A Year of Podcasting: Recording Gear

My podcast, The Informed Life, recently turned one. I had no experience running a podcast before I started, and have had to learn a lot over the last year. To mark this anniversary, I’m sharing what I’ve learned over a series of posts. The first one dealt with the big idea behind the show. In this one, I’ll tell you about how I go about recording episodes.

I didn’t know much about audio production before starting my own show. My primary experience with podcasts had been as a listener. I’d also been a guest in several shows following the release of my book, Living in Information. Both perspectives informed how I approached my recording setup.

I’ve been listening to podcasts for over a decade. One thing I noticed was that some shows sounded better than others. From an audio quality perspective, the obvious point of comparison for podcasts is talk radio, which is professionally produced. Podcasts, on the other hand, are primarily artisanal: most are produced by people working either on their own or with small teams. Many are produced in home studios. Results vary: some shows sound great, others sound awful.

I wanted my show to sound good. What constitutes “good”? For me, as a listener, it means I can focus on the content of a show as opposed to how it sounds. No matter how brilliant the people speaking, I find it distracting if their voices sound tinny, or have lots of reverb, or speak over each other.

Note I didn’t say I wanted my show to sound great. My expectation was that for the show to sound great, I’d have to invest in expensive equipment and maybe even a team. (An audio engineer and an editor.) As I mentioned in the previous post, I didn’t want to spend too much money. I’ve heard of people giving up on podcasts after a few episodes, and didn’t want to be stuck with a lot of expensive equipment if the show didn’t work.

But I did expect to invest some money on the experiment. For one thing, I knew regular headsets (such as my AirPods) wouldn’t be good enough, so I planned to get a dedicated microphone. A post by Jason Snell about his podcasting setup pointed me to a microphone that seemed perfect for my needs, the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB. The ATR2100 had good reviews, was relatively inexpensive, and — critically for me — offered a USB connection. It would allow me to record directly on my Mac, as opposed to requiring a dedicated audio interface.

Another key feature of the ATR2100 is a headphone-out port built into the mic itself. This allows me to monitor both my own sound and the sound of my guest simultaneously. I keep my old Bose QC-15 headset plugged into the mic as my recording monitor.

The ATR2100 includes a short tripod stand, which I used for the first dozen or so shows. This required that I hunch over the mic, which I found distracting. I eventually bought an adjustable arm to hold the microphone closer to my face when I’m recording; this makes it much more comfortable and keeps the volume stable (since my head isn’t moving around as much.) I also added a windscreen to the mic; this reduces popping noises when vocalizing hard consonants.

The mic greatly improved audio quality over AirPods. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied with the results. The primary outstanding issue was reverb: I could hear my voice echoing in the room. I record in my home office, which is a converted walking-closet. I sit surrounded by bookshelves, and there are reflective surfaces everywhere. I fixed this issue by covering most of the exposed walls with acoustic panels.

That’s the extent of my audio gear. I spent a total of around $100 on the setup, and I’m happy with the results. It’s still far from perfect — but the main areas for improvement are in software, not hardware.

So let me tell you about the software. I’m using Zoom to record shows. Like many video/audio conferencing systems, Zoom doesn’t have amazing sound quality. Results vary depending on the parties’ internet connections. I upgraded our home to fiber after a few shows; this improved my side of the conversation. Still, you’ll notice that some shows have audio glitches, ostensibly caused by dropped packets.

One way to fix this is to record both sides of the conversation separately, and then have the guest send me their side as an audio file. Then I’d have to carefully align the tracks during editing. This would be a lot of work for the guest and also require more time during editing. I wanted to keep things as simple and unobtrusive as possible, so I was willing to put up with sometimes glitchy sound quality in exchange for simplicity.

There are several good video conferencing systems, so why Zoom? It came down to two factors. For one thing, Zoom is very popular and relatively reliable. It’s likely that my show won’t be the first time that guests use Zoom. For another, Zoom allows me to record both sides of the conversation as separate audio tracks. This makes it easier for me to edit the conversation to remove points where the guest and I may talk over each other. The results are often good enough, which summarizes my approach to the show’s audio quality.

And speaking of editing, that will be the focus on the next post on what I’ve learned over this year of podcasting: how I currently edit the show.