I need a microphone
July 25, 2015 10:18 AM   Subscribe

And I'm on a very tight budget. What do I buy?

My recording device:
Zoom H4N (Yes, I know it has blah preamps and other limitations. But this is what I'm working with.)

My recording goals:
Oral histories/interviews
Field recordings

My budget:
<$200 (Yes. Again. I know. I know!)

Can I achieve my goals with one microphone and a shoestring budget? Probably not, but I still feel compelled to ask. I'm very aware that what I really need for field recordings is a decent shotgun mic, and that one single microphone is unlikely to even begin to bridge the gap between my field recording needs and my interview/spoken word recording needs. But, maybe?

If possible, I'd love to find a decent, "budget" external microphone that is phantom powered as opposed to PiP powered. I understand that with my budget, I'm not going to get much bang for my buck. However, I'm very willing to buy a used microphone if that will cut the price down a bit.

The less low level noise it picks up, the better, but I'm also trying to learn more about EQ and general post production. (I've been something of a neophyte/dabbler at all this for a few years and am trying to get more serious and disciplined, but I still have certain budget and time-investment restraints). Any tips on how to counteract a low-end/budget microphone's failings with postproduction work is appreciated, too; as well as advice on how to make an affordable but effective windscreen.

P.S. If it really comes down to me needing to get two separate microphones - one a shotgun for field recordings, and then another microphone specifically for conducting oral history/interview/podcast type conversations - what is my best bet for obtaining a duo of mics under, say, $350 total?
posted by nightrecordings to Technology (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You can't go wrong with a Sure SM58 for general purpose mic-ing.

I have a Sennheiser MKE 300 sitting on a shelf here that I never use, if you want to PM me about buying it.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:12 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

What do you mean by field recordings? If you're trying to get an accurate representation of why people present at something like a music event, the first thing that comes to mind with that is that you want a pair of microphones in a proper stereo configuration (like the XY stereo pair built into your Zoom). Is that what you're interested in, just better? Or are you trying to be able to record unamplified speeches from a distance?

As far as interview mics, the EV PL635A was the standard in broadcast for a very long time. It's omnidirectional so the person doesn't have to talk directly into the mic, you don't get problems with proximity effect, and they're damn near indestructible (they've literally been used as hammers and still worked afterwards). The SM-58 is a good generic mic as well - there's better ones out there but everyone knows the 58.
posted by Candleman at 11:30 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think we need a quick clarification: Do you want something to stuff right up into a person's face, or do you want something to set in the middle of the table and it picks up everyone who's talking. I've been mic shopping a bit recently, but everything I'm interested in seems to work best when it's close enough to my mouth to tickle my moustache.

That may not be the right tool for interviewing in a casual setting... What does your typical interview look like: is your interviewee slouched on a couch in a living room? Standing at a mic stand? Paying close attention to the mic? Gesticulating a lot and pacing?
posted by straw at 11:51 AM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm looking for a microphone that can be set in the middle of a table and will pick up everyone who is talking; interviewee would more likely be slouched on a couch in a living room.

By field recordings, I generally mean outdoor recording of natural/organic/atmospheric sounds, typically from a not insignificant distance.
posted by nightrecordings at 12:30 PM on July 25, 2015

If you were intending to close mic a single person, such as for a podcast etc, a 57/58 would be a good choice for your budget. But for recording ambient sound, or a bunch of people talking in a room, you'll want sensitive condenser mics. You are unlikely to get something much better than the pair built into the zoom already for $200.
posted by tremspeed at 1:04 PM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Whatever the pawn shop has that looks worky.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2015

Are you trying to capture these for note taking purposes or for some sort of broadcast or recording?

An omnidirectional mic recording a room in an effort to capture an interview for rebroadcast is pretty much a unicorn. Even high end omnidirectional mics are going to fail because you'll end up with too much ambient room noise.

Better to hit a pawn shop and stock up on used sm58s that can be focused around the room.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:40 PM on July 25, 2015

Yeah, I have to say that for what you want to do, the Zoom's mics should be perfectly adequate. I'd suggest tweaking the gain upwards ever so slightly, and using a windscreen for those environmental recordings, but from what I know about the Zoom (I own one), and from your requirements, I don't see why you shouldn't be able to do what you want with what you already own.
posted by monospace at 9:30 PM on July 25, 2015

I'm looking for a microphone that can be set in the middle of a table and will pick up everyone who is talking; interviewee would more likely be slouched on a couch in a living room.

I'd suggest a few things:

1. Get a pair of decent mics (SM 57/58 or similar) and use for for you and one for the interviewee if they're sitting at a table or such with good posture - position them so they're relatively close to each one of you and more or less aimed directly at your face. Record onto separate tracks and do a mix based on who's talking for higher quality. A single mic isn't going to get the best quality and a stereo setup (like what's built into your Zoom) is not designed for two people doing an interview as far as the pickup pattern.
2. Get an omnidirectional lapel mic to use when the subject is not going to have good posture and speak directly into the mic. Do the same thing as with the pair of mics - have your mic close to you and maintain good and reliable posture, but this allows them to not have to care how they're seated. I've mostly used Sennheiser and Sony lav mics for this purpose, but Audio Technica has some decent ones too. I can't recommend specific models, but a search on a decent dealer's site will find some around $100, just look up the reviews.
3. If at some point reducing things to a single mic is important, you need something omnidirectional unless you can arrange to be sitting next to the interviewee, so I'd recommend the EV-635A again.

By field recordings, I generally mean outdoor recording of natural/organic/atmospheric sounds, typically from a not insignificant distance.

Shotgun mics are going to make things sound weird with their strange off-axis pickup patterns. They're mostly useful for when getting _some_ speech recorded without having a closeup mic is worth the cost of wonky audio. It would still be helpful to know what the limiting factor on the Zoom is. I still think that you want a stereo pair for what it sounds like you're doing, and matched pairs generally don't come in the price range you're looking at. Sometimes you get lucky with the ubiquitous $60 Chinese small diaphragm condensers sold under a slew of names (MXL, etc.) but they can sound wildly different from each other, which makes stereo work hard. Some of the budget Audio Technicas might be something to step up to - the 2021s are only a little more expensive and I trust them to have slightly better quality control. I've also used some cheap Audix small diaphragm condensers that were nice for the money.
posted by Candleman at 9:41 AM on July 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another option might be to put lav (lavalier) mics on all the participants, but again that might be out of your budget range. The one I've got has excessive bass response, gives me a great singing voice, makes me sound like Barry White, but nobody can tell what I'm saying...
posted by straw at 12:09 PM on July 26, 2015

I have had excellent results from the Monoprice microphone selection, which is all also on sale right now.
posted by ndfine at 4:03 PM on July 26, 2015

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