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Best Microphones for Recording

What’s the best microphone for video makers? Will an XLR mic like the Shure SM7B or SM58 work for you? Or should you go with a USB or a lavalier mic?

Whether you’re a budding YouTuber, a regular vlogger or a wannabe movie maker, audio plays an important role in what you do. Almost all audio for video starts life at one place: your microphone. And with so many competing options available – ranging from professional XLRs to handhelds, desktops, lavaliers and beyond – it sometimes feels like it would be easier to give up and rely on that tiny yet convenient in-built mic on your camera.

With the right tools, you can get considerably better performance than your camera or phone’s basic, built-in mic, lifting your audio production to new heights while giving your video productions the professional edge they deserve.

FIVE WAYS TO RECORD

XLR Microphone

+ The industry standard for music and video
+ Balanced cabling reduces interference and allows phantom power supply
+ Can be connected directly to XLR equipped cameras or via an XLR converter to 3.5mm inputs
+ Large choice of types, sizes and pick up patterns
– May need an additional preamp or power source
– Much less discreet than a lavalier, covers the face

Lavalier Microphone

+ Subtle, less visible, doesn’t block the face
+ Moves with sound source
+ Can be positioned ‘in close’ to minimise background noise
– Frequency response may not match best XLR mics
– Can easily pick up clothes rustling
– Expensive for a decent one

Boom Mic

+ Captures natural balance of overall scene 
+ Premium quality mics can be used
+ Shotgun or cardioid mics can be chosen to suit the task
– Requires skilled audio recordist to handle boom 
– Important to keep mic out of video shot
– Room ambience and background noise can be problematic

In-built Mics

+ Convenient and portable
+ Included free and incorporated within device
+ Audio recorded with video – no need to sync later
– Lack of bass, typically pick up handling noise 
– Harsh integrated limiters compromise fidelity and enhance noise 
– Unprofessional sound but possible to repair in post production

USB / Headset / Bluetooth Mics

+ Easy to connect and should be plug-n-play
+ Bluetooth is straightforward to pair
– Designed for specific situations – not super-flexible
– Signal quality is OK but not as good as the best XLRs
– Bluetooth range can be limited

HEAR THE SONIC DIFFERENCE

Discover how six different microphone compare when recording the same source in this accusonus video.

LAVALIER MICROPHONES (Clip Mics)

What is it? You may not have realised, but you’ve seen countless lavalier mics before. Be they clipped to the jackets of 6 O’clock News reporters, or attached to guests on a chat show, these convenient bits of kit are all over your favourite TV shows. Popular for a wide range of situations including broadcast, theatre sound, interviewing and podcasting, lavaliers are ideal for capturing speech. 

Sometimes called lapel or simply ‘lav’ mics, they’re typically light and small (no bigger than a coin) and can be both discreet and stylish. They clip onto clothing (hence the ‘lapel’ reference), and since it’s attached, the mic moves with the sound source, delivering a consistent level and sound. Cabling is usually low profile and can be tucked away out of sight. 

Lavalier mics can be dynamic or condenser types, with the latter requiring some form of powering (plug-in power or battery power). The frequency response is reasonably flat, although the highest and lowest sounds a lavalier mic can pick up may be more limited than in studio condensers. Directional models are also available, so bear this in mind when shopping. To get a good balance of direct sound to room ambience, lavaliers are usually positioned quite close to the sound source.

A lavalier (or ‘Lapel’) microphone stays with your source since it’s clipped to their clothing (Source: Rode)

Lavalier Mics in Use
When used outside, ambient wind noises are usually minimised with a detachable foam wind protector. For extremely windy weather look out for the small fluffy ‘dead cat’ style windscreens. As the mics are often clipped onto or very near clothing, unpleasant rustling and contact noises can be a problem. Some mics are more susceptible to this, so make sure to check out user reports.

Making Decisions
One of your biggest decisions with a lavalier is whether to go for a wired or wireless design. Sonically, this shouldn’t influence things, but it can influence how the mics are powered, how easy they are to set up, and also their reliability. Wired lavalier condensers are very reliable and can be designed for low voltage plug-in power (supplied via the recorder’s mic input), regular 48 Volt phantom power, or even use an inline battery power pack. Other options include USB and also connection to a smartphone headphone output using a 3.5mm TRRS jack. So, look at your recording device and check whether the lavalier you choose will work with it out of the box or will need a plug converter such as 3.5mm TRS to 3.5mm TRRS or lightning. 

With a wireless lavalier, there will be battery powered transmitter and receiver packs with the transmitter pack powering the mic. Transmitter packs can be belt-mounted, and receivers camera-mounted. Communication usually uses UHF or 2.4GHz wireless, although there are some Bluetooth options too. Wireless may seem more convenient, but setup can be more complex, and batteries or charging are an inconvenience.

IN-BUILT MICS

What is it? You’ve probably got a lot of experience with inbuilt mics already. You’ll find them on all laptops, phones and video recorders. They provide a quick and easy way to record audio that’s both in sync with the picture and incorporated in the same file as your video. However, for various reasons the results may not be up to scratch, and other miking options can work much better. 

Your phone, computer or camera’s in-built mic is convenient, but it won’t provide very good sound quality

In Use
Integrated mics can deliver decent results. However, close proximity to internal motors (in cameras) and fans (in computers) mean they easily pick up undesirable noises. And then there’s handling noise – to reduce this and improve ease of use, in-builts often include some audio processing such as removing low frequencies and level limiting. This can be useful but may also colour your sound in an undesirable way. Throw in the fact that an on-camera mic could be some distance from the sound source, and you’ve got a recipe for an unprofessional sound recording from the outset.

Even so, if you need to capture audio with minimum setup time, or you’re in a controlled environment close to the sound source, then the in-built can be a lifesaver. What’s more, there are plenty of plugins that can help salvage the audio at a later date.

The Best Microphone for iPhone Video Recording
Upgrading your iPhone or iPad recording quality can be as simple as plugging in an external mic that’s designed to fit it. Models typically come in both minijack and iOS lightning connector equipped designs, and can be attached to the device’s body, making operation just as handy as using the in-built mic. There are many different models all with unique features. For example, the highly regarded Shure MV88 supports their MOTIV software app, which provides settings like EQ, gain, stereo width, limiting, compression, wind reduction and five source specific DSP modes. 

You can improve your phone’s sound with certain microphones that are made specifically for the task (Source: Shure)

The Best Microphones for Speech
There are numerous microphones designed for vocals, ranging from handheld dynamics to large capsule condensers. What’s best will often depend on the environment. It’s certainly unrealistic to expect a classic studio condenser to cope with the outdoors or even any kind of handling, so if you’re capturing a concert style live performance a classic handheld dynamic (Shure SM58, Audix OM7 or Sennheiser E935) will do an excellent job. For a more controlled environment, and where the mic will be mounted, opt for a studio dynamic (Shure SM7B), an affordable large capsule condenser (Rode NT1) or something more fancy (AKG C414 XLII).  

XLR MICROPHONES

What is it? XLR microphones are an industry standard format used in broadcast, studio, live and location work. The name comes from their very recognisable 3 pin connector and this comes in male and female versions. The three pins means it can carry a balanced signal, which helps avoid interference that may be picked up at the cable. The same balanced audio lead can also carry phantom power if the mic needs it.

XLR microphone connections are the industry standard, but you’ll need an audio interface to hook it into a computer (Source: Stagg)

Dynamic vs Condenser Mics
Despite the recognisable XLR connector, for video work you will usually encounter two very different XLR mic types: dynamics and condensers. Dynamics are sturdy, reliable, affordable and can handle very loud sounds with ease. They also don’t need batteries or external power to work. However, they are less sensitive, so need more preamp gain and are less capable of accurately capturing higher frequencies. In contrast, condensers are mechanically more fragile, more sensitive to both humidity, loud sounds and wind, and require powering. The benefits of condensers include low self noise and good response over a wide frequency range.

In Use
Condenser mics come in a variety of diaphragm sizes, with large diaphragms often over an inch across. This can make their overall size quite large and cumbersome. Similarly, some dynamics can be quite heavy. As these are both professional-standard microphones, you’ll need to pick up an appropriate stand to operate them properly.

A condenser mic gives you more sensitivity for quiet speakers but requires phantom power

Microphones can come with various pick up patterns. This means the direction or directions that the microphone detects sound from will vary depending on which mic you buy, which option you choose depends on what you plan to use your mic for. Omnidirectional mics are great for recording several people as they pick up sound from all directions whereas a cardioid mic, which detects sound from a single direction only, would be better for recording one person. Some condensers have multiple pickup pattern options built in or swappable capsules which means more flexibility. 

Making Decisions 
If you want to use an XLR based microphone you need to check that your recording device is capable of connecting to it and providing it with suitable preamp gain and phantom power if the mic needs it. For computer recording this simply means you’ll need a suitably equipped audio interface, while professional video cameras often have their own XLR or mini XLR ports. To connect an XLR mic to a 3.5mm input, you’ll need an XLR adapter. These range in complexity, may be battery powered and can provide phantom power. They can also be a bit cumbersome.

Recording with a shotgun mic on a boom gives you a highly directional signal, but it you might need a person to keep hold of it (Source: DPA Microphones)

Shotgun Microphone (Boom Mic)
Often found on film sets house in a large, fluffy ‘dead cat’ windshield, a shotgun mic is an especially directional mic that can highly reject sound coming from behind or to the sides, to a greater extent than a simple cardioid microphone. While this directivity is often a great plus, it also means that you have to keep it pointed at the sound source, which gets hard if your source starts moving.

A shotgun is either handheld, mounted on a boom, or even mounted on a camera, and can come in XLR and 3.5mm jack versions. Unfortunately, the directivity only works on the upper mid and high frequencies, and so shotguns are typically used for dialogue in outdoor or acoustically controlled environments. 

USB / Headset / Bluetooth Microphones

What is it? Back in the day, mics required an XLR or jack connection into an appropriate piece of hardware in order to convert analogue audio to a high-quality digital signal. But with modern analogue-to-digital conversion technology requiring much less space, many mics now have this built in. Classic mic designs can now connect and record over USB, wireless and Bluetooth, with many variants making recording audio more convenient than ever. 

These plug-and-play microphones are great choices for gamers, streamers, videographers and podcasters, making audio input something you don’t have to worry about.

USB Microphones are popular choices for podcasters and desktop vloggers (Source: Rode)

USB Microphones
Most USB mics don’t require an external power source and can be positioned in many different ways. Be it sitting on your desktop, on an external stand or attached to a desk boom, most USB mics should seamlessly integrate into your current desk setup, but remember to factor this in when considering prices. Many mics have built-in headphone monitoring which can help avoid latency issues over USB, and some also come with gain level control and a mute button to give you more control over your sound.

If you’re a YouTuber or livestreamer who presents from a fixed position, the feature set, size and quality of these mics make them an excellent option – especially as many designs look great when on video. Voiceover artists could also do worse than picking up a decent USB mic thanks to their convenience and quality. 

The audio quality from a USB mic will never be quite as good as from a decent XLR, but the difference is almost imperceptible in practical terms. If you’re looking for a first mic that can deliver good results and fit straight into your setup, then you can’t go wrong with a USB mic.

Headset Microphones
Online multiplayer games often include voice chat, and the most convenient way to participate is using a wired, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth headphone-and-mic headset. If you simply want to record speech whilst doing some screen capture and already have access to one of these headsets, they offer a readymade solution. However, audio quality may not match a decent lavalier model and you need to watch out for inbuilt noise cancelling features that may compromise the microphone’s sonics.

Bluetooth Microphones – What to Consider
If you’re determined to use a Bluetooth mic then there are now quite a few examples available. These include some handheld mics, however the vast majority are clip-on designs. They are bigger than lavaliers, so less discreet, but using Bluetooth can remove the need for a transmitter, and the pairing process should be straightforward. On the downside, when you get beyond a few metres Bluetooth can become less reliable, so bear this in mind. As ever with wireless, be prepared to swap out the batteries or plug in to charge on a regular basis.

February 28, 2020
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