By Jason Snell
May 5, 2016 8:14 AM PT
Last updated August 21, 2020
How I podcast: Live and in person
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
The bulk of the podcasting I do involves me sitting alone in a room talking into a microphone to other people who are somewhere else, doing the same thing. There are lots of advantages to this approach: It lets me host podcasts with people who live all over the world, for one thing, but it also isolates everyone’s sound. We’re all recording in our own little isolation booths, and that can make editing a whole lot easier, since I can clip out the coughing fit or barking dog from your recording and it won’t bleed through from anyone else’s microphone.
Unfortunately, when you’re recording live and in person, the isolation booth is gone, and things get much more complicated. The environment itself can be noisy and challenging, and using more than one microphone at one time can make things complicated. But on the bright side, you won’t need to spend much time editing, because there’s not much point, since even if you clip the sound out of one microphone, it’ll still be audible on the others.
Here’s the set-up I use for remote recording:
The recorder. I recently upgraded to the $400 Zoom H6, which allows me to record up to six XLR microphones at one time (with an additional adapter for the extra two microphones). My previous recorder, the $160 Zoom H4N, is only capable of recording two XLR microphones alongside its own built-in mic, which wasn’t enough for the larger groups I find myself recording live, so I sold it and upgraded. It’s a great value as a starter recorder, and can double as a USB microphone interface when you attach it to a computer. (And yes, if your subjects are willing to snuggle up a little bit, you can record many people with just two or three microphones.)
I choose to use a portable recorder rather than a computer and a USB interface mostly because it’s a much simpler set-up. With a laptop (or iOS device), you need you make sure it’s got power, you need to tote along a second box for the XLR-to-USB interface (and it may need its own power source), and you have to count on your recording software not to let you down. Small portable recorders are self contained, writing their output to a SD card for later import to a computer for editing. They can be powered by AC power or AA batteries that you can find in any store, in a pinch. It’s better this way.
(You may be asking yourself, can I attach two or more USB microphones to a Mac and record that way? I don’t recommend it. I’ve tried it in the past and the microphones generally seem to get out of sync, so when it comes time to put the tracks together later, it gets all echoey and weird.)
The microphones. I have a small collection of XLR microphones. Look at Marco Arment’s review of XLR microphones for details, but if you’re recording live you’re going to need to buy more than one, so price will be a factor.
The best trait of a microphone for live recordings is that it rejects sound that isn’t directly in front of the microphone. If you record with microphones that tend to pick up a lot of room noise, that noise will be magnified and you’ll get a noisy, echoey recording. I have two $150 Shure Beta 58As, but I also have two $20 Pyle PDMIC58s. If you buy the excellent value $60 ATR-2100-USB, you can take advantage of the fact that this USB microphone can also work as an XLR microphone and let it pull double duty.
The accessories.. All the handheld microphones get covered with a $3 windscreen, and I screw their microphone clips onto a cheap fold-up mic stand. You’ll also need to buy XLR cables, and if your microphones are going to be spaced far away from each other and the recorder, you’ll need to make sure that they’re long enough to manage that.
If you need to use microphones in a space where there’s no table or desk, you could have everybody stand and hold the microphones as if they were ready to belt out some classic rock at the top of their lungs. Or you could invest in a few $25 boom stands. I bought one of these and it’s incredibly flexible—I’ve used it to record in all sorts of environments, and because it’s not attached to a table, it isn’t affecting by people doing something noisy like pounding on that table.
The environment. This is a tough one. Record where you can record; if you can avoid super echoey spaces (empty walls, high ceilings, huge glass windows or doors), do so. Recording outside can be surprisingly quiet, unless you’re standing on a crowded sidewalk next to a major road. If you can find a quiet, non-echoey space, you’ve hit the jackpot. But I’ve done some good-sounding outdoor podcasts and some lousy-sounding indoor ones.
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