Audio basics for streamers part 1: microphones

It seems like every day there is a Reddit post asking for advice on fixing an audio problem. What mic should I use? What mixer? How do I get rid of background noise? But most of the advice I see offered is… well, let’s just say it means well. Usually, someone suggests spending a lot of money on something the person doesn’t actually need and probably won’t actually help them. I thought I’d spend some time putting together a guide on every part of signal chain from mics to interfaces and mixers to post processing.

First, a little detour for some background info on me that will, hopefully, explain why I am qualified to provide advice. My degree is in film and TV with a minor in audio recording. I spent some time working in TV after college, joined a few bands, recorded two albums (and mixed one of them), and am currently recording and mixing a third. I also worked at a shop selling pro audio gear for 5 years. This is not to say that I am an expert; I’m not. It’s just to say that I have a fair amount of experience, certainly more than the average streamer, and that I was an audio guy long before I was a streamer. I’ve used some really nice equipment and some really not-so-nice equipment. I own a bit of both and a lot of the stuff in between. I will make some recommendations based on my experience and opinions, but ultimately this guide is about finding the right gear for you.

On to business. The first and arguably most important part of your signal chain (well, other than your voice) is your microphone. Every microphone has a different sound and set of features that might make it more or less suitable for a given voice and a given application. There is no one perfect choice for every person. But if we take a look at the differences between them, we can find one that is a likely candidate for your needs. First, some info on the differences between the two basic types of mics you’ll be looking at, then I’ll dive into some specific mics and why you may or may not want to use them.

Dynamic vs condenser mics

The two main categories of microphone are dynamic and condenser mics (there are others, but you aren’t likely to be using those). Dynamic mics are the simplest types of microphone in terms of their construction. They function more or less like a speaker in reverse. The diaphragm has a magnet attached to it that moves through a coil of wire to turn the physical air movement into an equivalent electrical current. Condenser mics, meanwhile, are typically use thinner diaphragms, require external power, and come in a wide variety of polar patterns (the directionality of the mic) and sizes to fit just about any application.

When it comes to choosing one for your stream, there are a couple general characteristics to keep in mind. The benefits of a dynamic mic are that they do not require external power, can usually handle very high volume levels (maybe not so critical for streaming), tend to be very durable, and don’t pick up background sound very well since they are not very sensitive. That makes them generally better suited for streaming than condensers. On the downside, because they are not very sensitive, you will usually need to be very close to the mic to be heard. This also means that if you move your head, the volume can drop dramatically.

Condenser mics, on the other hand, are very sensitive. This allows them to pick up more details and high frequency information, so they typically sound “better” than dynamics (better is subjective, of course), but they will also pick up more background noise. Cheaper ones may also have issues (ie distort) with louder sounds. They also require power to function. On the plus side, there are a lot of different types of condenser mic that may suit your needs better than a dynamic.

Now that we have a grasp on the basics, let’s examine some of the popular mic choices as well as some you may not have considered.

Blue Yeti

This mic became the defacto standard for streamers because it’s affordable, sounds good, and is easy to setup and use. There are now three main variations of it: Yeti, Yeti Pro, and Yeti Nano. The two bigger Yetis have several selectable polar patters, though you’d generally only want to use the cardioid pattern for streaming. The thing is, despite their popularity, they really aren’t a very good choice for streaming. They’re not very directional and, being condensers, they are very sensitive, so you are going to pick up lots of room noise, including your air conditioner, keyboard, dog barking, etc. You’ll also need to get a pop filter so you don’t blow people’s ears out every time you make a “p” sound. For the same price or less, there are several other options that will do a better job. Having said that, if you have a quiet space, quiet keyboard/controller, shockmount, stand or boom arm, and pop filter, you can absolutely get great results with these.

Headset mics

These are typically condenser mics (though dynamic options exist) and may be included with a gaming headset or purchased separately. While the mics on gaming headsets are generally not a good option, add-ons like the Antlion ModMic series can be a really great choice. Since they are worn on your head, the mic is always positioned in the same spot relative to your mouth, so volume levels will be very consistent. They are also just generally very convenient since you don’t need a stand and they plug into the 3.5 mm input on your computer (or USB in some cases). Your results may vary depending on the quality of your computer’s sound card, but generally a quality headset mic is a great option. Just make sure to find a directional (cardioid) one to cut down on background noise.

Shure SM7B and EV RE20/RE320

It’s not hard to see the appeal of these mics. They are broadcast dynamic microphones found in radio studios everywhere, so they seem like a natural fit for streaming. However, they have a number of downsides that might make them a bad choice for you. First, they are extremely low output microphones, so you will need a good quality preamp to amplify them. Most $100 audio interfaces will be good enough, but you may need to purchase an additional add-on like the Cloudlifter to boost the signal depending on your setup. Second, you will need to put your mouth practically on the microphone to be heard. On the plus side, that means that they pick up almost no background noise; on the downside, moving your head even a little can cause a dramatic volume drop. They are also huge, so if you’re hoping to hide your mic, look elsewhere. I’ve seen these mics used to great effect on stream, but I’ve also noticed that the streamers using them are right on top of the mic and move very, very little. If that doesn’t sound like a problem to you and you are okay with making a few tweaks with filters to get a better sound, these can be great options, especially if you really need to minimize background sound. Just keep in mind you are looking at $400+ to get everything you need to make this work.

Other dynamic mics

If the broadcast mics are a little rich for your blood, you can get similar results for a lot less with something like a Shure SM58. Handheld vocal mics are designed for stage use, so they are generally more directional and, naturally, tuned for human voice. Different mics will have different qualities, though. The SM58 is another mic that requires you to be right up on it for good sound, but Sennheiser’s e835, for example, works fine with a little more breathing room. Aside from typically louder output than the broadcast mics, though, most of the same pros and cons apply.

Shotgun/boom mics

Now here’s a category I don’t think I’ve seen any streamer talk about even though shotgun mics are purpose built for recording on-screen talent. That makes them a perfect fit for streaming. They are very directional, so they pick up very little background sound, and can be hidden off camera without reducing quality. In fact, I use one in my living room setup. Even with the surround sound going and no noise gate in use, all that comes through is my voice. If you look for mics designed to be mounted to a camera, you’ll also be able to connect directly to your computer’s 3.5 mm input so you don’t need to buy a separate interface. My personal choice is the Deity D3 or D3 Pro. These cost about the same or less than other mics on this list. The only downside is that it’s possible you might pick up your keyboard if your face tends to hover over it (as the mic should be pointed at your mouth from above), but as long as you lean back, you should get great results. Just make sure you put the mic about 6-8″ from your mouth, more or less above and in front of you, to get the best results.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas about what to look for in a mic. Any of these options can work, but it really comes down to what works for your voice, your setup, and your budget. Next time, we’ll look at the next part of your signal chain: preamps, mixers, and audio interfaces. Then we can dive into the software side of things!

Part 2: preamps, mixers, and interfaces

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