How to Build a Portable Podcast Studio

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How to Build a Portable Podcast Studio post image

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on building a portable podcast studio. This process has involved ordering a lot of useless equipment (sorry Bossman!) and lots of tinkering around. But, finally, I’ve fixed on a set-up that I’m happy with.

There’s plenty of info online, both about podcasting equipment and studio set-ups, but little that is travel friendly. Below is an outline of the problems I faced and the ways I’ve gone about overcoming them in a way that works for me. I’d love to hear your suggestions and feedback.

Our interview with Sophia Bera was the final straw. To set the scene: 100 fascinating entrepreneurs are in Barcelona to attend a DC event. Yet, somehow, we only managed to get ONE – Sophia- on the podcast.

Why?

Well, partly, because of our equipment. To capture Sophia on tape, we needed to invite her to the relatively controlled environment of our rental apartment. She was then handed a mic that plugged into IAN’s computer. While Sophia concentrated on giving interesting and thoughtful responses to our questions, Ian and I fought over the remaining mic that was plugged into MY computer.

At one point she shot me a look that plainly said, “Seriously, you guys  have been doing it this way for 300 episodes?”

No, Sophia. It used to be worse.

In the past, I’d put my bulky Blue Yeti mic in the middle of the table and then implore my guests to lean in while they were speaking.

Not only is it uncomfortable and unnatural to hunch forward during a conversation, but those episodes sounded terrible. The mic picked up each and every echo, air conditioning hum, and lots of background noise.

After capturing Sophia on tape that day, I realized that, if I wanted to do more in-person conversations with interesting people (which I did), I didn’t want to have to ask them to lean into the center of a table, sweat for an hour because the AC had to be turned off for ‘aesthetic’ reasons, or  have them to come across town to a quiet location.

I wanted a set up that I could take to our events and record material on-site, even in cafes. It turns out you can capture great episodes in not-so-great environments – bars, at conference venues where there’s lots of background noise and even in tiled rooms with air conditioners churning away. It took me a while to figure out exactly how to do it, but I got there in the end.

Here are the requirements I had:

1) Must be able to record 3-4 person conversations. If you only want to do 1:1 interviews, or if you don’t mind putting a microphone in the middle of a dining room table and have the voices sound a little ‘off mic’ or  ‘distant’ from the microphone, you’d probably make different decisions. Since Ian and I often interview a third person together, and I love to do  discussion podcasts, it was important that my setup allowed me to record 4 people at once (including me).

2) Must be as impervious as possible to noise from motorcycles, traffic, air conditioners, crowing roosters, etc. What this amounts to is that the microphones need to be “dynamic” not “condenser” mics (as most lapel mics are). Dynamic mics only pick up what is right in front of them, whereas condenser mics pick up echo, AC, people closing doors in the background, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.

3) Must be rugged. I move around a lot and I don’t want to deal with fragile stuff. My first rig included adapters, mics that require phantom power, and other delicate bits. I ended up with something bulkier but ultimately more robust and dependable in terms of getting great sound every time.

4) Must be easy to use and set up. If it takes me more than 5 minutes to get set up, it’s too complicated.

5) Must fit into my personal hand luggage and not be too heavy. I ended up choosing a much bulkier set-up than I initially wanted, but I decided to compromise for reliability and great sound quality.

6) Must allow podcasters to monitor their performance in real time. The importance of this was lost on me until I bought this set-up. Monitors are just headphones that allow guests to listen to a ‘real-time’ mix of the podcast. They help everyone involved in the recording to talk at more appropriate levels rather than overly projecting their voices, which can make them seem like they are dominating the conversation when they’re not.

Imagine, for example, that you are in a noisy cafe, sitting across a wide table from your guest. With monitors they can speak softly and hear you clearly. Without monitors they’d be straining to be heard. This dynamic changes the quality of the recording more than I had expected and gives it a more natural feel. It also allows you the added flexibility of being able to record in less than ideal circumstances, since you don’t need a quiet room.

Here’s some real life examples.

Example 1: Very noisy cafe, I’m sitting 6 feet or 1.8 meters away from my co-host (note how we aren’t projecting our voices).

This was recorded in ‘Medici cafe’ in Austin, Texas, a place so loud and busy that I would never have imagined recording here in the past (I  should have taken a “control” audio sample on my iPhone for comparison, but trust me, it was a buzzing cafe during peak hours).

Here’s what’s even crazier – my co-host Jessica and I were seated more than 6 feet apart. Yet, despite conditions in which I could have never have imagined recording, we put together a good audio at a nice conversational level, rather than shouting over the noise. Using monitors also has the benefit of putting you in your own little “podcast world,” so we didn’t get distracted by the hectic environment around us. One curious onlooker even stopped by to ask us what we were doing!

Example 2 : Relatively quiet room with wooden floors where we kept the AC on. (Note these are our first few episodes, our editor noted that we should have upped our levels here.)

The setup that meets my requirements is as follows: (shown with only two mics and Bose QC 15’s used for monitoring):

12180198_899116353503077_1152518486_n

EQUIPMENT LIST:

 

Zoom-H6-Field-Recorder

Zoom H6 Portable Recorder. This is the device that really makes it all possible. Five years ago, the equivalent technology might easily have cost over 10K and would, most certainly, not have fit in your backpack.

Zoom’s portable recorders have long been the ‘go-to’ work horses for journalists and musicians.  This one takes up to 4 microphones with XLR cables. The resulting 4 audio tracks are synced for easy editing but separated in case you need to do any audio judo on one of the channels.

This Zoom H6N is essentially a portable mixing board and handheld recorder in one. The core unit is 10 oz. (280 g), but it comes with two microphone attachments (one is pictured in silver above) that weigh 4.6 oz. (130 g) and 3 oz. (85 g) respectively. If you don’t find them useful you can lighten your overall load by leaving them at home.

San-Disk-SD-Card

High Quality Memory Card. The Zoom H6N does not come with a large enough SD card for podcasters. Apparently getting a high quality SD card is important because the inexpensive ones often crap out without warning. You can purchase any size based on your needs and budget.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.20.49 AM

A/C Adapter. The batteries on the H6N don’t last very long, so you’ll want to plug it in whenever possible.

Extra AA batteries. Have plenty on hand as the device really rips through battery power.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.25.33 AM

Audio Splitter. The H6N has one headphone output, you’ll want to split it 4 ways so that each of your guests can monitor the conversation in their own headphones.

4 Pairs of headphones. Choose any that you like, you can always use nice ones like Bose noise canceling (I use this model). You probably won’t always need to set up monitor headphones, but I use them even in quiet rooms because I think it greatly improves the performance of guests.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.29.30 AM

(4) XLR cables. XLR cables are big but reliable. Part of the virtue of this setup is that it’s simple and robust. This link is to an entry-level 10′ cable. I don’t have much experience on how upgrading the cables improves the sound.

MICS

(4) Handheld Dynamic Microphones – ATR 2100 or SM58.

These mics are what makes this set-up work – they only pick up sound right in front of them. The trade-off is that they are somewhat bulky and heavy (each mic is about 10 oz or 280g.). Part of the reason it took me so long to settle on them is that I resisted the idea of carrying around 4 relatively heavy mics. I spent a lot of time trying to work out alternatives, but in the end I decided my priority was to have high quality sound. On this point in particular I’d love to hear your feedback and alternatives. For example, I’ve seen the guys at Barbell Shrugged use headset mics. I’m sure there’s many alternatives, but I found this setup simple without any compromise on sound.

Shure SM58’s (pictured on the right) are the mic of choice of live venues world-wide. They are absolutely bulletproof. Relative to the ATR2100, their sound quality is ever so slightly better (you can see a comparison here) and I suspect they are more durable. The ATR2100, however, has the added benefit of being USB compatible, which means you can plug it right into your computer and get great sound (you can’t plug XLR cables into a computer). This is useful for recording high quality Skype interviews or quick voice overs, so, in any set-up, it probably makes sense to have at least one. The SM58 is a better choice if you are plugging directly into the Zoom H6N.

One of my concerns about handheld mics was that my guests would have to hold the mic to their mouth but, so far, nobody seems to have had a problem with it (whereas with lapel mics I’ve noticed people often end up touching them inadvertently).

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.33.50 AM

4+ Foam Pop Guards. This will prevent “popping” sounds when puffs of air come out of your mouth. Since these are small and cheap, it might make sense to buy some backups so you can keep your mics looking fresh.

WEIGHT:

This setup weighs approx 6lbs or 2.7kg. I could certainly have created a rig with lighter equipment, but I made tradeoffs to get better recordings. The handheld mics represent almost half of the weight (approx 40 oz. or 1.1kg of 90 oz. or 2.5kg total).

I initially started off by testing a variety of lapel mics, which are obviously more portable, but I found they picked up a lot of background noise and didn’t achieve the high quality sound I was seeking.

VOLUME:

If you have a standard ‘North Face’ backpack personal item, this podcasting setup will take up about 33% of the pack.

COST:

As of October 2015 you can purchase this equipment on Amazon for less than $1,000 USD.

Variations for one or two person shows:

If you only want to collect ‘sound bites’ or record one-on-one interviews, you could save some money and weight by going with a similar setup using the Zoom H4N. If you only want to record Skype calls and voice overs, all you need is a piece of software like Call Recorder and the ATR 2100, which plugs directly into your computer with a USB cable.

Why not lapel mics?

My first thought was to save space by going with lapel mics but I ended up having the following problems:

  1. Relatively poor sound quality. Although I could get decent sound with the lapel mics I bought, once I heard the rich tone I could get from the handhelds, it was hard to go back to the more distant and ambient sound of most lapel mics.
  2. Often require adapters and/or phantom power.  This is fine, but just added a layer of complexity to the setup process.  I found myself having to tweak my settings for every new environment rather than plugging the mics in, setting levels, and focusing on the conversation. “Pinning” the mic to people’s shirts is also more troublesome than just handing somebody a mic.

Final thoughts:

I hope this is of some help for those of you looking to make great shows from home or the road! This setup works well for me, but I’m sure there are tons  of improvements I could make and I’m sure I’ll adapt it over time and keep you posted. Your suggestions and/or variations are much appreciated!

UPDATE MARCH 16th, 2016. Been using this setup now since I wrote this article. The audio quality of our recordings has been excellent in my opinion.

A few updates:

1) This Lowpro camera bag fits *very snuggly* everything mentioned in this post.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 5.43.41 PM

2) Unfortunately our original 2 ATR2100’s have both broken, at one point they just stopped recording through the USB setting. These mics were not bought when I wrote this post. We’d both been traveling frequently with them for well over a year. That said, they are very clearly nowhere near as durable as the SM58’s so our concerns there are very real. Since USB adapters for SM58’s are still very expensive, however, we re-bought the affordable ATR2100’s and are taking a gamble that our new ones will last longer than a year.

We’re back on the air this Thursday.

Have any ideas for stories or topics we could cover on our show? We’d love to hear from you. We’ve got a producer who says her inbox is always open at jane@tropicalmba.com.

Would love to hear your thoughts on podcasting setups as well!

Cheers,

Dan

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Published on 10.27.15
  • http://gregmberry.com Greg Berry

    *10 feet XLR Cables. Interesting article. Always into talking gear.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cheers Greg appreciate it and thanks for the heads up just fixed it

  • http://www.outsidesmokers.com/ Denaj

    Hey Dan do you conduct any online interviews? Any suggestions about recording the other end online?

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    yep I use “call recorder” for MAC and my ATR 2100 microphone.

    http://www.ecamm.com/mac/callrecorder/

    If you can encourage your guest to at least get a microphone that plugs in via a USB outlet rather than a 1/4″ audio jack you’ll have some decent audio.

  • http://www.outsidesmokers.com/ Denaj

    Thank you.

  • http://chrismilton.ca Chris Milton

    Great post Dan, this is super helpful. I just spend the weekend shopping for a new podcast setup and couldn’t decide on which mics to pick.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    thanks Chris my pleasure, I was looking for an article like this 6 months ago so decided to type it up :)

  • TJ

    Great info, Btw, you can use software like iZotope RX to clean up noisy recordings. When is the next podcast? You guys seem to be on a bit of a break.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    thanks yep break is over, we’ll be back on track starting Thursday

  • http://www.ballerleather.com Terry Lin

    Turning pro! Do you have a separate pouch for all this stuff? Can imagine it all getting tangled super quick.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    Right now I’m using the plastic Zoom case + two drawstring shoe bags. I’m planning on taking some advice I got from Damian Thompson, he had his podcast setup in a really slick Camera type bag from case logic, he basically walked down to the store with all his stuff in a grocery bag and just started stuffing it into their bags, came out with a great result :) think i’ll be doing the same shortly.

  • http://WilloLovesYou.com Willo O’Brien

    Totally geeking over this gear now. I’ve got one mic so far, but that’s it. I was intrigued by seeing Gabby’s lapel mic at DCBKK this year – making easy to record videos with the on iPhone on the fly – but for podcasting no doubt the mics are better. Thank you for sharing this knowledge with us, Dan! xo

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    you got it my pleasure!

  • http://www.JohnnyFD.com Johnny

    Hey Dan, great write up! I’ve been struggling with the same thing for my podcast. Is there a reason why you are using an external Zoom instead of a USB Audio Mixer so you can record directly into your laptop? That would seem to eliminate the need the memory card, AC adapter and the H4N itself.

    I’m looking into which USB Mixer would be best so if you have any tips i’m all ears!

    Ideally I’d love for someone to introduce a software solution that lets us use a 4-port USB hub to just plug 4 USB mics into our laptops without having to use something complicated like soundflower or audio midi which never seems to work correctly. I’d happy pay $100+ for that if anyone wants to make it. =)

  • TJ

    Great. I have been having to listen to Ferriss at the gym and his podcasts are too long =)

  • toddbeuckens

    Great post. Nice to see an authority post to validate what I use. I record 100s of audio for my sites and use almost the same set up, but I also got some cool tips from this. I record in an old house in Japan with tatami mats, wood walls and paper doors so sound capture is really good. I use the Olympus-LS but will switch to the Zoom. For travel I just take it as carry on usually and it never is a hassle. Thanks again. Cheers.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    hey Todd as far as I’m concerned you’re the authority! if you are only using 2 inputs the h4n is more proven and better on battery life (the h6n only lasts 6 hours on batts!), but the h6n is getting great reviews on amazon and i’ve had no problems with it thus far, although i’ve only been using it for a few months. glad you got something from this!

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    hey Johnny first off 100% on the 4 USB thing that would sell great. i’m not sure if folks haven’t done this b/c it’s difficult or b/c people don’t know/care about this market yet, my sense is the latter

    I have bought a few pre-amps because i used to do a lot of home recording, my understanding of the mixers equipped with 4 XLR inputs are that the only upside would be cost. The downsides would be 1) size / portability 2) complexity 3) you’d basically transfer all the battery / software / storage concerns onto your laptop. using the zoom is simpler and you just pull out the SD card and plug it into your computer. it’s durable and simple. but yeah would be cool if somebody developed a device precisely for this application (4 UBS into laptop). Let me know if you see one!

  • Mark J

    Thanks for the info. Lots of options and ideas to consider. One question though, and maybe your plans are already to followup with another post on the subject, but… What software are you using to assemble and edit the podcast.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cheers Mark, you’re right about the editing software some good options are 1) pro tools (high end) 2) Adobe Audition 3) Audacity / Garageband but yeah we haven’t written about it yet, highly recommend hiring a pro for this part of the process if you can

  • toddbeuckens

    Awesome! Great info. Will look into all. Thanks again. Also, excited to see the podcast coming back soon.

  • Mark J

    Good to hear. I’m already working on being one of those pro’s. I’d rather be behind the monitor than behind the mic. Nice to see that Audition is your middle ground. That is where I’ve been practicing my craft. That and Premier…

  • https://www.globalfromasia.com Michael Michelini

    thanks for this guide Dan! Inspired me to start a podcast, now I’m investing in some of this equipment – already upgraded to the ATR-2100 based on a DC thread you shared :)

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    rock on man! my pleasure.

  • Ryan Mitchell

    Just a quick tip with the atr 2100 you can do a mix minus for Skype calls very easily with no software (which can fail). Ray Ortega did a video on it. I find it to be a real bomb proof method and cuts down on gear when traveling. I use my h4 n zoom

  • http://www.newmediascholar.net/ Ryan Trauman

    I agree with both of you. An audio interface directly into the computer has a lot of benefits. However, I’ve heard several experienced podcasters who have moved away from recording directly into the computer to directly to a hard drive. From what I understand, every one in a while (it’s actually happened to me), the software will glitch and destroy the recording. Sometimes the connection to the interface will be lost, or the audio recording software (often a DAW) will freeze or have some other error. It’s not necessarily that common, but it does happen. I’ve been using an H6 for a couple of years now, and it’s been rock solid with it’s reliability. Also, the H6 is incredibly versatile. You can record up to six different people (with the available Zoom adapter) and you also have the option of using the H6 as an audio interface (although I’m not sure how many discrete channels it can send to the computer). The on-board XY mics for the H6 are great if you want to collect ambient, on-location sounds for post production. And using the H6’s headphone port allows for latency free monitoring. That can also be said for most USB audio interfaces, but not all of ’em.

  • https://shareablesocial.com/ Jeff Hudson

    This is great stuff! Do you have any suggestions on editing software? I’ve been told to just start with Garage Band and then upgrade at some point if needed. Being a very novice podcaster that I am… what would you suggest?

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    GB should be just fine, Audacity works in a pinch, Audition is really good IMO but costs a couple bucks.

  • http://www.WorkLikeAnArtist.com/ Karl Rohde

    Great post thank you very much. Can you confirm what effects if any were applied to the listed audio recordings? Did they get noise reduction or compression or noise gating? They sound great for the circumstances. I’d be using the ATR2100 on a MacBook Air over USB. Would the result be the same or similar? I’m currently using the Blue Yeti and the background noise is overwhelmingly amplified even with gain at 25%. If I could get the quality in the audio clips in this post I would be over the moon. Thanks again. If you could let me know I would very much appreciate it. Thanks kindly. Karl.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    Good question Karl I honestly can’t 100% remember if I applied compression, certainly no noise gates. You’ll get a similar result with the ATR2100 into your Macbook as they key element here isn’t editing but dynamic microphones. If the above were recorded with a Blue Yetti it would have been 100% unlistenable.

  • http://www.thesearchengineshop.com/ Brendan Tully

    @TropicalMBA:disqus great post, after several recently screwed up podcast recordings due to my crap logitech headset mic it’s time to buy some gear

    @disqus_aXgsFBCBLy:disqus audio hijack pro will do what you want, it’s a virtual mixing board effectively. The each audio device in the software is tied to a USB port so once you do the initial software setup you’re sweet. You can record all inputs individually and audio running through apps. For skype podcast calls I use it to record my audio individually and have a separate audio input in it to record the skype call on multichannel

    linky https://rogueamoeba.com/audiohijack/

  • http://www.blakeboles.com Blake Boles

    Thanks for writing this! Super helpful.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    you got it :)

  • https://shareablesocial.com/ Jeff Hudson

    Hey Dan – Sorry for the slow response but thanks for the advice! In your opinion, what’s the best place to host your podcast (where you can get analytics and such,etc). Right now I have a Squarespace site that links back to iTunes but don’t have data info. Would love a rec!

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    We host on Amazon and use Blubrry’s stats, this is an affordable and fast solution but we haven’t experimented around much.

  • Andrés Doppler

    Hey Todd, do those mics need phantom power? Does the Olympus-LS provide it?

  • Seven Morris

    Exactly what I was looking for, especially the excellent bag recommendation to carry it all. One question: do you use/have a favorite mic stand? I have several of these Hamilton Nu-Era stands (http://a.co/3zc0amV), but maybe there’s something better.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cool happy to help, I don’t currently use stands so no opinion on my part.

  • Seven Morris

    Interesting. I had always assumed holding mics would get a bit wearisome 30-45 minutes into an hour interview, but never bothered to try.

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    yeah the concern makes sense, I had concerns about people just holding the mics in general, but so far, so good.

  • Seven Morris

    Good to know! I may give that a shot for the kit I’m building for a client. Otherwise, I’d better reconsider the bag since *very snuggly* doesn’t include stands.

  • Michael

    Do you happen to know what kind of headworn mics the Barbell Shrugged guys use? I love this set up you have put together and ideally would like to find a good headworn to use with it. Thanks so much for putting this together!!

  • http://www.tropicalmba.com/ Dan Andrews

    cheers i do not know what they are, they seem similar to the ones play-by-play announcers use at sporting events.

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