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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Audiobook creation lessons learned: Microphones and their preamp pals

As I noted in my last entry, I have learned a few lessons attempting to setup my home writing studio in a way that would permit me to record audiobooks as well. Today, I wanted to further expand on the first point: microphones are critical, so don't skimp on them.

If you've followed along the earlier postings, I initially attempted to do this whole process for less than $100. What I have found is that you might be able to find a good mic second hand for that price, but I don't recommend skimping on this item. Mics for less than about $150–300 are just too low-quality (meaning they introduce hiss or are noisy) to be good for this process. Capturing the highest quality audio possible makes the editing later much easier, and that equals a good microphone.

I researched several options, and what I ended up with is the Røde NT-1A ( ). Other options in that category include the audio-technica AT2035 ( ) and the SE Electronics sE2200A II ( ).

I went with the Røde option for a couple of reasons. All of the microphones in this price range (as you might expect!) are pretty similar in performance. The NT-1A came as a kit and included the XLR cable (more on this in a minute), a pop filter, and shock absorber mount for the mic stand. Some of the others can be found online with bundles that include these things, as well. I read a lot of reviews, on Amazon but also on other sites ( and for example), and the NT-1A, in particular, is well-received and is one of the microphones recommended by ACX.

This kind of microphone (condenser mic) requires power to operate, and thus the inclusion of a power cable is essential. Both because of this need for power, and since it makes sense to have a pre-amp anyway (to allow you to get the best quality input to your recording software), one thing to also consider is the pre-amp—and, particularly, a pre-amp which provides "phantom power." Essentially, what this means is that power is not provided by a separate cable from that use to transmit the sound signal; they both travel over the same wiring.

Here, there are choices on top of choices:

  • How you connect to your recording software (most likely USB but there are other options!).
  • How many instruments or microphones you plan to connect.
  • On-board filtering or compression (audio compression).
  • Other included features (some come with a license for certain software tools, or for plug-ins) does the preamp's manufacturer offer.
To make it simple, I'll point out that you really must consider three things:
  • Phantom power supply (via XLR cable, almost always) and how much
  • Gain controls (allows you to dial in how much boost the sound will get from the preamp)
  • Output to the computer (USB, Thunderbolt are two popular, with USB more popular)
All of the other considerations are secondary, "nice-to-have" features for starting out.

First, the power. Since your condenser mic will require power, and will almost certainly use the XLR connection type, your preamp must provide that power and provide it via XLR. Now, XLR just refers to a particular connection type; it's a shielded multi-prong plug, just make sure both the mic and the preamp have the same number of prongs. The other consideration here is the voltage. Commonly, 48V phantom power is used for powering the mic, although there are 24V and 12V options as well. Best bet is to pick the microphone you want, and then select a preamp that will provide the correct phantom power (the NT-1A, for example, can use either 24V or 48V, which means more options for selecting a preamp).

Second, the controls. Gain controls will be pretty common for any preamp, but they should be easy to adjust, and easy to read.

Third, consider how you will output to the computer. Since most of us in this situation will have USB, that is a fine way to go. If you require another option (like RCA, Thunderbolt, or Firewire), then, of course, you'll be looking for a preamp that uses those connectors instead.

There are lots and lots of options, even with these basic considerations. What I ended up getting was the Focusrite Scarlet Solo USB ( ), which is a pretty basic preamp that won't break the bank. It has the XLR connection (and 48V phantom power) that my Røde NT-1A microphone requires; it has a dial for the gain control (and, an LED light band around the control, which lights green when the sound is "in the green" and lights red when the sound might clip); and it connects via USB. It also has a 1/4" jack for a monitor (I use headphones), and a volume control for the monitor jack. It also has a line-in (say, for an instrument), as well as RCA left & right output (if you prefer RCA connections instead of USB).

Finally, one additional thing to keep in mind is how to support the microphone. Even if the mic you choose is the kind you can hold in your hand, you likely will not want to do so for long stretches of time recording your audiobook, so I recommend considering getting a stand to hold your mic. In my case, I got the Samson MK-10 Microphone Boom Stand ( ), but there are a ton of other options out there. In addition, you might consider taking a trip to your local secondhand store and buying a mic stand there.

All told, including tax, I spent less than $400 on the mic, stand, and USB preamp. This is a pretty reasonable investment, I think, to get good equipment as a starting point. As we'll see in the next couple of installments, this is far and away the most expensive part of this process, and there are some serious soundproofing upgrades that can be had for less than $30 (which I will cover in a different blog entry).

My next post in this series will cover some of the lessons I've learned with the software, so stay tuned for that! I'll see you in a couple of days!

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