By Michael W. Dean
The Freedom Feens
Genesis Communications Network
CASPER, WY — Remember that toy advertised on TV in the 1970s called “Mr. Microphone?” It was a cheap plastic mic with a built-in low-power FM transmitter. You could project a tinny rendition of your voice over any portable radio within oh…about 30 feet.
The Audio-Technica AT2005USB mic (GET IT HERE) kind of reminds me of the Mr. Microphone except that the AT2005USB sounds incredibly good. And instead of reaching every radio within 30 feet, it reaches every radio in America, or at least every radio in America that’s in a city where your show has an affiliate.
This would be a great mic for hosts who travel a lot, and don’t want to bring a mixer and a whole bag of gear or an engineer. It’s a regular-sized dynamic mic that sounds fairly amazing. It has a built-in USB interface, and comes with a nifty collapsible tripod table stand and a USB cable. You could fit that all in a netbook case with a small laptop. Add a set of earphones or even ear buds and you could do your show from anywhere. You could fit all that in a briefcase or purse.
If America collapsed and I was leaving the country in a hurry, this mic is the one thing I’d make sure to take besides my passport. Especially since these mics are about $50 here, but go for up to $500 in Europe due to their VAT taxes. (Get the gear you need now, because a national sales tax/luxury tax is probably coming to America sooner or later.)
You could connect this mic to your network or studio via Skype, or better yet, Blink. I’ll be doing an article with more on Blink at a later date. Blink doesn’t have the wide adoption of Skype yet, but like Skype, it’s free, and it sounds better than Skype. It also has better encryption, and is open source, so the source code can be vetted for backdoors, unlike Skype. Though most people have Skype already, are more likely to use it than they are to install something new, and Skype’s sound quality has gotten a lot better recently since they added the Opus codec.
The AT2005USB mic is rugged, well-made, even stylish, and comes with easy instructions for PCs and Macs. And it has a lovely blue LED indicator light to show when it’s on and connected.
The Audio-Technica AT2005USB works out of the box with very little set-up and without a mixer or external audio interface. You plug it directly into the USB port on any netbook, laptop, or desktop computer. You can plug your headphones (here’s a few I like) directly into the base of the mic for latency-free monitoring. It also has an XLR input, in case you fall in love with it and want to use it as your everyday mic in the studio, as well as when on the road.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Microphone
Doing your whole show from on the road with this mic would likely require either adding a small mixer with a bus for a mix-minus, or doing your show without having your cues sent to you by the network. Otherwise your cues would echo back and cause problems. But if you were good with working to your clock, and had your program clock PDF open, or memorized, it could be done without audio cues. I just recently bought the mic and haven’t traveled since I got it. That will be the topic of a later article. But I did get to try it with a remote guest in a different state. He connected to me via Skype to my own home studio, and I connected with my mixer (and mix-minus) to our network via Comrex. It worked great. Both myself and the remote host could hear the liners, cues, and board op. And none of it fed back to the network.
My show actually purchased three of these mics and sent two to people we regularly have as guests or as guest co-hosts on our show. And I have one extra mic to send around as needed. It’s a great investment to improve the quality of a show. No one wants to listen to an hour or two of someone calling in on a telephone. The Audio-Technica AT2005USB mic over Skype sounds inordinately better than a phone call, by logarithmic degrees of magnitude. And this mic sounds way better than using an on-board laptop mic or Skype headset. The AT2005USB, if you work with it, is capable of delivering sound from a netbook in a hotel room that’s about 85% as good as you’ll get in your studio with high-end gear and an engineer. There’s a lot of clarity, no distortion, and some full bottom end, but not so much as to interfere with comprehension of your words. This mic even has a little bit of pre-set compression built in.
Here is a short sound sample I recorded with the mic, straight out of the box, in my living room, with no post-processing.
If you have a really important guest coming up who doesn’t have a good studio or mic setup, you could mail or FedEx this mic to them, do a pre-game interview and sound check with them ahead of time, and send them a stamped self-addressed envelope to send it back to you when they’re done. Sort of a “sisterhood of the traveling microphone.” The robust box it comes in is padded inside and could be mailed many times before needing a new shipping box.
The included instructions are incredibly easy to follow. Though it’s always a good idea to get your guest’s phone number in advance, in case they have trouble setting the mic up on their end and you or your engineer needs to walk them through it.
I make sure to send a foam windscreen with the mic. (Get those HERE) The mic comes with an internal windscreen, but it’s very thin. Adding one on the outside of the mic ball will vastly improve the sound. Also make sure the guest is in a quiet room, and the mic is as far away as possible from any computer fans or machinery. I usually suggest people run their heater or air conditioner for a while before an interview to make sure the room is cool or warm enough, so they don’t have excess background noise during the interview.
I’d also recommend placing a folded-up t-shirt or something similar under the included table stand if the mic is going to be on the same table you use for your drink, notes and computer. That will act as an on-the-fly shock mount to dampen table and floor sounds from getting picked up by the mic.
If your remote guest doesn’t have any on air-experience, be sure you get a pre-game sound check to work out tech issues. I always find that a pre-game interview always makes for a better show, even if they do have on-air experience, and even if you don’t talk about anything of substance during the pre-game. It’s just a good ice breaker. I always try to schedule the pre-game a few days before the interview. Doing it right before the interview can be crazy making, if there are problems that you or your engineer can’t walk the person through troubleshooting as quickly as you’d like.
TIP: It’s probably a no-brainer, but I’ve had calamity from not abiding by this tip….when scheduling remote guests, if they’re in a different time zone than you, make sure they know that when you give them a time do an interview or pre-game interview/sound check. People who don’t live by the atomic clock tend to think very locally.
I never hesitate to try to get a remote guest to do a bit of work to get a great sound. I work with them on things like getting closer or further from the mic, even adding some temporary sound conditioning, or going into a quieter room or a more sound-conditioned room. Refer to my Talkers article “Quick-and-Dirty Three-Minute Sound Conditioning” for tips on that.
Ask the guest to make sure their Internet pipe is not being shared, i.e. that no one else on their network is downloading large files or watching Netflix during the interview. Have them close any programs they don’t need to do the show. Have them turn off video on Skype. It’s not needed for an audio interview, and audio-only has better quality on Skype than if you’re using Skype audio with video. Audio only has more bandwidth available and Skype will auto-adjust to give better sound.
Here’s a link to a full radio show I did with a guest co-host, my friend MikeMakesRight.
He was filling in while my regular co-host was taking a day off to hang out with his new baby daughter, who is three weeks old. The whole show features MikeMakesRight Skyping in to me from his laptop. He’s using the 50-dollar Audio-Technica AT2005USB mic, a 50-cent windscreen, and some cheap ear buds. We did some pre-gaming and sound tweaking for about 20 minutes a few days before the show. I think it sounds pretty darned good. He’s in California, I’m in Wyoming, our Network is in Minnesota, our satellite feed is in Atlanta, and from there it goes out to our affiliates nationwide.
Most guests are happy to jump through the hoops of getting good audio. Some will even be very thankful for it, because you’ve shown them how to do good audio for interviews any time, which will make them more attractive to producers on all shows. But occasionally someone won’t appreciate that you’re trying to make them sound great and will be irritated by the small amount of extra time involved. In all but one case I’ve won those people over by explaining this to them: We’re not an interview show. We rarely do interviews, we only interview people we consider important. We’re not contacting you to “fill a spot on a calendar,” we’re contacting you because we consider your input on this topic important. And we make radio for the ages, not as disposable media. We want the interview with you to be around for decades in archives, and that involves getting the best sound possible. Think less “morning zoo crew” and more “independent Smithsonian Institution.”
Because that’s really the attitude I take with interviews. We’re documenting history and trying to make history. We owe it to the guest, and to the future, to have it sound as good as possible. And that takes a little bit of effort and care.
But with a little bit of effort and care it can be done very well on a very low budget with the Audio-Technica AT2005USB mic.
Michael W. Dean is co-host of The Freedom Feens which is syndicated by Genesis Communications Network, and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm CT. Michael Dean also runs the free audio tip website Creamy Radio Audio.