Friday, April 16, 2021

Engadget’s advanced podcast gear guide.

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Despite the cliché, the past year has been, unfortunately, the perfect time to start that podcast. But free time is just one resource for making something that people actually want to listen to. If you already read our beginner gear guide, you’re likely well on your way to having a good setup. But in an ocean of “two or three people talk about something” shows, there’s also gear that can help you be more creative or sound more professional.

A load of new equipment isn’t going to magically make the podcast for you, so we also spoke to some industry experts about everything from mixing, storytelling and what listeners are looking for when they give their own precious free time to tune in. That’s all in part two, but here in part one we’ll get into the gear that will make you stand out.

Upgrade your voice

James Trew / Engadget

Before we get to the more creative stuff, we’d be remiss to not start with the centerpiece of your show: The studio microphone. Don’t get us wrong, something like a Blue Yeti is a great, simple way to get started. But if you want that slick NPR sound, then XLR mics are where it’s at. The balanced outputs on XLR should provide a cleaner signal, and most high-end microphones assume that you’ll be plugging into a good audio interface or mixer via an XLR port.

Of course, that’s just the connection. Do you need a condenser or a dynamic mic? What’s the difference anyway? And what about things like a preamp or phantom power? Do you need any or all of these things? The answer, predictably, is “it depends.”

In the most simple terms, all mics need a preamp — just some need more of a boost than others. Connect most XLR mics to a PC with an unpowered 3.5mm adapter, and you won’t hear much. That’s due to something called “sensitivity.” Take the Shure MV7, for example, which supports both XLR and USB and you can see that the USB is much more “sensitive” (i.e. requires less preamp).

As for phantom power, that’s more about what type of microphone you have. Dynamic mics essentially use the sound input (vibrations) to activate their diaphragm and convert that movement to a signal (audio). Condenser microphones on the other hand use a capacitor (originally called a condenser) and thus need this “phantom” power sent back to the microphone. Don’t worry, all good audio interfaces offer this.

But which type of microphone is best? Generally speaking, condenser microphones record more detail and audiophiles love things that are more detailed. That doesn’t mean it’s always better, among the many other variables such as components and materials, there’s also the factor of where and what you’re recording.

For example, dynamic microphones might be less sensitive, but that also means they won’t pick up as much background noise, which is why they are popular for stage performances or news reporting in the field. For people recording at home or in spaces with generally bad acoustics, this lower sensitivity is often preferred over the finer detail you might get from a condenser. Fortunately, there are great options for both.

Dynamic

If you’re looking for something with a pro feel but without the broadcast price tag, Shure and Rode, in particular, have embraced the aspiring podcaster with gusto. In fact, two of Rode’s mics make that painfully clear: The Pod Mic and the Procaster (also known as the Podcaster in its USB form). Both the PodMic (around $100) and the Procaster ($230) are dynamic microphones perfect for home setups. I personally have been using a PodMic for the last few months and it’s a great entry point into the world of XLR mics. The built-in pop-shield, shock mount and robust build make it feel expensive, and as a dynamic mic, it does a great job of rejecting the reverb and nearby traffic in my acoustically harsh home setup, though it lacks the “presence” of some of the more expensive options.

At the other end of the scale, Shure has earned a lot of fans with its SM7B vocal mic. At around $400 it’s a lot more spendy than either of the Rodes, but it’s been an industry standard for so long and there’s a reason why it ends up on so many gear lists. If you want something that doesn’t cost as much but benefits from the SM7B’s heritage, the new MV7 is a more reasonable $250 and even has some features its pricier sibling doesn’t, namely USB connectivity (great for a backup) and onboard monitoring (a headphone port that lets you hear the mic’s output). To my ears, the SM7B produces that intimate NPR sound so many of us are after. Though the MV7 is a solid performer, it sounds a little thinner by comparison, though it sounds a bit more dynamic than the PodMic, but given it’s over twice the price the latter is great bang for the proverbial buck. (The MV7 does have that USB option, though.)

Condenser

So far, you might have assumed that dynamic is the best option, but spend any amount of time hanging around a studio, and you’ll notice a lot of condenser mics. As I alluded to earlier, if you want to record more nuance and detail then this is the way to go. As long as your recording space is acoustically dead or at least not all hard surfaces and high ceilings, the general wisdom is that a condenser mic will give you a more accurate recording. We’re only really focusing on voice here (rather than, say, recording ambience or musical instruments), but even the spoken word can be elevated with a sharper recording.

If you’re not looking to spend the thousands of dollars required for something like a high-end Neumann mic (and if you’re not, we don’t blame you) then Rode’s NT1-A is a reliable and affordable entry point at around $230, and there’s also the Sennheiser MK4 ($299). Both regularly get good reviews and lend themselves really well to a studio or soft-furnished back room-style recording space. (You can hear samples from both in the playlist above.)

Of course, we should remind you that the faithful old Blue Yeti is also a condenser mic, and the “X” version ($170) supports both XLR and USB connections. Likewise, Elgato’s Wave 3 condenser ($150) is popular with streamers. Although the companion Wave Link software is designed for things like Twitch, it can also be used for sound effects and bringing other sounds into the mix on a Podcast too.

Pro tip:

Argin Hutchins NPR Training team’s Audio Production Specialist.

“When you’re trying to come up with a podcast and you want to figure out how much to spend, ask yourself this question: How serious are you going to take this?”

“You don’t need to spend more than two or three hundred dollars at the most for a microphone to get a really good one. Condenser microphones are really great if you want to compete with the top podcasts out there. They’re spending a lot of money on their microphones, and so if you want to sound like then, that’s what you’re going to have to do.”

Mix it up

If you’re still not sure why you want an XLR mic, then this next section might help. With a USB mic, you’re plugging right into a computer, while an XLR needs a dedicated audio interface like the Scarlett 2i2 from Focusrite ($170), which is an easy recommendation for it’s feature set and price. It offers two XLR ports for either a pair of microphones or a mic and an instrument.

You could plug multiple USB mics into a PC, but recording them all at the same time can get messy and you’re limited to the bitrate of the mic, whereas a dedicated interface usually has more options or at least a higher bitrate. A podcast-specific mixer takes the best of an audio interface and throws in individual channel controls so your show sounds polished. If you’re going for a “radio” style show with callers, guests and jingles, there are mixers with just that in mind. A good one will let you record either everything in one ready-to-go file (stereo mix) or spit out one audio file per mic/channel (multitrack mode) which you can then use for editing in software).

Engadget's advanced podcast gear guide

James Trew / Engadget

Rode’s Rodecaster Pro ($599) is an easy way for you to handle up to four mics in the same room with faders and effects for each. But that’s just the beginning. The Rodecaster Pro can record your PC’s audio/Zoom calls at the same time (no need for convoluted audio routing), it has a dedicated channel for connecting a phone for those “call in” guests — or any other 3.5mm audio source for that matter — and Bluetooth for either a second caller or another Bluetooth source.

This breaks your podcast wide open, so your main limit is how you want to use it. There are also some pads to trigger theme music, jingles or samples. When it’s not serving podcast duty, it’s also just a great audio interface for your PC, and if you do a lot of phone or Zoom interviews (like I do) it’s perfect for recording both sides of the conversation with just one push of a button.

While the Rodecaster isn’t obviously portable, Rode sells a USB adapter that means you can take your show on the road and it works just as well without a PC. Top this all off with a bunch of onboard effects and processing tools, and you might not even need to do any editing after the fact (depending on your show type of course).

Engadget's advanced podcast gear guide.

James Trew / Engadget

If you want something truly portable, or don’t want to give over quite as much desk real estate, then Zoom’s P4 ($200) portable podcast studio offers many of the features of the Rodecaster Pro — such as support for four XLR mics and an input for phone calls — in something about the size of Nintendo Switch (or a two of them glued together at least).

Now if you really want to enhance your workflow, the Stream Deck from Elgato ($150) is a genius little device. As the name suggests, it was primarily designed with livestreaming in mind, but it turns its hand to podcasting just as well. Simply put, it’s a small box with 15 buttons on it, but the magic is, you can make those buttons do almost anything. For podcasting, this could be toggling microphones, or triggering sounds for example.

When it comes to editing though, the Stream Deck is a real-time saver. Instead of laboriously adding your go-to effects to each channel, you can add them all at the same time with a simple tap. You’re also not limited to the number of physical buttons, as you can create a near-endless number of nested folders for different stages of your workflow. And of course, should you ever want to do your podcast “live” it has common tools for things like Twitch and YouTube baked right in.

Pro tip:

Carmen Dukes Head of Podcast Editorial, Spotify.

“I would encourage people to obviously listen to a bunch of podcasts and take notes on what you like and what you don’t like, things that you would improve. And just be comfortable with experimenting. Obviously when you start a podcast, you’re not going to get tons of listeners right away. And that actually gives you some flexibility to try different formats out and just evolve as you go, keep that learning mindset.”

Take listeners on a journey

While the click of an XLR mic plugging into a mixer is satisfying, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be recorded. Here’s where your podcast ideas can break free from the confines of your mind, your friends and online guests. Whether it’s going full documentarian, vox popping, or just the freedom to interview someone in any location, portable gear opens up huge creative possibilities. A great example of this is Meandering, a travel journal show that alternates between regular voice-over to plopping you right in the action with field recordings. The same goes for Ronan Farrow’s The Catch and Kill Podcast which mixes controlled studio segments with pretty raw field recordings to great effect.

The most obvious equipment for field recording is, well, a field recorder. Zoom is the big name here, though there are solid options from companies like Tascam and Sony, too. While a small pocket recorder is good for scooping up soundbites and foley, if you spend a little bit more you can get something a lot more flexible such as Zoom’s H5 and H6 models.

Engadget's advanced podcast gear guide.

James Trew / Engadget

Both the Zoom H5 ($250) and H6 ($330) can record directly with the built-in microphone as with any other recorder. But you’re far from limited to that. Not least, because the included X/Y mic is actually hot-swappable with a host of other microphone types for different situations (shotgun or Mid-Side mics for example). There are also multiple XLR inputs on both, with the option for more via another capsule accessory.

This XLR connectivity obviously means you can make your fancy new mic portable, and even record a multi-person podcast on the go. The H6, in particular, has been designed to act as both a flexible field recorder and a fully portable mixer, with a host of other podcast-friendly features. Both can also be used as audio interfaces for your PC, too. In theory, with just one of these and some microphones you can do many of the tasks we’ve mentioned so far in the one unit — although dedicated devices offer more flexibility.

If you don’t need every tool under the sun, and just want to be able to do interviews on the go, then a wireless lavalier setup or a microphone accessory for your phone might be the way to go. Rode’s new Wireless GO II ($299) system might appear to be more suited to video, but with its two transmitters and up to 24 hours of onboard recording, it’s a solid mobile interview kit — perfect for candid conversations on location. As the transmitters have mics built-in, you can use one to record ambient sounds or foley while the other records an interviewee — it’s perfect for maintaining social distancing too. You can also plug a 3.5mm mic into each receiver for added flexibility. There’s also an accessory to turn the Wireless GO into a reporter mic making it even more versatile.

Engadget's advanced podcast gear guide.

James Trew / Engadget

An alternative to Rode’s Wireless GO II that doesn’t even need a receiver is the Mikme Pocket (about $400). The Pocket is essentially a portable recorder with a mini XLR port. Use the companion app to trigger recording remotely onto the 16GB internal storage, or sync it with your phone for quick sharing — it can also be used as a mic for your desktop too. If you need something portable for spontaneous recording at any time, both the Mikme and Rode are exactly that.

If you want something really lightweight, and use an iPhone, Rode’s SC6-L mobile interview kit ($199) is about as simple as it comes. Plug the dongle into your iPhone, then connect two lavalier microphones and away you go, there’s even a headphone port for monitoring. It works best with Rode’s free Reporter app, but will play nice with the iPhone’s native Voice Memos app, too. Ideal for those fireside chats where big bulky gear isn’t practical, or just keeping on you so that you always have something to record with should the opportunity arise.

Pro tip:

Argin Hutchins:

“When you’re using ambient [sound] in a story, usually it is used for one of two things, to either introduce a scene or to demonstrate action, like a car honking or a car whizzing by or someone doing something. ‘Ambi’ is more used for pacing, than it is for… I don’t want to say setting a scene, but for controlling how the story builds.“

Remember this…

Engadget's advanced podcast gear guide.

James Trew / Engadget

With all the options we’ve covered above, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. The important thing is to remember that whatever you dreamed about doing with audio, there’s gear to help you get the job done — i.e. to help you stop talking and actually start that podcast.

And that’s the most important thing of all: The word podcast tends to conjure up the image of a few people talking about something, but that’s just one option. When you realize that the most popular show genre on Spotify is comedy (if you thought it’d be true crime, that’s number two) then you remember that listeners just want to be entertained. Even comedy, for example, could be a sitcom, it could be stand-up, a sketch show or field recordings and everything in between.

In the second part of this guide, we’ll back away from the mic and focus more on the production side, along with, of course, the tips and tricks from people that do this for a living.

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