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Cool Tools for Streaming Production
From microphones and cameras to hardware and software encoders, here's a list of the latest and greatest stuff to outfit the studio.
Tues., Aug. 1, by Steve Mack

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

One of the best things about being a digital media professional in this day and age is that the continued innovations in technology keep making the tools we use better—and cheaper. Seems like every time I open up an equipment manufacturer’s catalog there are things I somehow have to buy. I’ve already treated myself to a few new tools this year—here are the ones that have caught my eye.

Microphones
Audio quality is still more important than video quality, so let’s start at the beginning of the audio signal chain. You’ve got to have a decent microphone if you want to produce audio to a high standard. You don’t have to spend a ton of money, but until recently, you had to purchase a decent mixing desk or an audio interface with a microphone input to plug your microphone into. This is no longer the case, as a number of microphone manufacturers now offer microphones that you can plug directly into your USB input.

Plugging directly into the USB input has a number of advantages. First, you don’t have to carry a mixing desk or audio interface around, since the microphone takes power off the USB bus and sends a digital signal over the USB cable, rather than a low-level microphone signal. Essentially, USB mics have analog-to-digital (A/D) converters built in, so plug one in and you’re ready to go.

Samson Audio’s CO1U is based on their popular CO1 mic. It’s a large diaphragm condenser microphone, which means it offers far superior frequency and dynamics response compared to a dynamic microphone. It’s perfect for vocal applications for you podcasters out there, or as an instrument mic for you musicians. It retails for $234.99 but can be had at any number of online retailers for less than $100.

Blue Microphones specializes in high-end, boutique microphones known for their eye-catching designs and stellar performance. They’ve just introduced the Snowball, a USB mic that carries on the tradition of Blue Microphone excellence. It’s also a large diaphragm microphone, but with two capsules. This enables the microphone to have selectable pickup patterns. You can switch between cardioid, cardioid with a 10 dB pad, and omni patterns via a small switch on the back of the mic. For a single source, such as an announcer, you’d use one of the cardioid positions. A flick of the switch and you’re in omni mode, perfect for a group of people, such as a meeting. It retails for $159. Oh, did I mention it looks really, really cool?

If you don’t need a USB mic but are looking for a sonic upgrade, there are a couple of mics that deserve mention. First, there’s the Audio-Technica AT2020, which is the latest in a long line of excellent microphones. It’s not exactly new, having been available for about a year, but you can find it for under $100, which makes it a steal. Next, AKG Acoustics has long been recognized as one of the foremost microphone manufacturers in the world. Virtually every recording studio in the world will generally have a selection of AKG mics in their arsenal. I’ve got a pair of 414s that have seen a ton of use over the years—but they’re currently retailing for around $1,500 apiece. If that’s out of your league, the C2000B offers audiophile quality within reach of even the most modest budgets. The almost perfectly flat frequency response, combined with the extremely low self-noise and the built-in pop screen means this mic is a podcaster’s dream. It lists at $359, but you can find it easily for less than $200.

Audio Interfaces
The best way to get audio into your computer is via a USB or FireWire audio interface. They offer higher-quality components and the professional connectors most soundcards don’t offer. Anyone who has been to one of my workshops knows how much I love my M-Audio Mobile Pre. Well, M-Audio has done it again with the Fast Track USB. It gives you one channel of mic input, along with one channel of instrument or line-level input. It’s powered off the USB bus, so it requires no external power supply. There’s also a high-quality headphone output. All for under $100.