How to Choose a Microphone for Audiobook Narration

A few weeks ago, I set out to learn as much as possible about microphones in order make an informed decision on purchasing a professional quality mic for audiobook narration. Not long ago, professional quality microphones were far too expensive for most people’s home studios; however, times have changed.

There’s now a plethora of high quality microphones under $300 that will give you near professional studio quality recordings from home. Even with a very small budget, you can get into the audiobook narration business and record your own audiobooks for a fraction of what they used to cost to produce.

Types of Microphones:

In order to understand what microphones to look for, you first have to understand the different types of mics, and what what those mics are generally used for. Although there are several other types of microphones, to begin with, you really only need to think about two: Condenser Mics and Dynamic Mics. Nine-Five Percent of Microphones used for audiobook narration fall into one of these two categories.

How they work:

Simply put, microphones are a specific kind of electro-mechanical device called a “transducer” which converts mechanical energy into an electronic energy.

Dynamic Microphones:

Dynamic mics have a super thin diaphragm of mylar or other material that’s attached to a tiny coil of copper wire. The coil is suspended in a magnetic field, and when sound makes the diaphragm vibrate, the wire moves up and down. This creates a tiny electrical current which is attached to the microphone’s output.

Condenser Microphones:

Condenser mics function in a similar way, but instead of a coil of copper wire, they have a thin membrane in close proximity to a metal plate. In order to work, this membrane has to be electrically conductive. When sound hits the diaphragm, it moves back and forth next to the back plate, and the distance between the two creates sound waves. Because the diaphragm used in condenser mics is smaller and lighter than the ones used in dynamic mics, condenser mics are able to pick up higher frequencies (it takes less energy to move them). However, condenser mics are more fragile and need phantom power for the same reasons. Moving the larger diaphragm in dynamic microphones is enough to produce an electrical current, but condenser mics need extra voltage to do the same thing. For a more in depth look at the differences in these mics, check out this video on youtube:

Who cares?

I could go even farther down the rabbit hole and look at the subcategories of mics, like small diaphragm vs large diaphragm mics, but honestly at this point, I think it’s a waist of time. Not being a sound engineer, and not planning on understanding the precise mechanisms involved in the conversion of mechanical energy into electronic energy and the affect that has on sound quality, I’m going to trust the audiobook narrators that have come before me and go with their recommendations. The thing to take away from the above is that because we are setting up a home studio, condenser mics are probably a better choice than dynamic mics for our purposes. We don’t need to worry about the microphone being too fragile, and we are going to have reliable access to phantom power, so neither of the negatives involved with condenser mics are going to pose an issue.

USB vs. XLR

Another question that kept popping up in my research was whether to go for USB Microphone or an XLR Microphone. For those of you that are just beginning your research, this is the type of cable you’re using to connect the microphone to the input on your computer.

The main advantage of USB microphones as is that they are basically plug and play. You plug the USB mic into your computer, the computer installs the necessary drivers, and the mic is ready to use.

XLR mics take a bit more configuring. Because they require phantom power and your computer doesn’t have an XLR jack in it’s sound card, XLR mics have to be run through an interface or preamp (I’ll talk about these things in another post).

Right off the bat you have to ask yourself, how simple do I want the recording process to be? And if you are not very technologically savvy, you may be better off with USB Microphone. However, at least in my research, it seems you can get a higher quality recording using an XLR mic and an interface. In addition to the higher quality recordings an XLR mic will give you, if something goes wrong with your microphone, it is usually something that can be fixed; whereas, when something goes wrong with a USB mic, you’re pretty much shit out of luck.

Using an XLR mic rather than a USB Mic will also give you more flexibility down the road when it comes to upgrading or switching out different elements.

Microphone Spotlight:

I’ve spent the last week or so going through reviews of different microphones, and I still haven’t made up my mind on which mic I want to buy, but I have narrowed it down considerably. I learned an awful lot about microphones along the way and I’m very much looking forward to trying a few out.

USB Microphones:

If you want to buy a USB microphone, the best two options I’ve come across are the Blue Yeti Pro and the Blue Snowball. Both mics would be great for podcasting, but I’m not convinced they would give me a high enough quality recording for professional audiobook narration. The Blue Yeti Pro will run you in the neighborhood of $250 and a Blue Snowball you can pick up for less than $100.

Dynamic Microphones:

The idea of using a dynamic microphone instead of a condenser microphone for high quality studio recording is appealing to me because I grew up seeing them used all the time in punk rock bands. The best of these mics (in the affordable category) are the Sure SM58 and the Sure SM7b. The Sure SM58 is pretty much the standard in live music. It’s a solid mic that has great sound, but it isn’t a high quality studio mic. The Sure SM7b, on the other hand, is an upgraded version of the Sure SM58 and would be fantastic for audiobooks, but as a first time mic buyer, I came to the conclusion that I should go with what most audiobook narrators recommend. If you want to use your mic both for live performance and audiobook recording, I feel the SM7b would be a great choice.

Condenser Microphones:

Wanting a large diaphram condenser microphone (because that’s what’s recommended most often by the pros, and who am I to argue?) I have narrowed my microphone search down to the following models:

The Rode NT-1a is probably the most widely used microphone for audiobook narration and would be a solid choice for anyone setting up a home studio. It has a very low noise floor and a bright sound that would work particularly well with my voice. If you have a higher register, however, the brightness might make your voice sound too sharp. The package deal includes this mic, a pop filter, and shock mount for under $250. As a budget mic, I can’t imagine being unhappy with this purchase.

The Rode NT-1 is very similar to the NT-1a. NT-1a, but the NT-1 appears to be smoother and not quite as bright. It is slightly more expensive than the NT-1a, but when purchased in a package deal, the accessories are much nicer. For my purposes, I think the upgrade would be well worth the additional $50 or so this mic costs.

Finally, the CAD e100s. This mic is considerably more expensive, coming in at around $500 at the time of this writing, but I really love the way it sounds on all the recordings I’ve listened to. The only thing that is preventing me from choosing this microphone over the others is the fact that the company has some quality control issues, and a lot of people complain about the mic having more self noise than is advertised. If I could be sure I wasn’t getting one of the defective mics, that had the self noise problem, I would almost certainly buy this mic over the others. It just sounds so damn good.

If you have any suggestions on which microphone I should choose, please let me know! As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve learned a little something about choosing a microphone.

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