(This review was originally published on Feb 13th on the Center for Digital Storytelling’s blog.)
Between our voices and our digital stories, there is a microphone. It’s important to get it right. If you are someone just getting your bearings as a digital storyteller, or someone who needs to buy several mics for a group of storytellers, you’ll certainly want to consider the Audio-Technica ATR2100. Not only does it sound great, but it’s also inexpensive, durable, and easy to use.
In order to properly record your voice narration, you’ll need a few essential components: a computer, a way to get sound into that computer, and some way to edit that sound. It would be easy to spend hundreds of dollars on digital audio equipment and audio editing software, and if you you know how to use them, they’ll sound great. But if you’re working on a small budget or need to stretch it to purchase multiple mics, I highly recommend you choose a dynamic microphone with a USB connection. (See the note at the end of this post for more info about different microphone and connection types.) At less than $60, the best value at the entry level for microphones that fit those two requirements is the ATR2100.
Most importantly, the ATR2100 sounds great. Here’s a sound comparison. Below, you’ll find two versions me reading a beautiful selection from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The first is recorded with the on-board microphone from a Macbook Pro. The second is recorded by the ATR2100 connected to the same Macbook Pro via USB connection. Here they are…
You might notice that there’s very little background noise with the ATR2100. That quietness is due partly to the fact that dynamic microphones in general tend to be less sensitive than condensers. As a result, you get a little less sensitivity and subtlety, but you also get rid of most of that background noise. However, there’s another drawback to this microphone: the recordings tend to be very quiet. You will usually have to crank up the gain (sensitivity setting or input volume) on your computer. And if you or the storyteller you’re recording have a soft voice, it might be difficult to always get usable recordings. The loudness of most recordings can be easily raised in post-production extremely, but the background noise usually rises, too, which isn’t always preferable.
To be honest, the comparison isn’t at all scientific, and it’s not that fair either. Almost anything sounds better than the on-board mics from most laptops. But I wanted to embed it to let you hear just how clean the ATR2100 can sound. For a better comparison, you might want to play some YouTube videos of varying quality to see where the ATR2100 stacks up.
The base of the mic features three ports: mini usb, headphones, and an XLR connector. Although I recommend using the microphone primarily with the USB connection, the XLR connector does increase the versatility of the mic. It makes it more compatible with more audio interfaces, and it allows the microphone to be used with a PA system, too. The headphone jack, though, is a great addition. When using the microphone, I prefer to have my headphones plugged into the jack at the base of the microphone rather than the headphone input on my computer. Generally, the headphone jacks on the computer are very low quality. When the mic is plugged in via the USB port, you can route all your sound output to the microphone and listen via headphones. It’s a simple setting in your preferences or dashboard. You’ll get a much better sense for the sound you’re recording if you listen directly through the headphone jack.
These microphones are also quite durable. The body is made from heavy-duty die-cast aluminum and the capsule inside is protected by an internal windscreen and steel mesh cover. Because of the lower recording levels, many people will have to get very close to the microphone. I highly recommend adding an additional foam cover to go over the external steel mesh cover. You can pick them up for very little on ebay or at your local music shop.
The biggest reason I can confidently recommend this microphone, though, is how well it works for the students in my writing classes. They use the ATR2100 for recording podcasts and the audio components of digital stories. The mics are “plug-n-play” for Macs and most Windows operating systems after XP. There are no drivers to install and the microphone will work with almost any software. They just need to be plugged in so that the machine can recognize them.
The only part of the ATR2100 that I really don’t like very much is the stand that ships with it. Although the top part, the microphone clip, is strong and secure, the tripod it screws into is a bit flimsy. We haven’t had one break yet, but I think it’s only a matter of time. Also, the mic stand is very low, which is frustrating because most people have to lean down in order to get close enough to the mic to record.
Some other notes worth mentioning:
- The microphone ships with everything you need: tripod, microphone clip, usb cord, and an XLR cord.
- I really don’t get the on-off switch. Most situations call for the mic to be turned on/off via the computer interface. I suppose this physical switch would be useful if you were using the microphone connected to a PA system.
- Lifetime Warranty. Seriously.
All-in-all, this is a excellent, no-nonsense, inexpensive microphone. If I lost all of my equipment today and I had to start over acquiring equipment, this is the first microphone I would buy. Also, if I had to buy another 10 microphones for my classroom, I’d get a bunch of ATR2100’s. This mic is just perfect for beginners or those on a strict budget.
(And if you’re not yet convinced about the ATR2100, you might also consider the Shure SM58/x2u combo, or the Blue Yeti Pro. Both options have XLR/USB options. The Shure is dynamic, while the Blue is a condenser. Each of them have their merits, but you’ll notice by the prices that they’re not nearly the value of the ATR2100.)
Three general notes about microphones for voice recording:
- I’ll try not to get too bogged down in the details about microphones, but there are two very important factors to consider when purchasing your first proper microphone. First, there’s a huge difference between dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. Condenser microphones tend to give a cleaner sound, but they require phantom power and they tend to pick up a lot of background noise. On the other hand, dynamic mics require no additional power, and they are great at reducing background noise. But they sometimes result in very low-volume recordings. For beginning storytellers, or anybody who isn’t really interested in becoming an expert on microphones, I’d recommend getting started with a dynamic microphone, rather than a condenser.
- The other factor to consider is the type of connection you want your microphone to have: USB, XLR, or a small headphone jack. Intermediate to professional microphones tend to use XLR connections because they are durable, reliable, and are a professional industry standard. However, getting sound into your computer from an XLR jack requires either a good quality adapter or an audio interface. A mic with an XLR connection can be a perfectly good choice; it just adds a bit of extra cost and complexity to your setup. You also might be tempted to grab a microphone with a headphone jack connection, but they generally aren’t a very good value. Most mics with headphone jacks are designed for use with video cameras, rather than voice narration. Another option is to choose a USB microphone. Just a few years ago, it was difficult to find a quality USB microphones, and they required the manual installation of specialized drivers. Luckily they’ve come a long way. Now USB mics are almost universally plug-n-play and they sound every bit as good as most entry level XLR mics.
- As should be said for any microphone you’re thinking about purchasing, you’ll likely want to purchase from a well-known seller with a sales policy which allows you to return the microphone if you’re not satisfied. I know that Amazon and B&H both have excellent return policies to go along with competitive prices and excellent selections. I think that most people will find that the recording levels with the ATR2100 to be satisfactory, though.