I’ve been recording new episodes of Systematic and Overtired over the last couple of weeks (more on that soon). As part of the “reboot,” I’ve been refining my podcasting setup a bit. After some experimentation, I thought I’d share what hardware and software I’ve landed on (for now).
I always hesitate to write posts like this because I’m not the guy who thoroughly tests every option and can offer you a Wirecutter-style review and a top pick for your dollar. I’m no Marco Arment when it comes to mics and gear. Or lightbulbs. But I can tell you what’s working for me. I also don’t have the budget to try out everything in the field, so a lot of my choices come from the best of what I have on hand. Ok, enough with the prologue. Let’s do this.
Obviously, this all starts with the microphone. At the time I last recorded Systematic, I’d been using a Samson C01UPRO for years. It’s not that I hadn’t tried others — I had a dozen microphones of varying levels of expense around, both from years of recording music and a few attempts at better podcasting mics. The C01UPRO offered good audio quality without the tradeoffs that I found in other USB mics. It’s not the best, but it’s perfectly good option for the price. I had a bunch of options I’d already paid for, though, so I wanted to make sure I was using the best of what I had available. If I had $400+ to drop on a new mic, I’m sure I could do even better, but I think I found a great option.
With my array of mics at hand, I sat down and did test recordings to compare a Blue Yeti Pro, Rode Podcaster, Audio Technica ATR2500-USB, and the Samson C01UPRO, as well as several XLR mics — I had some condensors and a few CAD and Peavey supercardiod mics around, some dating all the way back to the band I had in high school. The warmest sounds all came from large diaphragm condensors, and the one with the lowest ambient noise was the Sterling Audio ST51, an XLR mic I’ve had for years and never used much. It was a close tie with a Peavey handheld, but it was just a little warmer and it looked cooler, so that’s what I’m using for now. It was a surprising-but-not-shocking to me that almost all of the XLR mics sounded better than the USB mics — I’d heard people say it many times, but had never done the comparison myself. Turns out that the common wisdom isn’t wrong.
The ST51 doesn’t actually seem to be available anywhere anymore, so it’s kind of a bum pick to publish. There are myriad articles comparing podcasting microphones out there, most with actually-available options. I’ll leave it to you to decide on the right one. Consider this a plug for large-diaphragm XLR microphones in general, though. They range from $70 to $800, so I’m sure you’ll find something in your budget range.
USB Audio Interface
I also had a few options around for my XLR->USB interface. I compared the Alesis IO Hub, the AudioBox USB, and the Focusrite Scarlett Solo, ultimately going with the Scarlett Solo ($110). I still have the Alesis IO Hub hooked up with my Rokit5 G4 monitors as the Scarlett doesn’t have a good option for being able to isolate to headphones with direct monitoring while outputs are hooked up. Which leaves me with too many output choices in my SoundSource options, but it works.
I do most of my mixing with a combination of studio monitors and good-quality, closed-back headphones, but I wasn’t picky about the audio quality of the headphones I wear while podcasting. They just needed to control bleed and avoid ghosting my guests/co-host’s voices onto my audio track. And be comfortable for 1-2 hours of wear at a time. I have a few pairs of headphones, and tried out everything from Apple earbuds to moderate-quality studio cans. I originally decided on the most comfortable pair of closed-back, over-the-ear headphones I had (a pair of Samson SR950s). I quickly realized I was getting some ghosting with those, though, and switched to my Sennheiser HD280PROs ($100), which get a bit uncomfortable after an hour but have a solid seal on the cups that prevents any audio bleed.
After switching to the XLR setup after years of using USB mics, the one thing I really missed was Shush, a great app for muting your mic with a keypress. It only works with USB mics, though, so a hardware solution was needed. I tried out a couple of switches, starting with the Rolls MS111 MicSwitch ($44), but ultimately going with the Pro Co Power Mute ($190). The Rolls works ok, but switching it from momentary to latching is a bit tedious, and with a phantom power mic it only pads the signal, meaning it really just makes it quieter, not silent. The Power Mute does a full cutoff, but just like the Rolls, it can function as press-to-talk, press-to-mute, and as a momentary or latching switch.
The Power Mute is built as a foot switch, which I quickly realized was ideal. Apart from actual coughs, I generally mute my mic because I want to take a drink of coffee, type something on my keyboard, or do something else that involves using both hands. As a result, I need a latching switch, meaning it operates as click-on, click-off, as opposed to momentary, which requires holding the button down to keep the mic muted (and thus using up one of my hands). Using the Power Mute as a foot switch allows me to have it set to momentary switching because it’s really easy to hold it down with my foot while doing whatever else I need happens with my hands. Then unmuting is as simple as lifting my foot up. Having it further away from the mic is also a good thing, as it has a very solid switch with an audible click when it’s toggling. The transition from hot to muted rarely (though not never) has any audible pop in the recording.
One other piece of kit that’s been handy is a low-profile Bluetooth keyboard placed on a towel on my desk. Using my Ultimate Hacking Keyboard while the mic is hot is terribly noisy, but I constantly need to be doing web searches while I’m podcasting. So the Anker Ultra Compact Bluetooth keyboard sits on a folded over towel on my desktop, making for silent searches without key clicks and reverberations through the desk to the mic boom. That model also has the benefit of easily switching over to typing on my iPad or iPhone on the (admittedly rare) occasions where that’s handy. While that particular keyboard is currently unavailable, there are plenty of similar keyboards from Logitech and Arteck.
It’s a digital world. Thank jebus. I’ve recorded and edited on a reel-to-reel. This is better. Here’s the software that I’m using.
I’m still conducting my interviews over Skype. I’m sure some of the more recent options have their benefits, but I can pull a great, multi-tracked recording from a Skype call using Ecamm Call Recorder with very little hassle. I’ve never done a deep dive into doing the same thing with Audio Hijack, but not for lack of curiosity. Call Recorder just works, so I’ve stuck with it.
In the first episode of Systematic, Season 2, Merlin Mann turns me on to Descript. It transcribes your podcast and lets you edit it by editing the text of the transcription. Delete words, tighten up spaces, even overdub using a custom-generated synthetic voice based on a 10-60 minute recording of your own voice. It’s amazing, and I immediately signed up for a year of service. I’ve already edited the first four episodes of Systematic in it and don’t regret the expense.
Processing and Mixing
I finalize all of the recordings in Logic Pro X. Descript does its edits non-destructively and can export to Logic, so I can clean up anything I need to in the final stages. I’m a huge fan of iZotope plugins (thanks to a tip from Aaron Dowd) for vocal processing. The RX 7 suite of tools can drop a noise bed to zero and handle de-essing and rumble-reducing with a few clicks. The Nectar plugin is awesome for adding warmth and presence to any voice.
I have my whole finalizing and uploading process automated using PodTagger and some custom scripts. My Markdown show notes are processed to handle all of the mp3 tagging, then the file is ftp’d to the CDN, links are generated and a WordPress post is generated for it. I’m currently using Blubrry PowerPress with WordPress to handle generating feeds and such.
So that’s my setup as it stands right now. I know myself well enough to know that this will probably be out of date in some way within six months, but most of these solutions are ones I’ve come to after almost a decade of doing this in some form or another. Hopefully they can help save someone else a bit of trial and error in getting to their ideal podcasting setup.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to podcasting, from planning through editing and publishing, The Successful Podcasting courses from Aaron Dowd are now available as a part of a subscription to seanwes.com. $99/month gets you access to Successful Podcasting, the Logic and GarageBand courses, and a whole bunch of other great courses on seanwes.com. If you want to expand your skills, check it out!
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