Check out our accompanying piece on tricks to make your voice sound great on-air by Aaron Mak.
Four years ago, I was an artist-in-residence in a small French city when a fellow resident who knew I had some prior experience in radio asked me to collaborate on creating a podcast out of her book Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. I’d never made a full podcast from scratch before, but we commandeered a tiny, closet-size space, hung flea market blankets over the walls to help baffle the sound, plugged in a few mics, and got to work. The podcast we created was my segue back into audio, after many years away, as I embarked on podcasting projects with KCRW’s Un-Fictional, Love + Radio, the Guardian, and eventually at Slate, where I now produce Slate’s Culture Gabfest and Decoder Ring.
My foray into podcasting demonstrates one of its best qualities—it’s remarkably accessible. You need good ideas, sure, but technically speaking, you don’t really need much to make podcasts that sound professional; we did it in a tiny French closet, after all. Still, the equipment you use will directly impact the sound, feel, and overall quality of your final product. If you’re looking to get into podcasting, this guide will help you pick the gear you’ll need: a microphone or two, a way to record that microphone’s audio, and a computer program to mix it into a podcast.
Microphones are your first big decision. Different kinds of microphones are good at capturing different kinds of sounds. Some are great for voices, for example, while others are better at picking up live ambient sound. It isn’t just a matter of expensive=good and cheap=bad, so it’s best to have an idea about what kind of show you want to make, and the sort of audio your show will largely consist of, before buying microphones.
Depending on your needs, you’ll want one of two classes of microphones—those that use USB cables to connect to your recording device, and those that utilize XLR cables to do the same. Both have distinct strengths and weaknesses.
Pros: USB microphones are intuitive to use, and they’re the easiest solution to getting your voice recorded with the least hassle. They plug directly into your computer’s USB port, allowing you to record audio with the computer programs that you’ll be using to edit and mix your podcast (more on that later).
Cons: USB microphones are tethered to your computer, making them poorly suited to recording in the field—so if you’re interested in any kind of documentary work, they probably aren’t the right choice. Also if you want to feature multiple hosts chatting together in a single location, using USB connections can get complicated. If you’re going to record multiple people in the same room often, it’s probably best to invest in XLR mics.
USB mic recommendation: If you’re into podcasts, you may be familiar with the Blue Yeti mic—it’s a classic choice for podcasters recording from home, and for good reason. While it’s not top of the line, it will give you a suitably professional sound for general podcast chatter and is a perfectly good solution for someone looking to record themselves from a laptop or host a podcast on Skype. More expensive and professional options are out there, but my feeling is that if you’re going to be investing a lot of money in audio equipment, it’s best to do so with equipment that has XLR inputs.
As convenient as the Blue Yeti is, you’ll rarely see one in a professional recording studio. That’s because USB mics are fairly inflexible. Mics with an XLR input offer you many more options. The downside is they require more equipment to operate, as well as a little more technical knowledge to make them function properly.
Pros: XLR mics’ sound quality are generally superior to USB mics, and they allow you much more control when using external equipment like digital recorders. Many are also portable, allowing you to record in the field. If you envision conducting interviews outside the studio, or you’re seeking a more professional sound, you should consider an XLR mic. Plus, XLR cables click into place, unlike USB, so they are less likely to break or drop off during recording.
Cons: To function properly, XLR mics will require you to purchase additional equipment like a digital recorder, which further increases your overhead. The intricacies of XLR mics can also be a bit overwhelming for technophobes, given that they require some technical prowess to use properly. Still, it’s nothing someone who uses a computer regularly won’t be able to handle with a little practice.
For chatting around a table: It’s hard to go wrong with the Shure SM58, a classic mic that will give you a fully professional sound at a reasonable price.
For voice-over narration: If you’re looking to produce a narrative podcast like This American Life or Slow Burn, you’ll probably want a studio mic that delivers that classic radio announcer sound. I like the affordable Rode Procaster.
For documentary and fieldwork: The Rode NTG2 is a directional shotgun microphone that picks up sound directly in front of it. It’s perfect for collecting clear audio in the field, and it has a very intimate sound that’s great for personal stories as well as voice-over narration in a pinch.
Additional XLR tech
You can record the sound captured by XLR microphones in a few different ways, but I’d recommend sticking with a high quality digital recorder, which can do a lot of the work of more specialized tech while being much more versatile. A digital recorder allows you to record sound from your XLR microphones that you can later transfer to your computer. Some recorders can also be used as an audio interface that will allow you to transmit sound directly to your computer as you record.
I like the Zoom series of recorders. The Zoom H4N Pro is a solid choice, with two XLR inputs (meaning you’ll be able to record two mics at once with this recorder) and built-in onboard mics for recording more environmental sound. If you’re interested in more than two inputs, the Zoom H6 has four mic inputs and is great for both fieldwork and roundtable chat recording. Both can also be used as an audio interface, making them very versatile.
No matter which recorder you choose, you’ll need XLR cables. Any cables will do, just make sure they’re long enough for your needs.
Digital Audio Workstations
Once you’ve recorded your audio, it’s time to turn that raw sound into an edited podcast. That means using a digital audio workstation to edit and mix your podcast.
Many hobbyists recommend the free program Audacity, but it’s a destructive editor—it alters the raw audio you’re working with as you go, so it’s not an ideal choice for podcast production. I personally use Adobe Audition. Since it’s an Adobe product, it doesn’t come cheap, and for beginners it may be a little overwhelming. Luckily, there are less expensive choices for burgeoning producers.
You can use a free music-oriented program like Garage Band on Macs, but the best DAW for beginners is probably Hindenburg, a DAW created specifically for making radio and podcasts. It’s inexpensive, easy to use, and helps streamline the audio production process for beginners.
It’s a solid enough choice that many professional podcasters opt for it, too, including some at Slate.
Last, you’ll want headphones to edit and mix your podcast. It’s never wise to mix using your laptop’s speakers: I find that even when using high-quality speakers, I tend to miss small details like breaths or shuffling papers I would otherwise want to cut.
Headphones are always your best bet. You’ll want to hear the sound exactly as it was recorded, so avoid any headphones that might enhance a particular part of the sound spectrum, like bass-boosting headphones. You’ll also want to avoid noise-canceling headphones, as those introduce frequencies that may interfere with what you’re hearing. The classic studio-monitoring headphones are the Sony MDR7506, which we use in-studio at Slate. My above average–size head personally prefers the Sennheisser HD 598 Cs, which sit comfortably even after long periods.
Now you’re ready to make a podcast! Check out any number of resources on how to tell stories in the podcast medium, like the excellent Transom, which is also a great place for advanced resources and tech recommendations. It’s an essential place to learn about the nitty-gritty of podcast production, and it’s free. One of the many things I love about the podcast medium is its low bar to entry—it’s really easy to get into. Once you’re in, you’ll also appreciate its sky-high skill ceiling: There’s so much room to push the medium forward.
Do you host or help make a podcast? Check out Supporting Cast, a platform built by Slate to help other podcast creators publish premium audio content.
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