Studio #9 What gear should I invest in?
Today, I’d like to talk about your investment into podcasting. Although you can create a podcast with barebones equipment (and many podcasters do), there are a number of pieces of gear which can dramatically improve the quality of your show, save you lots of time — or both! Here are the various elements to my own podcast production studio which I hope can help you build your own!
Zoom H6 Recorder
The first piece of gear that I want to talk about is actually the newest member of my recording arsenal, the Zoom H6 Handy Recorder. The recorder is manufactured by a company called ‘Zoom’, and is a deceptively powerful device that you can carry with you in your bag.
The Zoom H6 can fit in the palm of your hand and still allow you to record up to 6 XLR microphones with an attachment that you can purchase from Zoom. It’s a great device that’s saved me loads of time and headaches. Its really remarkable how something that literally fits in the palm of your hand and runs on 4 AA batteries (don’t worry, it can also be plugged into the wall using a USB charger) can sustain you through a full day of audio recording. Whether you’re in a studio, or on the go, the H6 is a great device.
Some of the other notable features of the Zoom H6 are that it supports microphones that require powering, sometimes referred to as ‘Phantom power’. Another feature of the H6 which is pretty great is that it can work as a audio interface. If you’re doing a recording into a laptop or a desktop computer into multi-track, and you use a digital audio workstation (e.g. a DAW like Pro Tools or Logic Pro X) you can actually have those microphones route through this tiny, little box and connect right into your computer. You don’t have to do that with the H6 because the it actually records all of the microphones on separate tracks that you can then plug into your computer via USB to get the tracks into your editor of choice.
You can buy different attachments for the Zoom H6 to expand its capabilities, record in mono or stereo, and because you’re recording to an SD card, you can expand your storage.
The sound quality is great. I actually find with the microphones that I use that I don’t need to use any other type of attachment to boost the gain. The Shure SM7Bs sound great when recorded through the Zoom H6. Previously, I had to use attachments basically that I plugged into the microphone to boost its gain because these mics are notorious for having just a low gain (see below for my writeup of the Fethead)
The Zoom Recorder H6 retails for $350, so it’s not cheap, but it handles most of the things that you’ll need to do in order to record a podcast at the absolute highest quality. Consider that you don’t have to carry around a laptop. Also, consider that you don’t need to carry around an audio interface which is the next piece of gear that I’m going to talk about.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i/8
The audio interface that I purchased when I first started getting involved in podcasting is manufactured by Focusrite, and it’s the Scarlett 18i/8 Like the Zoom, this piece of gear also retails for $350 on Amazon.
Essentially, the Scarlett serves as an audio interface in that it allows you to plug in your microphones and convert their analog signal to a digital one that your computer can understand.
But it’s for more than just plugging in microphones. The Scarlett makes plugging in instruments or even your iPad into your computer to capture audio a snap. Traditionally, I have used the Scarlett for in-studio audio recording when I need to take up to four different mics and get them into my computer or laptop. Once you bring the audio into the computer, you can separate it off into their own separate tracks. Basically, it does what the Zoom H6 does but does so directly into your computer as opposed to stored on an SD card.
The pros of this device are it looks good in your studio and it can handle a bunch of different types of mics. It can also handle instruments and has its own built-in headphone mixing so you can have two different headphone mixes if you want which is cool. It negates the need for some other pieces of gear, but requires others (which will be relevant when I come to Fetheads and Headphone Amps below).
If there’s a disadvantage to the Scarlett its that while it has its own built-in mic preamps, those being devices inside of the box that help boost the signal coming from the microphone, they’re pretty low gain themselves. When I use my mics through this device I sometimes have to have another device that I plug into the mic that boosts its signal up so that I can get good levels. That’s not something that I need to worry about with the Zoom, and so that would probably be one of my only complaints about the Focusrite.
It’s not portable like the H6. Once you have the H6, you won’t want to go back to big, clunky boxes that are on your desk.
Shure SM7B Microphone
The microphones that I prefer are the Shure SM7Bs. If you go back to Studio Episode #6 I have some audio samples of different podcast microphones that are really popular. One of those microphones is the Shure SM7B, and that’s actually the microphone that I’m talking into currently.
The sound quality that comes from the SM7B is incredible. I usually don’t have to do anything to the vocals, they just reproduce sound really, really well.
Now, these are pretty expensive microphones — they retail for about $400 from Shure’s website. You might be able to find them a little cheaper on the site like from Musician’s Friend or Amazon. Oftentimes, when you listen to professional podcasts, they’re being recorded on Shure SM7Bs. They look great, like something that would belong in a high-end broadcast studio. And they work really well on a swivel mount which is how I have this microphone mounted currently.
The pros of the Shure SM7B are that it looks great and sounds great. You’re not going to have to do much to the audio signal. It comes with a pop screen built-in which is pretty nice. You can also get your own additional one if you’d rather have a different style.
The downsides are that it is pretty expensive. If you want to get one, it’s going to cost you about 400 dollars, and of course, you should have a microphone for every guest that you plan on having in your podcast, so I would recommend at least getting two of these.
They’re also a little bulky. Even though I have them mounted on a swivel mount, they can still take up a lot of real estate on your desk or table.
They can also be intimidating to guests because they look like they belong in a radio station. In my experience, a lot of people will get behind them and they immediately get freaked out because it’s such a big microphone. But the audio quality is so good that in my opinion, it’s worth dealing with any of the downsides. I can’t recommend another microphone as highly as the Shure SM7B for podcasting.
R0DE PSA 1 Swivel Mount
This is the best mount I’ve found for under $100, which you can buy from Amazon where it currently has 652 reviews, most of which are 5 stars.
When you’re not using it, you can collapse it a little bit and push it out of your way so that’s not taking up table space or desk space. It’s a mount so it doesn’t do much other than hold your microphone, but for what it does and for the way that it’s built, I think that its really solid.
If there is a downside (perhaps its something that can be fixed by an attachment or new hardware), its that sometimes when you’re plugging in the microphone cables there can be a really tight fit. By navigating that a little bit, you can get your connection in there snug and not putting too much pressure on the cable itself or the connection, so I think that that’s just maybe a problem that I have using these larger mics with it. Short of that, the R0DE PSA 1 has never really failed me, so I definitely recommend picking up one of these for each of your microphones.
Fethead by Triton Audio
The FetHead is by Triton Audio which I believe is a company over in the Netherlands. Its a little metal attachment that you plug into your microphone between the mic, and then the mic cable and basically is a phantom-powered amp for ribbon and dynamic mics.
It adds about 27 decibels of gain. When I use the Focusrite Scarlett with my Shure SM7Bs, I find that the gain coming out of the mic is pretty low, even with gain turned up to max. When I plug in the FetHead, I actually get a strong signal out of the microphones. It doesn’t add crazy distortion or any kind of artifacting. The fethead seems to make my microphones sound a little bit more alive.
Fetheads retail for about $90 each. If you’ve made a big investment in a microphone but you’re just not getting the audio levels out of it that you feel like you need, a FetHead might be something that you could look at. There’s another product called a ‘Cloudlifter’ which I’ve never used, but essentially does the same thing. I like the FetHead because it’s not another box that you have to put on your desk, nor do you have to plug it in to power. It’s just a little attachment that goes in between the mic cable and the microphone, it’s pretty small, and it just makes a big difference.
Ever since I moved to the H6 recorder, I haven’t had to use that for whatever reason. I guess the H6 just does a better job of getting more out of the microphone, but its made my investment in the Focusrite pay off.
Headphones and Headphone Amps
Headphones are pretty important for a recording, not so much so that you can hear what the other person is saying because of course you’re probably going to be sitting across from them if you’re doing a studio type of a podcast. If you’re recording someone remotely headphones are really important because you’ll have no other way of hearing your guest! Still, thehe most common use for headphones in a recording studio environment or a home studio environment is just to give you a sense of how close you are to the microphone and whether you’re talking directly into it or you’re talking off on the side.
In my studio, I’ve opted for four pairs of Audio-Technica ATH-M40x Professional Studio Monitors. These are over-the-ear headphones that allow you to hear how close you are to your microphone and get a good sense of what your microphone technique is. Where I record with the Zoom recorder, I don’t have four headphone outputs, so what I do is I take the line out of the Zoom H6 and plug it into a Behringer Headphone Amp. The specific model that I use is the Behringer MICROAMP HA400. It’s an ultra-compact, four-channel stereo headphone amplifier. The output of my recording device, which in this case is the Zoom, goes into the input of the headphone amp.
The Behringer is small, doesn’t need to plug it into power and can provide a single mix to 4 pairs of headphones. This piece of gear retails for about $25, so its definitely not going to break your bank and will indeed dramatically improve your sound by providing each of your guest the ability to hear their proximity to the microphone.
For editing podcasts, I opt for the Sony MDR7506 professional headphones. Almost everyone I know that edits podcasts use them, and I’ve seen them recommended countless times. You can pick yourself up a pair on Amazon for about $100.
Computers and Editing Software
When considering which laptop or desktop to use while recording, it is my advice that you look for one with a lot of inputs — specifically, fast USB ports (USB 2 or 3) and if using a Mac, thunderbolt ports. You’re also going to want a large hard disk so that you can store all of your audio files (or have a separate hard drive, or both). I use LaCie 2 terabyte for more portable storage needs.
If it’s a relatively new computer it should be able to handle most of the software editing solutions out there. Audio editing isn’t as processor intensive as video editing, so you shouldn’t need a top of the line computer for editing podcasts (hey, if you can afford it a current-gem MacBook Pro works great)!
My software editing application of choice is Logic Pro X. It’s basically the successor to GarageBand. GarageBand, a free application that comes with new Macs, can certainly do most if not all of the editing you will need for your podcast. Logic Pro X just takes it up a notch, with support for audio plugins you can buy to improve the sound of your recording even more. Logic Pro X can be purchased in the Mac App Store for $200. Other free options include Audacity, a very popular audio editing solution for Macs and PC.
The Shure SM7Bs record so cleanly that most of the time I don’t have to do a lot of processing on the vocals. But sometimes, if I’m not in a sound-proof room like I am when I typically record podcasts, noises can enter the mix. Excessive background noise can absolutely ruin a podcast for the listener, and no matter how great your microphone is, your sound may suffer. That’s primarily why I use a few audio plugins from Izotope.
The first package is called iZotope RX6 and it’s basically for repairing audio.
It’ll take out hums, it’ll take out background noise, it’ll take out pops — a lot of the annoying things that can get introduced into your recording, this plug-in will take out. It’s not cheap, but it can save you lots of time. Currently, RX6 retails for $300, and its actually a suite of plugins that remove various types of noise (wind noise, breath noise, power hums, air-conditioning noise). The plugin is easy to use and includes a “learn” feature that will automatically make the adjustments for you.
The other tool that I use on occasion is Nectar 2. This plugin retails for $229 from the iZotope web site. It works well in-conjunction with RX6, although they can be used independently as well. Nectar has some nice profiles for common recording situations (audiobooks, podcasting, radio broadcast) as well as the standard effects you’d find in your editing software like reverb and delay). This is a “cheat” tool for me because I’ll sometimes get recorded audio sent to me for editing that needs to be punched up (recorded too low, perhaps the sound was tinny) and in a few seconds I can usually dial up a profile which dramatically improves the sound.
So what should you invest in?
All of these tools help you in various ways to reduce the amount of time that you’re going to spend editing podcasts. But most of us need to make strategic decisions on how to spend our money, and it might not be in your budget to buy everything. So here is my “essentials” list:
Zoom H6 Recorder
It’s totally changed how I think about recording podcasts, you can record them anywhere, you can use any type of microphone, sounds great, very portable, and it just works.
The Shure SM7B is a great microphone for podcasting. They are expensive from the outset, but pay for themselves in the time you save editing your podcast. They were my favorite podcast microphone when I reviewed different popular microphones in Studio #6.
Definitely invest in some headphones. They help your guests stay closer to the microphone, and a good pair of headphones for editing podcasts will save your ears!