In February 2021, it was reported that there were around 2.2 million podcasts on Spotify, which means we'll all probably have one eventually at this rate. But having a podcast and having a podcast that actually sounds like you know what you're doing are two completely different things. We spoke with some experts to find out what they consider the essential tools for making a high-quality podcast right out of the gate.
“There's almost never a situation where you should not be wearing headphones when you're recording,” Dan Bobkoff, an adjunct professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Applied Liberal Arts and the executive producer of podcasts at Axios, says.
In all of Bobkoff’s years of experience, the Sony MDR-7506 headphones have been the industry standard. This is also the model Dylan Fagan, executive producer at iHeartMedia (who has also worked on Mental Floss's History Vs. and Quest for the North Pole podcasts), sends to hosts recording from home. However, he and many hosts also prefer to use the Audio-Technica M50X headphones, because they go over the whole ear (as opposed to earbuds) and prevent sound leakage. Perhaps most importantly, though, these headphones are neutral, meaning they don't manipulate the audio. “They're a good representation of what you're recording,” Fagan says.
Bobkoff also suggests listening to your podcast through speakers and consumer headphones and in different environments. He says he'll often take a walk and listen to a draft of a podcast on his AirPods. This helps him listen as if he is the audience, allowing him to find things to fix that he might have missed at his computer.
Mia Johnson and Dan Selcke host a Game of Thrones podcast called Take the Black for Fansided, a site owned by Mental Floss's parent company, Minute Media. They're currently recording from home using a kit of pared-down equipment that's similar to what they used to have in their Chicago office. Since the show has a video component, Johnson says she prefers to use her wireless AirPods so she can move more freely while recording.
2. A Microphone
Next, you'll need a dependable mic—but as we found out, there's not much of a consensus about which one works best. “Microphones are kind of like religions; people have very strong opinions about them and don't agree,” Bobkoff says.
When they started working from home, Johnson and Selcke were given a Fifine K780A in a supply kit. “I always get compliments on [it] when I'm doing interviews,” Johnson says. “It's got a really long reach.” This model currently has a 4.6-star rating on Amazon and is more or less aimed at beginners looking for easy home setup from their laptops. It's also a cardioid mic, meaning it will pick up audio mostly from the front and some from the sides. As Bobkoff noted, cardioids are more general-purpose mics, and the two brands he recommends are Electro-Voice or Sennheiser.
For his own use, Bobkoff prefers a shotgun microphone since it picks up audio from one narrow direction and can be helpful for field pieces or interviewing someone in a crowded space when you want to cut down on background noise. He suggests Rode or Audio-Technica, which is what he used at NPR.
During the pandemic, iHeartRadio went through a few iterations of their work-from-home audio kits. However, in the end, they landed on the Shure MV7 microphone. “It is a version of the microphone that we used to use in our studios, but USB and about $150 cheaper,” Fagan says. He suggests looking for an omnidirectional microphone since it won't pick up as much sound in the room where you’re recording. Here's one you can get for less than $60.
In terms of recorders, both Fagan and Bobkoff mentioned the brands Tascam and Zoom (no, not the video conferencing app that you hate). The kit that iHeartRadio sends to its hosts initially included a Tascam recorder along with an Apollo interface, which converts audio from your mic into a digital format your computer will understand. By doing this analog-to-digital conversion, you'll be rewarded with better sound quality that you can't achieve through a standard USB mic and your computer's built-in sound card. You don’t need an interface to record, but it can be a very helpful tool down the road.
Bobkoff’s class uses Tascam recorders, but he also sees many people using the Zoom H5 or H6. He likes that Zoom recorders have a feature called a USB Interface that allows you to plug the microphone into the recorder and then into your computer so you can record directly into your software. This saves you money on buying an interface if you want to pare down your kit and expenses.
When buying a recorder, Bobkoff encourages people to get one that has an XLR connector and a levels knob. Many recorders still use unreliable headphone plugs, while an XLR cable is sturdier. He prefers a levels knob over buttons so you can easily adjust the levels in real-time between the ideal negative six and negative 12 decibels. “You can make very fine-tuning adjustments,” Bobkoff says.
Both Fagan and Bobkoff recommend using a small, well-padded room without interference from air conditioners or family members. This could be somewhere as simple as a walk-in closet filled with sound-absorbing material like your clothes and carpet. If you don't have this readily available, Bobkoff mentions that many NPR hosts simply throw a blanket over their heads to record. And always capture about 30 seconds of the room's sound to create a baseline for editing.
4. Editing Software
Johnson and Selcke enlist their associate video producer, Richard Durante, to edit their podcast. He uses Adobe Audition to correct the audio and Adobe Premiere for editing, since he makes clips for social media and is more familiar with the software. If you don’t already have the Adobe Creative Cloud, you can get a free 30-day trial of Adobe Audition and Adobe Premiere Pro and then pay $21 per month for each afterward.
Fagan also prefers Adobe Audition, which is what people at iHeartRadio are trained on. “It makes it really simple to bring in all the audio tracks and cut them up,” Fagan says. However, many hosts also prefer free edition software like Audacity and QuickTime to do simple cuts and minimal editing.
During his class at NYU, Bobkoff uses radio- and podcasting-specific editing software called Hindenburg. This program has a free 30-day trial and then a flat fee of $95. If you're just getting into the business, Bobkoff suggests learning Pro Tools or Adobe Audition since that's what many local public radio stations use. But don't worry if you've already learned a specific software—the skills are easily transferable between programs.
5. A Laptop and External Hard Drive
Fagan suggests having a dedicated computer for podcasting. If you don't have a spare laptop to use, this 2021 Dell Inspirion 3000 has a 2TB hard drive and is under $600. If that's not doable, he recommends having a large external hard drive like this 4.7-star-rated model from Seagate (available in 2TB to 5TB) or a Dropbox Business account so everyone has access to the recordings. “Make sure that you have multiple versions, if possible, of the file,” Fagan says.
6. Video Setup
If you plan to add a live-streaming component to your podcast, a few tools will help create a better, more consistent visual image. Both Johnson and Selcke bought ring lights and suggest placing your laptop, external web camera, or DSLR to at least your eye level or higher. Selcke puts his laptop on top of a trash can while Johnson uses a stack of three books to elevate her camera. You can also DIY it or buy something like this $22 laptop stand with a 4.4-star rating.