Putting Together a Podcast Rig: From Noob to Maron

Within the podcasting community one of the most common tongue-in-cheek questions being asked right now is: "Will there be more new podcasts or Coronobabies by the end of quarantine?" Objectively goofy name aside, podcasts are undeniably mainstream; according to The New York Times, one in three Americans listens to a podcast at least once a month.

With the internet's favorite sentient DMT-seasoned ribeye steak Joe Rogan signing an exclusive podcasting contract with Spotify worth north of $100 million, we are evidently experiencing a major inflection point. If you're considering launching your own show (and you definitely should!) why not learn from someone who has already made all of the many possible expensive mistakes on his own show, Gearbuds Podcast?

At the highest level there are several necessary components to every podcast:

  • The idea: A clear thesis for the show, format, and tone.
  • The frontend: A microphone, something to capture your voice(s).
  • The backend: The interface and computer, something to record what you've captured.
  • The content: Editing and publishing a final recording via RSS.

In this article we're going to focus on the equipment you're going to need to transform an idea into content; you've figured out what you want to do, now how do you do it? There are multiple options, each with their own positives and negatives. We are going to work our way through the most common setups involving a microphone, interface, computer, and other accoutrements.

The Podcasting Mic You Need

Much like the radio format from which it evolved, the podcast world is dominated by dynamic "broadcast microphones," namely the Shure SM7B, Electro-Voice RE20, Rode Broadcaster, and newcomers like the Aston Spirit.

Seriously, take a look at photos of your favorite podcasters in action and you're virtually guaranteed to see one of those mics. That said, if you already have gear, use it! The SM58 you shout into at your practice space, the affordable USB interface your bandmate forgot they loaned you, and mom's old laptop will probably work just fine. On some voices, that cheap mic might actually be the right choice.

True story: Despite the stable of microphone choices at my disposal, we've found that on my co-host's voice the SM57 flat-out works best, beating out microphones five times more expensive. If you already have a large diaphragm condenser microphone, it is absolutely possible to make that work. But the cardioid polar-pattern, low-handling noise, voice-friendly mid-range presence, and passive circuitry coalesce to make the large format dynamic microphone the tool most suited to our needs.

USB microphones are also viable options for the beginner podcaster and remain massively popular. At their essence, USB microphones combine the functionality of a microphone and recording interface into one self-contained unit, and are great choices for those looking to dip their toes in the water for a first time solo or (at most) duo podcast. Put the microphone on a table between you and your co-host or guest, plug it into your computer, fire up your favorite DAW and press record, and you're off to the races.

Some of the most popular right now include the AKG Lyra, Blue Microphones Yeti, and Rode Podcaster USB. The positives here are of course the ease of use and affordability, undeniably important especially to the beginner.

The downside to these will become evident when you go to edit and publish your recording, as these mics are designed with a typically omni-directional polar pattern to record everything around them. This means the levels of the voices will be entirely dependent on their own volume, delivery, and proximity to the microphone, and will also lead to a much noisier recording in anything but the most silent of spaces.

The Easiest Ways to Record a Podcast

The Audio Interface

If you decide to go the individual component route, the recording interface is the next vital component in a modern, flexible podcast rig. Think of the interface as the conduit between your microphone and your computer—it takes the weak microphone signal, amplifies it, and translates it into something your computer can understand. For a recording with only one or two microphones, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has all of the features one could need to get started and is a huge amount of value for the money. MOTU and Apogee also make easy-to-use units with similar feature sets for just a bit more scratch.

You might start as a one-person or two-person show, but if the possibility exists for expansion in the future, it makes sense to future-proof your setup by selecting a unit with more inputs. For example: If you're eyeing a Universal Audio Arrow for two channels now, you might want to consider the Apollo X4 with its four input channels for later.

Dynamic/broadcast microphones require a lot of gain to get to usable levels, and once you start cranking that input knob you're also going to be increasing the noise floor; add up three or four tracks, and noise levels become overbearing. An interface with cleanly designed preamps becomes even more important.

Rode's Rodecaster Pro podcast interface.

I'm also going to lump computers in here; personally, I don't know of any analog straight-to-tape podcasts, though you can bet your Ampex I would listen to one if it exists (I'm looking at you, Steve Albini). (Please hit me with a link if it does exist, or if you start it yourself, feel free to invite me on.) You're going to need a computer that can handle recording one to four audio tracks concurrently, and you might be surprised how little computing power that requires. If you can focus on anything with your computer, make it beefing up the RAM and an SSD hard drive.

Finally, some companies have caught on and offer podcast-specific interfaces. Worth mentioning here is an interface with some neat extras, the Rode Rodecaster Pro. It has everything we talked about needing in a computer recording interface, plus offers the option of recording directly to an SD card, as well as buttons to add in sound effects or your theme song right from the front facade.

Other Considerations and Tips

There's nothing worse than acquiring new kit and not having the proper accessories to make it purr. Here are some to consider.

  • XLR Cables: The importance of functioning quality cables cannot be overstated. I found myself spending an extra few hours on an episode due to editing around an intermittently cutting-out cable, an unnecessary and frustrating time-suck that also led to having to axe some really quality parts of the episode. Buy good cables, and wrap them when not in use.

  • Pop Filter: Trust me, you're going to want to use pop filters. Unless you're using the RE20, which has a filter integrated underneath the grille (pretty neat right?), an affordable pop filter will make your life a whole heck of a lot easier once it comes time to edit. Sure, you can (and should) throw on the high-pass filter (HPF), but that usually isn't enough.

  • Stands: Avoid straight stands, as they offer the least amount of flexibility. Tall boom stands work great, and if you're going to be seated, articulating arm stands made by Rode and On-Stage stay out of the way—and if we're being honest, they look super cool and lend your production an air of total pro. Pro-tip: Check the thickness of the desk to which you're going to affix the articulating stand. I bought one that did not work with my desk, as the desk itself was much thicker than the clamp on the stand could handle. Oops.

  • Headphones: While not necessary, it is my preference to have myself, my co-host, and guests all using headphones during recording. It encourages folks to lean into the mic and be completely engrossed in the conversation. They don't need to be super-expensive cans, but enclosed over-the-ear designs like the Sennheiser HD 300 offer solid sound and won't bleed into your recording.

There are many routes you can take to getting your podcast off the ground, but the most important part is taking the leap and getting started.

Get started now—or find more info and inspiration in the articles below.

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