When it comes to podcasting, everything starts with the microphone. Arguably the most important tool in any podcast setup, without a microphone, you are going to have trouble recording any audio.
With this in mind, it should go without saying that you should invest in a microphone first and worry about the rest later, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t all that simple. Buying a microphone is only half the battle – plugging it into the computer is the next hurdle you need to tackle.
As most laptops and computers don’t come with XLR inputs built-in, this means that you can rule out plugging any microphone with an XLR output directly into your computer. In these situations, you will require an additional adapter in order to get the signal where it needs to be.
This may sound overly complicated for what should be a simple task but luckily for you, it doesn’t have to be. This isn’t a new problem, and there are multiple workarounds at your disposal
Whether you are stuck with a mic and no interface or are hunting for new solutions to this age-old problem, then keep reading as we break down the different ways that you can get audio from the microphone to the computer.
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What is an Audio Interface?
The obvious solution to feeding the microphone signal into a computer is the use of an audio interface.
An audio interface is a piece of kit that expands a computer’s sound functionality. Typically, they connect via a USB port, and the addition of an interface allows for the input of ¼” jack cables, and more importantly, XLR cables. Some interfaces boast additional features, such as MIDI inputs, or line outs, but you will find most models have at least XLR and ¼” jack inputs.
Audio interfaces are analog to digital converters. What this means is that the incoming signal is processed into data that is readable by the computer, in this way, they can relay sonic information to the computer via the USB connection. This is a much more convenient format for audio to enter the computer in, as most have a USB port.
Not only does an interface relay this information, but they also have the capacity to manipulate the audio before outputting it. These can be found in the form of gain dials, instrument line switches, and an option for phantom power (used to amplify the signal of condenser microphones).
The capacity to control the incoming and outgoing signals in this way is a major advantage when recording a podcast. This additional gain stage allows for control of signal level prior to recording, reducing the risk of peaks, noise, or any other unwanted audio artifacts in the final product.
Is an Audio Interface Worth it?
While this additional gain stage is incredibly useful in achieving a high quality of audio, it is by no means the only reason why audio interfaces are a staple in almost all podcasting setups.
Being built by companies specializing in audio equipment, audio interfaces are tailor-made to produce high-quality audio. From analog-to-digital conversion circuits to preamps, these interfaces are purpose-built to receive, process, and output the highest quality audio possible. The difference is marked compared to audio running straight into a computer.
There is a reason why the recorded audio benefits from an interface, and it is down to the internal hardware. Especially when recording gain hungry dynamic microphones such as the Shure SM7B, or Rode Procaster, the quality of an interfaces’ preamps becomes a critical factor.
Preamps are circuits that amplify signal level ensuring that the audio signal is strong enough for recording and processing. With low output devices such as dynamic microphones, it is necessary to boost the signal by a significant amount to achieve a satisfactory level. When boosting very weak signal levels, a cheap preamp may become noisy, and warp sound characteristics.
For this reason, investing in an audio interface with clean and transparent preamps will greatly benefit your audio quality. Trying to achieve the same quality audio with computer preamps (if you can even achieve the same signal level) proves a much tricker and destructive process.
Audio Interface Alternatives
Still not convinced about the audio interface? Or perhaps you don’t have the budget to splash out? Well, fear not because there are a few workarounds, three of which are detailed below.
XLR to 1/8″ Jack Cable
The first alternative is an XLR to 1/8″ jack cable. These cables plug into the XLR microphone of your choice and feed the signal into the 1/8″ microphone jack socket on your computer.
Using a cable in this way may prove more space-efficient when recording on the go, as you circumvent the need to lug a hefty interface around at the bottom of your bag. This method is a quick and simple plug and play option, just remember to check your levels to ensure the recorded audio isn’t too high or low.
This cable on Amazon would work nicely.
Another alternative is to invest in a USB microphone. There are plenty of podcasting microphones on the market that offer a USB input, allowing you to connect to most computers directly without the need for an external interface.
There are some fantastic sounding USB microphones available including classics like the Rode Podcaster (Amazon link) and more recent releases such as the Shure MV7 (Amazon link) which looks and sounds like the all-time podcasting favorite the Shure SM7B but with both XLR and USB outputs. These microphones offer a direct connection to the computer while retaining a high-quality audio output, making them the ideal choice for those after that direct input option.
To read more about USB microphones and how they stack up against XLR models, see our USB Mic vs XLR article.
A staple for any traveling podcast setup, a digital recorder provides both an external microphone and recorder, and a USB alternative.
Devices such as the Zoom H2n (reviewed here) serve as an all in one recorder that can be used independently, with audio imported via SD, or plugged into a computer as a USB microphone. If you are after a recorder packed with more functionality than the H2n, then the Zoom H4n may be the device for you (see our Zoom H4n review for more).
These are just a few of the audio interface alternatives out there. Hopefully, by this point, you have an understanding of why it is that audio interfaces have become a staple in podcasting setups around the world, and the workarounds to get your audio to where it needs to be without one.
If you are sold on the benefits of an audio interface and are looking for a place to start shopping and comparing products, we recommend our ‘Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 – Podcast Setup Guide’. If you want to see how it compares to other interfaces on the market, then take a look at our ‘UR22mkii vs Scarlett 2i2’, and ‘Apollo Twin vs Scarlett 2i2’ head-to-heads.