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Podcasting 101 Part 2: All that audio stuff

I was really surprised at the feedback following my first podcasting article, and the number or requests for additional information. You asked for it, and now you’re getting it.

Podcasting is now old school. It’s been around long enough that the bleeding edge, and early adopters have established methods and procedures that now make it easy for others to jump on the bandwagon. You can be a podcaster too, and in this installment I’ll cover some of the gear you’ll need to think about getting as you jump through the hoops on your way to building your own podcasting empire.

Once again, I’m keeping the technical information to a minimum, and giving you broad overviews of the topics. I could very easily provide you with 48 lectures on the topic of audio, how it is captured, the various properties of microphones, and so on, but this isn’t a college course (though I do teach one) – rather this is free information to help you get started.

DITCH THE COMPUTER

A lot of podcaster think they simply must have a computer to record their podcast on. While a computer certainly makes it easier to store and edit the audio files, you don’t need a computer to record your show. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or an iPad, there are several applications that can be purchased that allow you to record using the built in microphone, or one that you purchase elsewhere and then connect to the device. Apps like FiRe and MultiTrack DAW allow the user to record, edit, and even upload the final file to a source, which makes having a device like this a no-brainer for the podcaster on the go.

If that’s not to your liking, handheld recorders like the Samson Zoom H4 ($425), Sony PCM-M10 ($300), and the Tascam DR-07 ($140) are all solid performers, that even allow you to record multiple tracks at the same time. When the recording is done, you can then use your computer to edit and publish to the world.

TYPES OF MICROPHONES

In order to make the best decision on microphones you need to identify the type of mic used in production.

Desktop or Handheld

These mics can be mounted on an arm, or rest in a stand next to you on your desk. These are the mics you see in radio stations and in voice over booths and are best suited for pure audio production. On the lower end of the cost spectrum, many of these mics can double as a handheld mic, allowing you to do man on the street interviews, convention interviews, or those concerned with budgets.

Lavalier

Smaller in size, the lavalier (or lav) mic is most often used in television production. This is the microphone the newscaster wears on his or her lapel. They are built small in size to not be as noticeable to the viewer, but are quickly spotted once you know what they are. Because they attach to clothing, there are often problems of rustling and bumping of clothing and jewelry. One of the bigger problems I hear and see when people attempt to use lavs in podcasting is the hosts forgetting they are wearing them, and thus cause all sorts of problems when arms are crossed, fidgety hands start playing with the cable, or continuous bumping of objects into the mics. If you are doing a video podcast, these are the best mics to use. One word of caution though – if you want to look professional, you need to properly place the mic, and hide the mic cable, nothing looks more amateurish than someone walking around with a lav haphazardly clipped to their t-shirt with the wire dangling all over the place.

Shotgun

If you were watching the Iron Man movie, and everyone walked around with a lavalier on their lapel, the illusion of reality would be destroyed. When you are working on a video (or film) production that requires no microphones in the shot, the shotgun is your go to mic. However, I find most people don’t understand how to use a shotgun mic properly. Mics work best when they are are within the optimal range of the sound source. Most shotgun mics have an optimal range of 3 to 6 feet, with cheaper mics having a closer range.

When you use your home video camera to capture your latest jackass type stunt, why is it your voice and comments are picked up and are more clear than your dumb-ass brother who is writhing and screaming on the floor after the potato gun shot him in the nuts? It’s because you are closest to the mic! Watch the behind-the-scenes, making-of extras on DVDs and you’ll see the boom operator as close to the action as possible when shooting. She and the shotgun mic are often just outside the frame of the shot so clear, clean, and consistent audio is captured. If you are using a shotgun mic, and you place it next to your camera, ten feet away from your talent, and you wonder why the audio sounds so hollow, empty and quiet, it’s because you aren’t using it right.

Headset Mics

Live sports broadcasters have been using headset microphones for a long time. Headset mics contain both the microphone and headphones to monitor the audio. The microphone is positioned close to the mouth and is usually unidirectional in nature to avoid picking up unwanted sound from the throngs attending the event.

These microphones are nice when you are trying to keep certain sounds out, but because the microphone is close to the mouth, unwanted sound can come from heavy nose or mouth breathers, or a cheek rubbing the mic. Ideally, you will want to look for a headset mic that has a cough switch built in so the host can temporarily turn off the mic when they need to take a drink, clear their throat, or… well… cough.

Wireless Mics

Microphones come in two flavors; wired and wireless. Wired microphones require a cable running from the microphone to a mixer, or the audio input of your recording device. Wireless mics give the user the freedom to move around without getting tangled up in the audio cables. While this is a really nice solution, good wireless mics tend to be expensive, with many packages starting around $600.

There are really cheap wireless systems that you can purchase from The Shack and other cheap electronics outlets, but the range for the wireless mic is not very far, and are very susceptible to interference from lights, electrical lines, cross talk between the mics themselves and other RF noise. Wireless mics are great, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a couple for my own video productions, but for an audio podcast, you can pretty much cross them off your list.

PICKING THE RIGHT MIC FOR YOU

In today’s computer oriented world, the need to record to a stand alone recorder, tape deck, or reel-to-reel is almost non-existent, but you still need to get the audio into your system in some way.

USB

USB connections are pretty much the go to connection type for individual podcasters. Simply plug the microphone into the computer’s USB port, set the audio input of your recording software to the USB mic, press record, and you’re good to go! Microphones like the Blue Snowball ($70), are excellent for the single podcaster as it allows you to switch between cardioid (directional) or omnidirectional pick-up patterns. Likewise, the Samson C01U ($102) has a wonderful sound and picks up sound at lower frequencies, and rank among my favorite USB microphones I’ve purchased in the last five years.

Most USB microphones you purchase online will include a mic stand, USB cable – most around 10 feet, and free recording software.

The biggest drawback to USB microphones is you can’t use them with any other recording equipment such as a mixing board, and depending on the software and your computer’s processing power, you may not be able to use multiple USB microphones at the same time. If you are really tech savvy you can easily hack around it with additional software, but I’ll discuss that another time.

Balanced XLR

Most professional microphones are going to have an XLR3 connector on them – balanced audio connectors for higher performance. A balanced audio line allows for long cable runs while reducing the risk of external noise. The larger connector also ensures a more durable mic construction.

When it comes to professional or prosumer level gear, microphones vary based on need. You really can’t go wrong with the tried and true sm58 from Shure. This dynamic microphone is the real workhorse of the audio industry and is easy on the wallet, coming in at just around $100. As you move up the chain in quality, microphones like Audio-Technia AT8031 ($180), the Heil PR-40 ($325), and the ElectroVoice RE-20 ($430) bring better quality sound, but will cost you. Personally, I love the RE-20, it’s the microphone you see in most radio stations, while other podcasters lean toward the PR-40 as their mic of choice. I’ve conducted a few tests with both of these microphones and have studied their frequency response charts and the two are so similar that the deciding factor for many just might be the $110 difference between the two.

When using XLR microphones, you’re more than likely going to need a pre-amp, mixer, and some method of getting the audio from the mixer to your computer. Once again, Blue Microphone (www.bluemic.com) might have a simple solution in the form of the Blue Icicle ($35), a USB converter and preamp combo that allows you to connect your favorite XLR to the computer.

THE TEN DOLLAR HEADSET MICROPHONE

Many people ask if using cheap microphones that can be picked up at the local big box store like the Audio-Technica ATR20 ($20) or a Logitech microphone ($8) are good for podcasting. I’ll say this; there’s a reason someone pays $600 for a microphone – it sounds good, its durable, and isn’t made of cheap electronics that have a 1/8” connector on the end. That being said, you can certainly use a cheap microphone to record your podcast, and in the beginning you may want to experiment with a cheap mic to see if podcasting is really right for you. If you find podcasting to your liking, then the crap-microphone can be upgraded to something that will produce better sound. If you find out podcasting is not your thing, then at least you aren’t out a whole lot of money, and you chalk the whole effort up as a learning experience.

THE EXTRAS

While a microphone converts sound energy to electrical energy, you’re going to need a few extras in order to get it to your recording device.

Mixers

Anytime you are using multiple microphones, you really ought to consider investing in an audio mixing board. A mixer allows you to control the volume and EQ, mute those that don’t know when to shut up, and if you’re lucky provide enough power to pre-amplify the signal prior to the mix-down and output to your recording device.

Prices for mixers are all over the place, ranging from $100 to $3,000 and up, but regardless of price, I would recommend you keep an eye out for specific features. You’ll need some way of monitoring your audio, so a headphone jack and possibly speaker outs are important. I personally despise anything that only accepts a 1/4” or mini jack as a channel input, instead I tend to recommend and lean toward XLR jacks whenever possible. Quarter-inch jacks are great for line level inputs (computers, electric guitars, and so on), but most starting out are only going to need mic inputs. All the channels should have mute and EQ capabilities, too.

The most important part of any mixer is how the signal is going to be sent to your computer. If you only have Analog Out capabilities, you’re going to need a converter to turn the signal into something your computer can use and understand. Many mixers today have the ability to send the signal to your computer via USB or FireWire 800, with the USB option being the favored choice. As a bonus, look for a mixer that allows you to send individual channel audio to your recording software for optimal versatility when it comes to editing.

If you don’t want to use a mixer, there are many USB 2.0 interface devices out there that can do the conversion for you. For years I’ve been using products from M-Audio and have seldom been disappointed with their products, having used everything from the Fast Track Pro ($250), all the way up the product line to the Fast Track Ultra 8R ($630). Other pro audio manufacturers have similar products, and you should probably shop around to find the one that is best for you.

Pop filters and windscreens

People often confuse pop filters and windscreens as being the same thing – the are not. Pop filters are used to reduce or eliminate the popping sound caused by Plosives, the result of fast moving air on the microphone. This includes your Ps, Bs, Ds, and anything with a hard sound. Pop filters also reduce sibilance created by S-sounds, and generally are designed to keep your audio from clipping. This audio shield sits between you and the microphone and is usually attached via a clipped on arm.

If you don’t want to spend the money on a professional pop filter ($20.00), you can take a wire clothes hanger and stretch a pair of pantyhose over them – just make sure you don’t take any pictures of your rig and let the rest of the world see.

Windscreens, while they can reduce plosives, are more often used to protect the internal workings of the microphone from damage caused by excessive wind. Many handheld microphones have a built in windscreen, but a foam cover can be purchased for any microphone for a couple of bucks. If nothing else, they look cool, and protect your expensive mic from the dirty, dirty germs coming out of your co-host’s filthy mouth. Remember, you should replace your windscreen and pop filters on a regular basis to prevent others from getting sick.

Mounts

How are you going to mount your mic? Small desk stands are inexpensive ($20), and mic stands with boom arms can be picked up at the local music store or guitar center for $50 or less. If you are daring, get a microphone boom arm that mounts the microphone more permanently to your desk, and looks cool in the process ($150)

One thing you should never do, is hand hold your microphone. While you can get away with it for short man on the street interviews, during longer formats your hand is going to get tired, and you’re going to start rubbing the mic while holding it. All those vibrations will travel down the mic handle and be turned into recorded noise. You don’t want that.

Cables

You’ll need all manner of cables, connectors, and adapters in your growing setup. Start with the cables you need, and go from there. You’ll have to measure the distance from the place you’re recording to your mixer, and then again from your mixer to your computer to see how much you need. If you get too much cable, you can always roll it up, but if you’re short, you’ll either have to buy a whole new cable or connect multiple cables together to make up the difference. Mic cables are not expensive and can be found at almost any good electronics store.

Like all items mentioned in this article, you need to treat your equipment with great care. Rolling over a cable with your chair, standing on it while setting up other gear, or swinging it around your head like a lasso to hit the cat, are sure fire ways to break the tiny wires inside resulting in audio that cuts out, interference from outside sources, and other nasty bits that will destroy the quality of your production.

Headphones

Don’t use earbuds. Get a good pair of cans that fit over your ears to close off all other noise except what you are monitoring.

KITS

Often, when you’re thrown a lot of information about a topic you don’t know a great deal about, the jargon can make one quickly tune out, or become so intimidated that it chases those who really want to pursue podcasting hesitate, or run away completely. For those that don’t want to price compare, spend hours over equipment spec sheets, invest time researching vendors, and so on, there are many companies that sell complete starter kits for podcasters.

There are a couple of advantages to buying a podcasting kit. First, you get everything you need in one package; you don’t have to worry about having the right kind of cable, adapter, or even worry if the components you’ve purchased will play nice with one another. Second, these kits are so simple to use, all you need to know is the difference between a male and female connector, and how a volume knob works. They are not necessarily the first place I would turn, but for the beginner who has little knowledge of audio, these are a blessing. I did a little price checking and podcasting kits start at $100 for a single mic kit, and climb to $450 for a nice two mic setup.

YOU’VE MADE IT THIS FAR

This has been a lot of information to digest in one sitting, but if you’ve made it this far, you’re still not done. Making sure you have the right computer, audio recording software, and room treatments to reduce noise are still factors that need to be taken into consideration when you work your way to podcasting your first show. We still have a lot to cover, but until the next installment, you can at least begin researching the options above to find the right combination for you.

What was MY first audio setup?
When I started podcasting five years ago my first studio consisted of

  • 1 SM58 microphone
  • A Mackie 1402-VLZ audio mixer that was left over from a previous project
  • Cables running to and from the mixer to
  • My laptop
  • Audio software

And that was it. I probably spent $200 tops. As time went on, and I desired better quality sound, other co-hosts joined the show(s), and I didn’t want to spend an extra hour setting up all the equipment each week, I invested in more permanent and professional solutions, and a dare not venture the total cost spent over the years. Only my accountant knows for sure…

2 thoughts on “Podcasting 101 Part 2: All that audio stuff”

  1. Great article! I am one of those who like to go to hairbreadth detail of specs and then make an informed decision before buying things taxing on my pocket. I did the same for my podcasting kit where I have been digging into forums and sites to unearth every bit of useful information. And finally I was able to shortlist MY mic, mixer and headphones. And surprisingly we are pretty close on the outcome. I have also gone for Shure SM58. My mixer though is Behringer’s Xenyx 802. The headphones that I have chosen are Audio Technica ATH M50. Great article and keep up the good work.

    V.

  2. Thanks, Stephen, for this in-depth article. Would love to see an encore. In particular, if you were to talk a little about the audio software you like or some options you’ve played with, I for one would love that. Love your shows! Thanks for all the hard work you put in – articles like this deepen our appreciation for Major Spoilers and Critical Hit.

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