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I got a question from a Community member about recording audio away from home, so I grabbed my Zoom H4N and a few mics and headed to a local Starbucks to test out a few affordable mics in a real world setting.

If you’d like to invest in an affordable, portable recording setup, this episode will help you get started.

Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins:
  • Good quality portable audio recording devices are a great investment.
  • A portable recording setup is also really useful for shooting video.
  • You can’t beat the portability of mics that plug into your phone.
  • If you’re planning on doing video in addition to audio for an interview, a shotgun mic is going to be best.
  • If you can only afford $200 for a portable recording setup, get the the Zoom H4N.
  • For the best isolation of two people talking, especially in noisy places, get two cardioid dynamic microphones (like the Shure SM58).
  • Buying used is a great way to save money, but be careful of what you’re buying. Test the gear thoroughly before you buy it, and if anything seems wrong, return it.
Show Notes
  • 00:15 Diana asked: “I’m going to be doing a bunch of traveling and I need to record some podcast interviews. What’s the best setup for that?”
  • 00:36 This is a good question, one that I think about a lot, because I’m interested in traveling and recording away from my safe, comfortable little home studio. Beyond that, a portable recording setup is also really useful for shooting video, which is something I like doing. For this episode, I took a bunch of gear to a Starbucks and recorded some examples, because I can talk about microphones all day but I wanted to let you hear how the different mics perform.

Portability, Quality, & Money

  • 02:32 There are three things to think about and consider if you want to record audio away from your home recording setup. First, portability. Do you want something super portable, or are you willing to carry around a backpack full of audio gear?
  • 03:15 The second thing you need to think about is sound quality. Do you want to get the best sound possible? Is it okay if there’s a little bit of ambience or if it’s not the most amazing sound? The third and final thing you need to keep in mind is money. Generally, people fall into three tiers:
    1. I don’t want to spend a lot of money
    2. I’m willing to invest a little money for some good gear
    3. I’m freaking rich; show me the best gear!
  • 04:03 I would love to be able to drop $75,000 on a bunch of microphones and recording gear, but I’m not there yet. In this episode, I’m going to focus on tiers one and two (affordable gear). The gear I have isn’t super expensive gear, but I still got some good recordings out of it. Note: If you want to drop $10,000 on a portable recording setup, shoot me an email at aaron@thepodcastdude.com and I’ll help you find the best gear for your situation.

Portable Audio Recording Devices

  • 04:53 There are these little portable recording devices, like the Zoom H4N, H5, the H6, or the Tascam DR 40. These are little hand held devices; imagine stacking two or three iPhones together, and that’s about the size that these things are.
  • 05:09 They usually have a stereo condenser mic on the top that you can record with, or you can plug in external microphones, like the XLR microphones that I talk about often on this show.

Portable audio recording devices are a good investment.

  • 05:31 You can carry them around, they’re not big or heavy, and they have decent built-in microphones. You can also plug a couple of XLR microphones into them. They generally run from about $200 to $500, and they’re really handy.
  • 05:59 You could also buy a small usb audio interface to plug into your laptop (I recommend the Focusrite Scarlett interfaces). You can even plug a lot of these usb interfaces into your iPhone/iPad with a lightning to USB3 camera adapter. Personally, I use the Zoom H4N. I paid $150 for it used, and it’s pretty great. If you’re going to buy one of these portable recording devices, you should also invest in extra batteries or a power adapter and an extension cable so that you don’t run out of power halfway through an interview.

Mics That Plug Into Your Phone

  • 06:43 If you want a very simple, portable setup, no extra weight, just a little tiny microphone that you can throw in your backpack to keep with you all the time, you’ll want something like the $150 Shure MV88 lightning mic. I keep one in my backpack all the time, and while it’s not a huge step up from the built-in microphone on the iPhone, it is an improvement.
  • 07:05 If you have an Android phone, check out the Rode VideoMic Me. These run around $70 or $80 and plug into the headphone jack on your phone. Note: if you have the new iPhone 7, you can’t use the VideMic Me because there is no headphone jack on the iPhone 7. 

External phone mics are only slightly better quality than your phone’s built-in microphone, but you can’t beat the portability.

Accessories

  • 08:07 If you do decide to get one of these portable recording devices like the Zoom H4N, the H6, or the Tascam DR 40, and you want to record with XLR mics, you’re going to need to get some XLR cables and possibly mic stands. You can get a little desktop mic stand from Neewer for around $10. If you’re going to record in a bar, coffeeshop, or an office environment, a little desktop stand will probably work because you’re likely going to be sitting around a table.
  • 08:40 I don’t recommend keeping these little desktop stands to use at home, generally, because you’ll want to get a little bit closer if you’re using a dynamic microphone or even a regular condenser microphone. But for traveling and portability, a $8 to $10 desktop stand from Neewer or the tripod stand from Hamilton should work fine.
  • 09:02 As far as XLR cables go, I buy all my microphone cables from Monoprice. Monoprice cables are great.

Testing Microphones at Starbucks

  • 09:15 I went to Starbucks this last weekend, and I brought my Zoom H4N, my MV88 lighting mic for my iPhone, and a couple of microphones that I have. Note: the mic I’m using for podcasting these days is the Shure Beta 87A.
  • 09:33 The mics I brought along for my coffee shop test were a Shure SM58, an Audio Technica 875R shotgun mic, and a Shure KSM32 large-diaphragm condenser mic.
  • 09:52 The SM58 costs about $100 new. The Audio Technica 875R costs about $175 new. It’s a low-to-mid range shotgun microphone, not super cheap, but definitely not as much as the shotgun mic I really want, which is the Rode NTG-3 (it’s $699 new).
  • 10:19 The Shure KSM32 is a nice midrange $500 condenser microphone that sounds really good in a studio environment.
  • 10:42 So I called up my friend Matt and I said, “Matt, would you help me record some test examples?” He said, “Yeah, whatever.” So we met up at a local Starbucks to record some tests. Note: The only processing I did on these recordings was getting the volume levels between the clips roughly equal, adding a high-pass filter EQ, and then an adaptive limiter to make sure nothing clipped. I didn’t really mess with the EQ or the compression settings at all. So this is an approximation of the type of sound quality that you would get if you went to a Starbucks and recorded with these mics. I could have cleaned them up a little bit, but I wanted to let you hear the raw tracks.
1. iPhone 7 Built-in Mic
  • 11:50 The audio I recored with the built in mic on the iPhone 7 was pretty noisy, but it’s not completely unusable. It’s like what they say about cameras; the best camera is the camera you have with you. So if there’s one good thing I can say about the built-in mic on the iPhone, it’s that it’s always in your pocket and ready to record.
2. Shure MV88 in Mono Cardioid Mode
  • 14:00 I’m pretty happy with the sound I got from the Shure MV88 in mono cardioid mode. You can still hear a little bit of the background noise, but it’s a step up from the built-in mic on the iPhone.
3. Shure MV88 in Bidirectional Mode
  • 15:58When I first got the MV88, I was excited about the bidirectional mode (instead of pointing the MV88 at a sound source, you can set it to record from opposite sides of the microphone). I thought it’d be useful for recording interviews, but after listening back to the recording, the bidirectional mode sounds kind of thin and harsh. There were a lot of harsh S’s, and it also picked up a lot of the background noise. Even though Matt and I were both sitting across from a small round table, we both sounded kind of distant. The gain on that setting was all the way up, and it still sounded kind of crappy. I’m pretty disappointed with the bidirectional setting, so I don’t think I’ll be using it in the future.
4. Zoom H4N Built-In Stereo Condenser Mic
  • 17:55 I’ve been pretty impressed with the built in mics on the Zoom H4N, both for recording interviews and music (I’ve used them to record concerts before). They don’t isolate the sound source as well as a good shotgun or dynamic cardioid mic will, but they do a pretty good job of capturing the sound in the space you’re in, for better or worse. I’ve got the older version of the H4N, and I hear the newer version has even better sound.

If you can only afford $200 for a portable recording setup, I recommend the Zoom H4N.

5. Audio Technica 875R Shotgun Mic
  • 20:23 I was impressed with how the Audio Technica 875R shotgun mic sounded inside of Starbucks. It still picked up some of the background noise, but I didn’t feel like it was overwhelming like with some of the other microphones. In this recording, Matt and I were sitting next to each other at the bar, and I was just holding the mic out down on the counter, similar to where it would be if you had a desktop stand set up. The shotgun mic did a pretty good job of recording our voices with just a little bit of ambient noise.
6. Shure KSM32 Large-Diaphragm Condenser Mic
  • 24:00 Much too noisy. The Shure KSM32 picked up a lot of ambient sound, and not in a good way. It’s just not meant to be used to record an interview in a noisy environment, it’s too “sensitive”.
7. Shure SM58 Dynamic Mic
  • 24:21 As I suspected before I hit record, the Shure SM58 was the best at isolating the voices from the background noise. The background noise was still there, but it was very subdued. I was holding the SM58 and pointing it whoever was talking, which isn’t proper mic technique, but it worked fine.

Final Judgments

  • 27:57 Even though it’s not the best sound quality, I still like the Shure MV88 in mono cardioid mode because it’s so portable, and I like the built in stereo condenser mics on the Zoom H4N as well. My two favorite mics were the 875R shotgun microphone and the Shure SM58. With the shotgun mic, if you can set it up about arms length away from you and your guest (assuming you aren’t sitting on opposite sides of a table), you can record some good audio. I really liked the SM58 because it didn’t pick up much of the background noise (I’m going to invest in a second SM58 to use for future interviews).

For the best isolation, especially in noisy places, get two dynamic cardioid mics, like the SM58.

Other Considerations

  • 30:18 If you want to record really clean audio, a coffee shop might not be the best place to go. Try to find somewhere quiet. I picked a noisy coffee shop to record in, because I wanted to see what it sounded like. But if you can find a quiet corner in a noisy coffee shop, that should be fine.
  • 30:45 David asks, “What about using a lav mic that you can plug into your phone?” You could buy two Rode Smartlav+ lav mics and record to different phones and then put the files together later, sure.
  • 31:55 I wish I had some recommendations for lav mics, but I have no experience with lav mics other than the Rode Smartlav+. If you’re doing an audio-only interview and you want it to sound really good (even in a noisy environment), I recommend a mic with a cardioid or super-cardioid pickup pattern, like the Shure SM58 or the Beta 87A (unless you’re also shooting video, in which case you might want to use a lav mic or a shotgun mic).

Be Careful When Buying Used Gear

  • 32:17  I made this episode for Diana because she asked for my recommendations for a portable recording setup. She bought a used Zoom H6, and there was something wrong with it. She wrestled with it for a couple of hours, trying to figure out what was wrong with it before she decided to take it back to Guitar Center. They said, “Oh yeah, this is broken. There’s something wrong with it.”
  • 32:42 Buying used is a great way to save money, but be careful. If there’s no return policy–like if you’re buying off of Craigslist or eBay and there’s no return policy–do a very thorough test of everything before you hand over the cash. Try everything out and make sure it works. You don’t want to buy a broken recording device or microphone and get stuck with it.

Test your gear thoroughly before you hand over the cash, and if anything seems wrong, return it.

  • 33:14 This is one of the reasons I like buying stuff from Amazon or the used section of GuitarCenter.com. I guess I should mention Reverb.com, too. Reverb is a great used place to buy musical equipment, but they also have a lot of audio gear. You can return stuff, so you’re not stuck if you get a broken item.
  • 33:40 I’m going to end this episode with a call to action: If you are recording audio out in the world and there’s some gear you use that you really like that I haven’t heard of or didn’t mention, send me an email or head over to ThePodcastDude.com and hit the Contact button there. Let me know what your setup is. I would be happy to include it in these show notes and recommend it to other people.

Listener Scott Smith wrote in: I own four Shure PGA48s for remote interviews. For the longest time, I’ve heard lots of great things about the Shure SM58. This really got my curiosity up, I wanted to see if a $100 microphone was that much better than a $34 microphone. So I went down to the Guitar Center and purchased the SM58 for $100. 
I compared the PGA48 to the SM58 by recording into my Zoom H6 both unprocessed and process with compression.  I listened to the results using headphones, earbuds, and the car stereo while telling our kids in the backseat to stop fighting.
I conclude that the Shure SM58 for $100 is no better than the Shure PGA48 for $34. In fact, it seems that the 48 was a little brighter than the 58. The 48 required less gain than the 58 but I adjust it for that. I then listen to both microphones through my mixer and the results were the same. So in my opinion, save $66 and go with the Shure PGA 48.

Thanks for the tip, Scott! I’m gonna pick up a Shure PGA48 and try it out for myself.