As Podcasting Goes Pro, So Does the Gear to Produce Them

Podcasting may have begun as a consumer application, but now thousands of professionals have a found a paying niche with specialty programming aimed at listeners throughout the world. As podcasts continue to grow, equipment manufacturers are targeting the market with a range of speciality gear.

Many pros see podcasting as basic radio and equip their podcasting studios like radio stations. That fine, but it’s a bit of overkill since most radio stations are designed for all day broadcasting by many people. Podcasting is more specialized and can be configured for either a fixed studio or portable gear you can take anywhere.

As with any task we do in life, it is important to first identify what your goals are for the podcast. As obvious as this is to say, I have known people who start podcasts that don’t do it. They virtually always fail. It’s like shopping for a personal computer or a camera without a clue as to what you want to do with it. Podcasting can be approached that way too, but I’ll guarantee disappointment with the results.

First, ask these questions. What is your podcast about? Be able to phrase the core idea in 10 seconds or less. Where will you do the podcast? In a studio or totally portable in the field. Or perhaps you need to do both. How many people will be involved on air and behind the scenes of the podcast? Will you have guests on the podcast? Will they phone in or always be there in person? Will they be pre-recorded or come to the studio?

The answers to these questions will determine the gear needed for the podcast, including microphones, audio board and computer. Workflow is important in podcasting, especially when you are taking feeds from outside. Trace everything you will do before buying gear — from pre-recorded openings, to post-production to hosting it online. No detail is too small to miss in planning.

Since we live in an era where broadcast-quality programming can be done from anywhere, podcasting offers a rich opportunity to explore a wide range of niche ideas. Luckily, there is battery-operated gear that can easily work on location. An Apple iPad or other tablet can now be used to edit and feed the audio online.

If a guest can’t come to a studio, it may require doing interviews in the field and then plugging it into the studio for the final production. This middle ground allows total flexibility and luxury of editing on a full size computer. It also allows call-in interviews via Skype or other messaging services.

Sweetwater Sound, a major pro audio dealer, said in a recent white paper on podcasting there is a direct correlation between complexity and flexibility in podcast setups. “The more flexible the technology, the more complex it has to be. Often (but not always) the most flexible and complex systems provide the greatest variety of options, with an increasing number of steps required to put various elements together, hence a more cumbersome workflow.”

Sweetwater does a ranking of three types of podcasting setups, with rankings from least (one star) to most (three stars) for each portability, complexity and flexibility.

Podcasting from a Studio

In looking at the three basic kinds of podcasting setups, let’s start with the studio. Here, we record material into a digital audio workstation, choose the best takes, make notes and add audio processing as needed. The sound is edited — adding music beds and effects. Finally, the tracks are mixed, mastered and then published.

Rather than having to use a full size radio station console for this, there are small combo units that work very well. Leaders in podcasting gear include Tascam, with its Ministudio Creator US-42 ($199); Yamaha, with the AG06 USB audio interface ($199); and Sound Devices, whose new MixPre-3 ($649) and -6 ($899) have features for podcasts.

Tascam MiniStudio Creator US-42

Tascam MiniStudio Creator US-42

The Tascam US-42 features two mic preamps that double as instrument inputs and onboard sound effects that provide for openings, track beds and closings for a podcast. It also has a four-band parametric EQ, compression and reverb to sweeten voices or instruments. There’s also an on-air button for live streaming, or a creator mode for offline production.

Yamaha AG06

Yamaha AG06

Yamaha’s AG06 has 24-bit/192kHz audio quality and can be used for not only podcasts, but for gamers and mobile musicians. Users can connect a mic or headset into channels one and two, add compression, EQ and reverb and begin the production. Instruments can also be plugged for direct recording. The AG06 has a loopback function for live streaming.

Sound Devices MixPre-6

Sound Devices MixPre-6

The new Sound Devices’ MixPre-3 and -6 are multi-function mixers that feature USB connections to personal computers. The devices offer the ability to record audio to an SD card while simultaneously streaming multiple channels of audio via USB. This is useful for doing interviews, podcasts or as a backup recorder to your computer. MixPre devices can also be used for Skype or Facetime interviews.

Studio setups benefit from being stationary. Dedicated production spaces allow users to control the studio acoustics, use audio monitors and keep microphones mounted to broadcast booms or heavy mic stands. There is no set-up each time a new podcast is produced. This results in less complexity and an easier to learn system.

Mobile podcast kit

Mobile podcast kit

Mobile Podcasting

With mobile podcasting, users have to setup their gear each time, which — for non-technical types — can be confusing and lead to mistakes. However, it does allow the podcaster to adapt to the myriad of situations encountered in the field.

Audio is often recorded into a mobile digital audio workstation on a tablet or PC. Editing is also usually accomplished this way, though using portable applications can be more cumbersome in touchscreen environments. Audio monitoring will need to be done via headphones and clean up of audio to compensate for non-ideal recording environment can be a challenge, especially for novices.

In a mobile podcasting rig, the idea is that the podcaster can pull out a phone or tablet, hook up a microphone or two, record the show and post it all online. Nothing beats this for on-location interviews that need to go online as soon as possible.

However, mobile podcasting complicates the workflow, as the user is forced to work around the limitations of the technology in the field. Outside the studio, sound problems are everywhere and can be difficult for amateurs (and some pros) to solve. The need to work in these situations can make getting consistently good audio quality challenging.

Shure MV88

Shure MV88

Gear for mobile podcasting is abundant. Apple’s iPad, wireless headphones and a Shure MV88 ($149) or Apogee MiC 96k ($229) are about as simple as field podcasting can get. Many small mixers can be plugged into iOS or laptops to add more microphones.

Apogee MiC 96k

Apogee MiC 96k

USB microphones that simply plug into the USB port of tablets or laptops are available from a wide range of manufacturers. Another portable option is the Shure MVI ($129), a small device which allows any XLR mic to be plugged into any kind of computer.

Hybrid Podcasting

Obviously, hybrid podcasting systems offer the most benefits, since they allow the convenience of mobile work and the comfort of doing the actual broadcast in a podcast studio.

However, hybrid podcast systems are more complex and require some expertise to setup. Workflow is more essential to figure out in advance. That’s because the user has to conform to a mobile workflow and then find an efficient way to import the work into the studio operation. It requires someone with technical expertise.

Hybrid systems, when not established initially, are usually the result of either wanting greater mobility from a studio system or greater editing power from a mobile system. If you can afford a hybrid system and your concept can use it, the best thing to do is start with the capability of both systems.

Now, Put the Technology Aside

In any discussion of podcasts, technology often swamps the essential, main idea. That core idea is the essence of what the show is about and what is the story the producers are trying to tell. Keep your eyes on the prize. Until that essential element is well thought out, the technology means nothing. No technology can save a show that lacks focus or a compelling story.

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