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By Jason Snell

Want to do a podcast? Don’t be intimidated

I make podcasts as part of my job now, but despite my year spinning records at my high-school radio station, I don’t have much of a background in audio. Like many podcasters, I’ve learned as I’ve gone along, and I’ve upgraded my hardware and software along the way.

I’m frequently asked for product recommendations for podcasting, and while I can’t claim to have tried every USB microphone out there, I have tried many of them and heard the recording results of many more. I’ve also talked to audio experts, sometimes even voluntarily.

Last night I had a couple of exchanges on Twitter that really irked me. I mentioned that the Blue Yeti, the microphone that I use, was on sale at Amazon. (That sale has since ended.) It seems like every time I mention the Yeti on Twitter, I’m immediately sea-lioned by an audio expert who wants to point out that the Yeti is not suitable for professional use.

Point one: I wasn’t recommending it to professionals, I was recommending it to podcasters who are not pros, the ones using headsets and Blue Snowballs and Apple EarPods. Point two: It’s the microphone I’ve used for the last two years, so I think maybe calling it unfit for professional use is not only insulting to me, but wrong on its face.

Anyway, the great thing about podcasting is that anyone can do it. You don’t need to have access to a broadcasting company’s radio transmitter and studios packed with equipment. You can reach people with your voice right now. Yes, these days there are a lot of big names (often from those big broadcasting companies) doing podcasts, but there’s also an incredible diversity of voices and subjects.

If you’re just starting out, don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by all this audio talk. If you have something to say, say it.

I don’t deny that I’ve heard some pretty awful sounding podcasts in my day. Audio quality does matter. I’d just argue that beyond a certain point, it only matters to audio snobs. My favorite podcast, The Flop House, often has some severe audio problems—but it doesn’t matter, because the content is great.

So start with the equipment you’ve got. You could literally do a podcast by talking into your iPhone and posting it. (I don’t recommend it, but you could do it.) Every Apple laptop comes with a built-in microphone. Again, I don’t recommend you use that microphone, but you could. You could use the EarPods that come with your iPhone—and I’d recommend them over that laptop microphone any day. Add an external microphone when you get the chance. Learn how to use GarageBand or Audacity to edit your podcast—both of them are free.

Beyond that, here’s a tiny bit about hardware.

Podcast producer Ray Ortega recommended the Audio-Technica AT2005USB, which I haven’t ever tried. It looks fantastic, quite frankly—it’s a $50 dynamic microphone with a headphone jack.

Similarly, Dan Benjamin recommends the Samson C01U, a $80 condenser microphone with a headphone jack. (You can read some excellent recommendations from Dan at his new Podcast Method site.)

Dynamic microphones are much less likely to pick up room noise. You have to speak directly into them to make sure your voice is picked up clearly, but if you’re recording in a noisy environment or an echoey room, it can make a huge difference.

Getting a microphone with a headphone jack is a big deal, too, because it allows you to hear how your voice is being picked up by your microphone. Having that direct feedback in my ears made me much more aware of room noise and how I was using my microphone—I really believe that if you listen to the direct feedback from the microphone, you will get better as a podcaster. (Also, most USB microphones will allow you to route your computer’s audio into that same jack, so you can use it for Skype—you’ll hear your voice as well as the voices on the other end of the line.)

When I started I used a Blue Snowball. It was a nice starter mic, though in hindsight I can see all its failings: It doesn’t sound great, it’s fragile, and it doesn’t have an onboard headphone jack, though it does come with a little tripod. These days one of the choices I mentioned above, as recommended by Ray and Dan, is almost certainly better.

After a couple of years, I bought the Blue Yeti. It’s a condenser mic—so it captures more room noise than a dynamic mic would—but it works really well for me. I may be blessed with rooms that aren’t too noisy, though. The key for me was getting a headphone jack and a physical mute button. I use the mute button all the time, when I need to cough or if a family member stumbles into the room where I’m recording. And as I mentioned above, having the headphone jack playing my own microphone sound back to me, live, was incredibly instructive.

Initially I cradled the Yeti to my chest as I recorded on my bed. Eventually I added a tripod and a pop filter, and when I began podcasting from a desk in my garage, I bought a boom arm.

Microphones matter. They really do. But lots of other stuff matters too:

  • Your surroundings. Someone once helpfully offered his office space to me when I was recording a podcast on the road. We walked in to a large rectangular room that was glass on almost all sides. The result was an echoey mess that was a pain to edit and still sounded pretty lousy. Ideally you want to record somewhere that’s quiet and not echoey. I know some people actually will make a podcast cave out of a cardboard box and some foam batting, just to combat echo. Curtains and bookshelves and other features that absorb or scatter sound can help. Record yourself in different rooms and find a place that reduces echo and ambient noise.

  • Your headphones. You need a set of headphones. The most important thing is that they shouldn’t leak sound, because then your microphone will pick up what you’re hearing, leading to some ugly echoes in the finished product. Earbuds aren’t ideal. A set of closed over-the-ear headphones is good. In-ear canalphones are better, but they’re not for everyone.

  • Your technique. Talk into the microphone. Don’t turn away from it. Talk right into it. Don’t get too close. Adjust the gain on the microphone, if you can, so that you’re not so loud that you’re maxing out the microphone or so quiet that nobody can hear you. Watch Dan Benjamin’s video.

  • Editing. You can trim a lot of stuff out in editing. Audacity is free and actually has a noise-reduction feature that can help remove noise from your track. GarageBand is also free (if you’re using a Mac!). Learning these tools and trimming out stray sounds can make your podcast sound better.

Audio is a bottomless pit. You can spend a near-infinite amount of time editing a podcast to make it sound better, but at some point the minute increases in quality just aren’t worth it. You can spend a very large amount of money buying hardware to make yourself sound better, but at some point the minute increases in quality aren’t worth it.

I’m not going to advise you on what high-end audio hardware to buy. At that point you should listen to the experts. (Here’s a post about that from Marcus dePaula. I think Casey Liss’s setup is a good example of high-end gear.)

I once spoke on a podcasting panel at a Doctor Who convention. When I made what I thought was a reasonable suggestion—the $50 Blue Snowball as a starter microphone—large swaths of the audience cringed. These were people with no money for such things. They were interested in podcasting, but the idea of spending $50 on a microphone was just too much.

There are two ways to react to that moment. One is to suggest to that group of interested, creative people that if they aren’t committed enough to podcasting to pay $50 for a microphone, they shouldn’t bother. The other is to encourage them to use the tools at hand to find their voice. Improving the quality of the sound can come later—and the more they come to love podcasting, the more they’ll want to spend (in terms of time and money) to make their podcast sound better.

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