Friday, February 3, 2017

Podcast Startup: My Advice for Beginners on Choosing Recording Equipment

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by Steven S. Vrooman

Starting a podcast has been a lot of fun. I have interviewed people of all different backgrounds from all over the world. One of the constants in all that diversity is that every fourth or fifth person, at the end of the interview, has questions about starting their own podcast. Here I was, planning this last year, BEFORE Serial, thinking podcasts were passe and I was jumping onto an old medium!

I had my own questions when I started. And I peppered the wonderful Tucker Harley with all sorts of questions, and he is still helping me today. So I'm passing on what I know in the hopes that I can be helpful.

First, though, in this post I will not be reviewing podcasting hosting options. I have DEFINITE opinions on those, but I am in a process of decision-making myself there now, so that report will come much later.

The second thing before I start is that podcasters who give equipment reviews online are remarkably NON-CHILL about the equipment you use. They LOVE to overdo it and tell you all the enormously expensive things you need. A few try to do a relaxed, "Hey, use your iPhone" style, but those are not the norm.

This post will be more realistic about what you need to start up a podcast from scratch, in a few different forms, at a reasonable cost.


You need at least one of these. I started recording myself with a Blue Snowball.

It has various settings for recording either your own voice in front of it or all around the room.

Meh. The positive reviews online are really from people who haven't used it that much. Go read them and see! No matter what I did with this microphone, I couldn't get it to not sound tinny. If you can figure it out, drop a comment below. Maybe I have a misunderstood gem in my desk drawer!

I also didn't like that I wanted to hang my microphone from an arm so I wasn't hunching over it (tall person, here), and attaching this thing to an arm is a bit of an ordeal. You can buy special swing arms for this thing, but it is heavy and awkward, and I just don't know about that.

The big issue for me, in the end, before I tried harder to figure out how to use it, is that it is a USB output-only microphone, as you can see below.

If you are just recording for yourself, with one microphone, this will be fine. It will output to your computer and you will edit the audio the way all of us do, with the free Audacity program.

But what if you want to record a live podcast with people on separate mics in the same room? Yeah, USB is out. Computers can't handle two USB mic inputs. They can't. You can use a software kludge to make "virtual audio cables," but these programs are buggy and difficult and ultimately a waste of time. To record two mics you will need to use mics that have a traditional big-plug XLR analog output and a mixing board.

Wait, wait! I know. You just want the one mic. You will never want to do a bunch of people all together. Yeah............ are you sure?

I thought so, too, when I got the Snowball. But I do an interview show and it turned out that people wanted to come in and do it live. It's more fun that way. I needed something more flexible for those times.

If only they made a mic that had both types of outputs!

They do. Lots of them. Here's the one I have, the Audio-Technica ATR-2100:

I love it. When I first plugged it in, and when I do quick recordings on the road with a tablet, I use it with the USB output. You just plug it into the USB socket (twice, as it's USB and you will always put it in the wrong way the first time) and your computer will figure it out. In the picture above you can see the XLR output, which is what I use at my podcasting station (what I call my desk with a computer on it).

What I love most about this mic is that it is PERFECT for voice. It always sounds full and rich, even for someone like me with a whiny, nasal voice. The reviews online indicate that it sounds as good as mics that cost hundreds more, and they may be right, but I've never used those mics. I am, as I've said, just starting out.

Either way, in addition to my podcast, I am using this mic to record the audiobook version of The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking, and it is churning out professional quality sound, which it has to be since it will be a product people will pay for!

Microphone Helpers

I have three things here.

A Swing Arm

I needed to be able to push the mic away when I am working on other things, and I also needed to be able to get it up high so I can sit up straight. Tucker, my guru, does his podcast standing up! Posture matters.

I got this NEEWER arm.

It's okay. The way the whole arm connects to the part that clamps the desk is a bit dodgy, honestly.

You screw from the side into the post to tighten it. So it usually ends up too tight and doesn't move, or it is too loose and it kind of jerks and flops around. There are probably better ones out there. But once I get it positioned, it works great and so I will keep it until it breaks.

A Pop Filter

There are lots of designs for these, and they are mostly the same, a screen of mesh that goes between your expectorating face and the microphone. I needed one that had a clamp that would work on the thin squared tubes of the swing arm, so I chose one made by NEEWER, with the hopes that they would have built the clamp on this for that purpose, being the same brand and all. You can see it attached to the arm above.

It stays stable and I can adjust it. That's important, because I duplicated this whole rig on the other side of the desk for guests, and each wants the mic and arm and filter in different positions. All that grabbing and moving and it still all remains secure after 6 months. I'll update this as I go if that changes.

A Sound Shield

You may need one of these, but likely you will not. I do because I record in my university office, where the HVAC system is always flowing. To reduce that noise, a shield like the Marantz is very helpful. It is a metal shield with foam all over the inside. Here I am wearing it like a 1960s Marvel villain's cowl. This is, I note, not the recommended use:

You CAN rest a swing arm on top and hang the mic down in there for some noise filtration, but that is awkward and doesn't seem to get the full benefit of the foam enclosure. It works best if you put the mic on the little stand it came with, but either way I like how well it drops the hum from my computer and the air system. I record my podcast and then curate portions of interviews, adding new narration. I record that narration (and my audiobook) using this device. It really, really helps.

If you've ever wondered why your favorite podcast has a constant low-key music background, well, it's because of hiss and slight noise. They are not recording the best audio. You can filter that stuff, but your audio quality pays a cost with each pass. You can easily start sounding like a cartoon character. Garbage in, garbage out. Record as clean as you can.


Once you decide to use XLR outputs for two live mics, you need a board. This will create a learning curve, as you have to figure out how to set it up, although with only two inputs used, most of these 60s Star Trek knobs aren't ever going to get used anyway. 

Your computer can use the board as its input source, which means you can turn off the second mic on the board and go back to solo recording for Skype or Audacity.

Even if you don't use two mics, if you have a mic that converts to XLR, think about it. Adjusting the inputs on the board gives you a lot more options for noise filtering and adjusting voice tone than by processing afterwards or even with most software controls that mimic boards. Analog, man. I feel like a hipster.

I got the smallest and simplest board I could find, confident that even if I wanted more than two mics, I do not have the space in my office for that many people, so this is what I will get. This Behringer Xenyx Q802 is my new best friend.

You can see that I have an awful lot of other stuff I can do with it, like plug in a guitar, output to an amp and run some sweet riffs. But I just export audio it to the computer via USB. Kind of anticlimatic, I guess. 

You will have to figure out what "gain" and "comp" and "level" are and how to use them. There are PILES of YouTube videos on this, and for this particular board, too (I particularly like Ray Ortega's Q802-specific video on this).

I will be honest. You will mess up. My "Technical Difficulties" episode tells the story of how I lost my mind with all the noisy audio I was recording, even though I'd done everything Ray Ortega told me to do. It turns out that I had my mic turned off and was recording only via the one on the other side of the desk. Thus, static. Pretty decent sound for recording 4 feet away, but not what I was looking for.

You HAVE to do this if you record more than two live mics. My "virtual audio cable" hack always failed only when I had a live guest, so I'd have to just give them a mic and talk real loud and then rerecord my audio, NPR-style.

If you have only one mic, is this worth it? If you are trying to stay under $100 for your total setup when you are starting out, no. Get a good mic and a pop filter and an arm so you can sit up straight and project. But if you want to expand your options and skills and if you ever want to add a second person, think it over. With a flexible enough mic, you can always make the move later.

Skype Stuff

I record most of my stuff on Skype. You can record interviews via distance in a couple of ways, but as much of a pain as Skype can be, it is still the easiest. A Skype call itself is free. But you will need to get a piece of software to record your calls for you. And you will need to pay for it. Tucker uses ecamm, as he has a Mac system. For Windows, I prefer Evaer.

Skype is persnickety about these things sometimes, and there is constant buzz that Skype will stop its support for these apps soon. We'll see. But for now, they are the best option. The key is to always keep Skype updated. Sometimes that is more than once a week. Sometimes not for a while. And then with every update, your recorder will need to be updated as well, otherwise you will drop audio. I assume ecamm works the same way, but Evaer has really fast Skype update turnaround. I've never not had it ready to go.

If you want to do Skype video, you will need a webcam. You will also need to tell Skype to use your sweet microphone and mixing board audio, not the webcam mic. Skype video is rarely good, so you can use whatever, I think. I use the Logitech C920, which has great quality and is widescreen (I use it for Skype calls in my classrooms), but lots of things will work, including whatever you have masking tape over on the top of your laptop monitor.

My biggest Skype video tip is to make it adjustable! Skype video always has a bit of weirdness where the other person is not quite focused on you because they are looking at your picture on the computer, not the webcam. Just a little bit, but you can tell. I hate that. So I mounted my webcam on a Joby Gorillapod and attached that to WoneNice mobile phone holder.

I clamped the WoneNice to a shelf above my monitor and can bend it up out of the way when I don't want it. Then I can bend it back to right in front of my monitor for a video call. I use the Gorillapod to adjust the webcam and then I put the Skype video window right up behind the webcam so their eyes are right above the camera lens. I'm not sure how key any of that is, but we get into some deep discussions on my show, and I want them to feel like I have eye contact with them.

Oh, you will need headphones. Earbuds are fine. You don't need Beats by Dre.

As to the other people Skyping? If they use mobile phone earbuds with in-wire microphones, which probably came with their phones, that is usually just fine. In any Skype situation you will have to work with potentially bad and tinny audio regardless of their mic, just because of connection issues, and my worst audio came from people with on-the-table mics, probably the dreaded Snowballs. They would move around as they talked and go in and out of volume. That's it the worst part. So if they ask what to use, keep it simple.


You could buy a the Audio-Technica mic and a pop filter for under $70 bucks. Throw in a swing arm if you like and hit $90. That really is all most people will need. You can record and get great results.

Add another $30 to get a Skype recording program if you want to do interviews. There are some free options here, it seems, but not really. There is no decent free option that updates enough to always work. 

If you get too much hiss or low rumble on your mic where you are located, see if Audacity's noise reduction works without making you sound like ET. If not, grab a foam cage. They are $80-100, but if your computer fans and HVAC keep giving you trouble, you gotta do it.

You can add a Xenyx for another $60 and then another mic set for $70-90.

You can listen to my show to see how this setup sounds. If you have a show you like that sounds good, ask them what they use. Podcasters, it turns out, love to talk.

At worst, record on your phone using the in-wire mic and then transfer the files onto your computer. It won't be great, but you can drop a low-key free music track in the background to hide it and see if you like it. Put the show up onto a free service like Podomatic and see if you really want to do this thing before you start spending money.

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