How to Choose the Right Podcasting Equipment
The difference between a podcast produced with good equipment and poor equipment is astounding. With poor equipment, you’ll sound unprofessional, like a fly by night operation. Even if people can make out the words you’re saying, if there’s background noise or buzzing, people will have a hard time taking you seriously.
On the other hand, with high quality equipment, your voice will come through crisp and clear. Your voice won’t “pop” when you pronounce your “P”s and “B”s. You won’t pick up background noise, you won’t hear any buzzing or tones from the room and your sound overall will be crystal clear. This projects a much more professional image.
A lot of listeners will simply tune out of a podcast if they hear unprofessional audio. It’s a signal to listeners about how much effort you really put into the program and how committed you are to quality all around.
Setting up your podcast can be done for as little as $200, or as much as $2,000 or more. Here’s everything you need to know about podcasting equipment.
Microphones 101: Dynamic vs. Condenser
When it comes to recording podcasts, the most important piece of equipment you could own is a good microphone. In fact, for budget setups, it’s okay if it’s the only piece of equipment you own. You can skimp on the mixer, the digital recorder, the editing software and everything else – But you can’t cut corners on the mic.
The mic is what ultimately determines the quality of your audio. You want a mic that’ll pick up sounds crisply and strongly, without picking up background interference.
There are primarily two kinds of microphones, dynamic and condenser. What’s the difference?
Condenser Microphones – These microphones are designed to pick up all the sounds around them. They’re frequently designed for musical recording, where the mic’s supposed to pick up the sounds from the drummer, the bass, the guitar, etc all at the same time.
If you’re recording a podcast in a very quiet environment, such as a recording studio or a very quiet room, a condenser microphone could be better than a dynamic mic. However, for most amateur producers (E.g. you’re producing at home, without a sterile sound environment,) condenser mics simply pick up too much noise. You don’t want a mic that’ll pick up everything. You want a mic that just picks up your voice.
Which brings us to …
Dynamic Microphones – Dynamic microphones are the opposite of condenser microphones. They’re designed to pick up only what’s directly in front of them and filter everything else out. With dynamic microphones, you have to be more conscious of how you speak into the microphone. The mic needs to be positioned in front of you and you need to be relatively close. Don’t vary your distance from the mic, or the volume will fluctuate.
That said, dynamic microphones are still the better option for most amateur producers. They’ll cut out ambient noise, such as road noise or the next door neighbor’s bathroom fan.
Ultimately which mic type you choose depends on your recording environment. If you have a sterile and quiet environment, go for a condenser. If you’re in an environment that might have noise, go for a dynamic microphone.
Best Microphones for Under $150
There are two great mics budget podcasters can use to get started.
For those truly on a budget, the Blue Mic Snowball mic comes highly recommended. At a price tag of under $70, its value is hard to beat.
The Snowball is a dynamic microphone that can be set to record either your voice or the whole room. It outputs directly to USB instead of XLR, so you don’t need a mixer or a converter to plug it into your computer.
It comes with a small swivel mount and works via plug and play – You don’t need to install any software.
The second budget microphone is the Shure SM-58 microphone. The mic alone costs $99, with the mic stand, the XLR cable and the windscreen in one package costs $120.
The Shure SM-58 is one of the best budget dynamic microphones on the market. With the windscreen on, pops are virtually inaudible. It picks up little to no background noise. For a fraction of the price, the Shure SM-58 can produce highly professional sounding audio.
Note that the Shure SM-58 outputs to XLR rather than USB. That means you’ll need either a mixer or a converter.
XLR Cables, 3.5mm Jacks and USB Converters
Why do microphones tend to output to XLR cables rather than 3.5mm jacks? And why can’t you buy an XLR to 3.5mm converter instead of a USB converter?
The simple answer is that 3.5mm jacks (the ones you see on your iPhone and headphones) are terrible for sound recording. The jack connector could lose noise or pick up noise if there’s dust or cracks along the connector. The wire itself can pick up noise. An electrical current running next to a 3.5mm cable can cause interference in the audio signal.
Even if you record a perfect audio stream, if you output it to 3.5mm there’s a good chance it’ll sound slightly distorted, fuzzy or buzzy by the time it gets to your computer. That’s why most mics output to XLR or in some cases USB.
USB cables work very differently than 3.5mm. 3.5mm cables transmit an analog audio signal, which is why it can be corrupted. A USB wire transmits computer data rather than audio data. It can’t be corrupted the same way.
One popular USB to XLR converter is the Icicle, which costs around $40 on Amazon.
Best Microphones for High End Setups
The Rode Podcaster Dynamic Mic comes in at $230. It goes direct to USB, so no converter necessary. When it comes to direct USB mics, this is the crème of the crop. It’s a dynamic microphone that picks up very little outside noise. The sound quality is top notch and the warranty can be extended to 10 years for free.
It also has a headphone jack built into the product itself, so you can hear what’s being recorded. The volume knob allows you to play with the headphone volume without affecting the recording volume. It’s truly a professional’s choice.
Finally, you have the Heil PR-40, available for $280. This is the mic that professional broadcasters, as well as podcasting with millions of listeners use. It’s used by audiobook narrators, radio show hosts, voiceover artists and podcasters.
It filters out background noise like a dynamic microphone, but still captures audio depth like a condenser microphone. You do need to learn proper microphone technique to use this mic, as it is a high end professional mic.
What is a Mixer and Do You Need One?
A mixer is one of those optional pieces of equipment that’s very nice to have. If you’re on a budget, you can still absolutely produce a quality podcast without a mixer. But if you’re podcasting professionally, you’ll absolutely want to get yourself a good mixer as quickly as possible.
A mixer does exactly what its name implies. It takes multiple tracks and mixes them. Using a mixer, you can adjust the volume of each input individually before it’s recorded. You can filter out feedback live, you can record different guests on different audio tracks and you can match sound levels between different audio streams. You can also play audio at the press of a button – For instance, if you want to play a sound whenever a guest speaker signs off, you can use a mixer to do so.
If you’re just doing a solo podcast and you’re on a budget, you can get by without a mixer. If you have guests on, if you do in person interviews or if you’re using multiple sound sources for any reason, having a mixer is essential.
When it comes to podcasting mixers, there’s a pretty clear winner. Mackie’s mixers are more or less widely recognized as the best mixers for the job. For lower budgets, go with the Mackie 1402-VLZ3:
Higher end productions can go with the Mackie Onyx 1620i, which has 8 preamps and 16 channels:
Both produce similar quality audio, though the latter allows you to have more inputs and outputs.
What Are Recording Headphones and Do You Need One?
Recording headphones are used to listen to an audio’s stream in real time so you can hear how it sounds. This is useful for detecting variations in levels between different streams. It can also help you detect ambient noises and other potential distractions early on.
For instance, if you’re interviewing a guest on your podcast, you want to make sure your voices are at about the same volume as it’s being recorded. Having headphones will allow you to hear how it sounds to your audience as you record and adjust the volumes accordingly.
The difference between recording headphones and standard headphones is that recording headphones are designed to avoid sound leakage. Sound leakage is where a small amount of sound actually comes out of the headphones, which can then be picked up by the mic again. This causes a distortion, delay or a “ghost sound” in the recording.
Recording headphones aren’t necessary for simple, solo podcasts. If you’re interviewing guests however, they’re almost mandatory.
The Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphones are highly recommended for professional podcast productions.
Audio Editing Software
There are all kinds of different audio editing tools you can use to put the final touches on your audio. In reality, the tasks you need to do to produce podcast audio aren’t all that complex. You mostly need your software to:
- Add intro music.
- Edit out mistakes or cut out fluff.
- Add background music.
- Change sound levels.
- Reduce noise.
- Cut different audio tracks together.
Just about any audio editing program can perform these tasks. Popular tools include Apple Logic Express, Sony SoundForge, Pro Tools, Garage Band or Audacity (free.)
Purchasing a high end program like Pro Tools will set you back about $600. On the other hand, you can do all your editing on a simple and free program like Audacity. It really depends on your budget and the complexity of your operation.
The best approach to audio editing is to pick one tool and stick to it. Learn it until you can move around quickly and smoothly. As long as you’re just performing simple tasks, the editing tool itself isn’t all that important. It’s your audio recording quality and your content that really matters.
That’s all the equipment you’ll need to get started podcasting. As you can see, you can get started on as little a $200 or as much as $2,000. It just depends on what you’re recording and what your budget is.