Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 | by matthew mcglynn
My preference for dynamic microphones for podcast and broadcast use is well-established; see the Ultimate Podcast Mic Shootout, in which I tested every great dynamic mic the broadcast industry has been loving for 50 years.
Broadcast dynamic mics aren’t necessarily friendly to beginners, though. They tend to have low sensitivity levels, which means they require preamps with a lot of clean gain. That problem was precisely the reason we tested all the leading USB mic pre’s with the Shure SM7B in our Budget USB audio interface shootout. We reasoned that most podcasters can’t afford a high-end analog preamp and separate analog-digital converter, and would benefit from knowing that there are affordable USB audio interfaces that have enough gain to drive a low-output dynamic. (For the record, we made a couple great recommendations in that piece, so if you’re shopping for an inexpensive signal chain for your broadcast dynamic mic, click that link to find our picks.)
Recently, we’ve seen a couple intriguing new podcast mics come on the market: dynamic mics with onboard amplifiers, ADCs, and USB output. This means podcasters can plug these mics directly into their computers and get all the benefits of a dynamic voice mic with none of the hassle of needing a separate preamp and converter.
How do they compare to the industry standards? Let’s find out.
We tested three moving-coil USB dynamics, plus a hybrid USB/analog condenser that shined in our shootout of $200 condensers for podcasting, the Studio Projects LSM.
To that mix, we added two high-end broadcast dynamics. These are not USB mics, so we used the Mackie Onyx Blackjack, an affordable 24-bit mic pre and audio interface that performed well in our Budget USB audio interface shootout. Both these analog dynamics were used with the Cloud Microphones “Cloudlifter” (see my review of the Cloudlifter CL-1 mic activator.)
|Type||USB Dynamic||USB/Analog Dynamic||USB/Analog Dynamic||USB/Analog Condenser||Analog Dynamic||Analog Dynamic|
This audio test is completely unfair: the samples below include USB mics ranging in price from $50-$230, against a 24-bit signal chain worth over $750. Do you think you’ll hear a difference?
Optimizing input gain for USB mics
It is worth noting that the input level for all these USB mics is adjustable via software, at least under OSX. If you set the input level too high, you’ll clip the mic’s signal. Too low, and you’ll have a very noisy track when you apply digital gain or compression in your DAW. For best results, set up the mic in the position you’ll use it, and speak into the mic as you will when tracking. Set the input gain slider (found in System Preferences, Sound pref pane on OSX) so the input level peaks at the second-last bar. If the rightmost bar lights up, you risk clipping. If the mic has 16-bit output, you’ll want as hot a level as you can get without clipping, to maximize the signal to noise ratio.
This step will make an audible difference in the noise floor of a 16-bit USB audio track. I’ve tested it, and confirmed the results.
All mics were recorded directly into Pro Tools, then RMS gain-matched, exported at 24/44.1, fine-tuned and converted to 320 kbps MP3 via Sample Manager.
Listen blind to the samples below, then click the button at the bottom to reveal which mic is which.Microphone 1
(Find the 24-bit WAV archive here [ZIP, 11MB].)
In all cases, I recorded at a distance that seemed best for the mic. For example, the LSM sounded muddy and dull at 2 inches, so I backed off to about 5 inches. Conversely, the Podcaster sounded thin and strident if I wasn’t right on top of the mic, so I recorded the Podcaster track at a distance of about an inch.
The SM7B’s tone switches were all set flat. On the M-99, I’d enabled the “presence enhance” EQ circuit, which boosts the highs to compensate for proximity when worked close.
As noted above, each of these mics prefers its own working distance. A mic’s “proximity effect” is the amount of bass boost it produces as you move the mic closer to the sound source. Some mic designs, like the SM7B, keep the capsule far enough back from the grille that proximity effect is reduced. Other mics, like the Podcaster and M-99, change tonality significantly as you move closer or farther.
Proximity effect is a tool, not a fault. Voice artists and broadcasters develop their technique to use proximity effect to their advantage. Amateur speakers and podcasters need to proceed with caution, though; until you have developed your technique, the tone of your speech track will change if you move around the microphone during the podcast… unless you pick a mic with minimal proximity effect, like the SM7B or Electro-Voice RE20.
Compare the proximity effect for these microphonesAudio-Technica AT2005USB
Studio Projects LSM
I conducted my own blind listening test with the 24-bit WAV audio tracks. (To be clear, none of the USB mics has 24-bit output, but I recorded them all into a 24-bit Pro Tools session, so my raw audio had been upsampled to 24 bit.) Several of the USB mics stood out immediately because their level of self-noise is higher. Specifically, I heard more hiss from the two Audio-Technica mics and the LSM. I didn’t find the noise level on these tracks to be offensive, though.
There is a slight 100Hz hum audible in a few of these tracks. This was environmental noise, not a fault of any of the microphones. See my recent story on how to fix USB microphone hum for the explanation.
Blind listening results
In a blind test, I picked my favorite VO mic, the beyerdynamic M-99 — and not simply because I recognized it. (Truth be told, I thought at the time it was the SM7B.) It sounded the most natural of all of these, with good articulation and no hint of sibilance. And I love the low noise floor (which, granted, is due in part to the Cloudlifter and Onyx Blackjack). To my ear, this track conveys authority.
The SM7B sounds good here; it is my second-favorite of the bunch. It has a flatter midrange than the M-99, and is more accurate for it if perhaps not as flattering (IMO) as the scooped sound of the M-99.
The Podcaster sounds pushed in the upper mids. My voice sounds hard and nasal through this mic. The highs have good detail, but the track lacks warmth. When I compare it to the other mics, the Podcaster track sounds bandpassed, or aggressively EQ’d in a way that is unflattering to my voice (or, perhaps, to my ear).
That said, I must point out that the Podcaster has the second-lowest self-noise of all the mics in this test. It doesn’t achieve the deep, black silence of the M-99, but it comes close. It has lower self-noise than the SM7B, in fact. Kudos to Rode for building a very low-noise amplifier and ADC circuit into this mic.
The LSM sounded really nice here. I can hear, again, why I picked it as a favorite in our Best $200 Podcasting Condenser Mic Shootout. It’s not a neutral sound, but its color seems to work on my voice. It isn’t as smooth in the mids as the M-99, and owing to the sensitivity of the condenser capsule, the LSM picks up a bit more mouth noise than is ideal — which of course is one of the reasons I prefer dynamics for this application. Nonetheless, the LSM turned in a very usable track.
The two Audio-Technica mics impressed me. For the price, both sound great. I think neither A-T mic provides as high fidelity a track as the pricier analog mics here. In comparison to the M-99, both A-T mics sound a bit veiled, a bit less detailed. But I think they’d have sounded better — less veiled, more open — if I’d backed off the mic slightly. But even so, as I say, for the price these mics seem difficult to beat.
Spend more, get more
Let’s get the obvious but arguably painful conclusion out of the way first: my $460 analog mic, through a $300 24-bit signal chain, sounds better than anything else here. But it should, at 3-16x the price of the USB mics in this test. If your budget allows for more than the cost of these USB mics, head over to our Editor’s Choice Podcasting Gear listing to find the best sound for your budget.
Consider too what you’ll use the mic for. If the only thing you’ll ever record is your own voice, then you should focus on a mic that shines for that application. If you’ll record instruments too, or if you’ll use the mic on stage, then you should consider these factors.
The LSM, AT2005, and ATR2100 all have analog as well as USB outputs. This means you can use them on stage or with an outboard preamp/interface. I think the LSM is especially versatile because (as we heard in the Best $200 Condenser series) it sounds really good on a lot of sources.
All three USB dynamics (but not the LSM) have headphone jacks and gain controls, enabling you to monitor your own voice as you record. The other mics in this test would need to be monitored through your DAW.
All these USB mics come with USB cables; the A-T mics and the LSM include analog XLR cables too. The A-T mics also have tripod desk stands in the box. None of the USB mics come with shockmounts. In the case of the Rode Podcaster, the PSM1 shockmount is available separately for about $40, and I’d recommend it given my experience with the mic’s sensitivity to mechanical vibration.
I am very pleasantly surprised by the sound quality of the Audio-Technica mics in this test. At street prices of $50–$90, these are unbeatable for a low-cost podcasting solution.
What’s the difference between these mics? Their specs are identical. Their accessories are identical. Their cartridges appear to be identical. One lists for $149, with a 1-year warranty, while the other lists for $80, with a lifetime warranty. (Which, yes, seems backwards.) The pricier mic has a nicer finish, especially on the grille; the ATR2100 USB has a gray-painted grille that to me looks less professional than the AT2005.
When I cut back and forth between these two tracks, I found moments in each that I preferred over the other. These are performance differences. I think the sound of these two mics is essentially interchangeable.
Update! I tested these two Audio-Technica mics head-to-head, and posted comparison audio: mic vs mic, analog vs USB outputs, and additional ATR2100-USB comparisons: SM57, Rode Podcaster, Studio Projects LSM. See ATR2100-USB and AT2005USB, A Closer Look.
And that’s a fairly amazing piece of news. Because it means I can recommend the ~$50 (street price) ATR2100USB as the best entry-level podcasting mic on the market. The mic’s sound quality is fantastic for this price point. And I think new podcasters will sound better through this mic than through any of the condenser mics being pitched to the podcasting market.
The Studio Projects LSM, while not a dynamic, is a contender for a workhorse mic role in any studio. It’s a really solid little mic, with a usefully compact form factor. I continue to recommend this mic for just about any home studio application.
The Rode Podcaster impressed me for its high sensitivity and very low noise circuitry. The sound of the mic didn’t flatter my voice, but I can imagine voices on which the mic would work better.
The Podcaster does have a pronounced EQ curve, which I can hear even in the RODE Soundbooth application, but it doesn’t sound bad there. If your budget has room for the Podcaster, I recommend trying it on your own voice to see if it’s a fit.
Don’t forget proximity
Remember, whatever mic you end up with will favor a particular working distance for your voice. Try the mic at a range of distances, from right on it to eight or ten inches back. Find the distance that sounds best to you.
Credits and Disclosures
The narration track is an excerpt from Mixerman’s wonderful book, Zen and the Art of Mixing.
The Rode Podcaster and both Audio-Technica microphones were loaned to me by their respective manufacturers for the purposes of this review. The LSM, SM7B, and M-99 are personal property, as are the Cloudlifter and Onyx Blackjack. We received no compensation from beyerdynamic, Mackie, Cloud, Shure, Studio Projects, Rode, or Audio-Technica for this review.
I’d love to hear your experiences with podcasting mics, especially if you’ve used more than one. Do you prefer condensers or dynamics? How many mics did you try before finding one you love?