Thoughts on audio gear for remote music lessons

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about audio gear by my friends and colleagues. I don’t think I’m an expert on this, but I know enough to be dangerous (ie. spend other people’s money). Teaching lessons over video chat is hard and weird and different and lower fidelity in almost every way compared to teaching in person. And the thing I’m asked most often is “what microphone should I buy?”. My answer to this question has changed somewhat.

First, the thing that hasn’t changed: You don’t need to buy a mic at all. You’ve already spent a lot of money on a lot of things, and there are a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of the economy and institutional finances. Also, like digital cameras, your phone and laptop have been getting better and better, so cheap external microphones probably aren’t a ton better than what you already have (though a benefit is that you can control the placement a bit more if it’s not attached to a computer or phone). With that important caveat out of the way, here are my recommendations.

Initially, I was recommending the AudioTechnica ATR–2100X. It’s a dynamic mic very similar to a Shure SM57/58. It has the benefit of working both as a USB microphone (can plug directly into a computer) and a traditional analog microphone (can plug into standard professional audio gear). That means it can grow with you. It happens to also be an exceptionally good vocal mic should you decide that this is the time to start your hit true crime podcast. I’ve had its predecessor (the ATR–2100[1]) for years, and it works great. It costs around $100 on Amazon—if you can find it—so it’s not exactly cheap, but still on the low end when it comes to microphones. This is a really good mic, and if you picked it up on my recommendation, I stand by it. Since then, though, I’ve had another idea that I think could be even more useful.

Ideally, if you’re going to spend money on something to help with your online remote lessons—and again, no one should feel that obligation—an even more useful option would be something that will continue to serve you in other situations as well. One thing that we all deal with is making recordings of rehearsals and concerts when we don’t want to lug a ton of gear or can’t reasonably sneak a laptop into a dark concert hall. For that reason, I think an even better purchase might be a small portable recorder. I really like the ones from Zoom (not the video chat service!). I’ve had a Zoom H4n for over a decade and it’s still going strong. For almost the same price as the ATR–2100X, you can pick up a new Zoom H1n portable recorder. These are amazing little multitools because they’re tiny, have really good microphones for the money, and they can work as a USB microphone when plugged into a computer or as standalone recorders for a time when we can all enjoy one another’s company again.[2]

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this stuff later. As I’ve said a bunch of times this week, every sentence I say or write these days has an implied “for now” at the end of it. These are my thoughts (for now).

  1. If you don’t mind the older-style mini-USB port, you might be able to find a good deal on this model if it’s still in stock anywhere. The sound and build quality is identical.  ↩

  2. Is it naïve to speak of such things?  ↩