Podcasting Equipment For Beginners

As someone who has been involved in podcasting for almost a decade and who podcasts as a full-time job now, I often get asked for recommendations for podcasting equipment for beginners. I wish I had a good quick answer for that, but I don’t. That’s because there is a lot to consider first.1 But before we get into the equipment, first dispose of any ideas that podcasting is like what you see on TV shows like God Friended Me. Just no.

What kind of podcast?

Is this going to be informal for a few friends? Are you going for a wide audience? Are you planning on commercializing it? Are you podcasting for your business or organization?

Where will you record it?

At your desk? In the car? On the go? Coffee shops? At a podium or lectern? In a lot of different places?

Who will you record it with?

Are you making a solo podcast? Are you doing a podcast with a co-host? A group of people? The same people or a changing panel?

How will you record it with them?

If you’re recording with other people, will they be joining you in your office? Via Skype or other remote service? In a car? Outside? On the road?

How much is your budget?

You can spend almost nothing up to thousands of dollars, although a decent setup that can last you through several advances in expertise can be had for a couple hundred dollars.

How long do you think you’ll be doing this?

Are you not sure if you want to make a commitment? Are you looking to experiment? Or do you plan on doing this years with a regularly scheduled show?

Starting small

Let’s start with the simplest and easiest setup with equipment you probably already own. Say you just want to try recording yourself and see if you have what it takes. For that you can simply use your current smartphone. If you have an iPhone, the earbuds that come with it have a microphone built in. They also come with the Voice Memo app. Boom, you have a recording. Yes, t hat’s a bit barebones.

The next step up is to use an app-based podcast service like Anchor. This is an all-in-one service that does it all. They record your podcast, host, distribute it, and even promise to help you monetize it (if it gets popular enough), but of course it’s all within their ecosystem. So if you’re okay with being limited to Anchor’s users as your audience, that might be the way to go. If that’s the case, you’re still using your iPhone or iPad to record.

You may want to eventually upgrade the quality of your recording on your iPhone or iPad, in which case you can get a Lightning connector microphone. I recommend either the Zoom iQ7 or the Shure MV88, between about $100 and $130 as I write this. They’re a little pricy for such specialized gear, but don’t be tempted by the cheap microphones. They won’t sound any better than your earbud microphones so they won’t worth the money.

Podcasting-on-the-go

Let’s say you’re looking for something that will sound better than just recording into your phone, but you still want to be mobile. In that case, you want a portable digital recorder. While there are all kinds of expensive feature-filled recorders out there, if you’re just going to be recording yourself, then the Zoom H2n ($140) is perfectly fine for you. If you will be recording yourself and another person, the Zoom H4n ($200) can be used by itself, but it also has inputs for two XLR microphones.2 And if you need to record more than 2 people remotely, Then check out the Zoom H5 ($250), which has four XLR inputs.

You can probably tell I like Zoom digital recorders and I do. They’re easy to use, sound great, have good strong batteries, and connect easily to your computer.

Of course, if you have a laptop computer, you can always bring your desktop mikes and an audio interface and so on, so read on for that.

Microphones

You can spend anywhere from a little bit to a lot for a microphone. The first step is to consider what kind of connection you will make to your computer. The most basic connection is the standard USB you already use for printers and scanners and other devices, and if you get a USB microphone, you won’t need any other equipment to connect it to your computer.

There are many very good USB microphones available. Blue makes some very good ones, from the very inexpensive Blue Snowball ICE ($40) to the slightly more expensive Blue Snowball ($55) to the Blue Yeti ($100). The difference between the ICE and regular Snowball is that the regular version has three different modes, with the cardioid mode being better for podcasts. The Yeti is a professional quality microphone with a USB connection.

However, at this price range, I prefer the Audio Technica ATR2100 ($67), partly because it offers both USB and XLR connections for maximum flexibility. Plus it sounds very good for such an inexpensive microphone. This is the microphone I still use everyday to records hours and hours of podcasts.

There are more expensive microphones in the multi-hundred dollar range that are worth every penny, but since this is a list for beginners, I will save those for another time. The microphones listed above will suit most podcasters for a long time.

Microphone stands

Once you have a microphone, you’ll need something to hold it. Most inexpensive microphones come with a small stand, which can be okay for using it on-the-go, but you’ll quickly want something more stable and more isolated from vibrations at your desk. Otherwise, every time you rest your hand on the desk, for example, the vibration will be transmitted to the microphone as a sound.

You can get boom stands for very little cost. I started with the NEEWER White Broadcasting Studio Microphone Suspension Boom Scissor Arm ($14), which has a spinning clamp style attachment. It doesn’t reach as far as some and while it won’t hold a heavy, expensive microphone, the generally lightweight inexpensive mics are fine.

A better boom stand is the RODE PSA1 Swivel Mount Studio Microphone Boom Arm ($99). While this is a jump in expense, it’s also a jump in quality. It has a much longer reach, is much more stable, has smoother action, and has a much better method of clamping to the desk. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s balanced in such a way that it has a minimum weight for the microphone. If the microphone is too light, it will continually rise up into the air.

You will also need a shock mount for the stand to further isolate vibrations and just to hold the microphone. It has to fit the microphone you use because the weight and diameter will vary. Some microphone manufacturers offer shock mounts made for their mics, but there are also generic variations available. For my ATR2100 microphone, I use the Symphaudio PSM-1 Universal Microphone Shock Mount, which is no longer available), but the Dophee Condenser Microphone Shock Mount is nearly identical and is only $11. These are virtually commodities, so just make sure you get the right diameter for your microphone.

The final element in this area is a pop filter. Certain letter sounds are called plosives and they pop in audio recordings. A pop filter goes between your mouth and the microphone to catch the plosives (as well as anything that inadvertently comes from your mouth while speaking) and smooth out the sound. Like the shock mounts, some manufacturers make filters specifically for their microphones, but an inexpensive generic filter will usually do fine. A barrier filter works best for podcasting. I use the Dragonpad USA 6” Microphone Studio Pop Filter with Clamp ($8.50) and it clamps right on to the boom arm and adjusts to where I want it.

Audio Interfaces

Once you have a microphone, you need to get the analog audio signal into your computer, usually via a USB connection. The ATR2100 microphone and the Blue microphones have USB connections, but if you want a little more flexibility and control, plus the ability to plug in more than one microphone at a time, you’ll want an audio interface.

If you purchased a Zoom digital recorder, it will also work as a pass-through audio interface. If not, you can get a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2-microphone interface ($160). This interface allows you to adjust the gain of two microphones independently. One of the benefits of a dedicated audio interface is that it makes your sounds better with dedicated digital-analog conversion circuitry and microphone preamps.

At the next level, you might be interested in a mixer, which would allow for more than two microphones or other inputs and adjustments, but at another level of complexity.

Headphones

Of course, you’ll need to hear your recording as well, especially if your podcast includes people joining you via Skype or FaceTime. Again, you can start with any fairly decent headphones, but I would recommend against earbuds or other headphones that don’t close over your ears. The problem with open headphones is sound leakage, meaning that whatever you’re hearing in your ears will end up on the recording, layered on top of your voice and creating an editing nightmare.

If you’re looking to buy some good headphones, the Sony MDR-7506 ($80) are industry standards and comfortable. You’ll want to make sure whatever headphones you get are comfortable for long recording and editing sessions, so be sure the padding is sufficient.

My current preferred headphones are Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones ($130), which have a long, replaceable cord, are comfortable, and sound good.

Cables

Good cables are a must. If you have an XLR microphone, you’ll need XLR cables. I suggest getting several of different lengths, especially if you think you’ll sometimes record on-the-go. Depending on how your desk is setup, I’d suggest at least a couple of 3-footers, so you’re not always unplugging everything when you have to record away from your desk. Don’t buy the cheapest cables as cheap cables can leave noise in your recordings because of insufficient shielding. Sweetwater Sound makes professional audio gear and can be a good source of reliable cables.

Software

Some podcasters prefer to record only to hardware because they’re afraid of software crashes that delete their recordings. Often these are longtime podcasters who remember buggy early software running on hardware that could barely keep up. This isn’t as much of a problem anymore.

Audio Hijack from Rogue Amoeba is amazing Mac software that lets you route audio to and from various sources, manipulating it along the way like a good audio engineer with a mixing board. Their companion software Loopback is invaluable for additional routing capabilities. Explaining how it works would take too much time here, but I’ll write a separate post outlining my recording and editing workflow that will have more details.

For free, cross-platform software, Audacity can’t be beat. It’s not the easiest interface right off the bat, but once you figure it out, you can easily make very good recordings that you can either do simple edits with here or export for more extensive editing elsewhere.

You could edit your podcasts in almost any audio software, including Apple’s Garageband, but if you’re going to be doing this for a while, consider getting either Adobe Audition or Apple Logic Pro X. Audition is part of Adobe’s Creative Suite ($21/month standalone or as part of a bundle) and Logic ($200) is standalone. They are pricey and have a steep learning curve, but there are plenty of YouTube tutorials to help you figure them out and make editing out noise, boosting sound, and generally making your podcasts listenable so much easier in the end.

It’s technically possible to record and edit your podcast on an iPad and a key reason for that is Ferrite Recording Studio, which gives you many of the same editing abilities you get using Logic or Audition on your Mac or PC. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to get you pretty far along.

Forecast is another key piece of Mac software that makes preparing your podcast for distribution easier. It does the simple job of taking your final edited file and compressing it down to the most efficient size, adding metadata and cover images, and chapter divisions. It’s been in an open beta for two years, but has been stable for nearly all of that time.

How to record, edit, and distribute a podcast

As I mentioned above, the equipment is only the beginning. The real work comes in figuring out the distribution. If you move beyond an all-in-one service like Anchor, you will need someplace on the internet to store the audio files for download, some place to list it, a way to alert listeners of new episodes, and more. There are many ways to accomplish this, but in a future post, I will share how we do this at SQPN.

  1. I will share my setup and workflow in a separate post.
  2. XLR is the professional microphone connection standard for microphones everywhere.

In Response to IRL, by Amy

It’s an odd feeling to find myself even in partial disagreement with my friend Amy Welborn, and I am now doubting myself, but I will press on nonetheless. Amy is writing this week about technology and today she writes about the Church, evangelization, and technology.

To be sure, there’s much I agree with. Like her, I believe that parish and diocesan websites are vitally important and need to be done better. Parish websites, first and above all, need to make it easy for people to get the information they came for, usually the Mass times, including the holy day of obligation Mass times. They also need to be kept up to date. The worst failing of parish web sites is out of date content and the second worst is the failure to put new content up. I have held that every parish needs someone whose primary job is to go to every meeting possible and otherwise to badger the staff for stuff to put on the web site (and in the bulletin). Read More and Comment

Social Media Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Men in business suits boxing in a ring

The latest tragedies grabbing the headlines and especially the ensuing bluster on social media have reinforced for me why I have lately decided to stop engaging in discussions about these things there.1 In fact, I have been using a browser extension called FB Purity to block any updates that contain certain keywords from appearing in my timeline.

It’s not that I’m a heartless ogre who doesn’t care about making our country safer or protecting it from dastardly forces. Nor does it mean I don’t care about the Catholic Church and her doctrines and teachings and whether some of her leaders are undermining them.

It’s that I don’t believe that bluster and acrimony on Facebook and Twitter are going to change a damn thing. No, wait, it will change something: It will make me more bitter and angry and sinful.

Much of what passes for discourse on subjects like gun control or Donald Trump or Pope Francis consists of straw man arguments, emotional venting lacking in rational thought, failures to engage charity or to give the benefit of the doubt, silly memes that usually contain falsehoods and/or that mock others without engaging them. Then the comments on these posts devolve into shouting matches and insults that drown out anyone trying to make rational, intelligent responses.

Shakespeare could have been describing these “antisocial” social media debates when he wrote in “MacBeth”: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

And in the end, no one ever has their mind changed about a single thing. I’ve never seen one of these shouting matches result in someone saying, “You know what? You’re right! I’ve been wrong all this time. I’ve changed my mind.”

So what’s the point of it all?

Now, you may ask me why I haven’t just deleted my social media accounts, like so many other people have. For one thing, social media is part of my job. I need to be there to administer and monitor several social media sites associated with my work. For another thing, once I’ve excised the vitriol from my timelines, I can engage with my family and friends in uplifting and fun discussions and share news of our lives and share articles about interesting or uplifting topics. Social media doesn’t have to be a wasteland. It’s what you make it.

I choose not to make it a place of anger and falsehoods and cheap ideological grandstanding.

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I’m not always successful in staying out of them. But I nearly always regret it.

More Tales of Social Media Marketing Mistakes

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post1 about college students moving to low-tax states. I wanted to illustrate it with an image of a young person house-moving and found one on Flickr on the account of a small moving company that looks to appeal to young people. The photo was available under a Creative Commons license with an attribution requirement. So I used the photo under the terms they had provided.

Fast forward to earlier this month. I get an email from a marketing company. Thank you, they said, for featuring our client on your web site, but we need you to hyperlink the image so that it directs readers to our web site. They didn’t tell me which photo or where it was on my site. My blog has been around for nearly two decades and has thousands of entries. I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Eventually through some sleuthing, I figured out which blog post and photo. First, I wasn’t featuring their client on my site. I was using their photo—in accordance with the usage restrictions they had listed—to illustrate an unrelated story. Second, I had followed the attribution requirements that they selected when making the photo available. Third, that’s not how my site software works. I can’t hyperlink the “hero” image at the top of my blog posts.

I didn’t want the hassle so I just found another image on a different site that was about “moving” and replaced theirs. Then I sent the PR person an email in reply telling her, “Never mind, I’ve replaced the image with one unrelated to your client that doesn’t have special requirements.”

So instead of free advertising for her client (the logo was prominent in the image), they get nothing. Rather than increase her client’s virality and Google-rank, she decreased it by making a silly and annoying request. If they want people to handle their images differently, then they should say so up front in their rights disclosure.

  1. I’m not linking the post or mentioning the mover because it’s not relevant.

A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

Read More and Comment

Complexity

This article discusses Apple’s manufacturing process for nearly all of its products, machining aluminum at a scale unlike any other company in the world. It is a fascinating discussion of Apple’s fanatical attention to detail and the amazing enormity of the scale at which it works.

I bring it to your attention not simply to praise Apple or its products, but to bring up a different point, namely that nearly everything is more complicated than you think it is. You see, the impetus for the linked article was a claim that the iPhone 8 would be made of industrial ceramic, like the new Apple Watch Edition, instead of the current machined aluminum. But the author of the post points out all the reasons why that can’t be so.

Many of those reasons are things that only someone involved in the world of industrial-scale manufacturing would know. But they are very real limitations… or at least challenges. But unless you inhabit that world, you wouldn’t understand.

I’ve found this to be applicable in nearly sphere of life. I’ve been on the inside of a number of organizations, including a few with controversial public faces. And almost invariably I have found that critics and kibitzers think they know what’s going on when they really don’t. They imagine motives and capabilities and options that are mere figments of their own imaginations and wishful thinking.

So the next time you (or I) are tempted to say, “Of course they should do X because this is what they’re thinking,” pause for a moment and consider that may be they shouldn’t because maybe they aren’t because probably you don’t know.

Facebook as Global Censor

The editor of a Norwegian newspaper has written an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook removed a famous documentary photograph from the newspaper’s Facebook page.

The photo in question comes from the Vietnam War and shows a young girl, naked, running in terror from a bombing. It’s horrifying and disturbing and was a key to ending US involvement in that war. Facebook called it child pornography.

The newspaper editor says that Facebook’s standards, written in a California conference room, should not be applied in a blanket way to a global audience.

On the one hand, I can see that there is content that I would find highly objectionable that others would defend posting on the same grounds of diverse opinion and free speech.

On the other hand, I am afraid that a global communications platform used by more than one-seventh of the world’s population (and growing) unilaterally decides what is appropriate and what is not.

Whether it’s deciding that clergy and religious cannot be identified by their titles or declaring certain sensitive topics out of bounds, Facebook as a corporation has too much power.

We used to worry that Google’s control over search results could be used to manipulate the public (and still do). We should worry that Facebook’s censorship could be used to do the same thing.

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