What Tech Do You Need to Make a Good Podcast at Home?
What I am going to cover in this article:
- Microphone and Recording Tips
- Recording Software
- Budget (Jump down to the end if you want to see it broken down by price)
Okay, so you’re not going to get the sort of audio quality you get from a recording studio, but you can get close. My friend Lily and I launched our podcast She’s In Russia a month ago. It’s taken some tweaking — those first few episodes, sonically, were nothing to write home about — and we want to share our process so that all you would-be home podcasters needn’t spend as much time in the adjustment phase.
Alright, our constraints
- Two people, two different locations: every episode of She’s In Russia is a call between my best friend and myself. She lives in St. Petersburg, Russia and I live in Brooklyn, New York.
- A Tight budget: When we first started we didn’t have any sponsorship or donations and we wanted to keep the launch costs to a minimum
When we first decided to make the podcast we practiced a few episodes using Call Recorder for FaceTime, which I had bought previously for interviewing people and then transcribing the conversations. CR for FaceTime is pretty great for its intended purpose; but its intended purpose is not recording podcasts. Ideally, you want each person’s computer recording their side of the conversation. With CR for FaceTime it was getting my voice loud and clear but Lily’s sounded a little more distant, a little far off, like she was on a long distance call.
Okay, like I mentioned we were trying to solve two main problems: we were in different locations and we didn’t want to break the bank.
So what is our actual setup and recording settings? Good question, I’ll stop pussyfooting and give you the details.
Microphone and Recording Tips
We did some research and came across this article (which I highly recommend, it’s very detailed). In short, for podcasting you want what’s called a cardioid mic. This simply means that the mic is “targeted” versus just picking up any noise it hears in the room. We also wanted the mic to have an easy mic to computer configuration, ideally a USB.
We eventually settled on Audio-Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic USB/XLR Microphone. The USB/XLR means you can plug it directly into your computer or into an amp if you ever want to use it for that purpose. Audio-Technica offers a bundle with this microphone that includes a pop screen, tripod, USB cable, and a cleaning cloth for $85 on Amazon.
If you buy the above set, you’ll want to get a windscreen for the microphone. Those run cheap, less than 10 dollars. Remember, it is imperative to get good recordings from the jump, mixing can only do so much. Here are some things we learned:
- Learn your mic proximity (e.g. don’t laugh loudly with your mouth right in front of the mic).
- Speaking voices are usually recorded at between -3 and -12dB, but always check your levels. It’s okay to ratchet this up if it’s too quiet. For example with our hardware and software we’ve found 7dB works best. Remember some of these things are logical, you’re just trying to answer the question “Is it the right volume?” with a “Yes.”
- Make sure you have at least one type of windscreen to help with those plosives
- Make sure you are wearing headphones, NO OPEN AIR and ideally earbuds without a microphone to prevent crossover. You want the volume to be as low as possible to prevent sound from your headphones bleeding into the mic.
- Don’t bump the mic (honestly we still struggle with this one)
Many people solve the “hosts in different places” problem with a technique called “The Double Ender.” Basically the technique is that each person records themselves onto their computer, you both count down from 15 or 10, the others send their files, and then in the editing process you sync the two separate tracks. This does work, however it becomes more difficult the greater the delay — caused mainly by differences in internet speed, and just the time it takes for information to travel from servers in Russia, to here — between the two people.
For example when we first started out we tried this technique, but traditional VoIPs like Skype, Hangouts, or FaceTime were proving to be laggy (and not consistently so throughout) and so syncing became a bit of a challenge. Plus you have to deal with others’ user error on and if you’re interviewing someone it’s a bit of a cumbersome process to ask them record themselves and send it to you. So again we hunted around on the internet for how people solve this problem and found Zencastr.
Zencastr claims to be the purveyor of “High-fidelity podcasting” and though I think this may be more an aspirational slogan than a reality, the software does get the job done. It’s incredibly simple to use, and if you don’t want to deal with mixing yourself you could use Zencastr’s post processing service, that does a reasonably good job mixing if you’re not going to add anything later. The way it works is that Zencastr saves a WAV file of each person’s side of the conversation to their hard disk and then uploads it to the website when the call is done. It also records MP3 as a backup, in case anything goes awry.
Keep in mind that Zencastr actually uploads all your recorded tracks to dropbox, so you have to have space in your dropbox account (though Zencastr support did recently tell me that they’re planning to release a google drive integration). In all, Zencastr costs us $10/month (we got a discount, it’s usually 20). You could get away with the free tier if you do all the post-processing yourself.
Zencastr provides a native VoIP. We’ve been very happy with it. That being said if you prefer Skype, Hangouts, etc you can easily disable Zencastr’s VoIP.
We use Reaper for editing. Reaper is pretty great for editing (much faster and more customizable than Garageband) and they support both Windows and OS X. It does cost money however. You can try it out with a fully functional version for 60 days and then after that you have to buy it at either $60 or $225. Here are the ways you qualify for the discounted price:
- You are an individual, and REAPER is only for your personal use, or
- You are an individual or business using REAPER commercially, and yearly gross revenue does not exceed USD $20,000, or
- You are an educational or non-profit organization.
When editing, whether in Reaper or another software, you want to keep each person’s track separate. This allows you to “fix” interruptions, remove unwanted noises in one person’s track while the other is speaking, and mix on a per person basis, which is key.
Mixing and Mastering
Alright, this is a key step and often viewed as the most daunting. If you want that Terry Gross, Fresh Air feel we are all aspiring to you need a good recording and a good mix (and good editing…). Mixing is definitely the thing that took the longest for me to figure out, and honestly it’s the most delicate skill. It’s really about putting in time and figuring out what works for the voices on your show. But here are the processing principles,
- Again, get good recording from the jump. Go back to the “Microphone and Recording Tips” section
- Noise Gate: this is the only post-processing we do in Zencastr. A Noise Gate dictates when an audio signal will be let through based on the volume of that signal. Basically Noise Gates let through only those “volume bands” that are loud enough. This is a good way to remove ambient noise or static.
- Volume adjustment: Zencastr sort of fails on the levels front. It’s really hard to tell while you’re recording what your levels are like, but this is something you can make up for in post-production if you didn’t severely fuck up. Speaking voices really shouldn’t be coming in any louder than -3dB. But just listen and ask yourself is this volume okay? The human ear is more lenient with music, so if you use music in your podcast it’s okay it it’s a little louder than the speaking voices.
- Compression: compression brings low volumes up and high volumes down at designated frequency bands — it reduces dynamic range. What is this good for? Well if you laugh directly into the microphone (which is something we’ve been guilty of on more than one occasion) you don’t want it to be painful for the listener. On the reverse, let’s say one of your guests is a mouse who sometimes whispers and sometimes speaks at a normal volume; you’d want to raise the volume of those quiet mousy times. When compressing audio you set volume limits on where to begin compressing. An example: I set the limit to -18dB, this means anytime the volume gets above -18dB compression kicks in on the loudest sounds. Here’s a nice Reaper tutorial that goes into a bit more detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbnPiPjyfXs. Be careful to not over-compress! Voices naturally rise and fall and if you remove that range it will start to sound unnatural.
- Equalization (EQ): Okay, this is the processing people seem to be the most scared of. But the concept is really very simple and as always, it’s just about fine tuning your ear and answering the question “Does it sound better?” EQ allows you to take sounds at a given set of frequencies and either amplify or reduce the signal of that set. Why would you want to do this? There are certain frequencies that the human ear perceives as harsh, with EQ you can adjust those frequencies (bring them down) so that they are less present in the mix. Take a look at what the EQ on my voice for She’s In Russia looks like:
You need to create an RSS feed for your podcast. Sites like iTunes and Google Play don’t actually host your audio file — as in they don’t have a database somewhere with your podcast audio files in it. These websites simply subscribe to your RSS feed. There are a fair number of sites that will host your podcast and generate your RSS feed for you and unless you are a software developer I recommend going this route (honestly even if you are a developer — there’s really no need to re-invent the wheel, I tried and it was a stupid annoying amount of work).
I came across SoundCloud’s podcast feature and found it direct and easy to use — admittedly this may have been a poor choice what with the revelation that they may be going out of business, will update this article if that becomes the case :( . To be fair, I wasn’t super thorough on the hosting front, and I am sure there are other good options out there. Soundcloud provides some stats and you can integrate 3rd party stats trackers with ease. We use the free tier of Blubrry. In order to be able to upload to SoundCloud on a regular basis you’re going to need more than the free tier. We have a SoundCloud Pro Unlimited which comes out to about $11.25/month.
Alright that is all.
If you feel the desire to thank me for writing this article — subscribe to She’s In Russia, download the episodes, and rate us on iTunes or Google Play. We’re also on pretty much all other podcasting platforms.
This article will be part of a series detailing how we produce and market She’s In Russia, so stay tuned.
- Audio-Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic USB/XLR Microphone Bundle with Pop Filter, XLR Cable, USB Cable, and Austin Bazaar Polishing Cloth, $85
- Zencastr, $120/year
- Reaper, $60
- SoundCloud, $135/year