Tips on microphones and related podcast questions

As a podcaster, I often do interviews and other audio recordings when on the road.

Clients’ offices, in hotels, airports, at conferences, you name the place, opportunities often arise for recording a conversation that may end up as a podcast.

My preferred portable audio recorder remains the Microtrack 24/96, about which I wrote an enthusiastic review in 2006 just after I bought it. My enthusiasm for it hasn’t dimmed in spite of the product support issue (resolved) I had with the supplier I bought it from.

Manufacturer M-Audio launched the Microtrack II late last year which looks pretty good (but for me, not a compelling enough upgrade).

I sometimes get asked about microphones with a portable device. The Microtrack comes with its own mic but is it good enough?

That’s actually one of the questions asked in an email I received the other day from Craig Martin in New Zealand. Craig co-presents The Indie Travel Podcast, a weekly show with travel ideas and advice for independent travellers, backpackers and anyone with itchy feet.

He’s looking for some specific advice:

[...] I’ve been looking for a light recorder that will put up with a life lived constantly on the road. My wife and I travel incessantly and we podcast weekly which makes for interesting sound quality at times!

Rather than simply reply only to Craig, I thought I’d offer some thoughts to Craig’s questions here in case anyone else might find the answers helpful. And any podcasters who read this, maybe you might add some thoughts for Craig’s benefit.

Q: Do you use an external mic along with the Microtrack? If so, which one and would you recommend it?

In almost every experience I’ve had with the Microtrack, the supplied electret condenser microphone is all you really need.

It’s great for recording interviews with one or a couple of people. Not so good for recording, eg, meetings, where you have different distances between people.

For situations like that, though, any single microphone will present challenges. If you want to capture everyone’s voice clearly, the best bet would be individual microphones or, at least, a couple strategically placed in order to capture voices at reasonably consistent levels.

Then you’re talking about a different situation altogether than just simply using a portable device like the Microtrack. You’d probably need to consider using a computer with a mixer so it can take multiple audio inputs.

I have used an external mic with the Microtrack – a Shure C606 cardioid microphone – that plugs in to the 1/4-inch input. But I did not hear any noticeable difference in recorded sound quality from using the supplied mic.

My short answer, then – the supplied microphone is all you need for voice recording such as interviews or, in Craig’s case, travelogues.

Q: Have you heard much about the Microtrack 2? Good or bad in comparison?

This is the new model I mentioned above, the successor to the Microtrack 24/96.

I don’t know anyone who has one yet. From the description from M-Audio, it looks the same as the model it replaces, albeit a dark grey rather than the silver colour of the 24/96.

It does have a number of enhancements, however, including:

  • Wider dynamic range at the input stage.
  • A peak limiter which helps to stop fast transients causing the unit to clip.
  • A USB 2.0 interface, allowing for higher data-transfer rates to a computer.
  • You can record files that are larger than 2GB.
  • You can place markers in Broadcast WAV Files (BWFs) during recording, allowing for track start points in a live recording, for example, to be noted.

The 24/96 model is no longer sold (although you can find examples on places like eBay).

If I didn’t already have the older model (which works just fine), or if I were doing more on-the-road recordings than I currently do, I would definitely buy the Microtrack II.

Q: Do you think it’s sturdy enough to live in a backpack?

Hmm, that’s a good question.

My Microtrack lives in my laptop travel bag which is usually lumped in there with the laptop PC, cables, power supplies, other gadgets, etc.

That’s not the same kind of bag as a backpack, nor is it likely to experience the same kind of treatment a backpack typically would.

If it were me, I’d take extra care with it in a travel environment such as Craig’s. Priority accessory purchase: a sturdy travel case for it.

So a hesitant yes, I do think it’s sturdy enough to live in a backpack but you do need to treat it with care and some respect!

Q: Your sound quality using it sounds better than a "record to laptop with built in mic". Would you agree or do you significantly play with sound levels?

I definitely agree with that.

I still have the first portable digital recorder I bought in early 2005, an iRiver iFP-790, which also lives in the laptop bag (or in my trouser pocket). The built-in mic on that is tiny, smaller than most laptop mics, yet recorded sound quality is amazing, almost as good as the Microtrack’s.

My point is that a typical laptop built-in microphone is nowhere near as good as almost any portable recording device’s microphone.

As for sound levels, it’s a rare recording on a portable recorder that doesn’t need some editing and tweaking in an audio editing application.

At the very least, if you record in uncompressed WAV format (as you can on the Microtrack), you’ll need something to convert the file to compressed MP3, the podcasting standard.

I use Adobe Audition, currently the latest version 3 that supports Windows Vista. There’s also Audacity – a favourite of many podcasters – which is open source and free, and comes in versions for Windows, Mac and Linux.

An essential tool to complement your editing software is Levelator. This free application automagically adjusts audio levels so that your WAV audio file ends up as, well, as perfect as can be.

Couldn’t live without the Levelator!

Ok, so these are my thoughts on Craig’s questions. If you have anything to add (or subtract) please feel free to do so in the comments.

Finally, I’d add that questions like these are addressed in some detail in How to Do Everything with Podcasting, the book my podcasting partner Shel Holtz and I produced last summer.

Just a small plug :)

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.