Over the past couple of years we’ve received a lot of e-mails from people wondering what kind of set up we use to record the Film Junk Podcast. While I can’t really say we’re experts or professionals in audio engineering, we’ve at least been doing this for a few years now and I figured it would be worth writing up some of the things we’ve learned. If this can help improve the sound quality of even just a few of the podcasts out there, I’ll feel like we’ve made the world a better place!
As promised, here is our official podcasting guide. In short, the two most important tips I can offer are: buy decent mics, and run the finished podcast through Levelator, a free normalizing program. For a much longer, more in-depth guide, read on.
Podcast Equipment List
- Apex 435 condenser microphones + mic stands
- Foam pop filters
- Phonic MU1202 mixer
- Alto ACL4 compressor
- Artcessories HeadAmp 4 Headphone amplifier/splitter
- Various splitters and cables
- Adobe Audition or Audacity
- MP3Tag (or an MP3 tag editor)
- WS_FTP (or any other FTP program)
- LibSyn account (or another hosting service)
- Notepad (or a text editor)
- Winamp or Sound Byte (or a sound cart program)
Mics -> Mixer -> Compressor -> PC Line-In
For a newbie podcaster just starting out, that list of equipment might seem intimidating, but we acquired it all over the span of a couple years. In general, it’s still extremely inexpensive compared to some of the more professional rigs I’ve seen, but let me break down a few of the components for you.
By far the most important thing you can spend your money on is microphones. If the sound coming in is crap, there isn’t much you can do to fix it afterwards. Ideally you want a condenser mic since they give a much crisper sound, but dynamic mics (the kind used by most bands on stage) will work too. PC mics, built-in mics and headsets used for gaming are usually not a good way to go since they will sound tinny and hollow.
You can get condenser mics now that plug directly into your USB ports, but we opted to buy XLR mics instead, which require the use of a mixer. One advantage of the USB mics is that each mic comes in as a separate track in Audition, so you can adjust them individually afterward. Either way, the mics we use run you about $65 through Amazon, and I’ve seen USB mics for the same price or less.
Foam pop filters are recommended to cover the mics since condenser mics are very sensitive and will likely pick up a lot of harsh popping “P” sounds and other ambient breathing noises.
The compressor is an extra little gadget that helps keep the volume of our recording at an acceptable level. When recording sound you always want to make sure that your input level isn’t so loud that it distorts, and with someone like Jay occasionally bursting out into song, sometimes that’s hard to control. In general, the compressor isn’t a necessity, but when I switched to Windows Vista a while back, I found the audio drivers would instantly distort the sound as soon as it got even a little bit loud. If you’re having a similar issue, this might be worth investing in.
It’s also a good idea for everyone participating in the podcast to wear headphones so that they can tell if they’re talking too loudly or quietly and monitor their distance to the microphone accordingly. The headphone splitter is a cheap device that lets you run multiple headphones from your sound card’s line out so that everyone can listen at the same time.
We play most of our sound clips and bumper music live during the show so that we can comment on them as we listen. In order to do this, you need to have a “What U Hear” or “Stereo Mix” recording channel available in your Sound control panel. This will allow you to record the line-in input as well as any sounds being played on your computer (web browser, Winamp, etc.). Not all sound cards have this option, and I’ve heard that recently many sound card providers are removing it from their latest drivers because of pressure from the RIAA.
I should also note that it helps to have a decent sound card, but you don’t necessarily have to have something with multiple inputs.
Recording the Podcast: Step by Step
- Cue up any sound clips you want to play during the show in Winamp.
- Open Adobe Audition, start recording. Make sure you have plenty of hard drive space.
- Monitor levels while recording to make sure the sound doesn’t “clip”. This is what happens when the sound goes beyond the max volume and starts to distort. You’ll notice sound waves looking very square if this is the case, and you should reduce the input volume coming from the mixer or your line-in channel in the Windows control panel.
- When the show is complete, save it out as a WAV file.
- Drag and drop the WAV into Levelator in order to normalize the audio and clean up some of the background noise.
- Bring the output file back into Adobe Audition.
- Run the whole file through a “Hard Limiting” pass at -3 dB. (This is optional. It helps raise the volume of quieter sounds and lower loud sounds.)
- Add intro and outro music using multi-track editor, and fade them in and out using the volume controls in Audition.
- Save out as a 64 kbps Stereo MP3.
- Add ID3 tags for the MP3 and attach an image using MP3Tag.
- Upload to server using WS_FTP or another FTP program. (Currently we use Libsyn to host our most recent episode, which takes some of the load off of our regular server.)
- Edit the podcast XML file manually in Notepad and add a new entry. (There are WordPress plug-ins and other services that will maintain your XML feed automatically for you but I still prefer having complete control.)
- Upload the XML file to the server.
Other Podcasting Tips
- Don’t make your intro music too long. Any longer than 15 or 20 seconds and you might lose the interest of a new listener.
- Give yourself a nice looking graphic to embed in your MP3s and podcast feed. It makes you look more professional, particularly when people are searching through iTunes or a podcast directory. First impressions are everything.
- Don’t eat or chew gum during the show. (I know we’ve broken this one multiple times, but it really is annoying to a listener.)
- Use music or sound clips for transitions to break up the sections. This adds production value and helps divide up the long stretches of people talking.
- Don’t use Skype unless you have to, as it will significantly decrease your sound quality. It’s much preferable to record everyone in the same room, although obviously geographic limitations may prevent this.
- Submit your show to iTunes and other podcast directories (Podcast Alley, Podcast Pickle, etc.). This is still the best way for people to find you. iTunes is especially important because people can’t grab your podcast from an iPhone or iPod Touch wirelessly unless you are listed in the iTunes Store.
- Don’t expect an audience to show up overnight. It will take time and practice to gain listeners.
- Consider using an external back-up recording device in case your computer crashes or corrupts the files. (This is something we don’t do, but probably should.)
- If you’re recording on a laptop, be aware that you may only have a microphone input, not a line-in jack. The mic input is made specifically to enhance the sound of a cheap PC mic, but will likely distort the sound coming from a mixer. In this case, you might want to purchase the Griffin iMic.
- Always assume people are listening or going to listen. If you act like you’re just talking to yourself, you probably will be. Keep the audience in mind at all times.
- Do what comes naturally, and be yourself. People listen to podcasts for the personality and the honesty, not because they want another bland professional broadcaster.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you have any tips for us, we’re always interested in ways we can improve our show. Good luck!