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Tested's Podcasting Setup—Hardware and Software

By Will Smith

Our gear probably isn't perfect, but this is the hardware and software we use to record podcasts. And if you don't want to spend $1,000 on podcast gear, we also have some budget alternative recommendations.

One of the most common questions we get is “What do you use to podcast?” When we launched Tested, we had a fully-fledged podcasting setup courtesy of Giant Bomb. That setup was perfect for our needs then; we almost always recorded in a dedicated space, we had plenty of ports available for guests, and most importantly, it sounded great. It wasn’t particularly portable though. When we relaunched the site last year, I knew we needed a more portable podcasting rig—at first because we were recording the show at my dining room table, but later because we needed to record Still Untitled around Adam’s schedule. I also wanted a kit that I could set up and break down as quickly as possible. When we have a few minutes to record a podcast at M5.

My goal was to assemble an easily portable podcasting rig that would fit into one bag, give us the ability to record four XLR mics, and work with Garageband and Final Cut Pro. With that in mind, here’s the hardware we purchased to build out the podcast kit, and the reasoning behind each of those purchases. I’ll also give some lower-budget alternatives at the end of the article.

Microphones

Good sound quality starts with good microphones. We record our shows with Audio Technica AT2035s, which are great microphones for vocal recording. They sound much better than they should for their cost--they sell for about $115 now. They use a cardioid pickup pattern, which means they pick up best in a somewhat spherical area directly in front of the mic, and are less sensitive to sounds that emanate from everywhere else. This helps us isolate other sounds, like traffic, sirens, or music from the bar next door. The AT2035 does require a mixer that provides phantom power, but that isn’t unusual for microphones in this category and price range.

I also added a set of AT8137 windscreens to our mics to help cut down on popping due to fricatives and breathing. They're expensive at $40 each, but they're worth it to us. Pop screens are a less expensive alternative, but they’re a pain in the ass when you’re setting up and breaking down the kit. It was worth paying $30/mic for the time saved when we were setting up on location.

Mixer

Finding a good, compact mixer was surprisingly tricky. We originally used an M-Audio Fasttrak Ultra 8R (now sold by Avid for $400), which is a software mixer with a USB interface. I love that it allows you to record each input separately in Garageband, but the software was finicky in newer versions of OSX, the mixer is too big to haul around, it's expensive, and it has a tendency to crash if your CPU usage spikes. Because it’s a software mixer, it doesn’t work without a computer attached, which was occasionally a problem, as well.

After consulting a few readers (Thanks Dino and Mike!), and doing a fair amount of research on my own, I settled on the Behringer XENYX 1202FX ($80). It has four mono XLR ports that can provide phantom power to our microphones, as well as another 4 line-level stereo inputs for auxiliary audio inputs, like Skype calls or the software we use to live mix the music, questions, and interstitials into the show. Because my MacBook doesn’t include a line-level input, I bought a Behringer USB interface to handle that task. The small USB device provides a line level output and accepts a line-level input, and allows me to monitor the signal going as it enters my computer.

My only regret is that the Behringer mixer doesn’t include an integrated audio compressor. Compressors help to normalize differences in audio volume—this is an oversimplification, but compressors scrunch all the loud bits down to the same loudness as the quiet bits. Unfortunately, the mixers that included compressors were either too big or were reviewed poorly. While I can compress the audio when I edit the show, it would be better to handle compression during the live mix.

Camera

Every week, we also make video versions of our podcasts available. They’re nothing fancy—simple one-camera affairs that exist mainly to make sure that our audience on YouTube is aware of the show. Depending on our location, we usually use one of two cameras to shoot the show. In the studio, we shoot with our Panasonic studio cameras. Using the studio cameras saves a ton of time in post—they produce a video file that’s Final Cut Pro X ready, so I don’t have to transcode video before it’s edited or compressed. We can also pipe a mixed-down audio signal directly from the mixer to the camera. This saves time in post, as I don’t have to manually sync the video and audio with each other. Syncing audio and video is a sketchy proposition at the best of times, but it’s made worse when you’re dealing with a long show, like This Is Only a Test.

When we shoot on location we usually use a Go Pro HD Hero 2 ($240). The Hero 2 is a great camera for the price, and when paired with a Gorillapod, the wide-angle lens lets us use it in very tight quarters, whether it’s Adam’s home office or a small apartment in New York. I typically don’t pipe audio from the mixer to the GoPro, which means that I do need to sync up the final mastered audio with the video in post. I’ve found that the best way to do this is to clap, both before the shoot starts and after it’s over.

We’ve also recorded a couple of episodes of Still Untitled using Norm’s Canon 6D. I love the increased quality we get from his camera, but it can only record for 30 minutes. If we want to go longer than that, I have to go through the hassle of syncing audio and video multiple times. I love the increased quality though, so we’ll likely experiment more with the 6D in the future.

Mic Stands

In addition to a spring-arm boom mic, we have a couple of mics on bass drum stands, and a fourth on an adjustable floor mic stand.

We have a weird mix of mic stands right now. In addition to a spring-arm boom mic stand (about $60), we have a couple of mics on bass drum stands ($25 each), and a fourth on an adjustable floor mic stand ($20). I would replace everything with the spring-arms, but those stands don’t travel particularly well. It’s good to be able to strike the studio setup and roll out at very short notice. We also have a handful of portable stands that I use when we need to carry podcast gear on the plane.

Headphones and Headphone Amp

Sennheiser 202s have been our default studio phones since we launched the site. We have a bunch of sets around the office, and they sound great, although they aren't particularly durable. I typically use my now-vintage set of Sennheiser HD580s, simply because I prefer a more over-the-ear headphone. To split one output from the mixer into four, and give everyone the ability to control their own volume independent of everyone else, Joey picked up an Artcessories HeadAmp4. It's small enough to put in a bag, cost about $65, and provides both 3.5mm and 1/4-inch jacks for different types of headphones.

Software

For the money, Garageband is the best piece of software I’ve used for recording podcasts. Essentially a stripped down version of Logic, Garageband lets you edit and master your show, as long as it isn’t longer than about 3.5 hours. (By all reports, Audacity is a great free alternative if you don’t want to buy Garageband or aren’t a Mac user, but I haven’t spent enough time with it to judge.) Even if we’re recording audio on a camera, I usually also record each episode in Garageband as well. For a long time, I did all my podcast editing in Garageband, but that’s changed since we added the video versions.

So that I don’t have to edit every podcast twice—once for video and once for audio—I master the shows in Final Cut Pro X these days. It includes most of the same audio mastering tools as Garageband, including superior versions in some cases, and I’m competent at the video editing portion. When paired with Apple’s Compressor software, I can produce audio and video versions of the final version of the show with a couple of clicks.

The last piece of software that we regularly use is Ambrosia Software’s Soundboard. Soundboard lets you play audio on demand with a couple of keystrokes. We use soundboard for the music, audio questions, interstitial hits, and more during our show. While there are cheaper alternatives available now, there weren’t when I bought Soundboard, three years ago.

What If You Want to Podcast On a Budget?

All told, our podcasting rig cost around $1,000 to put together. It's easy to justify spending that kind of money for a business, but if you want to do a similar show on the cheap, it’s definitely possible. If you aren’t planning on having multiple people at a single location, whether that’s because you’re going to record your show with distant friends using Skype or a Google Hangout or because you want to do a solo show, you can spend $50 or $100 on a good USB mic and a decent webcam. I’ve used both the Blue Snowball ($60) and the Blue Yeti ($100) for podcasting solo, and both sound great. The only problem with USB mics is that they don’t provide an upgrade path if you decide to add in a mixer and record with multiple people at one location.

If you think your show will grow in the future, invest in an XLR mic. You can spend a little more money and get a good XLR mic with a single-port XLR adapter. I haven’t tested any of these personally, so check reviews at a site like Amazon or B&H Video before you buy. Make sure the adapter provides phantom power, if your mic requires it.

If you want to launch a multi-person show using a mixer, the Behringer I listed is a great value for under $100. I’d probably pair that with as many Shure SM58s ($100 each) or Shure PG48s ($40 each) as you need (up to four) and go nuts. I’m not incredibly well versed on microphones though, so if someone has a better suggestion, let me know in the comments and I’ll update the article.

That’s pretty much all you need to get started. If you have any other questions, post them in the comments and I’ll answer them as I’m able.

Edit: Oops, forgot the headphones and headphone amp.