If you read my bio on the front page you’ll know I have a background in journalism. My focus was in digital media so I learned a lot of different skills when it comes to reporting. I’ve done broadcast, print, web, radio. You name it I’ve at the very least dabbled in it. In spite of all of this one thing I’ve always struggled with is audio. I mean, I get the basic premise – I’m not a total dummy. I know how to connect and use a microphone. I can do some simple audio editing in Logic or Pro Tools. But I have a tough time getting my head around all the lingo, connection types and requisite compatibility. Not to mention I’m pretty much tone deaf so anything that has to do with musicality is over my head.

Recently though I’ve been working on a video podcasting project that’s required a more advanced audio set up. So, I’ve attempted to dive into the murky waters of mixers, mics and adapters over the last couple of weeks and my experience – while agonizing – has taught me a lot of lessons. I’m hoping some of what I’ve learned helps you steer in the right direction for your own projects and keeps you out of any stress-rage sessions well beyond the twilight hours.

The tale begins with our crew of three struggling to use one omnidirectional mic to grab audio from all three of us. The mic we started with was a Blue Yeti, which for the record I’ll say is really an outstanding microphone. It’s very crisp, super adjustable and connects easily through USB. The issue we had wasn’t so much with the mic but more with the space we were using. We were filming in my office which is a relatively small box with flat walls – essentially it was a well decorated echo chamber. And the Yeti picked up all of this obnoxious echoing. No matter the adjustments we made in post we just couldn’t get the audio where we wanted it without getting some ugly distortion. Hell, we even tried using two Yetis in an attempt to get more control.

CatBear Overhead

Eventually we decided we had two options: One, throw some soundproofing material on the walls to try and reduce the echo, or two switch to a lapel setup that brought the mics a lot closer to us. I wasn’t opposed to getting some egg crate foam, but I didn’t like the idea of having to routinely place the foam and then take it down while not in use. I didn’t want a super permanent change to the office either. So I opted to go for the lapel set up instead. Unbeknownst to me, this decision would lead to nearly a week’s worth of online shopping anxiety and more than one instance of feeling really dumb.

Now I want to repeat that audio is my kryptonite. I’m by no means an expert and just when I think I get it something reaches up, slaps me really hard and reminds me I have no clue what I’m doing. That being said, if some of this sounds obvious to you please forgive my transgressions and clear disrespect of your chosen hobby / profession.

My first step was to start researching mics that were decent but budget-friendly. I found a few different models that I liked and could afford; ultimately I landed on a generic brand that had good reviews and a clearance sale. Next I knew I’d needed a mixer that could bring all three mics into one track and record that to our computer. Trying to find the right one that I could afford took what felt like an eternity. I’m not kidding when I say I was staying up past one in the morning just spamming the “next page” button on Amazon-slash-Ebay-slash-Craigslist. Finally I saw a deal on a five-channel mixer from Behringer that (I thought) was the answer to all my late-night searching. Based on the choice of mixer I purchased I’d needed some adapters. Specifically I needed to covert the 3.5mm jacks from the mics to the stereo RCA connections on the mixer. At this point, I was stoked. I got everything we needed for roughly $100. I was bragging to my partners that I’d solved our audio woes and was convinced I’d finally started to bolster my lack of auditory prowess.

The first thing to arrive was the mixer. I was flying. I couldn’t wait to start testing. I hooked up anything and everything I could to it to see how it worked. I plugged in an old iPod, my phone, my iPad. At one point I think I dug up an old GameBoy just to mess around. The best thing: everything worked as expected. I connected it to my computer and immediately I was able to start making recordings in Logic. I went to town. I turned level knobs, adjusted gates, panned left and right channel.

The Mixer

I was an audio god and there was no coming back to earth. That is until the lapels arrived and I was quickly returned to my lowly chair.

No audio.

Unplug, replug. Fiddle, fiddle fiddle. Push button, push button, check mic, check mic, CHECK MIC!!!!!!!!

2:00 AM. Rage quit.

As soon as I was coherent enough I double-checked everything I had purchased. The mixer supplied power so the condenser mics I had should work. Wait, does RCA carry power? Wait, does this mixer supply power over it’s secondary channels? Okay, well that’s unfortunate, but not world-ending. I could simply return these mics and splurge on the ones I originally wanted but costed more. Those ones included an inline battery that powered them. Those would work for certain.

Thankfully, my Amazon Prime trial hadn’t ended so I still had free next-day shipping available. And that next day I had three new mics that were certain to work.

No audio. still.

Unplug, replug. Fiddle, fiddle fiddle. Push button, push button, check mic, check mic, CHECK MIC!!!!!!!!

2:00 AM. again. Rage quit. again.

Not wanting to quit on the (now increased) cash I’ve laid down – and let’s be honest sheer angry stubbornness – I was determined to figure out what I did wrong. I must have run at least 100 Google queries before I found where I goofed.

The mixer I have is laid out thusly:

  • Channel 1: Mic in – powered XLR/1/4″ combo connection
  • Channel 2/3: Line – stereo RCA connection
  • Channel 4/5: 2-Track – stereo RCA connection

This is important to note because technically the only spot in the above listed connections that a mic would actually work is the XLR portion of Channel 1. That’s because most microphones use low impedance, or Lo-Z. Channels 2-5 require Hi-Z input. What this means is Lo-Z mics essentially output barely any volume and they require a pre-amp that can crank up the incoming gain levels so they are audible. Channel 1 (at least the XLR bit) has this pre-amp, channels 2-5 do not however, because they were built expecting things that were much louder to be plugged in. These connections are meant to be used with media players and their ilk. To test my findings I turned the gain on the line input to 11 and shouted into the mic. Lo and behold I finally saw the waveform appear on my editing software.

Rather defeated at this point I let my compatriots know I’d need to redact my earlier points on solving our audio issues. And rightly so, they withdrew any audio chops they had previously given me. Thankfully, though there may be a happy ending to this fiasco. The newest iteration of lapel mics I purchased came with smartphone adapters. This will let us hook them up directly to our phones while we record. All we’ll need to do after the fact is import the tracks to our editing machine and sync the video. In fact, that may even work better because we’ll have separate tracks to further control our individual levels.

In the end I learned yet another tiny bit of the audio landscape. I honestly think that’s a pretty big win in and of itself, but I’m glad that what I bought will still be usable. As for the mixer, I don’t know. I’ve kind of grown fond of it and who knows, maybe it’ll be useful to have something like it as our podcast repertoire grows.

In case it’s helpful here are links to the items I purchased.

Audio Technical ARS3350iS

Behringer Xenyx302USB

Have thoughts or want to share your own experiences with audio – comment below.