Need help picking a microphone for recording interviews
February 15, 2005 4:32 AM   Subscribe

I badly need a recommendation for an audio-recording instrument (and directional mike) for print interviews. Many thanks beforehand. [More inside.]

I've been doing a series of interviews (of political leaders) and have been terribly hampered by the atrocious quality of the recordings, making accurate transcription impossible. I've used both digital and old microcassete recorders - all useless.

The magazine I work for is willing to invest in a proper recorder (and proper directional mike that will shut off ambient sound). I'm used to working with the old Nagra reliables (the E and the 4.2) but they're very expensive nowadays and I wonder if there's a better alternative.

I don't want or need "atmosphere" (they're printed interviews) - I just want to hear clearly what the interviewees say (and at least understand my own questions and remarks). Radio journalists always need a little "atmosphere" - I don't. At all. I provide the local colour - I have to!

Screwing the cost, does anyone know what options I should consider? As it will be used by other journalists, it needs to be robust (not to say indestructible) and simple to operate. I.e. no need for accurate positioning of the mike.

The interviews are long conversations - not question and answer - and so the transcription needs to have the same fluid format, reproducing the flow, with all its interruptions and interjections. In short, the recording should stick to the two people talking to each other and not miss a "nuance" - as it is often in the hesitations, intonations and inflections that the real substance is to be found.

Politicians - specially during an election campaign - are, of course, not free to say what they want but they do "betray" their messages by frequent "nuances" which indicate their truer feelings. Specially nowadays when they're all instructed and rehearsed to deliver the desired vote-bringing message - even the revolutionary socialists.

I've been to sites like and but, not being technically minded, I'm baffled.

If there are cheap, reliable alternatives, they are also welcome as the main recorder could be used for "front page" interviews and other reporters could have their own, without all the hassle of sharing.

I'm sorry this is such a boring question, but it's important for me and I'd really appreciate some independent advice.
posted by MiguelCardoso to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This AMerican Life made these recommendations and Transom has this to say.
posted by plinth at 5:46 AM on February 15, 2005

I have very good experiences with different Sony recordable MiniDisks (high end) and a good digital microphone. Will cost around 400 - 500 euro for the recorder and another 100 for the mike. On the better machines, you can choose the kind of sound input (voice, music, etc.) It never failed me, even in crowded bars, although some ambient noise is inevitable.

I've never heard a better sound quality on a digital (memory or harddisk) recorder, which is a pity, because you won't be able to upload your interviews to a computer (stupid Sony DRM policy). I'm thinking of giving the iPod + mic a try (easy upload, large capacity), but I'm afraid the sound quality won't be great either.

Another solution could be to use a recorder that can handle two of those small lapel mics, or to use one of those special mikes that TV interviewers use - the kind that you have to hold very, very close to the interviewee to pick up any sound. But that could be rather tiring if you're doing long profile interviews.
posted by NekulturnY at 6:24 AM on February 15, 2005

Edirol makes this small digital recorder - it uses Compact Flash, so you could boost the (relatively) low memory easily. About $500.

There's also a new bigger and better model, if money is no object. It's about $1600.

I don't have any firsthand experience with either, mind you.
posted by O9scar at 6:54 AM on February 15, 2005

According to this, the iPod is limited to 8khz recording...unless, of course, you're willing to hack it.
posted by bachelor#3 at 7:01 AM on February 15, 2005

Solid state recorders are being hyped for these applications. They really haven't been around long enough to become popular, but then again I don't work in broadcast, I know I want the new Marantz PMD660. A touted feature of these recorders is the availability of rack unit recorders/players, which can be integrated into a production studio.

Marantz currently makes the PMD 670, the PMD660 is the new generation model. Prices should drop on the older models. Denon makes a similar device. They allow on the spot editing, 2 XLR mic ins (phantom), battery packs or AAs, MP3 or wav recording, USB uploads, the whole ball of wax. There really isn't a cost competitive system with real field recording features. A field DAT (Tascam DAP-1) is likely going to be $1,000+, minature DATs are notoriously delicate. MDs are fidgety, have crummy jacks and level controls, DRM in some cases, blech.

Edirol (Roland) is currently shipping the R1, but I don't know why anyone would buy it. It has less professional features, and a similar price. It looked great to me, until I heard about the 660.

I don't have microphone recommendations, I rarely use anything very directional. Transom also has a mic selection page.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 7:01 AM on February 15, 2005

The minidiscs are a great option. Mine is virtually indestructible, and the sound quality is great. Best of all, if it gets lost/stolen/stepped on, you're out USD$300 rather than USD$3000.

Note that on the low-to-medium end of the minidisc recorders, you miss out on good metering -- which is to say, you don't have a super-reliable, well-calibrated display of where the audio signal is, nor a knob to adjust the signal coming in. So generally in environments where the audio may fluctuate, you need a small mixer or attenuator inline with the mic. In a typical interview setup this is not necessary, though -- half an hour of practice would get you familiar with where the audio level wants to be.

You don't indicate how obtrusive you mind the microphone being. On the low end, there's the totally-indestructible and extremely cheap Shure SM58 vocal microphone (USD$100), which looks like a news reporter's microphone (put it next to someone's face). On the medium end, there's a class of microphones called 'shotguns', of which the Sennheiser K6/ME66 (USD$400) is an excellent and well-regarded example; this kind of microphone permits you to set it up pointed in the general direction of the subject and, as long as the subject isn't pacing around or shifting wildly from side to side, capture an excellent image. On the more high end, you could just attach a lavalier mic, such as the Countryman B6 (USD$250 less cable), to the subject's lapel and then just hold a regular conversation, even walking around. The B6 looks a lot like a matchstick head and is essentially invisible.

A great deal of your mic selection will depend more on the style of interview than your audio quality, I suspect, if your primary application is transcription -- any of the above mics, and cheaper ones besides, will capture voice to minidisc or any better media with extreme clarity.

I strongly, strongly recommend that before you make any audio purchase, however, you first take the time to rent representative equipment from an audio rental house. These shops exist all over the globe to support film, TV and stage activities. They stock a wide selection of microphones and even recording equipment, and are usually staffed with professionals who have long experience with the tools of the trade and in addition to making recommendations can provide instruction.

You may discover, as I did, that renting is more cost-effective and sensible than purchasing high-end audio equipment and then having to care for it, store it, manage it, and so on. As an example, the Countryman B6 sells for around $250 new, but rents for $25 a day. If you decide after the 3rd interview that you need a different mic...or if you only do 6've saved quite a bit of money.
posted by felix at 7:14 AM on February 15, 2005

You may want to read this page regarding MiniDisc uploading to your computer:

Also, if you're going the MD route, has a great selection of mics for MD recorders.
posted by evoo at 7:20 AM on February 15, 2005

Dual point microphones was what I was talking about, btw. (sorry, the link thing won't work here at work, so here's the URL, from evoo's second link):
posted by NekulturnY at 7:25 AM on February 15, 2005

MD's are robust and inexpensive, but do have crummy jacks. (Most, but not all) have poor levels control. There are plenty of flash or hdd-based systems that allow you to record in 44.1/48khz, unfortunately I can't think of any (besides high-end units) that offer anything coming close to "decent" levels control. Even my Sharp MD701 gives better control than 99% of the flash-based players out there. The kind that offer "voice recording" features probably have a really nasty AGC applied to the recording, and you won't want that.

As for microphones, I've had very good luck with the Sony ECM-957 for voice and acoustic instrument recording, but they're omni-directional mics, and you're looking more for cardioid or even hyper-cardioid. There are some really fancy mikes with interchangeable directional components (like the AKG 414 or 480's, that allow you to switch between cardioid, hyper-cardioid, omni, and diffuse-omni).

A lot of the concert "tapers" I know can't use omni's or binaurals because they want to remove the crowd as much as possible. I don't know how much side-noise you need to cancel, though I doubt it would be as much as a rock concert. In general, the more directional your microphone, the worse the sound quality.

I recommend reading the Grateful Dead microphones-for-tapers FAQ for more information.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:39 AM on February 15, 2005

I posted some information here on mics and recording hardware and software.
posted by AlexReynolds at 7:46 AM on February 15, 2005

The better Sony Minidisc players have both USB cables and microphone inputs - as usual sony worries that mini disc users may want to (shudder!) record music!!! But mini disc is much easier to use when you are transcribing spoken interview material - the search/forward/reverse function doesn't depend on tape rewinding.

Mine is a Sony MZ-N710 that I got for about Euro 300 in Holland last year. The machine can convert the nearly useless Sony ATRAC files into MP3 files, which makes it far more flexible than older models. The USB cable makes uploading easy. Cheaper ones rarely have both a mic input and a USB connector. And I don't even use a fancy stereo mic: just a simple one that I got years ago with a stereo walkman cassette recorder.
posted by zaelic at 7:53 AM on February 15, 2005

Thank you so very much - as usual, it's wow and then healthy incertitude. When I was a lad (here it comes) every question had only one answer. "You want the best recorder for interviewing? Well, your only choice is the XYZ."

Now, honest replies require intelligence and thought - i.e., horror of horrors, choice - so I now have enough information to make an informed choice. There is nothing better than this and for this I thank you deeply! :)

P.S. I've marked most of the replies as best answers in the proper spirit, as I really don't have the ability to choose one as "better" than the others, when all are so useful and open to investigation.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:15 AM on February 15, 2005

Shouldn't you wire your subject with a lapel mike? Unless it's hard to access them physically or they're moving around lots, that's usually how one captures another's voice.
posted by scarabic at 8:28 AM on February 15, 2005

Miguel wants to hear his own voice/remarks/questions as well, scarabic, which is often difficult if your mic is too close to your interviewee.

Off topic: that new upload policy of Sony's (as in evoo's answer) is really a breakthrough. I had stopped checking if they would reverse their stupid DRM policy, but they must have had a sudden flash of insight - a lonely impulse of delight! - there. So, if you buy a HD, Miguel, be sure to get a NetMD with USB capacity: that way you can easily store your interviews on your computer instead of having them migrate around the house on various minidisks.
posted by NekulturnY at 9:02 AM on February 15, 2005

Marantz stuff has always been pretty good to me. i've been using recording gear from them for about 18 years now.

i agree wholeheartedly with This American Life's use of the AT835b shotgun mic. shotgun mics give great front-pickup with very little noise picked up from the rear and sides, allowing a very focused pickup range. this is perfect for interviews and dialogue recording, especially in noisy areas.

from experience, i would discourage the use of lapel mics; typically if you're interviewing someone at random or even with prior permission, there's a sense of akwardness in being asked to either put a microphone on, or have one put on you. let the interviewee feel natural and unattached to anything. also, if the person is moving, that noise will VERY easily be transferred to the recording.

the Marantz PMD-222 is a solid recorder which is easily available. while it's not stereo, it has pretty much all the same features as the Sony TC-D5 and is built to handle abuse.

i don't know how keen you are on digital recorders, but i've had the Marantz PMD670 (this was mentioned earlier) for a few months now, and i've loved it. it also has phantom power for condensor mics. i don't yet know exactly how durable it is, but it closely mirrors the old Tascam DA-P1 (which was a FANTASTICALLY rugged unit. i wish these were still manufactured).

random thoughts:

after years spent dealing with minidisk, i've come to the (personal) conclusion that it is a failed medium. i've had 3 recorders die (rackmount and portable) over the last 7 years (each died within 1 year from the date of purchace. i know, after 2 deaths, why would i have bought a 3rd?) the recorders are just too fragile for heavy use, and the media, while accessable, isn't as easy to find as standard cassettes.

get yourself a REALLY rugged XLR cable if you're planning to do this sort of recording on the go. i'd suggest 2 actually - one in the 15-20' range and one in the 5' range. if you're carring this thing and need a quick recording, the last thing you want to do is deal with a really long cord that you don't need. the short one will become your best friend.

i hope this helped. if you have any other questions, don't hesitate to ask.

oh, and as for where to buy this stuff, has been my primary supplier for audio gear for about 10 years now. they're very knowledgeable and may be able to offer even more insight than what i've written.

posted by quadrinary at 9:20 AM on February 15, 2005

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