What do you need to create a podcast, you might wonder? You’ll learn everything there’s to know how to record a show that sounds good enough for release.
For my show, I have two different set-ups. A big one, and a small one. I prefer to use the big setup, as it produces the best sound quality. The problem is, it’s a backpack full of gear.
The small set-up is just one single device about the size of two packs of cigarettes. The advantage of this is that I can take it everywhere, and the sound quality is still decent enough to produce a good show.
Since this podcasting thing has been a learning experience from scratch for me, it took a while to figure things out and get everything right. The first couple of episodes sound rough (especially the very first one) because of this. Around episode 5, I upgraded my recording gear, so the biggest leap in sound quality is around there.
Here’s everything I learned and everything I use.
The small set-up
This set-up consists of a handful of things, the Zoom H2N + accessories, and a set of standard ear-buds.
Every time I set off to a faraway land, this little device comes with me.
It has no less than five small-diaphragm condenser microphones built in, and it can record in Mid-Side stereo (wide stereo recording), X/Y stereo (narrower stereo recording), and surround modes (close to omni-directional). The surround has the option to create two stereo files, or a single down-mixed stereo file.
I use the X/Y mode to record my intros and bumpers, and I use the two-channel surround mode for the interviews. In surround mode, it picks up sound from pretty much every direction. I just prop the recorder on its little tripod on the table between me and my guest, and we have a normal conversation.
Before I start to record, I plug my earbuds into the monitor out on the H2N to check the level of the recording. I banter a little bit about random things and adjust the gain level until it sounds good. The sweet spot is usually around 6/10, as it picks up our voices without too much background noise.
The downside of this setup is that background noise is unavoidable. Yes, it is possible to filter out a good amount of it in post-production, but the cleaner the initial recording, the better. Also, putting things on the table the recorder is on shows up in the recording. You’ll notice a lot of these little noises in the first few recordings I did.
That said, this little guy does a tremendous job. It’s an impressive piece of gear in a tiny package. It runs for 20 hours on two AA batteries. I replace the batteries as soon as the indicator goes from 3/3 to 2/3. The last thing I want is running out of fuel in the middle of an interview, and batteries are cheap, anyway.
The big set-up
This is where we get serious. It’s a lot of gear and it doesn’t come cheap, but what can I say, go big or go home.
The recorder/audio interface
I use the The Zoom H6, a beast of a device that’s earned its place in field recording.
It has 4 XLR inputs with individual gain controls. These inputs can optionally provide 48-volt, 24-volt, and 12-volt phantom power for condenser microphones (more on this later). This is an awesome feature that I’m currently not using, but it’s great that the option is there for the future.
The microphone pre-amps are of excellent quality. They produce a clean recording with a low noise-floor.
One of the unique features is the option to connect different capsules to it. It comes with an X/Y stereo capsule, and a Mid-Side stereo capsule. Other capsules that are sold separately are: high sound pressure X/Y stereo, mono shotgun, Mid-Side stereo shotgun, and two extra XLR inputs (non-phantom powered).
It’s possible to hook 4 microphones up to the ZoomH6 and record an additional stereo channel, right out of the box. It’s an absolute powerhouse. I doubt that I’ll ever need it, but with the XLR capsule, it’s able to record no less than six inputs.
It also doubles as a USB audio-interface. If I ever want to record into my computer directly, I can also use this device.
I use the Electro-Voice PL80. This is a dynamic, super-cardioid microphone with a big, warm sound. I like the sound signature better than the go-to classic Shure SM-58 that you find on every single stage. As a bonus, they have an old-school cool look to them in grey.
What does “super-cardioid” mean? This is the polar pattern of the microphone. In other words, the direction in which the microphone picks up sound. The are the most common ones:
Omni-directional: Picks up sound from all angles. These are the little mics that people wear on their collar, the microphones on headsets, and the microphones that are used in conference calls.
Cardiod: Picks up sound from the front of the microphone, and some from the sides. Most microphones have this pattern.
Super-cardioid: Picks up sound from the front of the microphone and rejects most from the sides. Good for noisy environments.
Hyper-cardioid: Picks up sound from right in front of the microphone, almost nothing from the sides and some from the back as a side-effect. These are the shotgun microphones mostly used by film crews.
Figure of eight: Picks up sound from the front and the back and none from the sides. Used mostly in studio mics to really isolate a single sound source.
A super-cardoid microphone is great for non-ideal environments. It rejects most sound except for the person speaking into it without being too directional. I don’t have a professional studio; my recordings are done in living rooms, back yards, and parks. There is a lot of noise in those places that I don’t want showing up in the recording.
What does “dynamic microphone” mean?
There are several microphone technologies out there. The two most common types are condenser,and dynamic. A dynamic microphone uses electromagnetic induction to capture sound, and a condenser microphone uses the concepts of a capacitor to capture sound.
There are a ton of microphones out there with different sound signatures in both categories, but this is the general difference between a good condenser and a good dynamic microphone:
High sensitivity (picks up the smallest sounds)
Extremely detailed sound
“Hot” (has high output)
Requires phantom power (not all mixing boards/interfaces have this)
No phantom power required, works on any mixing board/interface
Can be had for very cheap, decent ones generally start around $70, really good ones are around $100
Generally sounds “darker”. Lacks the shimmering detail in the higher tones
Usually used for live-on-stage and field recording
The high sensitivity of condenser microphones is great if you have a sound-proofed room. Most of us don’t have that. Many podcasters out there think “the more sensitivity and detail, the better”. The problem is, these mics pick up absolutely everything, including the fan in your computer, your voice bouncing off the walls and ceiling, a car driving through the street, and your neighbor walking out to grab his mail.
They are two entirely different beasts that serve different purposes. The high sensitivity of condenser microphones make them less suitable for the type of recording that I do.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Two very popular work-horse microphones used in radio studios are the Electro-Voice RE-20, and the Shure SM-7B. These are exceptionally good dynamic microphones.
Sony MDR-7506 These studio monitor headphones have been the go-to standard for over 30 years. Virtually every radio studio uses them. The large 40mm drivers and powerful neodymium magnets deliver a detailed flat sound, and the closed-ear design provides comfort and isolation.
So what’s the difference between these and Beats or other popular consumer cans?
The sound signature of monitor headphones is completely flat. This means that they represent the recording as accurately as possible. Consumer headphones affect the reproduction of the recording. Certain frequencies are pushed forward (on the package this means ULTRA THUNDER EARTHQUAKE MASTER-EXPLODER BASS!), and other frequencies are held back a little. This makes them sound “full” and “wide”, etc.
To most people, studio headphones sound boring compared to consumer headphones. When you’re editing sound, however, accuracy is the only important factor. If a recording sounds good through studio monitors, it’s going to sound amazing on consumer audio gear. If it sounds bad, it’ll sound horrible. If you’re editing audio on inaccurate headphones, you’ll end up with a bad-sounding recording.
Studio headphones are also way less tiring to listen to because of the flat frequency range. This is nice when you have to wear them for hours.
Belkin Rockstar Multi Headphone Splitter The Zoom H6 has only one monitor output. This little piece of gear splits the signal to everyone’s headphones. Not a very elegant solution, but it’s simple and it works. The headphone amp inside the Zoom H6 has enough power to drive multiple headphones this way. I’ve tested it with 3 at once so far, and it was loud and clear enough for everyone.
Corsair Vengeance 2100 headset I use this headset to record bumpers and the intro and outro of the show. It’s usually the easiest way because it’s connected to the PC in my home office. I also sometimes use the Zoom H2N when I’m on the road, whatever is the most convenient at that moment.
I record everything in 24-bit/96kHz WAV files. This gives me a low noise-floor and plenty of dynamic range in the editing process.
I use Adobe Audition to produce and edit the files.
Downmixing and finishing
I downmix every recording to a 16-bit/44kHz WAV file, and compress it into a constant bitrate 96kbps MP3. The file is mono, not stereo.
I use Tagscanner to properly edit the ID details of the MP3 file. Fantastic application, and it’s completely free.
The cover art for each episode is made in Adobe Photoshop.