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Best setup for an interview-style podcast?
May 19, 2009 10:58 AM   Subscribe

What affordable equipment could I buy to have a simple, professional-sounding conversational podcast?

My podcast usual has a simple format: two people talking to each other at a table about a subject. Sometimes we bring in one or even two other guests.

So basically, it's an interview format.

I would like to invest between $100-$200 in whatever I need for 1-3 (and if possible, 4) people to sit around a table and talk. Right now, we just plug two headsets into my computer via a headphone splitter. It works fine but sounds kinda lame and feels iffy.

It seems like the Zoom H2 might be my best bet, but the concern is that it sounds too "airy" when it's set in the middle of the table with 2-4 voices around it.

Anyone have any other insight into this?
posted by superbird to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
How are you encoding your podcasts? If you're cutting down the bitrate fairly far, you might not notice the quality difference between basic mics and something fancier.

The biggest thing I'd work on would be watching levels, which isn't an issue of the tech itself, but how you use it. As noted on this podcast equipment list, a pop filter could polish your sound with whatever microphones you have (assuming there's not a pop filter already attached, of course).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:06 AM on May 19, 2009

It will be 'airy' for most mics if you put them on the centre of the table. You could try to get a piezo microphone, they're better at picking up multiple voices in a room, but then you have to be careful with accidentally banging on the table or the wall...

Apart from the mics themselves (there's tons, and for podcast you could simply get 2 or 3 $50-60 mics such as used SM58 ), make sure that the room you are in has good insulation. It can be as simply as adding a small carpet, or putting drapes on the windows. The 'radio' sound is a combination of very light reverb (or none at all), and close micing.
posted by ddaavviidd at 11:26 AM on May 19, 2009

I like the Zoom H2, and it might work well if your table is quite small. I've also used a plain old Logitech headset mic, and if you can find the sweet spot, the quality is very good -- a touch of reverb, and it's fine for radio.
posted by greatgefilte at 11:35 AM on May 19, 2009

I suggest a boundary microphone. Court reporters use them all the time.

Shure has one here.

You can plug it right into the Zoom.

I've worked extensively with the Zoom and it ain't half bad.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:49 AM on May 19, 2009

You could try to get a piezo microphone
Of course, I meant a PZM, which is a boundary microphone, not a piezo... (knock heads on keyboard, hrte ghirughuo g uh)
posted by ddaavviidd at 12:04 PM on May 19, 2009

The BEST thing to do would be have 4 mics all plugged into a mixer, each mic with their own volume level so you can adjust for each person's natural speaking ability. The mics should be spaced far enough apart and the pick-ups low enough that you don't record an "echo" (i.e. person 1 is speaking into person 1's mic, but person 2's mic is close enough that person 1's voice is picked up creating a mild reverb).

Unfortunately doing that for $200 will be a trick. You might be able to pull it off with used equipment and going with a standard analog (not USB) mixer.

I use the SM58s for my podcast as ddaavviidd recommended and they work great and get a great sound (you also need pop filters, but those CAN be made with a pair of pantyhose and a clothes hanger if you want to save a few looks ghetto but it works. Me, I bought pop filters at $15 a pop (no pun intended) on Amazon).

That is the "Right" way to do it. You'll also need, as was mentioned, an acoustically compatible room with no echoes and such. If you hear it in your ear, the mic hears it too.

The worst way to do it, in my opinion, is put something in the middle of the table, push record, and hope it picks you all up. This will produce copious amounts of background noise and each of you will have a different volume level depending upon your distance from the microphone. You would be looking at hours of post-processing work. Sure a boundary microphone will make you all intelligible, but it won't sound GOOD (and speaking as someone who's been podcasting for 4 years, if your audio quality isn't up to snuff listeners will push Stop).

Honestly, while you may not feel very "professional" doing it, getting four SOLID pairs of headsets with mics is not a bad way to go. Each person can adjust their microphone distance, mics are usually unidirectional so there would be little to no cross-talk (although the headphones will likely make it harder for you to hear each other in the same room). Given your starting budget, that's not a bad idea.

Another idea which you might consider, which I've done during a couple foursome reviews, is get two SM58s and plug them into a mixing board, or a recorder like the Zoom (I have a Zoom H4 and it is tremendous with its XLR inputs), and do 2-on-a-mic. Yeah, you're sitting a little bit close to your partner, and have to do the "lean in" to talk, but it works and gets really good audio.

But, seriously, since you're just starting out I think you have a great idea to keep the costs low. Start with the headsets and then if you continue and you find it worth it, spend the $400 or so to upgrade to a better rig.
posted by arniec at 12:07 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you're right, arniec. That makes perfect sense. Though it seems like 4 headsets all running into one small mic-jack through daisy-chained splitters may not be the best solution. Should I just spring for 4 usb headsets with a usb hub?
posted by superbird at 12:43 PM on May 19, 2009

A USB hub LIKELY won't work. You can only record from one audio source at a time. Each USB you plug in will appear to your system as a separate audio source.

I'd suggest not getting USB headsets but the analog ones you have. Daisy chaining the Y-cords isn't great though and can even cause feedback at times if you are doing it with both inputs and outputs.

Get yourself a cheap mixer like this one and plug all 4 headsets into it, then plug it into the line in on your computer (or you can get a fancier USB mixer if you like, but going cheap, this one or one like it will get the job done)
posted by arniec at 12:50 PM on May 19, 2009

(to clarify...a USB hub just gives your computer more USB ports to work from, so each of the 4 USB headsets will appear to the computer as a different source. The hub will not "mix" them any more than if you plug all 4 directly into your computer (if your computer has 4 USB ports). USB is digital, and digital doesn't "mix" like analog does. You would have to record 4 separate tracks, each from a different device. Maybe Pro Tools would do this, but nothing I've seen consumer grade will).
posted by arniec at 12:51 PM on May 19, 2009

I think that cheap mixer idea is exactly what I need. Thanks!
posted by superbird at 1:27 PM on May 19, 2009

One final question. Can you recommend some guarenteed good headsets that are also relatively cheap? It seems like buying headsets is a crap shoot.
posted by superbird at 1:27 PM on May 19, 2009

They really ARE hit or miss...

Believe it or not I actually have had good luck with this pair. I bought some for a remote user, who is using it both as a microphone and headset for remote conversations through Skype, and he sounds great on it. (You can listen to him, named Stuart, on if you want to hear a sample of the audio, and remember it's through Skype, it will be even better when plugged in directly).

I used to swear by the Logitechs, but their latest iterations have had horrible construction and bad microphones as well.

A few things I can tell you:

*Avoid any headsets sold at Radio Shack at all costs. One staff member got a pair there and, ughh, terrible, terrible, terrible.

*Open earphone headsets (Logitech makes one) will actually be a good thing for your "guys in a room" scenario because it lets you hear the sounds around you better...but if anything is PLAYING in those headphones it's bad, because then the audio bleeds out into a microphone. I bought one set once and everything from the headphones was getting picked up by my mic, causing an infinite loop of noise. So you may want those, you may not.

Good luck!
posted by arniec at 1:55 PM on May 19, 2009

For gosh sakes, please mic each person individually. You can use 3-for-20 dollar chinese mics, but mic everyone seperately. Get a mixer, and run the output from the mixer into your computer.
posted by YoungAmerican at 2:02 PM on May 19, 2009

Why would you use headsets? I don't understand this at all. Get a small mixer, used. Get some mics. That's all you need. Even a great headset will have a worse mic in it than a $10 fake SM-58 from Musician's Friend.
posted by YoungAmerican at 2:03 PM on May 19, 2009

In my experience with microphones you get what you pay for. For some reason I've had better luck with headset mics than standalone mics. I tried several sub $25 mics and some $50-ish mics and had no good luck, but that said I've not tried the fake SM-58 you speak of.

If you go the straight mic route, DO NOT hold the mics. The sound of a hand on the microphone will be everywhere. You MUST have mic stands, windscreens, and, preferably, pop filters.
posted by arniec at 5:59 PM on May 19, 2009

Don't use headsets.
posted by parmanparman at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2009

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