Ben Scheirman

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An Affordable Dynamic Mic Recommendation

I often get asked what mic people should use when getting started screencasting.

My Screencasting setup

Since screencasting is a significant part of my business, I am comfortable spending a little more than a hobbyist to get good quality sound. Pictured above you can see my microphone and audio interface.

I use (and recommend) the Heil PR-40 microphone. But this is an expensive mic that is really only useful next to somewhat expensive accessories. It’s not a compelling proposition to tell a hobbyist screencaster to fork out nearly $800 on a good mic setup.

The Heil PR-40 I use to record NSScreencast

I often see people using USB Condenser microphones, like the Blue Yeti or Audio Technica AT2020. I actually started recording NSScreencast with the AT2020. But I don’t think these mics are ideal for recording screencasts.

The ATR2100

I keep this mic around for travel reasons, but I really don’t recommend it because it picks up so much room noise. When traveling I usually have pretty awful recording conditions, so it doesn’t work well there either. What I’d really like is a portable dynamic mic…

Condensers versus Dynamics

Most USB mics are condenser mics. Condensers offer higher sensitivity, due to their requirement of phantom power, (which is easily provided via USB). This can lead to higher fidelity sound. Unfortunately this means that the room you record in is a big factor in the quality of sound you’ll get. If you’re not in an ideal environment, condensers pick up more reflections (reverb, echo) and general background noise.

Dynamic mics on the other hand are less sensitive. They actually tend to require a lot more gain, and tend to only come in XLR variants, which require a audio interface with a mic preamp. They are particularly well suited for voiceover work, and tend to be more forgiving of the room you record in. You typically get really close to a dynamic mic, and the increased signal ensures that the mic doesn’t pick up noise from far away.

Thus, I’ve been on the lookout for a good recommendation for an affordable dynamic mic that either supports USB, or can be easily used with a small audio interface.

The ATR2100

I came across the Audio Technica ATR2100 USB / XLR dynamic mic recently and had to order one. At only $55, it is not only cheaper than most condenser mics, but also offers more versatility. You can connect it to USB, in which case it’s using an on-board preamp and A/D converter, or use your own interface with your own preamp and gain settings.

The ATR2100

The microphone comes with a plastic stand, which is fine for simple use. The rubber feet do a decent (not perfect) job at preventing typing vibrations to travel up the mic, which is an awful, annoying sound.

The ATR2100

It also includes a headphone port for direct monitoring, which is both good and bad. Direct monitoring is really important, however if you have the volume turned up too loud you can get crossover, where the audio coming from your headphones bleeds over into the mic signal. This can ruin a double ender podcast recording. If you’re going to use the headphone port directly on your mic, make sure and turn it down pretty low to avoid crossover!

Test Recordings

Here are some tests I recorded for comparison. This is hardly scientific, but should give you a sense of what the different mics sound like with my voice. For the XLR tests, I used two different interfaces:

Onyx Blackjack USB audio interface

At only $99 The Blackjack is the interface I recommend to folks who need an audio interface for basic needs. I upgraded to the Apollo in order to consolidate some other hardware I had, and it doubles as a great guitar interface as well. Truly a great piece of gear, but totally overkill for a hobbyist.

Also, keep in mind that I am recording in a small office room with six large sound absorbing panels, a few pieces of furniture, and a rug. Conditions in this room are pretty great for recording.

The Results

  • Audio Technica AT2020 USB Condenser mic

    The AT2020 is a bit louder by default, and it picks up a lot of background noise. You can actually hear my dog barking on the other side of the house in this clip.

  • Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR Dynamic Mic - Connected via USB

    This one shows the ATR2100 connected via USB. This sounds pretty good to my ear. There is some noise present, noticeable compression, and the voice sounds a bit boxy to me, but I think it would suit a podcast or screencast pretty well.

  • Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR Dynamic Mic - Connected via XLR to the Onyx Blackjack

    This one shows the ATR2100 connected via XLR to my audio interface. This is using the relatively transparent UA preamps.

  • Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR Dynamic Mic - Connected via XLR to an Apollo8 Thunderbolt Audio Interface - Standard UA Preamp

    This one shows the ATR2100 connected via XLR to my audio interface. This is using the relatively transparent UA preamps.

  • Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR Dynamic Mic - Connected via XLR to an Apollo8 Thunderbolt Audio Interface - Standard UA Preamp

    This one shows the ATR2100 connected via XLR to my audio interface. This is using the relatively transparent UA preamps.

  • Audio Technica ATR2100 USB/XLR Dynamic Mic - Connected via XLR to an Apollo8 Thunderbolt Audio Interface - Manley Vox Box Unison Preamp

    This one shows the ATR2100 connected via XLR to my audio interface. This is using the Manley Vox Box Unison Preamp, which adds some warmth, compression, and EQ.

  • Heil PR-40 - Connected via XLR to an Apollo 8 Thunderbolt Audio Interface - Manley Vox Box Unison Preamp

    This one is included for reference. It uses my preferred daily microphone and preamp settings.

Conclusion

With these results, I have no problem recommending the ATR2100 to people who are just starting out screencasting. I will certainly be using mine when I travel instead of the AT2020.

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