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If it seems like every single person you follow on the Internet has a podcast, that’s because we were stuck in our houses with little outside human contact for a year so what else did you expect us to do? But in all seriousness, that’s probably because it’s very easy to record high-quality audio from your home, and you don’t need to invest in a pro-level recording suite to do it.
If you, too, are looking to get into the podcasting game, National Podcast Day (September 30) is the perfect time to get started. All you need to live those dreams are a few key pieces of equipment. IndieWire Film & TV Craft editor Chris O’Falt has rounded up his favorites below. With just a few clicks, you can get a professional recording setup for a relatively low price — read on for the basics. For more gear, read our picks for low-cost sound equipment and budget-friendly lighting kits.
First things first — you’ll need a microphone. While the built-in mic on your laptop or phone probably isn’t the worst thing in the world, if you’re serious about capturing high-quality sound you’re going to need an external microphone.
After a bunch of experimentation, O’Falt has settled on affordable, handheld Dynamic Cardioid mics (meaning they pick up sound in all directions).
The two he uses and recommends are:
Why? Writes O’Falt, “You have to have your mouth fairly close to these mics because it is designed to pick up noise in close proximity, but the tight cardioid mic eliminates so much of the noise in the room. I’m often in homes, hotels rooms, conference rooms, almost never a sound-proof studio. While these mics are still going to pick up sirens, doors closing, etc. – I no longer worry about A/C, fridge hums, etc. This one factor alone improved the quality of my podcast tenfold.”
Additionally, they’re rugged and portable and can be thrown in a backpack for transport (though you probably shouldn’t do that — invest in a cheap case or a padded bag to protect your purchase!).
The same cardioid principle applies to this mic as the other two, but the human voice sounds slightly richer here. Writes O’Falt, “If you have the money they are worth the investment — note that the stands for these mics are pricey too — but these things are big, and their stands are intricate and delicate. (It’s designed to hang like a studio mic.) These are ideal if you are hosting the podcast and you can set them up and leave them set up. But if you are traveling with them, you are going to need a big pelican case.”
While these mics are portable and handheld, if you’re going to be sitting at a table or somewhere stationary, you’ll want to invest in a small tabletop stand. That’s what O’Falt uses about 80 percent of the time, because he’s typically sitting across the table from his guest(s).
But if you need to use the handheld option, keep an ear out for handling noise. Writes O’Falt, “Many of my interviews (pre-pandemic) were in hotel rooms and sometimes the guest wanted to sit on the couch, so going handheld was great. Careful though, there is still handling noise — hand moving on the mic shaft — so you’ll want to monitor.”
Now that you have your mic taken care of, you’ll need a recorder to capture your new, great-sounding audio. Zoom — not the video conferencing service — makes a number of XLR input portable recorders. All the Zoom recorders should serve your podcast needs (depending on the number of XLR inputs you need, of course), so take a look at the specs to decide which one is for you. Two of the company’s bestsellers include the Zoom H1n for $119.99 and the Zoom H4n for $249.99.
Writes O’Falt, “I have the H6 (mine is three years old, which now retails for $349.99), which is probably overkill for a podcast, but it has four XLR inputs (if you have multiple guests), a nice LED screen to see levels (I mix/record myself while hosting, so nice to be able to glance down and make sure nothing is pinging into the red), and the knobs are also easy to adjust while I’m focused on the conversation.”
You’ll need XLR audio cords to connect your mic to your recorder, and O’Falt notes that it’s always good to have at least one long cord in case you’ve got a guest who sits far away.
You’ll also want a case to protect your recorder — Chris’ is big enough to protect all the pieces of the odd-shaped device but still small enough to toss in a bag. (What shouldn’t you get? “The little clear (basically the size of the Zoom) cases are cheap plastic and always break, and offer little protection for what is essentially an electric device with lots of knobs.”
You’ll need something to store your recording, and since Zooms record to SD cards you might even have one lying around your house already. Pro tip from O’Falt: “It used to be you shouldn’t use an SD card larger than 8GB or 16GB because the Zoom took forever to read and load.” While that’s likely not as much of an issue with the newer devices, it is something to keep in mind.
You’ll also need to power your equipment. Writes O’Falt, “Buy rechargeable batteries (and not simply for energy/environmental reasons). While the mics I’m recommending don’t rely on the Zoom for power, the Zooms do still go through batteries quickly, and I always get nervous about them running out during a long interview, so I ended up with a desk drawer of partially used AAs and packing a 20 pack when I went on the road. You really need rechargeable batteries for this thing.”
And finally, you’ll need a pair of headphones to monitor while you record — especially with the cardioid mics. Writes O’Falt, “You might need to ask the guest to get closer to the mic (which is a trade off with these mics, but a good one if you are in imperfect sound recording situations). Decent headphones are decent headphones. You don’t need to go nuts here, or you might own a decent pair. I like big over-the-ear headphone when doing a podcast. Some people highly recommend you get multiple headphone inputs for the Zoom and give your guest headphones as well. Guests do better hearing their voice and will take care of their mic position themselves. That’s what the pros do. Honestly, it feels like overkill to me, and also a little impractical when I’m in hotel rooms on a press tour. Practically, if guests were coming to me and I had a permanent setup, I’d probably do this.”
We’ve got a whole list of comfortable and high-quality headphones here, but these highly rated over-ear studio headphones will also do the trick.
While optional, a foam windscreen cover for your mic will also do wonders for the audio quality. You can buy one for about $5, or a multi-pack to make sure you’re covered for a while.
Another option: go wireless. Writes O’Falt, “There are wireless versions of these handheld mics, or wireless adapters to use on these mics. Wireless is a significant additional expense. Personally, I always find wireless to be an additional pain. I’ve had bad luck troubleshooting wireless transmitters – people who use them regularly would laugh at me. But I also don’t have a problem spending two minutes connecting cords (I find it easier). Cords are obviously messier and not an option for on-camera.”
While there are dozens of software options to record and mix your podcast, IndieWire Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia recommends a monthly subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud — you’ll get access to more than 20 apps, including Photoshop, InDesign, and Premiere Rush, plus 100GB of storage.
Or you can subscribe to Adobe Audition for a flat yearly fee.
Other Basics to Know
Since a lot of podcasts are recording virtually in this pandemic era, there are a few basics you’ll want to know when it comes time to record. First, talk over Zoom/Skype/FaceTime/your video chatting software of choice on a computer with each person using headphones. “This is how you actually communicate,” writes O’Falt, “but each person records his or her own audio (the mic/Zoom I recommended above works well in this situation), and then I mix the recording together.”
If you don’t have the Zoom setup, you could also plug the mic into your computer and then use an audio recording program like Quicktime. Just make sure that everyone uses headphones: “While I’m recording my audio I don’t want my guests’ voices (via the Zoom) on my recording. My recording should just be my voice. If you don’t do this, it makes cross talk and mixing near impossible (trust me).”
If the other guests don’t have their own mics and you can’t get them one, “using an iPhone 8 or newer with the bottom of the iPhone six to eight inches from their mouth — a stack of books is a great mic stand — and using Voice Memo to record (be sure to turn off notifications) — works surprisingly well. But try to get them to do the podcast in a non-huge/open space room. Something with wood, carpet, stuff on the walls (not a lot of echo).”