It goes without saying that the Shure SM7B and Rode Procaster are two industry standards in podcasting microphones. No matter what you are listening to, these microphones will crop up time and time again in podcasting setups, and for good reason. These are some of the most popular dynamic microphones on the market due to their high audio quality even in less than ideal recording situations.
It goes without saying, however, that these mics don’t come without their flaws. Being passive, their signal level is much lower than that of a condenser, making them incredibly gain hungry. To rectify this issue your preamps (be it in a mixer, interface, or digital recorder) will need to put in some significant legwork. This is where a mic activator comes in handy.
Is a mic activator such as a Cloudlifter necessary? It depends on the scenario. If you are battling with a dynamic mic for a decent signal level, then a mic activator will work wonders, giving you the boost you need to produce high-quality audio. However, with a condenser, an activator isn’t necessary.
So, when is it right for you to use a mic activator in your setup? In this article, we will be breaking down how exactly mic activation works and providing you with a few example use cases to help you get the most out of your gear.
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What is a Mic Activator?
If you’ve read our article Is a Cloudlifter a preamp you should be familiar with what exactly a mic activator is. For those of you who are still unsure, let’s go over some key features.
A mic activator is an inline signal booster. It functions in much the same way as the amplification circuit you will find in every condenser mic, in that it boosts the mic level signal output straight from the source. This means that the signal is already boosted before it reaches the preamp, which won’t need to be cranked as high to achieve a decent level.
One of the major advantages of a mic activator is that it is purpose-built for microphones (hence the name). By boosting the signal with clean, transparent gain, you are getting all the functionality of a preamp, without any of the potential distortion or coloration. In this way a mic activator boosts signal while preserving the tone of the microphone, keeping your audio quality to the highest of standards.
Mic activators are a form of in-line gain boosting. They run off of phantom power meaning they require no external power sources to function. Typically, they have an XLR input and output meaning they can be inserted in-between the microphone and the mixing desk. Because of this, they are essentially ‘plug and play’ with little to no setup time. By keeping a couple of these handy at all times you are sure to have your bases covered if you happen to need a signal boost at any point.
Why a Cloudlifter?
When it comes to mic activation, it could be argued that nobody does it better than Cloud Microphones with their Cloudlifter. Originally designed to be used with their ribbon microphones, Cloudlifter mic activators ensure a transparent signal boost with no phantom power touching the microphone itself.
Upgrading gear is a constant uphill battle, and all beginner podcasters are looking to get the best audio quality for the lowest price. Dynamic microphones are typically cheaper than condensers, and their audio quality even in unfavorable environments makes them an obvious choice for any starter, or even pro setup. While preamps can go so far in boosting your signal, the addition of a Cloudlifter means that less gain is needed on your interface, making your audio quality shine.
The Cloudlifter offers +20 – 25dB of gain to your mic level signal, pushing a dynamic mic’s level to that which you can expect from a condenser. The CL series offers just ins and outs with no controls meaning you can plug in and forget about it. This minimalist design coupled with its durable construction means that the Cloudlifter will stand the test of time no matter what it’s put through.
Another great feature of the Cloudlifter is its adaptive gain. While it does have a set threshold (between 20-25dB) of boost, the amount your signal receives depends on the amount being fed into the Cloudlifter. Circuitry housed within the box can read the incoming signal and will alter the amount of boost which means that if your dynamic is super gain hungry or requires just a little boost, the Cloudlifter will adjust accordingly.
When to use a Cloudlifter
So, when is it necessary to use a Cloudlifter? Here are a few scenarios where you may benefit from the inclusion of a mic activator.
As mentioned previously, we all want the best audio for the lowest price. Budget preamps are great for situations where a small amount of gain is needed, however when cranked to the max they become noisy and can color the sound. A Cloudlifter can supply a transparent signal boost for a fraction of the cost of a high-end preamp, keeping your quality high, and budget low.
Another case where it may be essential to use a Cloudlifter is recording on the road. If you don’t fancy lugging a huge mixing desk around as you record on the go, a digital recorder is a small and reliable option. Devices like this, however, may not have the power to boost the signal of some low output dynamic microphones. What digital recorders do have is a phantom power mode. By switching on 48v, you can circumvent the need to use as much gain from the device itself by allowing the Cloudlifter to do the heavy lifting. This can prove a lifesaver when recording on location.
One final situation in which a Cloudlifter may prove useful is in setups with extremely long cables. Due to a whole range of factors (room layout, space restrictions, etc), you may find yourself using extremely long XLR cables to record microphone input. Signal diminishes as it travels, and this may cause an otherwise decent microphone signal to record almost inaudibly. Adding a Cloudlifter into the signal flow will give the volume a much-needed boost to ensure clarity when it reaches its destination.
When a Cloudlifter isn’t Necessary
Now we’ve explored when you may need to use a Cloudlifter, let’s break down a few situations where one may not be necessary.
The first should come as no surprise, as condenser microphones include similar mic activation circuitry housed within their capsule. For this reason, using a Cloudlifter with an already boosted signal may provide too much power and cause distortion, or a signal overload. Typically, when using a condenser, minimal gain boosting will be required, and this can easily be achieved by preamps.
Speaking of preamps, if you are fortunate enough to be in possession of some high-end gain boosting hardware, then a Cloudlifter may be redundant. More expensive, professional preamps will provide more than enough signal boost and have a low noise floor with transparent gain so in this situation, a Cloudlifter isn’t going to be of much use.
Although the consensus is that passive microphones will need a boost in level, there are bound to be exceptions to the rule. One exception is our best under $100 pick, the Shure SM57. Although the SM57 is a dynamic microphone, it is surprisingly sensitive, and when recording vocals, it needs only a slight bump in level to achieve a decent signal. This is contingent on a microphone’s sensitivity, however, and for mics such as the Rode Procaster, a Cloudlifter is essential to achieving a decent signal level.
As you will be well aware, the need for a Cloudlifter depends on a lot of factors. We have covered some of the no brainers, and other unusual situations to help you determine whether a Cloudlifter is necessary for you.
In case you are still unsure, some factors to consider are the location (noise floor may be brought up by preamps), the gear (some microphones need more boost than others), and last but not least your budget (is it cheaper splash out on a preamp, or save on an activator?).
Regardless of the situation, the more you know about your equipment, the more informed your decision will be. To help you on your journey to understanding everything there is to know about mic activators, we have plenty of other handy articles to keep you informed.
Still getting to grips with how a mic activator differs from a preamp? Our article Is a Cloudlifter a Preamp? Our Thoughts is a straightforward breakdown of both preamps and mic activators, and how exactly they differ from one another.
If it is more information on what lies under the hood of mic activators you’re after, then you should check out our article on Does a Cloudlifter Need Phantom Power? In this article, we take a comprehensive look at what phantom power is, and the role it plays in the world of mic activators. We’ve also looked at Cloudlifter alternatives if you’ve decided that you need a mic activator but are unsure whether the Cloudlifter is the best one for your setup.