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Podcasting Best Practices #1: Gear


A few people expressed interest in a set of podcasting gear/advice posts, so here's the first one in which I geek out over gear recommendations. I'll do a follow-up post on how to record with all of this.

For this post, I'm assuming you're going to be recording into your computer or laptop via USB. This is wordy, so if you just want product recommendations and a breakdown of what would fit best for your budget and recording situation, skip to the bottom. To the jump!

Stands

Honestly this isn't too hard. Depending on your preference, you can get some sort of desk stand, scissor arm, or tripod-style stand. I've used this On Stage microphone stand for various applications beyond (but including) podcasting.

This On Stage adjustable desk microphone stand is useful if you're recording at your desk (which many podcasters will likely want to do)

My preference, however, is a desk-mounted swivel-mount  boom arm. I use a Rode PSA 1, but there are cheaper options available as well that work nicely. I've also used this Broadcasting Studio microphone arm. These are great because you can easily position your microphone exactly where it needs to be without any fuss and when you're done, you just push it off to the side of your desk and out of the way.

Choose whatever fits your room/desk needs the best.

Budget USB Microphones

There are hundreds of options you can use as far as a microphone goes. Some are content to use the internal microphones on their laptops, though I find the audio quality on those tends to be lacking. A step up are USB headsets with a microphone, similar to what you might use for a Skype call. This is an improvement, to be sure, but the audio quality will still leave a lot to be desired.

For $50-$100, you can get a good quality standard or USB microphone that will dramatically improve the audio quality of your podcast. One cheap but decent entry-level option is the CAD U37 USB studio condenser recording microphone. On Amazon, this microphone can be had for only $45 or so and it comes with its own (kind of flimsy but functional) stand. It's a solid microphone that plugs directly into your computer that can add a decent amount of quality to your sound.

Another option is the Audio Technica AT2020. This microphone is sort of the golden standard for those just getting into audio recording and is perhaps the best bang-for-your-buck microphone on the market. This particular microphone comes in two varieties, the standard XLR model priced at $66 and the USB version that has the USB interface built into the microphone priced at $107. Keep in mind if you buy the standard model, you will likely need to be a USB interface of some sort to record into your computer. We'll cover that below.

Both of these microphones are what are known as large diaphragm condenser microphones.  The great thing about these microphones is that they pick up a ton of color and depth when you speak into it. The extreme downside is that they also pick up every sound within three city blocks. Condenser mics like these are extremely hot and sensitive, meaning they will hear every door that opens and closes in your house and every time a car drives by or a dog barks outside. If you're recording in less-than-ideal settings, these microphones may prove to be problematic and could result in you doing a ton of post-recording cleanup and editing.

Budget Dynamic Microphone

Another option, then, is a standard dynamic microphone. These microphones are much more directional, but often they will require an interface to translate the signal into something your computer can process. Again, we'll come back to that below. It's important to note that a large diaphragm condenser microphone is always going to sound richer and fuller than a dynamic microphone. The tradeoff, obviously, is that by giving up a little bit of sound quality, you can gain a whole lot more control over exactly what you're recording.

For $50-$100, you can get what are known as live-performance dynamic microphones that are very directional and do a good job at picking up only your voice. The sort-of industry standard for these types of microphones is the Shure SM58, which will run you about $100. For those on a budget, I can also recommend the Electrovoice PL24 hich you can get for about $60. In a previous life, I worked in a music store and sold a bunch of these microphones. The Shure SM58 is definitely the nicer sounding of the two, but the EV PL24 is a solid device that will serve a podcaster's needs well enough.

The upside to these microphones is that they're relatively  inexpensive and there's dozens of options that would work for you. If you're -really- on a budget, this Behringer XM8500 mic is a surprisingly decent sounding microphone for a mere $22. You don't even need a stand to use these microphones. If you want to hold them in your hand while recording, you certainly can. All of these options will be able to capture your voice and your voice alone, meaning you're not going to have to do a whole bunch of editing later to clean up your recording.

The downside? Well, they just don't sound nearly as nice as the large diaphragm condenser mics we talked about earlier. They're thinner sounding, and they don't capture the full range of your voice nearly as well. In a nutshell, they sound okay and will work well enough for most amateur podcasts, but they don't sound ideal or even great.

If it seems like you're stuck choosing between two equipment pathways that have their own unique sets of pros and cons, you are. There is, however, another solution. A pricey solution, but one that bridges the gap and can provide the perfect amount of control and sound quality.

Dynamic Broadcast Microphones

Be forewarned, things get a bit pricey here, but if you do have some extra scratch laying around and you want to get the nicest sounding recording you can without having to pick up every noise in your house, this may be the solution for you. Dyanamic broadcast microphones are similar to the mics you might find in a radio studio. These are designed to pick up the full color and tone of the speaker's voice without picking up extraneous sounds from your surroundings. This is the option that will give you the best sound and minimize the amount of cleanup work you have to do after recording.

The Electrovoice RE-20 is considered by many the golden standard of broadcast microphones. It's hugely popular in the professional web podcasting/broadcasting world and is occasionally used in radio settings. Unfortunately for this microphone, the price tag runs at $449. That almost immediately disqualifies it for most amateur and semi-pro podcasters. Another option is the Heil PR40. At $327, it's quite a bit more affordable, but still pricey. I've talked with a few audio friends of mine who swear by this thing and the quality it provides for recording.

My choice, however, is a surprisingly affordable and incredibly high-quality microphone: the Rode Procaster. This microphone is beautiful sounding, does a fantastic job of only picking up my voice, and is relatively cheap at $227. There's also a USB version that's nearly as nice sounding in the Rode Podcaster and is still fairly priced at $230. If you're responsible for mixing and recording the podcast, I recommend the Procaster and a USB mixer interface of some sort. If you're just providing sound over Skype, the Podcaster will suffice.

Microphone-to-USB Interface

If you're running with a non-USB microphone and you're recording into your computer with software like Audacity, you're going to need a USB interface. Once again, there's a wide range of options ranging from inexpensive and simple to expensive and complex. If you just need to get your microphone into your computer via USB, a Blue Icicle converter for $59 or a Shure X2U signal adapter will do the trick.

If you're the one mixing the podcast, however, you may need something else that's a little more feature rich. If your podcast is like many out there and relies on your microphone and a Skype phone call, the Alesis io2 Express is the perfect device for you. It's a two-channel USB interface that uses both XLR and quarter-inch inputs. The interface is simple enough. Knobs for gain (how loud your microphone and line-ins are recording, in essence) and headphone levels. The io2 Express is powered entirely by USB, so it's a very compact and easy-to-use interface that will work well with your standard microphones. Up until this week, the Alesis io2 Express has been the mixer I've used exclusively for Tosche Station. Channel 1 was used for my microphone, channel 2 was for the Skype call. The mixer outputted to Audacity via USB. Simple but very effective.

But, for a moment, let's consider that you may want to expand beyond your two channel setup. You might be like me and are considering recording a podcast at an event or convention like Celebration or Dragon*Con. For that, you may want a USB mixer/interface with more than two channels. For this, I'm assuming that you want up to four microphone channels that you can output to your computer/laptop via USB. Behringer has a budget conscious device that works brilliantly for this: The XENYX X1204USB priced at $149. This thing is complicated, yes. It's powerful, but complicated. Still, if you think your podcast members will be meeting together to record at some point, this device could prove exceptionally useful.

Recommendations

Okay, that was about 1,600 words of products and babbling. What setup will work well for you? Let's break this down into a couple categories. For reference, my setup consists of a Behringer XENYX 1204USB mixer and a Rode Procaster microphone. Before this, I was using an Audio Technica AT2020 and an Alesis io2 Express. You can hear what the Audio Technica sounded like in this episode of Tosche Station Radio. In this episode you can hear the Rode Procaster.

Note: Ideal room conditions are rooms that are mostly free of extraneous noise. If you can hear cars and dogs outside or doors opening and closing in your house, room conditions are non-ideal. This list is also broken down on whether you are responsible for mixing/recording the podcast or if you're just a member of a Skype call or a secondary host. Finally, it's broken down over whether you require USB or XLR. Keep in mind that if you buy a USB microphone, you won't be able to use that in a mixer in a group event setting

On a budget, not responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, ideal room conditions, USB

·         CAD U37

On a budget, not responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, non-ideal room conditions, XLR

·         Electrovoice PL24

·         Blue Icicle Converter

On a budget ,responsible for mixing, XLR

·         Electrovoice PL24

·         Alesis io2 Express

Moderate budget, not responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, ideal room conditions, USB

·         Audio Technica AT2020 (USB version)

Moderate budget, not responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, non-ideal room conditions, XLR

·         Shure SM58

·         Blue Icicle Converter

Moderate budget, responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, ideal room conditions, XLR

  • Audio Technica AT2020 (XLR)
  • Alesis io2 Express

Moderate budget, responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, non-ideal room conditions, XLR

·         Shure SM58

·         Alesis io2 Express

Healthy budget, not responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, non-ideal room conditions, USB

·         Rode Podcaster

Healthy budget, not responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, non-ideal room conditions, XLR

·         Rode Procaster

·         Blue Icicle Converter

Healthy budget, responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, non-ideal room conditions

·         Rode Procaster

·         Alesis io2 Express

Healthy budget, responsible for mixing/recording the podcast, recording at events

·         Rode Procaster

·         Behringer XENYX X1204USB

I'm rich and money is no object so gimme gimme gimme

·         Electrovoice RE-20

·         Behringer Xenyx X1204USB

If you've got any questions about gear or podcasting, feel free to ask in the comments. I'd be happy to provide any additional advice because it's about time I got some use out of the recording studies I did while I was still a music major