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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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).
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.
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.
If you have a standard ‘North Face’ backpack personal item, this podcasting setup will take up about 33% of the pack.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
Would love to hear your thoughts on podcasting setups as well!