Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Best Microphones for Teachers

Avoid the Hype (and Probably the Condensers)

I work as a teacher at a university. When the pandemic hit, I suddenly had to immerse myself into the world of audio/video streaming and producing online videos.  To be sure, I was more prepared than most.  In another life, I spent 8 years working as a television writer and producer for ABC and CBS affiliates back in Iowa.  After almost 20 years of living overseas, however, I found myself a bit rusty.  To catch up, I poured over hours of YouTube videos, bought several mics, and set out on a quest to find the best inexpensive mics and video editing programs to help me produce better quality videos.  In truth, I was buying $200+ XLR condenser mics and $120 audio interfaces to power them.  My setup sounds great, but I have since learned it was overkill.  I'd like to save you some money, so I am adding this information to my radio blog.

I wasn't going to write this entry, until I searched "The best microphones for teachers" on Google, and found that many of the answers were conflicting.  In short -- what were once blogs are now paid ad blogs selling microphones that I wouldn't recommend to anyone.  For example, the #1 search on Google revealed the Blue Snowball to be a great value for teachers.  Let this serve as a warning:  the Blue Snowball is NOT a good option for teachers.  It's a noisy option with a weak overall sound and it picks up a lot of room noise.  It's one of the least impressive mics I've ever heard, and is completely carried by marketing to suckers who don't know any better.  

Blue makes some really nice microphones,  especially when you are talking $300+ XLR mics like the Baby Bottle SL, but they are also very slick at marketing hype on the consumer end.  Another mic which everyone reads about is the Blue Yeti.  A decent microphone?  Yes... quite good.  Would I buy it for teaching?  No. Why not?  It's complete overkill, is more money than a teacher needs to spend, and picks up a lot of noise off of your desk, unless you hang it on a boom arm with a shock mount (spending even more money to do so).  Yes, it looks impressive on a desk, but you don't need all of those polar patterns, and it will hear everything in your room.  Want to spend a lot more money and stop the thumps from your hands on the desk?   Be forewarned -- on a shock mount the Blue Yeti looks positively idiotic.  Blue also seems to have have an affinity for creating mics that are difficult to shock mount and look like a piece of male anatomy (see the Yeti hanging downward off of its ludicrous shock/boom system or the Blue Ember by itself to see what I mean).  

So now that I've poked holes in two of the options you may have read a lot of hype about, let me mention a few mics that will sound great and save you money.  I'll start with the cheapest, and work my way up:

Best Desktop Microphone under $35: Fifine K668 (USB Version)

Fifine is the absolute king of inexpensive mics that sound "decent".  They made a condenser-style model which also receives good reviews, but I prefer the k668 USB version.  In all honesty, this mic is all that 95% of teachers who use Zoom will ever need.  If you just want to sound good without fuss or lots of extra confusing components, settings, etc. -- get this.  You can find it on Amazon, Ebay, and direct from China's Aliexpress, if you're in a pinch (it's a good site. I've bought from them for years. Use sellers with the most sales and ratings).   This same mic has several copies with different colors by different manufacturers, but I can only vouch for the Fifine k668.   

Why is the Fifine excellent?  This mic is a dynamic USB microphone that is pretty much plug-and-play.  The microphone's cardioid pattern helps control echos and room noise, but is not TOO tight that you can't be away from it a bit.  It comes with its own small stand, and as long as you move it as close to you as possible, it will work well.  You don't have to worry about special settings or learn extra software.  Plug it in, make sure the mic is selected, and bam.  Excellent sound for the price.  How good?  Take a look at this video, which was produced by another gentleman.  I will note that the K668 does have a smidge of that tell-tale cheap Chinese shrill top-end, but Zoom will remove that, anyway:

Best Smartphone Microphone under $50: Movo VXR10

The best microphone for a smartphone under $50 is the Movo VXR10.  This mic is a very small shotgun style mic that will fit on top of your smartphone.  This mic will give you the option of having excellent audio without fuss, if you wish to hook it into a smartphone and go mobile.  My coworker owns this mic, and it's very impressive for the price.  You could even use it as a mic attached to your desktop setup, and also enjoy good audio.  It is not a USB mic, however, which tends to mean you may pick up some more background noise compared to a USB or quality XLR mic.  If you're working with Zoom or similar software, or just using it on your phone, have no worries. It's quiet enough that 98% of people are not going to notice or even care.  

A shotgun style microphone such as the Movo VXR10 is really a nice option if you want the freedom to move around a bit with a phone, yet keep room noise and echoes down.  If you want a mic that sounds great, yet you don't have to see it in your video, a shotgun mic such as this is a top option. Just try to keep it within a distance of arms length to your face, for best audio quality.

Here's another review of the Movo VXR10, in detail:

Best Desktop Microphone at $50: Razer Seiren Mini

If you can afford $50, and want a nice mic from a big name in computer audio, consider the Razer Seiren Mini.  This mic is a pretty design, and comes in three colors: pink, white, and black.  The white looks especially nice.  It is also quite functional on its desk stand, but really shines as a small yet clean mic for a boom application. You won't go wrong with the sound, either.  The main concern with this  mic would be the lack of a shock mount, and that it seems to be easy to make desk noises bother it.  It does have a super cardioid pattern, and has a tighter area for voice pick-up.  It is compared to the Blue Snowball (which I do not recommend), and the highly recommended Samson Q2U which is also listed below:


Best Desktop Microphone under $90: Samson Q2U

If you want a really great sounding microphone that is easy to use, has top-notch sound, and has some versatility for use with both USB and XLR microphone, get the Samson Q2U. Samson has been around for over 10 years, and they make some great mics for the price.  The Q2U sounds great, and is easy to use via USB.  The video reviews and comments about this mic from users speak for themselves.  This mic does an amazing job of removing room noise.  The one glaring negative seems to be that it uses the older USB 5-pin input, which is weaker than the newer USB-C inputs we now use on more devices.  That is the only thing I would be concerned about with the Q2U.  The sound is great, but I would be sure to add a large sponge screen to stop plosives.  Keep in mind, as with many quality dynamics, you don't have as much room to move around.

Best Value XLR mic for Interface Setup: Behringer xm8500

For those of you who would like a step up in quality, and you're not afraid to spend a little more to get it, I present the Behringer xm8500.  The xm8500 is an XLR mic costing around $40 (it used to be closer to $25, but it's gone UP in price because it has become so popular).  It will need pre-amplification from a USB audio interface, or audio mixer board to make it work -- most computer sound card plug-ins cannot work with it directly.  Behringer makes the Uphoria UM2 as the least expensive option to power an XLR dynamic mic such as this, and it's plenty.  Don't get carried away thinking you need anything more than 16-bit audio and 48khz, which this interface provides.  More expensive interfaces will tout higher bitrates, but it's completely unnecessary for anywhere but high-end studio set-ups producing professional music.  Behringer also makes some excellent mixers with Xenyx pre-amps, which cost just a bit more and give you the option of mixing in another sound source such as music via RCA input, for example.  Look at the Xenyx 302 USB, as an option.  It will sound just as well as the USB interface.

The Behringer xm8500 is an outstanding microphone.  I've had one for 5 years, and it's still going strong.  It makes an awesome budget choice for streamers, as well.  It outperforms mics costing much more, and gives the $100+ Shure SM48 and even the SM58 a run for it's money.  You will want to add a $2 sponge pop-filter to control the P-pop "plosive" sounds.

Here is my FAVORITE YouTube mic reviewer at Podcastage, talking about the xm8500:

Final Thoughts:  What About Condenser Mics?

Some people just want that "big airy sound" a condenser mic will provide.  Or they want that imposing look.  I actually go this route,  but unless you are prepared to treat your room, they are the wrong option for teachers. What do I mean by "treat your room?"  I mean spending even more money on acoustic foam to block noise reflections, or the excellent value option -- using thick moving blankets or bedding pads (I use thick Korean style mattress blankets I got on sale for $10 each) on all 4 walls, and laid over furniture or on the floor.  In short -- it's a pain, and work, but I have incredible audio.  Most teachers need not care a whit about this, but I was in TV production once, and I am sort of a fanatic.

A dynamic mic, or even a simple high-quality headset mic, is usually a better choice for teachers because more outside sound is rejected.  A negative of the dynamics, and one reason I like using a condenser with a treated room, is that I can move around more AND get that big sound.  Without the room treatment, however, a condenser becomes a very bad idea quite quickly.

With a dynamic mic, the room sound becomes a bit less of an issue (but even still, hanging moving blankets or whatever you can get to break up the sound reflections on flat walls or floors will make a huge difference).  What makes audio sound good is often not what you hear, but what you DO NOT hear.  You want to remove those noise reflection echoes bouncing around, the motorcycle driving down the street, your kid's in the next room.   A condenser such as a Blue Yeti will hear all of that, and it quickly becomes a problem.  A cardioid dynamic mic like the xm8500 or the Fifine K668, or a Shotgun like the Movo VXR10 not so much, because they tend to favor what is in front of them.  That's another quick tip for you -- get the mic close to you, as in a foot or less, for best audio.  Adjust mic levels accordingly.

A parting note about the cheap Chinese condensers that are $40 or less, and come with a boom arm.  The negative about these mics is often the shrill high frequencies they produce, as well as the room noise they draw in.  That shrill sound is fatiguing on ears in long-form teaching videos.  Fifine also makes a few of these, but personally, I'd avoid the condenser models due to the room noise they pick up.  

Some further information about value condenser mics that I find work well for me in XLR format (with room treatment):  Mackie EM-91C and Audio-Technica AT 2035.  The even cheaper AT 2020 is also a good value option (note that they make a USB model for both the Mackie and the AT2020, although I am not sure if the USB Mackie is similar in sound).  The Mackie is good for teaching, and allows you some room to move around.  It comes with its own cable and shock mount (it is missing a 5/8 to 3/8" adapter piece for some booms or stands, which is cheap to get, but necessary).  It does well against room noise, for a condenser, but I still treat the room.  I also EQ it a bit, because it's a very "warm" mic.  I roll-off frequencies below 90hz, and pull some down a bit at 250hz and 500hz.  I also boost it about 2db from 3,000 to 5,000 hz. 

I like the EM-91C, even though it's quite warm.  I  EQ to help it a bit.  I like how it is forward in the midrange for bold yet clear sound.  It's pleasing through headphones and tinny little notebook speakers.  I took a poll of my students, and found that 70 to 80% of them prefer to listen to school videos this way. They are not listening on hifi stereo systems such as I grew up with.  The EM-91C is clean enough without that shrill high-end that the cheap Chinese mics have.  I also like how the EM-91C cuts off the excessive sibilant sounds that condenser mics often suffer from (especially after compression).  I don't need to de-ess this mic, unless I am boosting with my EQ.  This means most people can make a smooth, warm sound with it without a lot of post processing.  I do recommend a low-cut below 90 to 100hz, to help remove some of that bottom end which is not needed for voice, anyway.

I also mentioned the AT 2020 and the AT 2035.  The AT 2020 is a good USB condenser mic OR can be purchased as an XLR model -- BUT it's a condenser.  Room treatment is a must.  The more expensive AT 2035 is less shrill on the highs, and has better bass than the AT 2020.  It sounds better on a pro level, but it hears a pin drop and is so sensitive.  The 2020 and especially 2035 are more open, wide, and airy-sounding than the Mackie, so room acoustics are even more important.  Both of these mics come with shock mounts, which are essential for condensers.  I put a foam win screen on all of these.  The Mackie will fit a cheap $2 XLR mic's foam screen.  The AT mics work better against plosives than the Mackie does up close, but adding the foam and talking across the mic from a 45 degree angle makes it a non-issue.  You can get very cheap $3 wind screens for them via Aliexpress.

Here is a video showing the Mackie vs. the budget AT 2020 (baby brother to my AT 2035):