Podcasting: what gear do you need?

To record a good podcast you need three essential pieces of equipment and a little bit of skill.

We're in the setup-and-planning phase of launching a new podcast at my new job, and once again I found myself sharing my Podcast Equipment 101 tips with a team who are interested in podcasting but have no prior experience of working with audio. This is not the first time I've written a guide like this, so I'm publishing this one here for posterity (mostly so I don't have to type it all out again next time).

I've broken this guide into three sections: an overview of the essential equipment that you'll need to record a podcast, my personal recommendation for what I think you should use (if you're looking for a TL;DR, this is it), and a few quick hacks for better recordings

Essential equipment

To record a good podcast, there are three things that you will unequivocally[^1] need. Yes, this is just my opinion. Yes, you can make "a" podcast with less than this. No, I don't think that podcast would be a "good" one. The quality bar is low, but there is a bar. Get these three things sorted and your quality is guaranteed to be "good enough".

  1. A "good" microphone
  2. A connection between your mic and your computer
  3. Software to record the audio from your mic

1. Microphones

It is possible to record a podcast with anything; your phone's earbuds, a dictaphone, your laptop's built in speaker, anything you can think of. The content is of course more important than the equipment you use. However, the biggest distinction between amateur and professional podcasts is the audio quality, and the single best investment you can make is to get a decent microphone. The difference between even a "cheap" dedicated microphone and the basic methods outlined above is massive.

There are three types of microphones that are good for podcasting:

  • Dynamic mics Good examples of these are the basic Shure SM58 (~£85) and the fancy SM7B (~£350). Dynamic mics have a small diaphragms (the membrane that converts sound waves to electrical signals), and only pick up noise that is very close to them. Dynamic mics are good for stage performers, but also useful for people recording in noisy environments (although you'll have to remember to keep your mouth very close to the mic).
  • Condenser mics Good examples of these are the Rode NT1-A (~£150) and the Neumann U87 (~£2,500) These are often "studio grade" microphones, and are great for recording musical instruments and crisp, clear voices. Most entry-level podcasting mics are condensers with large diaphragms, which means they pick up every sound in the room (be careful that you're not recording in a noisy environment). These will require a shock mount to eliminate noise from vibrations in your desk and a pop shield to remove the "bangs" that plosive sounds ("a","b", "p", etc.) make when you speak directly into a sensitive microphone.
  • Lavalier mics Good examples of these are the Rode Lavelier Go (~£50) and the Sennheiser MKE40-4 (~£300). These are the tiny clip-on mics that people often use at conferences, and as a result are often part of a "wireless" setup. These are not common for "normal" podcasting, but can be useful for setups with multiple non-technical people in the same room. Mic technique is less of an issue with these, but the sound quality suffers a little compared to standard desk-mounted mics.

2. Connections

Once you've got your mic, you need a way to connect it to your computer so you can record it. For most microphones, this will involve running an XLR cable from the mic into an "audio interface" that connects to your computer via USB. There are many, many types of audio interfaces that range in price and features, but you can't go wrong with the Focusrite Scarlett Solo (~£100) which allows you to connect a single mic to your computer, or the Scarlett 2i2 (~£150) that allows you to connect two mics at the same time.

Some podcast-focused microphones don't require an audio interface, and can be connected to the computer directly via USB. Good examples of these are the Rode NT-USB (~£140) and the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ (~$130).

You'll also need a stand for your microphone. Boom arms give you the best flexibility for an at-the-desk setup (and also give you that drive-time radio DJ vibe), but small tripods that sit directly in front of you are fine. Remember, though, that for best results your mouth needs to be as close to the mic as possible, and this can be awkward if you're trying to use a keyboard with a desk-mount between you and the keys. Boom arms offer the best UX.

Depending on what mic you choose, you may need some extra peripherals. The Shure SM7B, for example, needs a pre-amp to boost the signal before it goes into the audio interface. These are uncommon, however, and most common setups don't require anything beyond the items outlines in this doc.

3. Software

Audio software is an overwhelming mess of options, so I'll do my best to be brief here. What software you use depends on your role in the podcast. If you're going to be doing any editing, you'll need a full Digital Audio Workstation. If you're just a host or guest, then all you need to worry about is capturing the audio from your microphone and there are plenty of simple options for this.

A Digital Audio Workstation (often referred to as a DAW, which can be said "dee, a, double-u" or "door" depending on how nerdy you're feeling) is a full-featured audio editing suite. With a DAW you can do everything from trimming the ends of an audio file to pitch-shifting your guest's voice so it sounds like they're singing. Good examples are the Mac-native Logic Pro (~£180), the cross-platform industry stalwart Pro Tools (~$30 per month), and the open-source Audacity (free). These are often expensive and can be intimidating to new users, but a good DAW will give you everything you need to record, edit, and export your podcast episodes.

If you're releasing a podcast, someone on your team will need to have a DAW and know how to use it, but it's definitely overkill to expect guests and non-editing hosts to buy one and learn it. While you can "just record" with a DAW (or even a halfway-house like Garage Band), any simple audio-capture software is fine. If you're using a Mac, then Quicktime is perfect. I'm sure there are Windows/Linux equivalents to Quicktime, but they've never crossed my radar. The key features are being able to select which input device you're recording from (a.k.a. the fancy mic you've just plugged in) and to make sure that you're recording in high quality (without any of the compression that tools like Zoom and Skype introduce to save bandwidth).

So what should I use?

If you're not the person doing the editing, then get a decent USB microphone (either of the two mentioned above would be fine). Get a cheap boom arm and record with Quicktime.

If you want the "best" podcasting setup, then get an SM7B instead of the USB mic. You'll then also need a Cloudlifter preamp, an XLR cable, and the Scarlett Solo audio interface. Okay, so maybe The BestTM is subjective, but this setup is at least the Industry StandardTM.

And if you're the designated editor, then I'd recommend buying (and learning) Logic Pro. Logic is the DAW I use (after having tried a lot of the alternative options over the years) and you can see a list of some of the other bits of podcasting equipment that I use in the Audio Gear section of my /uses page

Good technique is more important than good equipment

The most important caveat to all of this is that if you don't use the equipment properly there's no point using it at all. Even if you spend thousands on mics and peripherals, if you're pointing the mic in the wrong direction and recording in an echoey room then your audio will still sound terrible.

Quick hacks for better recordings:

  • Always always always use headphones. You'll probably be talking to someone over Skype or Zoom, and you only want your microphone to pick up the noises that you make.
  • Keep your mouth as close to the mic as possible, and make sure you're talking into the correct part (most dynamic mics record through their top, whereas condensers often record from the side).
  • Don't record somewhere noisy, and especially if you're using a condenser mic be sure to turn off any humming computers or air-conditioners etc.
  • Minimize the amount of flat, reflective surfaces near where you are recording. Sound reflections from large flat walls can cause feedback loops or just bad-sounding echoes. The worst place to record is in a perfectly square room with bare walls. Pull the curtains, and try to record in a room with lots of soft furnishings.
  • The surface directly behind the mic (from your perspective) can have a big impact on the sound: if your mic is on your desk in front of you, put a jumper or cushion between the mic and your computer to help minimize unwanted reflections.

There's a lot more to podcasting than I've covered here (hosting, editing, marketing, actually making good content) but this guide feels appropriately focused on the equipment side of things. Perhaps I'll come back to this well for more how-to articles in future. If that's something you'd be interested in, let me know on Twitter (I'm @thomashazledine). Thanks for reading, and good luck with your podcasting adventure. Be sure to share your show with me when you've launched it, I can't wait to hear it.

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