Dan Benjamin's Podcasting Equipment Guide

I've been podcasting since 2006, and running the 5by5 Broadcast Network full time since 2009, where we now produce and distribute more than 32 weekly broadcasts. Behind the scenes, I also run Archer Avenue, a small, focused ad network where we match great sponsors with podcasts that we and other networks and individuals produce.

Over the years, I've spent a lot of time testing and experimenting with equipment in order to find the best gear to use for creating podcasts.

My hope is that you find this guide helpful in creating your own podcasting setup, and that it saves you from making the time consuming (and often costly) mistakes I've made along the way.

A Note about The Podcasting Handbook

This article is just a starting point with a focus on the basic gear and software you'll need to podcast at a variety of levels. The book I'm writing, The Podcasting Handbook, will cover these topics in much greater depth, and will expand upon numerous other topics including podcasting gear and the recording process, tips and techniques, creating content, production and distribution, and making money with podcasting. You can subscribe to the newsletter for early access and updates about my progress.

A Note about This Guide

I've split the guide into two main sections, Hardware and Software and further subdivided it into sections based on interest and commitment level (Entry-Level, Intermediate, etc.).

Many of the links below are affiliate links. If you use them when you buy, I'll get a small kick-back, which I will greatly appreciate.

I'm @danbenjamin on Twitter if you'd like to share your comments or questions, and I'll do my best to help.

Hardware

In previous guides I spent time explaining why I selected the gear I recommend. If you're interested in learning more about these choices, please check out the previous edition. This time around, I've kept it a bit more brief, just breaking down the list into different sets of recommended equipment. Pick the one that most closely matches your interest and commitment level.

Entry-Level

A quick note here: lots of people ask me what they need to get started podcasting. They are often surprised when I suggest a $200 microphone like the Rode, below. "I'm just getting started and I don't know if anybody will listen," they say, "so why should I spend so much money on a mic?"

My reply is always the same: even when the content is great, if your podcast doesn't sound good, nobody will listen. Audio quality makes all the difference to your listeners, especially when your show will be up against shows from studios like WNYC, TWiT, and ESPN. We spend lots of time and money at 5by5 to make sure our shows sound the best they can, and it has had a direct influence on growing our listenership. So if you're serious about making a great podcast, you should invest in a decent microphone.

Intermediate

So you like podcasting and want to stick with it? Awesome! Just setup a spot in your home or office, and mount that mic on a nice boom.

If you don't already have the Rode Podcaster, you can get it as a kit along with the shock mount and boom for a discount:

Advanced

OK, you're serious now. Maybe you're ready to record a couple of people at once from your studio, or want more than one mic. It's time to upgrade from USB to a standard XLR mic. The Heil PR-40 is the best dynamic mic I've ever used, and I've used most of them.

Get a pop filter. The one below is the only good one for the Heil PR-40.

Heil PR-40's are XLR microphones and unlike the Rode above, require an audio interface to connect to your computer. The Mbox Mini will do this job affordably, as will the Mackie Blackjack, both offering two microphone inputs over USB to your computer.

You'll need a cable to route each of your mics into the audio interface. Pick the length you need from the list below:

The Heil PR-40 will fit just fine in its shockmount on the desktop stand I've listed above, but it'll be even better in a boom.

Heil also makes a smaller-profile boom, which we now use in the 5by5 studio:

Both booms come with a desk clamp, but for a more permanent (and more elegant) solution, you can flush-mount it with a DT-1 Flush Mount:

It's also time to step up to high quality studio monitoring headphones.

If you think you'll have multiple people together, you will also need a headphone amplifier.

You will also need a TRS cable to split out the signal from the mixer to the headphone amp (pick your length):

A Note About Buzzing

Now that you've spent some real money on good hardware, you should consider upgrading your power strip to a power conditioner. Plug all of your audio gear as well as the computer(s) you use for recording into it directly. This will eliminate that buzzing you've been hearing and can't trace.

In case you're rack-mounting your gear, they make the same thing in a rack-mount option:

Professional

If you want to record more than two sources simultaneously with a more granular, input-level control over each track, you'll need a true mixer like the ones below from Mackie (which talk to your computer over FireWire).

These mixers also allow you to process and send the audio back to your guests (a process called mix-minus which prevents remote guests from hearing themselves in a loop). Keep in mind that to do things right, you'll need a dedicated computer for each guest. This setup is outside the scope of this guide (it will be covered in the book), but I explain this setup in greater detail in Episode 75 of The Afterdark Podcast on 5by5.

We have both an 8-channel and a 16-channel Mackie at 5by5. The Mackie 1620i served us well for many years, but we've recently switched to the UA Apollo, described in the next section.

If you have a newer Mac, it probably doesn't have FireWire, so you'll need the adapter to convert from FireWire to Thunderbolt. It's outrageously expensive, but the cheap copies won't work well, and you'll wind up just buying the Apple version later anyway.

I found that the pre-amps in the Mackies (and most of the other gear I tried) didn't push enough gain to the gain-hungry Heil PR-40's, and left little headroom for attenuation. Additionally, because we do a lot of live streaming and to eliminate as much post-production work as possible, I wanted to get the best signal possible from each host and guest. To do that, I put a DBX 286s Microphone Pre-Amp Processor in between each mic (or dedicated Skype computer) and the Mackie. You'll need a TRS cable for each channel, as well.

Extravagant

Over the last few years, as I've been working to streamline the 5by5 studio and our recording process, I wanted gear that could expand to handle any of our needs, eliminate the stack of DBX's we had in our rack, and be able to control the audio inputs via computer screen to allow for separate studio and control-room recording.

The answer is my current favorite piece of audio equipment, the Universal Audio Apollo, a rack-mounted mixer/DSP/Real-Time UAD processor combo that has changed how we work here in the 5by5 studio.

The 18x24 interface connects to your Mac or PC via FireWire (there's a Thunderbolt option as well), and combines hi-res analog recording with onboard UAD Processing and real-time plug-ins, with up to a sub-2 millisecond latency. It has 4 microphone pre-amps, four standard inputs, 8 line outputs, pre- and post-fader monitoring, works with Logic Pro X, Pro Tools, Cubase ... it really has everything. If you're really serious about building a higher end podcasting studio, you owe it to yourself to check out the Apollo.

Software

When it comes to audio-editing software, your options are almost unlimited. If you ask somebody what they use and why, you'll likely find that they have a fairly strong opinion about it. Wars have started over weaker opinions.

Audio editing software can be unecessarily complicated, so it's important to ask yourself how you'll be using it. Do you need advanced editing and audio processing features, or do you just want to record and produce a two-track podcast with intro and outro music? Will you be doing lots of post-production and editing, or do you prefer live-to-tape? Are you editing one show a week, or producing five shows a day?

The kind of show you record will help determine how you record it. I've outlined a few examples below, along with options for how you might edit and record your shows.

The Two-Person Skype Call

This is the most typical scenario. You call up a co-host or guest via Skype, and record the call with special Skype call recording software. Then after you're done recording, you open the audio file in an editing application, clean it up, do some post processing, add your intro and outro music, and publish the show.

Here's what I recommend for this scenario if you're using a Mac:

Here are my recommendations for Windows:

  • Record both sides of Skype calls with Pamela ($0) - I haven't used this myself
  • Edit and produce shows with Reaper ($60)

The Double-Ender (Two or More Skype Callers)

When you're recording a show that has more than one co-host or guest calling in, like the 5by5 show The Incomparable, instead of recording the entire call yourself (though you might still want to do this as a fallback), each host or guest (including you) records their own side (or "end") of the conversation locally and shares the resulting file with you.

This method guarantees the best level of audio quality, because everybody is recording their own microphone thereby avoiding bandwidth limitations, Skype issues, and other potential problems. You then re-assemble the conversation locally, with each person's audio file as a track in your audio editing application.

The result is a great sounding podcast, but there are a few caveats you'll have to consider:

  1. You're placing a burden on your guests by requiring them to record and upload their own track.
  2. It's extra work and time for you, because you will need to wait for the uploads and downloads before you can start editing or publishing. This can take hours or days depending on how connected and commited your co-hosts and guests are.
  3. You will have to deal with audio-drift, which happens because every computer records at a slightly different clock speed, and one track will get ahead of the other. A local recording of the entire conversation can be used as a reference point to help re-sync them.

Those potential issues aside, this setup is a great way to produce a high-quality podcast, and for many people, it's all they will ever need.

Studio-Level

If you want to ensure high quality audio without a placing any burden on your co-hosts or creating the additional post-production work for yourself, it might be time to consider the Advanced or Professional setups described above along with a multi-track recording application like Apple's Logic Pro X or Avid's Pro Tools.

At this level, you'll also want to setup dedicated computers to record each remote guest, rather than relying on double-enders and a single machine. This setup is outside the scope of this article (but will be in the book). I describe it in a bit more detail on Episode 75 of The Afterdark Podcast on 5by5.

At 5by5 to record and edit our shows (which are multi-track recordings, streamed live, we generally use Apple Logic Pro X. It's not without its bugs and idiocyncracies, but it's an affordable and reliable solution, and it's getting better with each update.

There are plenty of options for multi-track audio recording, but you don't have to spend a lot if you have a Mac. GarageBand is a perfectly good solution and costs nothing. Logic Pro X and Pro Tools 11 are having a nice war, and there are still other options like Adobe Audition available. Here are my top three:

  1. GarageBand ($0) - Mac OS X
  2. Apple Logic Pro X ($199) - Mac OS X
  3. Avid Pro Tools 11 ($575) - Mac OS X and Windows

There's a bit of a learning curve for both Logic Pro and Pro Tools, but if you're serious about podcasting and produce a lot of shows, it's well worth your time to learn.

Streaming

Live-streaming while you record is a great way to include your listeners in the fun of the recording process. It lets you interact with them in real-time through the use of chat rooms, IRC, and Twitter, and there's no better way to include them in your shows.

There are a number of moving parts you'll need to setup in order to live-stream your show, including special software on both a local machine where you are as well as software on a high-bandwidth server on the Internet.

Describing the live-streaming setup process is out of the scope of this article but will be fully explained in the book, but here are some recommendations:

On the server:

On a Mac:

On a PC (I haven't used this software but have heard good things about it):

As an alternative, you can use an expensive, dedicated hardware solution that takes the output from your mixer or computer and streams it to your hosted Icecast server:

Conclusion

I really hope that this guide is a useful tool for you to use when creating your own podcasts. Podcasting and Internet broadcasting is still a big, new territory with lots of room for different ideas and opinions, and the more I learn, the more I realize how much more there is to know.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope it's been helpful to you. And be sure to stay tuned for updated about the book by subscribing to my newsletter.

You can also follow me (and ask me questions) at @danbenjamin on Twitter.


Get the Newsletter

Subscribe to the newsletter for early access and updates about the book’s progress.