How did I choose a microphone (a very beginners guide)

[Somewhat Long] Intro

If you have a lot of Zoom calls, which is something very common these days, you need to have a good sound. Believe me. Even if you only talk to your colleagues at occasional business meetings. At the beginning of the WFH era, I thought that getting a good webcam is more important. And it looks like a lot of people share that feeling. At least, it’s still hard to buy a Logitech webcam on the market. However, in reality, it’s not that important. You may even turn off your video sometimes. I do it all the time if there are more than 5 people in a meeting, or when I know that this meeting will take more than 30 minutes.

Sound on another hand is much more valuable. You transfer your thoughts and ideas with it. Even some YouTubers say that people may forgive you a so-so image quality with a good sound, especially when you’re a beginner, but they rarely do the opposite.

Why do I personally need a microphone apart from what AirPods or Logitech Webcam have? I have long calls and sometimes do talks online. Also, I have a mechanical keyboard, which is loud enough to piss my colleagues if I type anything during the call.

So, I decided to buy a dedicated microphone. My main criteria are:

  • Cost & ease of use. I’m no sound professional. I’m not planning to pursue a career as a singer or anything like that. I just need a mic, which is good enough for voice recording and which I can use right after unboxing without any additional components.
  • Quality. There are plenty of “no-name podcaster starter kits” on the market. I’m not too fond of that. I want to get a microphone which lasts, from a company which has at least some level of customer support. Just in case.
  • Sound isolation. As I said, I have an annoying keyboard. I want to minimize its impact. Also, I don’t have any special call booth at home and I don’t want my peers to be distracted by ambient noise.

Now, why do you need to listen to my advice? Well… you don’t. I’m no expert in either acoustic or sound processing. I’m telling you all this from a very dilettante point of view. I think it has its value, though. If you’re a beginner in this area just like I am, we are in the same boat. I’m not saying you shouldn’t check out actual experts. No! However, when you’re truly skillful in one area, it’s very easy to skip the “good enough” point, when giving a piece of advice. I know this from my professional experience. After digging too deep into audio blogs and YouTube guides, you may end up with a feeling that unless you spend a fortune on your gear and after that half that price on making your room soundproof as a recording studio, you won’t get any quality suitable for a Zoom call, which is not true.

With this being said, here is my story of choosing a mic.

Disclaimer

I went with Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB. Probably, the most helpful YouTube video for me was this one:

However, this video doesn’t explain many details on why they choose one mic over others. Also, I actually went with Top-2 from their list, and in this post, I will tell you why.

What’s Right Size?

I used to use a lavalier microphone for quite a while. I even managed to record a few episodes of a podcast with my friends using that mic. The best thing about it is that I bought it for just €7 in the nearest electronics shop. Could go even cheaper probably if ordered from Aliexpress.

Unfortunately, these are all the advantages. The sound quality of that mic was comparable to a regular headset, also it was somewhat cumbersome to use. You can probably go better with a more expensive lavalier microphone but remember: these mics are designed for conditions, where bulkier setup is unwanted or even impossible. You can afford some extra space at home, can’t you?

Also, lavalier microphones usually connect to your PC with an audio jack. In this case, DAC (digital-analog converter) would rely on your sound chip. Nowadays, these chips are usually embedded into a motherboard and they’re not optimized for some high-quality audio processing, especially on laptops.

Dynamic vs Condenser

The second thing you’ll notice going through microphone reviews is the division between dynamic and condenser mics. In nutshell, the difference is in what generates an electronic signal from acoustic waves. You can get familiar with some background here.

You would like to get a dynamic microphone for your home setup. And here’s why. Condenser microphones capture a wider frequency range and also they’re more sensitive. It means that a condenser mic will capture your voice more naturally. At the same time, it will capture all the surrounding noises such as your flatmates, children, pets, neighbors with power tools, and so on.

Of course, you can invest in audio isolation of your environment. However, you will need to invest your time and money in it and convince your flatmates that this is a new wall decoration. Although, you can make the same cool decor with acoustic panels.

via pinimg

via pinimg

Output Matters

Acoustic interfaces, mixers, and high-end acoustic cables are super cool technologies. But do you need it at the entry-level? I doubt so. This is exactly why I was looking for a USB microphone. I just want to plug-n-play my mic to make a call. However, there are dynamic microphones on the market, which support both USB and XLR (analog) output. It means that you can buy it and start using it right away. And later, if you find yourself in podcasting or video-creation, you can upgrade your gear without buying a new microphone with XLR output.

Now, to the question of why I went with mic number 2 from the video I listed and not number 1. ATR2100x-USB has USB-C output. A lot o others blog posts and YouTube videos suggest buying mics like Samson q2u or search for ATR2100-USB, which is now discontinued.

However, USB-C is the new standard, which is here to stay. The mics I mentioned above have USB-mini (not even a micro!) interface. This one will fade away in the future. It will be harder to buy a replacement cable or an adaptor for it.

ATR2100x has some other technical improvements as well. Like a 24bit audio interface or 192kHz sampling rate. It’s also lighter and smaller compared to Samson Q2U, for example.

The main reason, why people recommend Samson over Audio-Technica is the price difference. And it makes sense since these two mics sound almost the same. However, here in Germany, both mics were at the same price point at the time I was looking for one. So, this was not a blocker to me.

What Else?

You may find a lot more information in various reviews as well as recommendations of audio interfaces, mixers, and so on. If you’re a beginner like me, you shouldn’t care about that. So, don’t. You can get back to it later when you realize that you actually need one.

In the ATR2100x package you get:

  • A microphone itself
  • USB-C to USB-A cable
  • USB-C to USB-C cable
  • A small mic stand

Can you live with it? Yeah, sure. However, there are a few things I recommend you to get a few accessories which are useful from day zero.

  • A foam cover. To get the best of a dynamic microphone, you need to keep it close to your mouth. ATR-2100x is sensitive to plosives. You can get a pop filter from Amazon for cheap, but you can also get foam covers for even cheaper. I got a pack of 10 for around €6. So, €0.6 per item. You put your microphone at a bit of an angle towards you, so you won’t speak into it directly, plosive bumps won’t be noticeable in this case even with a cheap foam cover.
  • A microphone boom arm. I got one on Amazon for €17. There are much better arms on the market and the price can go up. However, this cheap arm is just good enough for my use case.
  • Maybe, a shock mount. My boom arm has a shock mount included. Unfortunately, it’s too large for ATR-2100x. In general, this mic is sensitive to movement. If you’re on a call or recording and you move the microphone or touch a stand, the vibrations sound is audible. However, I use it without any shock mount for now. Sometimes I use my mouse during the calls or type on a keyboard, it didn’t cause any major issues so far. Maybe, if I go into sound recording more seriously, I will get one.

My Impressions So Far

Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB works really great for me so far! Sure, I haven’t used it much yet, but it has already proven to cover my main purpose: to make me sound nice and clear despite my noisy mechanical keyboard. Since it’s a dynamic mic, I had to develop some new practices. For example, not to speak directly into the microphone as I mentioned above. And also position the microphone close to my mouth, so I get the most of the ambient sound isolation. Looking forward to some long session, so I can test if I’m able to sit still like this for longer periods of time :D

Another great option of ATR2100x is that it has a headphones jack. So, you can plug-in and hear your voice without any delays. This may be useful if you’re into podcasting. You can hear your voice in real-time and make adjustments if anything goes not as planned.

So, do you need to buy a dedicated mic for yourself as I did? Well, it depends. If you only do some occasional business calls, have a quiet place to work, and don’t use a loud keyboard, you would be just fine with headphones or a webcam mic. I think all BT headphones have a microphone nowadays.

However, if you have a lot of calls and there your environment might be noisy (a common problem these days, tbh). If you have a loud keyboard, loud neighbors, or a flatmate, who has calls at the same time. If you’re a frequent speaker online or maybe looking into podcasting. In all these cases getting a dedicated microphone will be a good investment. Also, if you do have a noisy background, this upgrade would be noticeable not only to you but also to your counterparts!

What’s About The Money?

All numbers here are relevant to Germany. Prices may be different in your country. Also, I think I got a discount on the microphone. However, these discounts are pretty common, so you can wait for a deal if you’re Ok with waiting to shave off some bucks. I will round up all the prices, because I, again, they can vary.

  • The microphone itself: €94 (could get it even cheaper from Amazon, but they didn’t have it in stock, so I decided to go with another shop)
  • Boom arm: €17
  • Foam covers €6

So, in total, I spent €117 for the whole setup, which is the price of some “entry” level microphones from the reviews online.