Mic ramblings

This is a long rambly post about microphones and mic quality and my dissatisfaction with perfectly good audio tools.

(I should note, for my own future reference, that this post is not entirely in chronological order.)

Back when Mary Anne and Ben first invited me to be a guest on an episode of their podcast, about a year ago, I decided that I needed a higher-quality audiovisual setup than I had.

I know that lots of people just use their laptop’s built-in microphone and camera, and the results are perfectly good for most purposes. And I had been using that approach for months to remotely attend video meetings for work. But I wanted higher audio and video quality, and better physical placement. (For example, to put my laptop’s camera at eye level, I had to put the laptop on a stack of books or something, which meant its keyboard was unusably high.)

The camera part wasn’t too hard. At some point, I bought a Logitech C920S camera and put it on top of my external monitor, at about eye height. It had some color-balance issues when I had a solid white background behind me, but with other backgrounds it works very well; I think I look a lot better with that camera than with the built-in MacBook one.

But the audio part ended up being complicated.

I had a pair of headphones that work had provided me a few years earlier, which had a small mic on a stem/boom attached to the headphones. But when I used that setup, I could barely hear myself talk, which I found really disconcerting. The people I was talking with could hear me, but I couldn’t really hear myself.

I talked with tech support at work, and I tried to research the issue online, but as far as I could figure out, there was no way to set up those headphones so that I could hear myself. The closest I got, iIrc, was running the output from the mic through QuickTime Player and playing it back into the headphones; but there was enough delay before I heard myself that it was even more offputting than not being able to hear myself at all.

(I suspect that if you have “on-ear” headphones—the kind that sit against your ear rather than surrounding your ear—it’s a lot easier to hear yourself talk. So I probably could’ve solved the problem from the start by buying on-ear headphones with a mic on a stem/boom. But I prefer over-ear headphones, the kind that cup around your whole ear.)

(At one point I asked a friend whether their headphones-with-attached-mic let them hear themselves talk, and they said that it didn’t but that they thought that would sound weird. So I dunno, maybe most people don’t even want to be able to hear themselves when they talk. But for me, it feels weird to not be able to.)

So I looked into alternatives. All the articles I found about podcasting talked about the Blue Yeti microphone as being the best possible mic for podcasting, but the Blue Yeti seemed big and intimidating. So I bought the small version: a Blue Yeti Nano. But when I tried it out, it turned out to be very echoey, picking up all sorts of sounds from the room around me, including echoes off of various hard surfaces. I gathered that I could improve things by turning down the gain, but (a) at the time, I didn’t really know what “gain” was, and (b) iIrc, the main difference for my purposes between the full-size and Nano versions of the Blue Yeti was that the Nano didn’t have a built-in gain control. I also heard that I could improve things by using the Blue Yeti in a coat closet or other space surrounded by soft material rather than hard reflective walls, but that didn’t seem feasible for my situation.

So I did some further reading, and found several articles and videos that said that the Blue Yeti was a terrible choice for podcasting. So I bought the mic that those pieces recommended: the Audio-Technica ATR2100x.

And that has worked quite well for me. It connects to a USB-C hub that connects to my MacBook, and I keep my headphones plugged into the headphone jack on the back of the mic so I can hear myself talk.

And all of that has been fine. But the way that I keep the mic at mouth level is that it’s mounted on a floor-standing mic stand, which has a fairly wide footprint and is kind of awkwardly jammed in against the front of my desk. And now that I’m going to be working from home long-term, I kind of want to improve my setup.

And I’ve watched a couple of video recordings of podcasts in which the podcasters have had those lovely professional-studio-looking desk-mounted (or wall-mounted) boom-arm mic holders, with the mic hanging down from the arm that it’s mounted on, and some part of me thinks that if only I had that setup, it would resolve all of my microphone-related dissatisfactions.

So I spent a while the other day reading online about those boom arms. And several different sites highly recommended the RØDE PSA1. So I’ve now ordered one of those.

…I recognize that this is all ridiculous. I am not a professional singer or podcaster or broadcaster. I’m using a mic in my room at home, not in a soundproof studio. (Which is why I want to stick with a dynamic mic rather than a condenser; as I understand it, condenser mics are more likely to pick up background noise and room noise.) I mostly use my setup for video meetings, at work or with family, where most other attendees are just using their laptop built-in mics. There’s really no need for me to have a professional studio setup.

(I’m imminently about to record a presentation for a work thing, and I would love to have a pro-quality setup for that, but I don’t have time to get all the equipment and get it set up before I need to record that. And what I have is plenty good enough for that anyway.)

And yet… I’m pretty sure that my voice sounds a lot better with the ATR2100x external mic than it does with the MacBook built-in mic. In particular, I think that the ATR2100x picks up the bass in my voice a lot better than any of the other options I’ve tried.

(It would also help if I had a good way to test all of this to see how it sounds. Last time I tried recording with various mics to compare them, it was specifically in the context of singing, and the software options available to me turned out to have bugs that made them inadequate to the purpose. But I should try recording non-singing speech with various options and comparing the results.)

While I was looking at boom arms, I also read up on pop filters and shock mounts. I have a pop filter, but its gooseneck arm is annoying; it often just collapses. I read about a pop filter made by PEMOtech that looks much cooler, and is smaller (so it doesn’t block as much of your face), and clips on easily, without a gooseneck arm; but it turns out that filter is only useful for side-address mics. And most side-address mics are condenser mics. So I’m sticking with the pop filter I already have, for now. Shock mounts also look cool, and I read a couple of articles that said that they’re useful even for dynamic mics, but I eventually reminded myself that an occasional mic noise on the rare occasion that I bump the mic is not a big deal in my contexts—I’m not recording, so it doesn’t really matter if once in a while there’s an extra noise.

And I also looked at some other microphones. The Shure MV7 and Samson Q9U are apparently particularly good, and both of them look fancier than the ATR2100x that I have (which looks like a handheld mic rather than like a studio mic). But the ATR still works very well for my purposes, so I’m not gonna replace it just yet.

So in the end, after all that reading up, the only new thing I’m getting for now is the boom arm. But at least I’m learning more about this stuff. And I’m taking notes, so that next time I start pining after some fancy piece of audio tech, I can start from where I am now rather than having to re-learn all of it.

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