Are you trying to decide between different microphone setups for computer usage?
- Are you just wanting to have better quality sound instead of your crappy built-in mic…but now lost in the maze of options?
Don’t worry, I already wasted many hours of my life going through the overwhelming amount of information out there. I read the reviews, the comparisons, watched the videos, listened to samples. Stared at specs I didn’t understand.
And while I’m still no audio engineering expert, I promise the info here will get you where you need to be and help make key decisions faster!
Different types of (computer) microphone setups and their use:
I’ll explain a couple key differences between common microphones used when recording audio/video to help you weed out options quicker.
Types of microphones (and their directional patterns):
- Lavalier microphone – thin wire with 3.5mm jack on one end and small little mic (with wind cover) on the other. They’re omni-directional (picks up all sides) and used for applications where you have to be on video but don’t want to have a visible microphone. Sound quality is good BUT they pick up noise in all directions which can be a major pain.
- Shotgun mic – long skinny mic, usually attached to a stick or boom arm and pointed directly at you. These mics pick up a very narrow area directly in front of the mic and almost nothing in all other areas. Great for situations where you don’t want a visible mic on the camera and/or really noisy environment and you don’t want to pick up any noise whatsoever other than the subject). You can be as far as 3-10 feet away from the mic depending on quality.
- Condenser mic – fat table mic, usually cardioid (picks up only front half of the mic and avoids back and sides) and sometimes even bi-directional (picks up front and back, no sides) and omnidirectional pattern. Sensitive mic and higher frequency range. Good for picking up lots of sounds (such as instruments), but can also pick up a little background noise and vibration (table bumps, keyboard presses). Also nice since you can have your mouth further away (up to 1 feet).
- Dynamic mic – skinny mic, usually cardioid pattern. Very durable and not so sensitive like condensers, usually better only for vocals and also has that distinct “broadcaster” studio/radio sound. Being less sensitive, it’s excellent at blocking background noise but the mic has to be very close to your mouth (3-6 inches).
For computer streaming, condenser mics are probably the gold standard because of their sensitivity (which allows warmer vocal range and for you to move slightly around the mic) while also blocking background noise pretty well. If you plan to play any instruments, or have multiple people and need to enable different directional patterns…condenser mics are almost the only choice.
Dynamic mics are good if you’re ok with the mic all the way up in your face, and also your content focus is more on the audio than video. Again, these are more common for audio-only applications (radio/podcast) or when you want that distinct “broadcast” sound.
Lavalier is really only good if you’re doing videos where you don’t want the mic to show or you’re moving around a lot.
Shotgun mics are good if you’re in the field/outdoors with lots of background noise. If you’re moving around, then you need someone to make sure to keep pointing the mic at you.
Condenser mics are usually used in a studio where you can control the sound environment and no unwanted sounds are there. Dynamic mics are usually in live situations (like on stage) where you want only the sound of the singer and not background noise. Lavalier (picks up everything) and shotgun mics (picks up only a control area) are their field use counterparts.
Popular microphone brands:
- Rode – Rode is a nice balance betweeen pro-grade gear that’s user friendly and compatible with most high-tech devices. They have many types of devices for all sorts of niche applications. Beloved by many, easy to use and setup. Their audio generally has a nice warm tone, more bass and colorful for vocals. Also considered less sensitive and better at reducing background noise.
- Audio-Technica (AT) – Even considered higher pro-grade gear than Rode, and can sometimes cost more. Their solutions used to require more technical setup and higher-end (more expensive equipment) but their recent offerings have certainly become easier to use. Their audio generally has a neutral accurate sound, good for capturing all sounds. Considered more sensitive and can pick up more background noise.
- Blue Designs – most known for their ubiquitous Blue Yeti mic among amateur podcasters and vloggers/streamers. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the Blue Yeti is the safest bet and easiest to get up and running with zero technical ability. The only complaint is among pro audio people who don’t respect the Yeti sound quality whatsoever. But for the average person with zero experience in audio equipment, it sounds amazing.
- Shure – this is really industry-grade application and I’d say overkill for what I’m doing. Probably much more technical to setup but hey, the sound quality is even higher if you’re willing to mess with it.
Different microphone users and applications:
- Amateur podcasters and game-streamers, vloggers – these are usually people who want much nicer audio than their built-in mic but can’t tell the difference between pro quality audio. Also they have tons of background noise (like games), move around a lot, and/or have lots of visual movement in their video content. They typically go with Blue Yeti and other consumer grade-equipment since it’s cheaper.
- Musicians or wannabe audiophiles – these are the folks with demand for higher sound quality and usually have musical instruments or simply want their voice to sound nice and richer.
- Professionals – these are the radio or podcasters, or vocal-heavy users and want the absolute best quality sound. They also have a controlled studio environment without background noises and distractions, and all other pro equipment.
What gives microphones their sound:
- Body construction – usually a thick, dense metal body is most preferred so the sound comes out solid. When you have a flimsy plastic mic, the sound comes out with a thin and tinny sound.
- Sensitivity – some mics are more sensitive than others. Usually, you want it to pick up all the range of your voice and musical instruments and with more detail, but it could also mean you get more unwanted background noise or frequencies. Generally, sensitive mics will need a more controlled environment.
- Pop filter – sensitive condenser mics will need a pop filter (wind shield) or else every B or P sound you make will make a noisy splash sound. To fix this, you only need to put a pop filter between the mic and your mouth to reduce the unwanted pop effect.
- Sibilance – some mics are more sensitive to the C and S sounds. You can reduce this by tilting the microphone away, moving it further, or pick a microphone with a “darker” sound (instead of “brighter” sound).
- Sound environment – your natural voice, instruments, or sound environment may exaggerate some sounds more than others.
- Color signature – some mics are neutral and very flat accurate sound. Other mics add some color to it. Different people like different sounds and prefer the signatures of certain brands. I feel the lower your skill and equipment grade, the more you will like a mic that colors things in for you. And likewise, the more professional your setup the more you will prefer a neutral sound which can be altered later in post-production.
- Diaphragm size (condenser mics) – small diaphragm mic (usually preferred for instruments) is more accurate and neutral sound and can record even sound frequencies that humans cannot hear. Large diaphragm mic (usually preferred for vocals) can be richer and more lush, more bass tone, and sounds more “professionally recorded”. Also some artists like the big diaphragm as there’s more to focus on than just the audience.
- Desktop mount – easiest way to get up and going, just set the microphone right on your desktop and off you go. Cheap microphones usually come with this setup as it’s intended for low-budget amateurs.
- Arm mount – this setup is meant to be used with an arm so you can swing the microphone in and out of the way, also have it off your desk (away from computer noise) and closer to your mouth for better sound quality. Having the mic on the arm will also allow you to angle it in different ways (like upside down) which can give better sound quality and also angling away from noise.
- Boom stick – somebody holding it up a stick with the mic at the end pointed at you. Usually only used in the a field setting where you’re moving around…like in sports.
XLR vs USB connection:
- Up until recently, XLR was the only option for studio-grade microphones. They sound great but had to be connected to a pre-amp or audio device in order to have enough power and loud enough volume.
- The advantage to XLR was high-quality sound. The disadvantage was you to spend more money buying more equipment and deal with more technical stuff (cables, knobs and dials). The other advantage in having more equipment is that you can slowly upgrade each piece…since the mic and mixer are separate.
- But nowadays, many people recording audio through their computer don’t want to fuss with a mixer, so they prefer a USB mic which has the pre-amp/mixer built in. Of course, the built-in preamp will be really crappy but hey most consumers won’t know or care.
- Luckily, many USB mics are much higher quality and can even rival low-grade XLR mic setups.
Other things that could matter:
- Monitor port – so you can plug in a headset and hear your voice live during recordings so you know what you sound like.
- Gain control – so you can control how loud/sensitive the mic is during recording.
- Connection quality – high quality connection is clean and quiet. Low quality connection can have some line-noise or hissing buzzing sounds.
- Loud noises – if you’re yelling and screaming a lot (like video game excitement), you may prefer a less sensitive mic for sure to avoid distortion.
Best microphone setups
1. USB condenser microphone
Many audio professionals may laugh at you but it really is the easiest and most convenient way to have a professional microphone sound. You simply buy a mic that comes with a USB connection so you can plug directly into your computer and not have to worry about any technical matters.
No matter how much your gimmicky USB mic costs, the built-in preamp will most likely be a cheap $20 one and can never sound as good as a solid XLR mic with $200 preamp. With that said, USB mics keep getting better and better. Every year, I feel more pros are willing to settle for convenient USB setups.
- Make sure your condenser mic either comes with a pop filter, or you buy a compatible one for it!
OPTION A – Blue Yeti:
This so-called “World’s #1 USB Microphone” is what most people have. Easy to setup, just plug and play, and it comes with 4 directional settings (cardioid, bi-directional, omni-directional, stereo). If you never had a “pro mic”, Blue Yeti will be just fine and sound super nice to you.
The standard one is probably the one most people have. I think if you wanted to spend more money, go with another brand for better performance from a true audio-brand.
OPTION B – Rode:
- Rode NT-USB Mini – $149 (compact)
- Rode NT-USB – $169 (standard)
- Rode Podcaster – $229 (dynamic, not condenser!)
These are really nice. Solid option that sounds good. Some people even prefer the Rode sound over the Audio-Technica sound. Of course, I let you decide but both are totally fine! For sure, Rode will sound better than Blue Yeti. I personally think anyone considering Blue Yeti should just go with a Rode mic instead. I also hear Rode is better than Audio-Technica for blocking background noise, and usually has a deeper bass sound. AT is considered more neutral.
Keep in mind that the Rode NT-USB is only in cardioid pattern. This probably isn’t a dealbreaker if you’re only recording yourself. But if you wanted an interviewer setup or to record sounds from all over the room, then you’ll need an omnidirectional mic or prefer the Blue Yeti with its multiple-direction patterns.
Please note the Rode Podcaster mic I included in here is a DYNAMIC mic, not a condenser mic. So you’ll need to use it with an arm and have it real close to your mouth.
OPTION C – Audio-Technica:
The ATR2500x was a beloved cult favorite by gamers who felt it blocked background noise so much better than their friends using Blue Yeti. The AT2020USB+ is basically the newer AT2020 model but now in USB version instead of the standard XLR format. The AT2020USB+ is super popular and sounds great. Even many audiophiles can respect that even USB can sound as good as its XLR version.
I think if you’re picking an option today….the clear choice is between either the AT2020USB+ or the Rode NT-USB. I think the Rode is more popular overall, and the AT2020USB+ is more respected by industry audio professionals. You can listen to comparisons online for yourself.
Generally, Audio-Technica is considered more sensitive than Rode. This can mean richer, and more detailed sound, but could also mean more background noise picked up. So look at your environment and decide.
OPTION D – Samson:
- Samson G-Track Pro – $129
Some people say the Samson sounds nicer than other options in the same price range. Others say it’s not as good. Sure, it’s probably matter of personal preference. I’m no expert but from what I’ve read, it seems the Samson is high quality sound but lower construction quality.
You can consider this model as a cheap but still good alternative to the others. Many people buy it when other brands are out of stock and then they fall in love with it anyway. Some people do complain about the gain control noise, but I think it’s not a big deal if you don’t mess with it much.
2. XLR condenser microphone with preamp
If you didn’t know anything about how XLR microphones work, you would have been like me scratching your head at why borrowing a friend’s mic was so hard to setup. XLR connections may look foreign to you with their 3-pin connector and no way of plugging into your computer.
These are basically the things you need when working with XLR mics:
- Preamp – preamps are the intermediary device between your mic and your recording device (computer). It provides power for the mic and also line controls. Preamps will also have handy knobs and dials for you to control the volume, also plug in headphones to monitor (hear) the recorded sound.
- XLR to 3.5mm cable – usually XLR will terminate into the big 1/4″ jack. What you need is 3.5mm jack to plug into your computer.
- TRRS cables and splitters (for Macbook) – if you have a Macbook, then you need to make sure it terminates into a 3.5mm TRRS jack (not regular TRS). You may need to purchase a Rode SC7 patch cable and/or Rode SC6 Splitter.
- Pop filter (needed for condenser mics) – get a compatible one with your mic or buy the kit that includes one already.
- Boom arm – you’ll probably want one for a more professional setup and to get the mic away from desk noises (keyboard sounds and table bumps). Also to be able to angle the mic down to get more warmth from your chest. This will cost around $100-150.
- Cheaper in volume – when you plan to have multiple mics, you’ll find going the XLR & preamp route is so much cheaper and higher quality than buying several all-in-one USB microphones. I think it’s also easier to keep all input devices in sync when they’re plugged into the same preamp/mixer.
- Rode PodMic – $99 (better than AT2020 at blocking background noise)
- Audio-Technica AT2020 – $95 (more sensitive than PodMic)
- Audio-Technica AT2035 – $149
- Rode NT1 – $249
- Rode Procaster – $229 (dynamic, not condenser)
- Shure SM7B – $399 (dynamic, not condenser)
Generally speaking, the bottom-level standard here is AT2020 (considered best quality and detail at that price-range, better than Rode PodMic). Even this sub-$100 mic combined with a solid preamp will sound better than any USB mic easily. So many people love the AT2020 as is already. Go into the higher price ranges and your stuff will sound super pro. If you have lots of background noise, the Rode PocMic will probably be your baseline XLR mic as many gamers and people using it at home with lots of noise easily prefer it over the AT2020.
The Shure SM7B is legendary but I doubt you’ll need it. If you want something super high-end, the AT2035 or Rode NT1 will definitely impress you. The Rode Procaster is another dynamic mic with raving reviews by singers. In case you’re wondering, the Procaster is clearly better than the Podcaster.
If you’re using an XLR mic, you need a preamp of some sort! Keep in mind that your mic and preamp should be of similar level. (For example you don’t want good mic with crap preamp.) The cheaper component will always bottleneck your overall sound quality.
You may hear some people using the terms PREAMP and MIXER interchangeably. To be specific, a preamp just adds power for boosting the mic level to line level so you can hear it. And some preamps will also have a port for you to plug in headphones so you can monitor the sound.
A mixer does so much more than a preamp. It already has a preamp built-in and aside from adding power, it can control audio input from multiple inputs/instruments and control each one separately (volume, EQ, reverb, etc) to get a desired composition. Of course…mixers are expected to be bigger, more expensive, and more technical than preamps.
- Shure X2U Adapter – $99
- Behringer UMC204HD 2X4 – $129
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) – $169
- Audient iD4 – $199
- Audient iD14 – $299
These preamps are listed in order of their expected quality from worst to best. The bottom-most Shure X2U is the most compact but high quality preamp. If you want the most minimal XLR setup that’s still respectable and has pro-grade features like gain control and latency-free monitoring, this is it! Only a hundred bucks and you have a super compact portable XLR-to-USB adapter with the preamp already built in.
But for real play, you’ll want to start with the Behringer or Focusrite. I’d say the Behringer is the next up budget model and still solid performance. The real all-around winner is probably the Focusrite with metal build and even better quality. Still got more $$$ to spare? Go up into the Audient preamps for yet even better sound quality.
Now if you go into those manufacturers, you’ll see many similar models and big spreadsheets of specs and what not. In some cases, the higher cost means better quality. In other cases, the higher cost simply means more connection options available. If you plan to have more mics and different devices (like MIDI/optical/etc), then you may want a model with more connections. Personally, I prefer the most portable thing.
I should also warn you to read the reviews before you buy any preamp. I’ve read lots of nightmare driver and connection issues when trying to connect them to Windows 10 computers.
3. Lavalier mic
I imagine if you’re doing the lavalier thing, it’s because you want to save money and/or you want to be able to get up and walk around. Lapel mics are also super cheap and minimal if you want to do a quick podcast somewhere outside your house and don’t want to carry bulky gear around.
I will warn you…Lavalier mics probably sound good-enough in terms of quality. Their biggest issue for me is the omnidirectional pattern and that they pick up lots of background noise. If you have a computer fan nearby or street noise just outside your window, it will pick up on a lavelier mic!
- Rode Lavalier GO – $79
- Youmic Lavalier Lapel Microphone – $15
- Rode Wireless GO – $199
- Fotowelt Wireless Lavalier System – $119
I included the standard wired lavalier mics. Is the Rode really worth $60 more than some cheap generic $15 one? I would say no but maybe it is. You can try and see for yourself.
The wireless systems I included are great if you don’t want a visible wire between you and the recording device. Or maybe you just want to be more than 3 feet away and don’t want to be tethered by any wires. The Rode Wireless GO is awesome. It even has a built-in mic that’s pretty good but if you feel it’s too bulky to clip around your neck, then I just wear it on your waist and connect a lavalier mic up to your neck instead.
I should also remind you that you may need the Rode SC7 patch cable and SC6 splitter if you’re connecting any of this to a Macbook or iOS device. You may also need a 3.5mm to lightning adapter as well.
For those curious about the Fotowelt, it’s sold as a generic version that supposedly works just the same as the Rode Wireless GO (but priced cheaper). I went with a trusted name like Rode and happy I did, it looks and works great.