Podcast masterclass, part one: Equipment

Thinking about starting a podcast? Well, there are currently around 700,000 active podcasts and more than 29 million episodes for people to download. So the competition is pretty fierce. Yet don’t let the numbers put you off. As media companies have demonstrated time and time again there is a still a huge appetite among consumers and professionals for well produced imaginative podcasts delivered by engaging and articulate presenters.

This is why we have put together the ultimate guide on podcast creation for media companies. It contains everything you need to know about ensuring professional sound quality, making the most of your content, boosting SEO, and exploring the multiplicity of monetisation options. Your guide is Charlotte Ricca of Free Hand Podcasts who edits the upcoming DIS podcasts.

***Take advantage of our pre-agenda offer for DIS 2020, taking place on 24 to 25 March 2020 in Berlin. By signing up for DIS 2020 by 2 December 2019 to save €600 on final delegate rates. Sign up here***

Create a professional environment

In the first in our series we look at how to create a professional environment.

The foundation of all great podcasts is a good recording. You can line up the best guests, and create engaging, intelligent content, but if the sound quality is under par listeners won’t get past the first five minutes.

There are a number of simple steps you can take to ensure your podcast is from an audio perspective as professional as it could be.

1. Invest in a digital recorder

Your computer can act as a recording device for your podcast, but a quality digital recorder will improve your sound and your workflow.

Digital recorders offer a lot more settings and options, because that's what they're built for.

Professional level kit sells for £300 or £400 and comes with a range of features such as internal mics and editing tools. One of the most important tools a pro-level recorder offers is the ability to record each voice on a different channel. This means if someone talks over another guest, or you cough or sniff, you can edit out the unwanted noise. You can also equalise sound levels, if one of you is louder.

Brands to trust include Zoom and Tascam. Both have budget entry-level recorders, but their professional models are worth the investment.

The holy grail of digital recorders is the Zoom H6 (£275), which has four mic inputs and can record up to six tracks at the same time. Zoom produces other cheaper models, such as the H4n, which at £185 is one of the best value-for-money options. It has four-track simultaneous recording and two mic inputs.

2. Buy the right microphone

Most recorders have an inbuilt microphone, but for a professional set up and sound you should invest in decent standalone mics. This is particularly true if you’re recording more than one guest, in an environment where there is background noise.

Every podcaster has their favourite mic, and the level of quality you need to run a decent podcast is much debated. The one you choose largely depends on budget, but there are a few other things to consider.

USB vs XLR

USB mics are favoured by hobbyists due to the low cost and lack of technical knowledge needed. They plug straight into a  computer and have a preamp and A/D (analogue to digital) converter built in.

However, the budget price is also its downfall, as they have limited options if you want to step up your production values. The top of the range USB is the Apogee, which costs around £200. Also, as they can only plug into a computer, a USB is less customisable and they’re not ideal if you need to use more than one mic.

XLR microphones offer a more professional set up, as they have to be connected to a preamp, mixer, or digital recorder, which allows greater adjustability. There is also a wider range of XLRs at higher price points, which means the components are better made, producing a superior sound.

Models to check out include Shure SM7B, which is one of the best podcasting mics out there, the Rode Procaster (they also do a USB version) and Electrovoice RE20.

XLR mics are the best option if you want premium sound quality, more flexibility on production, and you don't want to be tied to your computer when recording.

Dynamic or condenser

Condenser microphones are great if you plan on recording in a quiet, controlled environment, as they are more sensitive and therefore produce a better quality recording. The downside is they pick up more ambient sound and they need an external power supply, known as ‘phantom power’.

It is called phantom, because there is no obvious external power supply – it is provided by the pre-amp/mixer/recorder and delivered to the mic via its cable.

Dynamic mics record a narrower range of frequencies, which means the sound isn’t as rich or detailed. However, they also record less background noise, and are therefore more forgiving in noisy environments.

Pickup pattern

Microphone pickup patterns – or polar patterns - determine the area a mic focuses on when recording. Some mics have just one setting, while others have multiple, so it’s a good idea to find out the pickup patterns of a mic before you buy.

There are three key patterns to consider:

Omnidirectional: this has a really wide pattern, which picks up sound equally all around the mic. It’s ideal if you are recording a few people around a table. However, as the mic picks up sounds from all directions, you need to hold it close to your subject if there are competing background sounds.  

Cardioid: this pattern is known as ‘directional' because it can be pointed in the direction of sound. It picks up sound from the front of the microphone, while minimising any sound behind it. The cardioid polar pattern is perfect for a presenter talking directly into the mic, however, it can often be quite sensitive to plosives (see more on this below).

Bi-directional: also called a figure-of-eight, this polar pattern picks up sound equally from the front and back of the mic, but has low sensitivity around the sides. This type of mic is good if you have just one guest, sat in front of you.

3. Extras

Pop filter: put your hand in front of your mouth and say ‘podcast’ – you will feel the air on the letter ‘p’. These plosives cause a recording to pop or click, which can ruin the quality of your output. A pop filter acts as a barrier between the speaker and the microphone and greatly reduces plosive noises. 

Windshield: this is another device for preventing plosives, but is also good at minimising wind noise. Windshields come in all shapes, sizes and materials, but if you’re recording outside, it’s a good idea to use a fluffy microphone cover, known as a dead cat.

Headphones: we highly recommend you use headphones, so you can monitor sound quality. Ideally you should use a sound engineer for this, or just ask someone in your office to listen in, as it’s hard to keep an ear on sound levels while interviewing.

Earbuds won’t really cut it for this job. You want closed-back headphones, as they will prevent audio from leaking out and being picked up by your microphone.

You will also use the headphones when editing, so comfort is key, as you could be wearing them all day.

Mic stand: many mics come with a desk stand, however these can pick up unwanted noises from movements on your desk. A boom arm or mic stand will avoid this, and they also help with your posture, which will improve your vocal execution.

Shock mount: even with a mic stand there may be unwanted noise that you don’t notice. A shock mount will help absorb any movements and helpprevent sounds that resonate through the stand. Most shock mounts are made to go with a specific mic, so make sure you get one that fits your model.

4. Remote recordings

A lot of interviews are now recorded remotely. The problem is, phone interviews using VOIP solutions such as Skype, can be poor quality.. Plus, your interviewee needs to install software.

Thankfully there are a number of web-based options, which are much easier to use – and far more reliable in terms of sound quality. Our favourite is Zencastr, thanks to its genius simplicity. Zencastr records local audio from each person and uploads it to its servers. You can then download the individual tracks to edit together, or the software can do it for you automatically. There are even post-production effects, such as volume levelling and noise/hum reduction. And because it’s cloud-based you don’t have to install anything. The guest simply clicks on a link and you can see the status of the recording, to ensure the interview is being recorded.

5. Stable environment

It’s not just about the equipment; your environment also has a large impact on sound quality. The key things to avoid when recording are ambient and reflected sound, as they are almost impossible to edit out.

Ambient sound is any background noise that is picked up by your microphone. It could be a phone ringing, someone chatting in your office, or a drill outside your window. Make sure you record in a quiet space, preferable with thick walls and double-glazed windows.

Reflected noise is where sound bounces off hard surfaces, such as tiles in a kitchen or a polished concrete floor. It’s better to record in a room with carpets, curtains and bookshelves, such as a living room, as these will help absorb sound.

If you’re serious about your sound there are a few extra steps you can take:

  • Build a booth: If you have the space and budget, you can build your own sound booth. There are a number of modular options, in all shapes and sizes, ranging in price from £1,000 up to £20,000
  • Hang acoustic panels/foam on the walls and ceiling
  • Make sure the mic is in the middle of the room
  • Keep the recording device as far away from the mic as possible
  • Add rugs to any hard floors
  • Cover windows with curtains
  • Line walls with bookshelves

Hopefully this guide has inspired you to take your podcast to the next level – and not made you feel like hanging up your (USB) mic. You don’t have to take all the information on board, making a few of the suggested changes will make a real difference in sound quality.

In the next post we will be looking at how to repurpose your podcast content, to reach a wider audience.

Charlotte Ricca is the founder of Free Hand Podcasts. From planning to publishing and equipment to editing, we take the pain out of podcasting.

***Take advantage of our pre-agenda offer for DIS 2020, taking place on 24 to 25 March 2020 in Berlin. By signing up for DIS 2020 by 2 December 2019 to save €600 on final delegate rates. Sign up here***