Podcasts & Sound Production: Hardware

As a first-year undergraduate student, I was enrolled in electrical engineering and worked in sound production. My ‘plan’ was to get picked-up by sound production company and drop out of school to work on band tours. Parts of the ‘plan’ worked out, I worked for a couple production companies with numerous bands; others did not, I never dropped out of school and, in the end, have spent more of my life in school than not.

I start with that brief bio to add some context to the rest of this series of posts. Recently, there have been several conversations around topics of ‘sound production’ (usually, not using that term) and podcasts. A friend asked for some recommendations on technical hardware and several people have asked me about preferences for editing software. These two different elements are tied to each other in production and I want to layout some of my preferences, as well as some of the things to think about in terms of producing good quality recordings for Podcasts. In this first post, I want to discuss the basic elements of hardware and go through pre-recording stuff. In later posts, I will talk about audio editing, some tricks and good practices in recording, and things to do after you have recorded your show in the editing process.

Hardware Basics

Podcasts are relatively simple to put together and can be done easily with a minimal amount of ‘stuff’ (hardware and software). What is slightly more complicated, and takes up the most time, is the behind-the-scenes work of editing. Therefore, I want to briefly discuss the hardware and pieces that go into the recording, and then turn to the editing in later posts. I’ll put links to recommended hardware and software throughout all the posts. I am Mac user and the availability of GarageBand in Apple software packages means I will make reference to that program, as a baseline. Other programs are available and there are some really good free, open-source options (LMMS being a great one).

The basic circuit layout is a person speaking into a microphone, which is connected to an audio interface via an XLR cable. The interface connects through USB to the computer and the software allows for mixing the sound input and track recording. My perfectionist-side thinks that using microphones is better than computer built-in microphones, as it allows you to single out issues and edit them without causing further problems. So, taking a basic interview as what is being reordered, you will need: 2 microphones; 2 XLR cables; 1 audio interface (USB cables are usually included), computer with recording software. Most audio interfaces have a headphone jack (1/4 input, not a mini-jack phone type headphones), which is helpful for editing and setting levels before you record.

Microphones

There are 2 types of microphones: dynamic mics and condenser mics. Dynamic mics are versatile mics that do not require power and are made up of a coil of wire set in a magnetic field. The Shure SM58 is a standard performance mic that is pretty rugged and does the job (built around voice amplification). Condenser mics require power, which it draws from the audio interface, and uses a diaphragm to conduct vibrations. If you go with a condenser mic, you will need to make sure the interface has ‘phantom power’. Most interfaces do, but check, otherwise the mic will not work. Condenser mics are usually slightly more expensive, but in general ‘pick-up’ more sound than dynamic mics. Blue makes a USB version of the Snowball, in which case you do not need an audio interface.

Mics are also described in terms of their directional pick-up settings, either cardioid or omnidirectional. Cardioid mics pick-up sounds from the front, while omnidirectional will pick-up sound from all sides. Cardioid is probably best, as I prefer 1 mic per person. You will also need cables: XLR the type and 20 ft is a standard length (although, you probably do not need that long a length)

Now some placement and best practices for mics: if you have a dynamic mic you need to keep it close to your mouth (about a hands distance). The mic has a limited range of pick-up so, if you move away from the mic or if you turn your face, the sound will drop. You want a consistent volume and this requires you to limit movements and face the mic. Condenser mics will pick-up more sound and so, you do not need to be quite so, on the mic. The trade off is that it also picks-up more background noise, which can make the recording messy. In this sense, the place where you decide to record is also important. If it is a noisy room there are some tricks you do to cut out some of that noise, like using a gate (I will discuss using gates in another post, as it requires some explanation).

Now, I mentioned above that I prefer a mic per person, rather than trying to catch everyone with one mic. This is an issue of control, as each mic has a separate audio line allowing you to set the gain (volume) and EQ for each. If one person is louder/quieter than the other, the separate audio lines can be ‘mixed’ (referring to the act of setting or adjusting the audio mixer) to produce a balanced volume. I am sure we have all heard the either to loud or to quiet voices, which strain the listener. (In many ways, the best audio is unnoticed. If I had a great show, the folks in the audience would hardly notice what I was doing.)

Audio Interface

Audio interfaces are the bit that converts the microphone single into a digital single. Most have some basic features that are helpful in getting things set. Most are similar and have mic inputs (usually 2 but you can get 4), gain (controls the volume of the incoming single), headphone input and volume control, and (most) have a ‘monitor’ controls for recording over playback (for music recording).

Audio interface tips: you want the audio single coming in to be high enough that you have space to work with. This does not mean turning the gain all the way up, but making sure that the person talking peaks into the yellow range (‘Peak’ is audio lingo for the loudest noise). If you are hitting the red (the highest level), you will begin to distort so, make sure you are not turned up to the level (it’s also bad for the longevity of your equipment).

You will want both lines to sound balanced. This does not mean that each line will be at the same level, but you want then to sound about the same. You will quickly learn your own starting level the more you record, but it is always good to double check before you start recording. The better balanced the levels are when you record, the less time you will have to spend fixing the balance during editing.

Your other option is to hire a sound engineer to do all the editing…

Interfaces: M-Audio M-Track II; Behringer UMC202HD; PreSonus AudioBox iTwo

Bundles (Interface, headphones and mic): Presonus iTwo Recording Bundle (Amazon.com); M-Audio Vocal Studio Pro (Amazon.com)

Feel free to contact me, if you have any questions or want recommendations for specific things. In the next post, I will discuss some of the basics of audio recording software.

 

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