Series: Podcasting

(Readin’ time: 8 minutes and 6 very valuable seconds)

“I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day,
I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.
Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.
I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.

I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone,
I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone.
Now I’m livin’ out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach.
I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone.”

–“On the Beach”, Neil Young

Let’s talk about podcasting! 🙂

TBH, I’m not sure exactly what I’ll have to add here. Others have already written great stuff about podcasting. Liston and I have riffed about it in… a podcast episode. Several, actually: this, this, and this.

Nevertheless, I figured it’s worth trying to write something relatively complete, to consolidate information that’s previously leaked out of my brain in a scattered way and have something useful to send folks when I get the occasional question about starting and running a podcast.

Let’s get the absolutely least important part out of the way first: equipment.

Equipment

Sound quality matters, but only insofar as it potentially interferes with other more important things, the chief of which is being interesting. In other words, your goal is to avoid bad sound. Really good sound is just gravy. It’s not table stakes, it’s a nice bonus [1].

I’ve tried lots of things myself. In college, I read every back issue of Mix magazine, did live sound for a band, and interned in a recording studio in Nashville. So I’m at least not ignorant when it comes to this the topic of microphones and studio gear. My advice is to get real by repeating to yourself 10 times “great sound quality won’t save boring content”, and then put yourself in one of these three buckets:

  1. I’m on a budget, this podcast thing is an experiment anyway, and so I can go cheap with the gear until I figure out if the experiment works.
  2. I don’t mind spending up to $500 on this experiment, but I’m still not sure the experiment is going to work so I want to limit my downside to $500 if it doesn’t.
  3. I just love gear and cables and shiny things and I want the best equipment, even if the podcast itself doesn’t go anywhere. I generally buy the best because I like using the best stuff.

Again, be real about things when you self-bucket into one of the above. Then, choose equipment accordingly:

Bucket 1

Buy a Sennheiser PC7. If you can’t stand the idea of hearing things only in one ear and your ears don’t stick out a lot from your skull, get a Sennheiser PC8, which has earphones on both sides of your head. My ears do stick out from my skull a fair bit, and this causes the PC8 to fit badly while the PC7 basically fits fine.

The microphone is the same in both, and it’s the best sound quality for a low price Liston or I have found. You will have to futz with the position of the mic boom to avoid excessive plosives or breathing noises, but of you park the mic element a half inch or so below your cake hole, you’ll probably sound great.

Here’s a fun test. I’m going to link you to two episodes of Offline, the podcast Liston and I do together. In one, you’ll hear me using the Sennheiser PC7, and in the other, you’ll hear me using a microphone that is almost 10 times more expensive. Note that for our podcast, we each record our end locally, which removes lossy compression from the sound quality equation here. Guess which one was recorded with which microphone. Write me if you want the answer:

  1. offlinepodcast.rocks/4c79056c
  2. offlinepodcast.rocks/03b36f12

The PC7 travels well, if that’s a concern for you, and it also makes you sound pretty good on video calls. It keeps your desk generally free from gear clutter, it’s fairly rugged (but not indestructible; nothing is), and it’s cheap.

Bucket 2

Get an Audio Technica ATR-2100 and–optionally–a DBX 286s. The 286s really elevates the sound of the ATR-2100 to near-pro levels of sound quality.

If you get the 286s, you’ll have to also get something that converts an analog audio signal to a digital signal, and there are multiple choices for that. The Behringer UCA202 is a good option. And then you’ll need cables and adapters, and you’re on your own there. As you navigate this, remember, you chose this path. I tried to sell you on the PC7, so don’t ask me which RCA to quarter inch TRS mono to stereo to whosawhatsit cable you need for this more elaborate setup. 🙂

If you take this path, you’ll also need a mic stand or boom, and you may also want a shock mount. Again, there are multiple choices out there that can work, and a bit of research or experimentation will lead you the right way.

What’s nice about this setup is:

  • The ATR-2100 mic punches well above its price point, both used alone and used with the 286s.
  • For travel, unless you do a lot of podcasting on the road, you can just throw the ATR-2100 and a USB cable (it uses the less common USB plug on the mic end of the cable) in your bag and have a good travel podcasting setup (including your normal computer/recording setup, of course). You need to be gentle in holding the mic with your hand otherwise you’ll get handling noise, but aside from that it’s a nice “goldilocks” solution for travel.
  • When you add the 286s preamplifier to the setup, it significantly elevates the sound quality. It adds complexity and expense, but I think most people would be very hard-pressed to hear a meaningful difference between a 286s and ATR-2100 compared to a dramatically more expensive rig. Here’s my wife using the ATR-2100 + 286s combination: www.porcelanosa-usa.com/healthcare-id-podcast/

Bucket 3

Go wild. Get the Sure Sm7b and squeak by with a 286s or get a fancy preamp. Or get an Electro Voice RE20, the other radio studio standard. Or be weird like me and get an RE16 (which I call the “Elvis mic” because Elvis used the very similar RE15 on stage during his Vegas years). Or follow Marco Armet’s advice and get a Shure Beta 87a. Or follow David Baker’s advice from the article I linked you to at the top of this article and get a Neumann mic.

Get an exotic preamp like the Sound Devices. Or get one of the Universal Audio preamps with DSP in it. Or get some funky cool old preamp with transformers in it on eBay from a radio studio that’s going digital. Add in compression and EQ and de-essing and a noise gate.

Get the $300 badass K&M boom stand for your desk. Get a microphone flag so you look especially pretentious. Get a dorky pic like this made:

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Stick sound-absorbing foam on the walls. Again, just go wild at this level. It’ll be fun for you, if you fit into this bucket!

Software

This has been written about ad nauseum, so I’ll keep it simple, knowing that most of y’all are more technical than I am.

Solo podcasts

Easy. Use Audacity, Audio Hijack, or Ferrite, depending on what OS you’re on and how much or how little money you want to spend. Everything on this list is pretty well tested, good, high-value software.

Interview podcasts

Every option here sucks in its own special, unique way, so set your expectations accordingly.

I recently had an opportunity to interview one of the top WebRTC developers in the world. It was for client work, but I snuck in a personal question: “What’s the best app for high quality, full duplex, realtime audio for podcast interviews?”

He literally shrugged his shoulders. 🙁 (Lovely guy, not criticizing him, it’s just a reinforcement of the generally disappointing tools landscape here.)

You need a way to talk with your guest, and you need a way to record the conversation. Here are some ways to talk:

  • Skype. I’m biting my tongue so hard here it bleeds. Skype is ubiquitous but comprised. If you’re podcasting with a regular co-host, probably consider using Skype or Zoom with a double-ended recording setup. Google it if that term is unfamiliar.
  • Zoom. Less compromised IMO than Skype, and if your guest has pro equipment, it’s possible to get pretty good audio quality w/Zoom. Ex: consultingpipelinepodcast.com/090 (David Baker and I recorded this podcast episode using Zoom and I think he sounds quite good in it.) Liston and I use Zoom for Offline, though we record double-ended, unlike the episode of CPP I just linked you to where my audio was recorded locally but David’s was transferred through Zoom before being recorded on my end.
  • Zencastr. Biting my tongue again. I had several crappy experiences with Zencastr and swore it off. My podcaster colleagues have generally had better experiences with it, so YMMV. It’s got a great promise in that it records double-ended and requires little to no setup, since it’s presumably using WebRTC via a browser window.
  • Ringr. Has potential, but was late to the party with the ability to record more than 2 people in a conversation. They’ve added this capability, so maybe it’s a good option now.
  • ipDTL. WTF what were they smoking when they creating the UI for this? Seems powerful and pro, but super intimidating to use.
  • Others like Anchor, et al. No idea.

The tools you might use to record a podcast interview where you’re using Skype–which doesn’t have a built in recording function–might include Audio Hijack, Skype Call Recorder, or other stuff I haven’t tried.

I like Audio Hijack (sorry this is so Mac-centric, y’all) better than Skype Call Recorder because the Skype team at Microsoft seems to be compensated partially or entirely based on how often they can break the janky integration between Skype and Skype Call Recorder. Oh, and how often they can move things around in the UI of Skype for no reason at all. They appear to also be compensated based on that as well. Stack ranking FTW!!

Again, I want to be crystal clear here. I’m getting the inconsequential stuff out the way first. The consequential stuff is what you say on the podcast. The inconsequential stuff is what you record yourself with.

This is enough for today.

So what’s the rest of this series going to look like?

Well…

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Have a superior weekend,

-P

PS: Kidding with the Napoleon Dynamite thing. I’m glad I’ve got the weekend to think about the rest of this, because the actually important stuff is–again–not the equipment but being interesting or being valuable. Here’s what I actually plan to touch on in the rest of this series:

  • Interviewing guests
  • Show design/topic selection
  • Seasons or ongoing or miniseries
  • Audience growth
  • Publication questions: frequency, scheduling, etc.


1: Good sound is a bonus if you are publishing a podcast that is basically business-focused or primarily informational or mainly for generating leads. If your podcast is some form of entertainment or “media”, then you may indeed need better sound or production quality to achieve your goals.

Two online experiential learning workshops this October: