Ah, the humble Cloudlifter. This is a nifty little device that’s, unfortunately, been marketed as a necessary piece of a podcasting setup. Which increases a podcast budget by over a hundred dollars!
Let me guide you through why a cloudlifter for your podcast may not be necessary.
What Is A Cloudlifter?
Before I talk you through if you’ll need a Cloudlifter it’s important to learn what this device even is. Oftentimes when audio gear becomes scooped up into a trend, like the Shure SM7B Mic, companies will market the living crap out of them to the point that customers buy it without even knowing why. It’s just the “right” thing to do.
And 9/10 you don’t even need it.
Unfortunately for the Cloudlifter and the starting Podcaster, that’s exactly what’s happening here.
A Cloudlifter is a device known by audio engineers and technicians as an “in-line preamp.”
In line preamps serve one purpose only: Give a microphone clean gain before being amplified further with another preamp.
If any of that confuses you, don’t worry. It can get pretty hairy if you’re just starting down the road of professional audio.
Before we go any further I would take the time to read my post on preamps, what they are and how they work. That can help answer a lot of questions I know you probably just thought of.
But for the purposes of this post I’ll list out some basics to help digest just what the Cloudlifter and similar devices do.
A cloudlifter adds clean gain to your signal
When I say “clean” gain what I mean is that an in-line preamp such as the Cloudlifter can be thought of as a Pre-Preamp.
It may help to visualize a standard “signal path,” or the path audio takes during recording or streaming:
So the audio starts with you, goes into the mic, travels to your audio interface where it gets boosted with a preamp to make it loud enough to be recorded properly with your computer.
The problem comes when you have what’s often referred to as a “low output microphone.”
Dynamic microphones in particular, which are the most common types of mics used in podcasts (also known as “broadcast” mics, which is another marketing ploy) are notorious for their low output.
If you’ve ever come across the Shure SM7B in your research and have heard phrases like,
That’s what people mean. Dynamic mics need a LOT of gain which risks being recorded with “preamp noise,” or the hiss you might notice if your preamp is turned up too high. Not a good thing if you want a professional sounding podcast!
The Cloudlifter, and other in-line preamps, add somewhere between 20-27 dB of gain BEFORE your preamp amplifies your mic signal further.
By being placed before the preamp in your signal chain the device will make it so you don’t have to turn your preamp up as high, which reduces the risk of preamp noise, or hiss.
IMPORTANT: This does NOT help with “environment noise,” or things like an AC running in your room. We’re strictly talking preamp noise here.
A cloudlifter requires phantom power to work
If you’ve been looking into mics and podcasting for a while you may already know about “Phantom Power.”
For those who don’t, phantom power is additional power, usually 48 volts, sent by your interface or preamp to your microphone in order to be powered.
Not all microphones need phantom power, such as dynamic mics. Some mics are even damaged by this additional power, like ribbon mics. So phantom power isn’t something to mess around with if you aren’t experienced enough to know why you’re turning it on. And that’s ok!
While not all microphones need an in-line preamp like a Cloudlifter, in a learning or student centered setting they can serve as a buffer between phantom power and sensitive microphones while they’re learning about which mics to use phantom power on.
Because these devices require phantom power to work! Which means any phantom power going down the signal path with an in-line preamp in it will power the in-line preamp and will NOT travel to your microphone!
This additional 48 volt power is the “on” switch for an in-line preamp. Without it your mic signal won’t get that clean gain mentioned above and won’t even reach your interface to be recorded.
If you’ve purchased an in-line preamp, have plugged your mic into it, and connected it to your interface only to find that you’re not hearing anything chances are you don’t have phantom power on.
Either that or your mic is a condenser mic, which DOES require phantom power. In this case the phantom power is powering your in-line preamp and not getting to the mic. No worries here, an in-line preamp is generally never needed for condenser mics anyways.
Do I Need A Cloudlifter For My Podcast?
Now that you understand the basics of what the Cloudlifter is and does, the question remains:
The answer is…it depends.
It completely depends on your setup and what your goals are as a creator.
If you’re just recording a podcast by yourself and are ok with recording your mic at a lower input gain (think of it as lower “volume”) then you can just increase gain in post-production.
Here’s a quick example. In the first audio clip you’ll hear me speaking a few lines with my Rode Podmic Dynamic Microphone, a common go-to for podcasters. I have it plugged into my Klark Teknik CM-2 inline preamp before being recorded into my Rodecaster Pro with the preamp set to 35 and the only post processing will be to normalize it to -14 LUFS.
Podmic -> In-Line Preamp -> 35 Preamp Gain -> -14 LUFS
This second audio clip is the same setup except this time my Podmic is going straight into the Rodecaster without going into the in-line preamp. The preamp setting in the Rodecaster is the same, 35. But this one is gained in post to be the same -14 LUFS (standard loudness for streaming content) as the first example:
Podmic -> 35 Preamp Gain -> -14 LUFS
You can choose for yourself which one you prefer but to my ears there’s very little difference. As you can probably hear, in-line preamps can sometimes color or boost the natural tone of the mic. In this case, the signal that went through the Klark Teknik had more “bottom end,” or “boominess” to it. But as far as loudness, overall quality, and preamp noise there’s extremely little difference. So little you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d be able to notice.
The danger with not using an in-line preamp is inexperience with recording audio. Beginning engineers will basically freak the freak out because they can’t hear the mic as loud during recording so they crank the preamp.
As I explained above, this will introduce preamp noise, or a hiss.
A more seasoned engineer will know this and will adjust headphone volume instead. So your mic is still being recorded at a “quieter” volume but you’re monitoring, or listening to it, at a louder volume.
Podcasting as a group or with guests
If you’re podcasting as a group or you invite guests onto your podcast then it may be a better idea to get an in-line preamp.
Even though we learned that you can just boost the recording in post later, some guests may not want to have their headphones cranked too high.
Keep in mind that your headphone output also has a preamp in it. Which means if you turn your headphone output too high you could also start to hear some preamp noise, or hiss. The difference here is that this noise isn’t necessarily being recorded, but to a guest who doesn’t know this it’s just the same as if it was.
A good podcast host will want their guests or group feeling confident and that the end product will be professional quality.
An in-line preamp can remove this problem completely. With more gain added to your microphone your headphone outputs will be louder so you can avoid headphone preamp noise.
Now if you’re not just podcasting but you’re also streaming that’s when I’d go as far to say that an in-line preamp like the Cloudlifter is completely necessary.
See, with streaming you’re basically doing a “broadcast mix.” It’s all live. Unlike studio recordings, with broadcast you don’t have the luxury of “fixing it in post.”
Without the option of gaining the audio in post this means that the audio being broadcast to your viewers needs to be easily heard. Otherwise they’ll need to crank their volume all the way up on their end. And with some viewers who may be watching on phones without headphones they may not be able to hear you at all!
Throw in your game audio or video audio or whatever it is that you’re streaming and your mix will be completely unbalanced. With the game audio drowning you out and blowing up your viewers’ ears.
Because of this an in-line preamp like the Cloudlifter is a must. This will give your mic the gain it needs to not only record cleanly if you plan on uploading your stream to YouTube or Twitch later but your viewers watching in real-time will be able to hear you loud enough on their end.
You want as little post processing as possible
This last example plays into the workflow you decide as a podcaster.
See, with podcast workflows there are two main types:
- Those who record “Multitrack” for the entire show to be edited and mixed later in post.
- Those who record “Multitrack” but mix the podcast live in hopes of just using the main live mix as the final product without needing to edit in post.
This is why I like to say,
Part of my job has been working as a broadcast audio engineer for the past 3 years now. Podcasts, like broadcasts, have the option of recording the show live and not needing to edit anything in post.
This requires a lot on the podcaster to know their mixing setup well enough to trigger ads, fade in/fade out guests, and play the intro or outro in real-time as they’re talking.
But the upside to this workflow is that you don’t need to edit a thing in post! It’s all mixed live and as soon as you end the recording you can upload it to hosts like Buzzsprout immediately.
However, this requires an in-line preamp like the Cloudlifter.
Without an in-line preamp, if you were to choose this workflow, your microphone would be recorded way too low, or quiet.
Not only that but the rest of your mix, your guest call-ins, ads, or music would be way too hot, or loud, by comparison.
In short, your mix would be a mess!
So if a no-post workflow is what you’re after then an in-line preamp is absolutely a must buy.
My goal with this post is not to convince you to buy an in-line preamp or to not buy one, because whether you need one or not depends on what you want to do with your setup. What I hope this post does is help you think more about the gear you’re thinking about buying.
There are many things that are marketed to podcasters and beginning creators knowing full well that they’re not needed. But due to inexperience and ignorance on the buyer’s part, on your part, you buy them anyway because it’s the “normal” thing to do.
Take it from a recovering G.A.S addict (gear acquisition syndrome), you don’t need as much as you think.
So really think about your setup, your workflow, what you intend to do and ask yourself honestly if a Cloudlifter is right for you.
If yes, you don’t even need to go with the Cloudlifter! These are the main devices marketed, usually paired with the Shure SM7B, but they’re not the only in-line preamps out there. They are, however, one of the most expensive.
I recommend looking into the Klark Teknik in-line preamps. They work just as good and are half the price as the Cloudlifters!
Best of luck, podcasters!