Podcasting Equipment Guide

On The Air

Update: There is an updated version of this guide available here. I recommend following the newer, more complete guide rather than this one.

So, you’re thinking about podcasting and have no idea where to start. Or maybe you tried recording using your computer’s built-in microphone, or the USB headset you bought to use with Skype, and realized just how bad that sounds.

My hope is that this article detailing different setups I’ve used over the last few years will assist you in putting together a recording rig that suits both your needs and budget. Please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section at the end of the article.

Some Background Noise

I started podcasting in January of 2007, with the launch of the Hivelogic Radio Show. I recorded a total of 13 episodes, interviewing friends across the industries of design, development, photography, and illustration. It was great fun, but the episodes I most enjoyed were the ones I recorded with my friend (and nemesis) John Gruber.

This lead to the creation of The Talk Show, where Gruber and I talk about topics like Apple and Mac OS X, movies, baseball, and even fatherhood. At the time of this writing (January 2008) we have about 10,000 listeners.

People often write in to ask my advice about podcast recording equipment. What gear should they buy? Is an expensive setup going to make a big difference? What’s the minimum investment they need to get going?

While I’m certainly not a recording professional, I do have a few friends who are experts, and between their advice and my own experiences over the last few years, I’ve created a few different configurations that should fit a variety of different budgets and goals.

A Note about Software

I’m a Mac user, so the software I’ll be recommending is for Mac OS X. If you’re a PC user, please feel free to share your software recommendations in the comments section. Cakewalk Sonar LE for Windows comes bundled with the Samson mics I recommend (but not with the Shure SM7B), and this software should do the job for most Windows users.

A Note about Latency

Latency (a time delay between the moment you start speaking and the moment your voice is recorded or is heard in your headphones) can be a problem in many audio recording situations, but it can be especially noticeable when you’re recording with a USB microphone or when using a slower computer.

Less expensive setups, like the Entry Level setup below that make use of a straight-in USB connection often suffer from latency to a greater degree than Midrange or Prosumer setups. If you do a lot of recording or plan to, it might be a good idea to skip right to one of the higher end setups.

Put My Kid Through College: Use My Affiliate Links

If you decide to buy any of this gear, consider clicking the links below when you buy. I’ll get a couple bucks through Amazon’s associate program, and you’ll be helping me save up for Joel to go to college.

The Entry Level Setup

It’s actually possible to start your podcasting efforts with a surprisingly inexpensive investment, about $175. The Samson C01U is proof of this. It’s an excellent entry-level podcasting microphone. I actually recorded most of the Hivelogic Radio Show episodes with this mic, and while I did eventually outgrow it, it served me very well as a starting point. This pack includes a stand, and a shock-mount, mandatory for recording good audio. The pop-filter is also important in eliminating “plosives” and other annoying, amateurish mouth noises. Trust me, you want one of these.

Hardware:

Software:

  • GarageBand for OS X (part of iLife, usually bundled with a new Mac)

    and optionally, for more granular editing

If you’d rather not buy the whole setup, you can buy the C01U microphone all by itself for $85.

The Midrange Setup

Maybe you’ve been podcasting for a little while, and you’re ready to move on to a slightly better setup. Or perhaps you just want to start out with a more professional sound. For just $330, this is the setup for you. You’ll spend a bit more, but you’ll have superior control of your audio without spending a fortune. Several of the last Hivelogic episodes and the first few The Talk Show episodes were recorded with this setup.

The difference between a condenser mic running through a decent pre-amp and running on phantom power is quite noticeable. And although there is some learning curve, the advantages of tweaking your audio with a more professional-grade application like SoundStudio 3 are huge.

Hardware:

The microphone plugs into the M-Audio preamp with the XLR cable, and the M-Audio plugs into the back of your computer with an included USB cable. The M-Audio drivers are updated regurlarly, and provide you with an audio input to record with any software.

You can tweak your input levels, and even plug in a set of headphones to listen to yourself while you record without the latency of a USB connection.

Software:

If you’re upgrading from the Entry Level setup above or if you don’t want the stand and shock-mount, you can just buy the mic by itself and use your old stand, shock-mount, and pop-filter because the externally, the microphones are the same.

The Prosumer Setup

Maybe you’ve been recording for a while, and you’re ready to upgrade, or perhaps you’re prepared to make a more serious investment from the get-go, because you just don’t play around. Either way, you’re ready for professional gear, and this is the good stuff, right here. You’ll spend about $700, but if you’re serious and want to do things right, it’s worth every penny.

Hardware:

Software:

The Shure SM7B is simply amazing. Super tight. Rolls off the low-end so you don’t sound boomy. Built-in shock mount. Included windscreen so there’s no cumbersome pop-filter. This mic is used across the broadcasting and recording industries, and because it’s dynamic, you’ll eliminate most (if not all) of the background noise commonly picked up by a condenser mic.

The Heil Silent Microphone boom means you can sit or stand and move around while you’re recording, and pull or adjust the microphone at any time, without any sound.

The Shure SM7B is somewhat “gain hungry,” meaning that it requires a lot of quiet gain. This isn’t a problem in a professional studio, but in your home studio, you’ll need to boost the signal quite a bit, but without introducing additional noise or hiss. You can accomplish this with the PreSonus TubePRE, a relatively quiet microphone (and instrument) preamp.

Just plug the Shure into the TubePRE to boost the signal before plugging it into the M-Audio Firewire Solo, which connects to your computer with a Firewire 400 style cable, again using the M-Audio drivers to create your sound input device.

A Bit of Advice about Technique

If you listen closely to some of the The Talk Show episodes, you may notice a difference – sometimes significant – between Gruber’s audio and my own. Whereas my audio is pretty good quality, Gruber’s is (usually) quite mediocre. Although prior to Episode 14, Gruber was using a more entry-level setup, this is not solely to blame for his audio quality. In fact, I used the very same mic he’s using for all of the Hivelogic podcasts, so it can’t be to blame.

Rather, the problem is inconsistent mic-addressing technique. One must speak right into the “sweet spot” of a microphone at all times, and the only way to do this is to listen to yourself when you record.

If you’ve ever used software like Skype to talk to people over the interwebs, you may have noticed something missing, but not quite been able to identify what it was. Next time, compare the difference between a Skype call and a call over a land-line, and you may discover that what’s missing is your own voice coming back to you in the ear-piece. That’s right, land-lines pick up your own voice from the phone’s mouthpiece and play it back to you in the ear-piece, quietly providing you with just enough feedback so that you can hear how you sound. Some cell phones work the very same way.

It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it makes a difference.

The same thing is true when you record a podcast, but it’s even more important that you listen to yourself during a recording. You can keep the volume quite low, but hearing your own voice is the only way for you to truly see how your recorded audio is going to sound.

Why do you think professional recording artists, radio talk show hosts, and DJ’s wear headphones? Certainly not because they look or feel good. It’s to hear themselves and their mic technique.

Fortunately, it is possible to overcome bad technique with good editing, so if Gruber and I sound good to your ear, you have our recording engineer Ryan Irelan to thank.

It’s a Wrap

Hopefully this article has been useful to you. Audio recording is a big territory with lots of room for ideas, thoughts, and opinions, and I know I still have a lot to learn. Please feel free to add your comments below and share your audio recording recommendation and tips.

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