX7 tube) into my 17″ MacBook Pro, Heil just released the HM-12 mic – at US$70 retail. VERY accurate voice reproduction. My mini-review is at … http://tinyurl.com/HEIL-HM12

  • Gaileejohnson

    This is very helpful. I am looking for what I need to create and make a  podcast and I came across your review. Thanks for the post!!! I am currently not using a microphone but I will be buying one soon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kyle-Raub/36605199 Kyle Raub

    The way to go from my experience is an all digital micpre/interface (Focusrite Saffire 24Pro is excellent) and  1-2 Rode Procasters (goodies included in the buy).  That way, with some good cables, you keep your singal path very very clean, and can compress or EQ to taste.  Transparent in, whatever you want out. 

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