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The Basic Tips of Recording Your Podcast #1: What podcasting gear do you really need?

Hardware recommendations for recording your podcast

Podcasting is extremely fun and exciting, but it can also be frustrating when you are faced with the steep learning curve of digital audio. In these series of blog posts, we will try to cover some audio basics that will help you make informed decisions about your workflow, and also provide you with some hardware and software recommendations.

Recording

In a typical podcast there are various audio sources: your voice, your guest’s voices, music backgrounds, audio logos, skype interviews, phone calls etc. Arguably, the most important sound source is your voice. But how can you achieve a deep and clear recording like the ones you hear in your favourite radio and TV shows? To discuss this, we need to take a step back and consider the basic blocks of digital audio recording. No matter what your workflow is, sound will always be captured by a microphone and end up being stored in your computer as an audio file. Microphones convert sounds to electrical signals. Microphone output may be weak, that is why a pre-amplifier is also used to boost it. Computers can only understand and manipulate digital data, so they need to transform the electrical signal received from the microphone into its digital representation These are the processes that affect the captured voice quality in a usual recording, in the order they occur:

You guessed right: the choice you make for each one of these devices affects more or less the final result!

Which microphone?

There are two common types of microphones and each one has its pros and cons:

Condenser 

Neumann U87

These microphones are usually very accurate, but more delicate (easy to break) and sensitive to outside noises. They are usually more expensive than dynamics. There are good examples of affordable (<100$) condenser mics that are widely used such as the AKG P120 and the Audio-Technica AT2020. Note that because of their working principle, these microphones also require some power (usually 48, 24 or 12 Volts): the so-called “phantom power”. Unless you purchase a battery powered microphone, phantom power is transmitted through the microphone cable and is being provided by your audio interface. Therefore, you need an audio interface that supports phantom power if you want to use a condenser microphone.

Dynamic (moving coil)

Shure sm58

They are less likely to break, they are less susceptible to distortions, they can handle high-level signals more gently and they are usually more affordable (and as a plus they don''t require power from external devices). But the captured audio quality is not as good as the quality of the condenser microphones. So the rule here is: “you sacrifice some clarity in order to be protected from mistakes”. Some dynamic microphones used for broadcasting are the ElectroVoice RE-20 and the Shure SM7B . There are also more affordable alternatives like the Shure SM-58 or Behringer ultravoice XM8500.

Audio Interfaces

Focusrite Scarlet 2i2

At its simplest, an audio interface is the device to which you connect your microphone in order to record audio in your computer. They also take audio out from your computer and back to the speakers. There are a lot of different characteristics in an audio interface. You are mostly interested in the inputs and outputs. An interface with two inputs and two outputs like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for example allows you to record your voice and offers other input in case you have a guest that you are looking to record as well. There are several reasons to use a dedicated audio interface, rather than the sound card built into your computer. Computer built-in sound cards do not offer the connectivity of audio interfaces and since they are not designed for recording purposes, they have latency issues.

Pre-amps/Converters: how do they affect audio quality?

People that are not obsessed with audio quality rarely buy pre-amplifiers and converters as separate units. The reason is that those are typically integrated by default into audio interfaces (aka sound cards), which are more affordable and easier to use. Both pre-amplifiers and audio converters can have an impact on your audio quality but unless you own very expensive speakers and microphones you will not be able to tell the difference.

Cruise control: what computer do you need?

Your probably don''t need a special computer for recording. Just make sure your computer has enough processing power and maybe add some memory to smoothly run a digital audio workstation. A digital audio workstation (DAW for short) is the software that you will use to capture, edit, mix and finally create the audio files for your podcasts. There are a lot of DAWs available on the market: most of them are perfectly capable to record a good sounding podcast. As we speak (i.e. in 2017), the minimum system requirements for most DAWs are: 4 GB RAM / 2 GHz CPU, so even a low-end desktop or laptop computer will do the trick. We''ll discuss more about DAWs in one of our next blogposts.

Cables & Connections

The standard in microphone connectors is XLR.

XLR Connectors

Phone cables also known as Phone Jack or Jack cables. They are often used as interface outputs and headphone outputs. You can buy adaptors to convert such outputs to minijack.

Jack Connector

Most interfaces offer inputs that combine both XLR and Jack sockets.

XLR/TRS Combo Inputs

That said, a few audio interface connection types are considered standard, and those are: Thunderbolt, USB, FireWire, and PCIe. Most PC and Mac computers come equipped with USB ports (either USB 2 or USB 3), whereas FireWire (either 400 or 800) is mostly found on older Macs. Both of these protocols average the same speed (480Mbps), which has enough bandwidth to record a lot of inputs at once under ideal conditions. Also, there are some simple interfaces that still use USB 1.1, which is much slower, but fast enough to record one or two channels.

August 23, 2017