By Jason Snell
January 14, 2015 1:16 PM PT
Last updated May 18, 2023
How I podcast: Recording
I do a lot of podcasting. And I am often asked about what tools I use and how I produce my podcasts. So in a series of articles on this site, I hope to detail my approach to making podcasts. What I don’t intend is to suggest that this is the only way to make podcasts—it’s just the way that I make them. If I can provide some sort of inspiration—or even a cautionary example of what not to do—I’m glad to do so.
While I think it’s true that many people underestimate how much work goes into making a podcast, I also get the sense that other people overestimate the time I spend. And depending on what kind of a podcast you’re creating, the amount of time required to put it together can vary widely. The average episode of The Incomparable takes several hours to edit; the average Vulcan Hello I can turn around in 10 minutes.
Equipment and Recording
To get started, I’ll refer you to this post, in which I suggest that you can get started with podcasting with minimal equipment—what you really need is a passion for what you’re going to be talking about on your podcast.
My low-cost microphone pick is the ATR-2100x. It’s not without its quirks, but it’s also $100. If you’re going to be recording your podcast over the Internet, you should also use headphones—and ideally they’d either be in-ear headphones or closed, over-the-ear headphones. Earbuds are less good because they leak noise—but again, if earbuds are all you have, so be it.
I have recorded podcasts in a wide variety of environments, but the most common one is a quiet room, with the door closed. The less echoey your room, the better. Bookshelves, curtains, carpet, and similar stuff on the walls and floor are helpful in reducing echoes. I wish I had more tips about reducing echo, but I’ve been fortunate to mostly record in rooms that weren’t echoey to begin with.
Most of my podcasts are recorded via Zoom, so I’m the only person in the room. If you’re recording stuff with multiple people in the same room, that’s got a very different set of audio requirements that I’m not going to cover here.
Zoom is the thing
Before the pandemic introduced it to everyone, Zoom had already become my connection medium of choice. I pay for a Zoom account and use it to record group sessions—generally via audio only, though we do stream video for Total Party Kill. Zoom lets you have audio conversations with quality beyond what you’ll find on a regular phone call, and you can have calls with two, three, five, even ten people on it all at once. (Things get weird with that many people—I don’t recommend it.)
There are two basic approaches to recording with Zoom: You can record the conversation as you receive it over the Internet from Zoom, or everyone on the podcast can record their own end of the conversation. Believe it or not, I’ve seen podcasters hotly debate these two approaches. But podcasters do like to talk, so is that any surprise?
The answer—and why I use Zoom—is to do both. Everyone should record their own microphone locally and upload the file when they’re done, because that’s going to avoid any glitches due to being compressed and sent in real time across the Internet. But Zoom also lets the host record the call in Zoom—with an individual audio file for each person on the call. This is a brilliant feature because it means that if someone’s local recording fails, you’ve got a drop-in replacement—rather than having to cut around that person’s audio from a file containing everyone’s voice.
Here’s how you set that up: In Zoom’s settings, click the Recording tab, then check “Record a separate audio file of each participant”. When you set up a meeting, be sure to choose the Advanced Option “Automatically record meeting,” or you’ll need to remember to press Record in Zoom when your meeting starts. I prefer to record meetings locally, on my computer, but it’ll work if you record to Zoom’s cloud—as long as you download the files before Zoom deletes them to free up space.
When Zoom is working well, it almost sounds like the person is in the room with you. Zoom’s audio algorithm squelches background noise and levels out the volume, too. If your connection is solid and you’re recording a two-person conversation, just recording the audio from Zoom and using that as the basis for your podcast is completely viable.
Recording a multi-ender
The method I use for every other podcast I do is this: Everyone records their own microphone and sends me the files when we’re done. While it definitely ups the difficulty level a bit, the results are usually worth it. In the audio game this is called a “multi-ender,” and it requires some work from the people on the other end of the line.
Fortunately, if they’re Mac users, it’s pretty easy for them to record their end of the conversation. The QuickTime Player app, included with every Mac, lets you record your own audio. After launching QuickTime Player, choose New Audio Recording from the File menu. In the resulting window, click on the drop-down triangle next to the big red button and select your USB microphone of choice, while ensuring that quality is set to High. Then you press the big red button to start recording. When done, press the button again and save the file as a QuickTime movie and send the file to whomever is editing the podcast using Dropbox or some other file-transfer service1. (For Windows users the workflow is slightly more complicated, but they can download the free Audacity and record using that app2.)
The best thing about the multi-ended recording session is that every participant has a local recording, so it’s of a higher quality than anything that could be sent over Zoom. The second best thing is that every participant in a multi-ender has their own, isolated audio track. That gives you a lot of power when it comes time to edit the podcast.
When everyone records their own end, there’s some extra work on the editing side. First, you need to use a multi-track audio program, though GarageBand comes free with every Mac and it’ll do the job. (On the iPad, I highly recommend Ferrite Recording Studio.) Second, you need to line up all the files. That can take some time. Many podcasts I’m on ask people to start recording and then count down from three and clap in unison, which gives an editor a visual sign to use to synchronize the tracks. After more than a year of editing The Incomparable using a similar approach, I realized that while everyone pressed Record at different times, everyone stopped recording pretty much at the same time — at the very end of the call. Once I started lining up recordings so that they matched at the end, rather than the start, my job got a lot easier.
Having a recording of your entire Zoom session is incredibly valuable when it comes to syncing up multiple audio tracks. (Zoom automatically will generate one as a part of its recording package.) Different computers can record audio at slightly different rates, so on long recordings you may need to split an audio clip into smaller bits and slide it around a few times in order to get it to line up from beginning to end, always using the “all-call” Zoom recording for reference.
Once you’ve got the tracks recorded, it’s time to edit! Editing will be the topic of my next post on this subject, so stay tuned for that. Any questions? Email me at jsnell at sixcolors.com.
- Anze Tomic adds, “When it’s time for the guest to send me the file, if they are not a Dropbox user, by far the easiest thing is to guide them through how to send the file via wetransfer.com. It’s almost like sending an email, so most people can grasp it right away.” ↩
- Anze Tomic writes, “When we finish I ask the guests to export the audio form audacity in the ogg vorbis format since I know I’ll be able to open that right away on my end. (Audacity can do that out of the box, so there is no need to install an mp3 codec and it saves on space since an hour long .wav file is huge.)” ↩
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.