Building a studio for podcasts & radio drama

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I’ve been very gradually building up a home studio setup over the past four years, as Dead Medium Productions came together. Although my setup is very modest and modular, it’s capable of recording ‘broadcast quality’ radio either indoors out out, capturing four performers simultaneously, and editing the whole shebang in multichannel stereo.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the tech I use, as a guide for radio producers starting out. There’s lot of great advice out there about mics and speakers and so on, but it tends to focus on equipment which is way out of the price range of folks working on podcasts or public radio productions. For example This American Life have some great mic recommendations, but these tend to be very expensive, or not generally available in Europe.

To my mind, if you’re buying a 600 euro / 800 dollar microphone, you probably already work for This American Life. Mere mortals are more likely to be looking for better bargains. You really don’t have to spend crazy money to get good equipment. To start with, all you need to record audio is a WAV recorder. If you need to get a bit more professional, you can add in a computer, microphone, and an audio interface (to get the microphone to talk to the computer).

WAV RECORDER

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This is the most basic item of kit anyone capturing sound needs to have. Wav recorders cost anything from less than 100 euro, to thousands, and come in a bewildering variety of sizes and capacities. I use the Zoom H4N, a mid range device which is capable of great results, both with its two onboard condenser mics and external mics plugged directly into the bottom of the device.

The preamps on the zoom are weak, and button placement is pretty awful for run and gun recording. So the next step up if you can afford it, is the H4N’s big brother, the Zoom H6. The H6 boots up much quicker (which can be important say in an interview situation), and allows up to four external mics to be plugged in. It also supports a variety of different mic attachments. This is a huge advantage, as not only can you use different mics for different situations, but if the mic breaks you haven’t lost your whole investment. I’ve always been nervous about the exposed mics at the top of the H4N; and I’d definitely consider upgrading in future. The H6 is also built more sturdily, and has more intuitive controls. Preamps still suck though. In the same sort of price range Marantz offer larger, bulkier, sturdier devices, at a slightly higher price.

For interviews, I’ve often used the H4N handheld (with the included handle). It’s not ideal – the sensitive mics cause a lot of ‘handling noise’, it’ll pick up background sounds (say in a coffee shop) much too well too – but it’s extremely light and portable, and has been my workhorse for most of the current documentary series.

I’ve left the best part till last. You can use the Zoom H4N (or H6) as an audio interface for multi-track recording, with or without a PC. This means you can run two mics into the device (and even record a third person, using the two small condenser mics attached), and capture multitrack audio right onto the Zoom. So you can have your H4N set up on a table, without the need for a (potentially noisy) computer, and get amazing sound from two people from external mics, or great sound for one person from the internal mics.

CONDENSER MIC

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For voiceover, radio drama, podcasting and so on, a condenser mic is highly recommended. More sensitive to sound than a dynamic mic, they tend to require a quieter room, and tend to cost more too. However, a single good condenser can last you years, and serve multiple functions (from recording a singers vocals, to narration, to presenting).

Many folks starting out (especially podcasters) are tempted by USB microphones, since they’re cheap, sound fine and don’t require an audio interface to connect to your computer. Don’t do it. USB mics are a dead end. You’re unlikely to be able to get more than one to work with your computer at a time, which means you’ll have to spend twice as much if you want to add a mic to your setup in the future. Start right, with a nice low end XLR condenser mic, a cheap 2 or 4 port USB interface (or mixing desk if you can’t afford the interface yet – they’re often available dirt cheap second hand), and some free recording software. You can build up from there – adding mics, WAV recorders, etc as needed.

I’ve had my Rode NT1-A since 2008, and I’ve recorded some part of every scripted radio series I’ve made on it. It’s a beautiful, particularly sensitive piece of kit, and available with a ‘shock mount’ and ‘pop shield’ (to prevent plosive ‘puh’ sounds from ‘popping’ during recording) for around 150 euro / 200 dollars.

If you’re looking for something cheaper – say you need two or three mics to record a podcast. I’d recommend the Audio Technica AT2020. These mics don’t have the amazing sound response of the Rode. They also don’t pic up an ants sneeze like the Rode will, and are much better if you need to simultaneously mic several folks.

MIC STANDS

To keep it simple, I’d recommend a couple of desk tripod stands for recording spoken podcasts etc. Or a full sized ‘boom stands‘ for recording radio drama.

AUDIO INTERFACE

eiepro

Lets say you want to record two or four people chatting. Ideally you’ll want to record each voice separately, in case you need to adjust levels later. You can run all those tracks into a mixer (like a DJ might use for a live gig) but they come out mixed, feeding only one track into the computer. Instead you need an audio interface. I recently picked up the ‘AKAI EIE PRO‘. It’s a cheap, light four port device which outputs through USB. The AKAI is pretty much hassle free to set up and has a very clean sound – no detectable noise whatsoever. You can carry it in a backpack, for a good portable setup. It is a little quiet though, so you might want to pre-amp the microphones you’re feeding into it. In retrospect, I could have picked up a Zoom H6 for only 100 more, which would have served many more functions. Doh.

RECORDING / EDITING SOFTWARE

audition

If you have a Mac, Garage Band is free, reliable and easy to use for multitrack recording and editing alike. Just because I’m used to it, and because it’s so quick and flexible for ‘cutting’ audio, I prefer Adobe Audition. Like Garageband, audition supports multitrack recording. Audition’s great advantage is that it’s insanely fast. You can open a dozen audio tracks, each an hour long in audition in a couple of seconds, and play and edit them without lag – something other program struggle with. With a little practice, you can zoom in and out of the recording and cut it extremely quickly. Audition does take time to master however, I’ve been using it for three years and I would say I’m intermediate with the program.

Many editors / producers prefer AVID’s Protools, which is a nice program and certainly fully featured, but has one massive disadvantage. Protools not only requires you to plug a dongle in (using up a precious USB slot) when in use, but also requires your computer to be plugged into an audio interface (containing a DSP, or digital signal processer), usually the one the software came with. You can forget recording or editing your audio in a library or coffee shop, with pro-tools you’re chained to your studio. To me this seems ludicrous, but if it doesn’t hamper you too much protools is definitely an industry standard, and worth learning. It’s cheaper little brother Pro Tools LE, comes bundled with many audio interfaces (including the AKAI EIE).

COMPUTER

I record and edit radio drama on a 2013 Macbook Air i7, with 8 gigs RAM. This is probably overkill, but the speed definitely lets me work faster. Really any computer with a usb slot or even a line in will let you record audio. Any modern laptop or desktop (although probably not a netbook), whether Windows or OSX, should be fast enough to record and edit audio. I certainly do recommend the air for it’s speed, although the battery life is much better on the i5 models.

OUTDOORS MIC

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There are as many mic recommendations as there are situations in which to use them. For indoor recording, condensers like the ones recommended above are great. For a noisy environment, you might want to use a more traditional dynamic stage microphone like the Sure SM58. If you’re going to be wandering around outside however, or capturing sound in a variety of locations, some noisy, some quiet, you’re best off with a shotgun mic. I’ve just picked up a very low end model, the Rode NTG1.

Already I can tell it’s loud, muted and ideal for a outdoor recording. While the sound is very ‘flat’ compared to a condenser mic, it’s much easier to control the volume and direction. This will be my go to mic for interviews. You will need some sort of additional grip to use this thing off a stand (as it only comes with a mic stand adaptor).

For recording on location drama in stereo, I’d recommend Rode’s stereo condenser, the Rode NT4. Rode sell a kit that goes with this mic (or with the NTG1), which includes a ‘pistol grip’ and ‘blimp’. With this setup you can record outside, even in windy conditions and get better sound than you’ll hear on almost all radio program (and even movies). We used the NT4 and blimp to record all of ‘Any Other Dublin‘.

HEADPHONES

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Any cheap pair of headphones are fine for monitoring a live recording, or basic mixing. If you’re starting to produce for radio, a decent mid range pair of Sony or Seinheiser headphones will do fine. Unless you’re producing music, missing some high and low range sound will in practice not interfere with editing. If you do want to spend the money, I’d recommend Beyerdynamic’s D150’s. These headphones are balanced which means they support proper balanced audio for mixing. They have a very flat accurate response, so they’re not ideal for bass heavy music. For cutting voice though, they’re a great pair of light, comfortable, hardy headphones.

SPEAKERS

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I’m no expert on speakers, so I’ll just go ahead and recommend the kit I picked up on Chipzel’s recommendation. A pair of KRK Rokit 6’s. You’ll want surge protected power for these guys to protect them from power spikes, and ideally a DI box to, to protect them from damaging signals (especially if you’re going to play a guitar right into them).

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14 thoughts on “Building a studio for podcasts & radio drama

  1. Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for this excellent equipment guide. I’m pretty much at the level you are speaking to, here – in fact, I have mostly the same gear as you!

    Would you be able to share more information about your physical studio setup? Specifically, how your mics are laid out/isolated for recording four vocals simultaneously… Do you use sound shields or baffling? I’m just wondering what the best system is to keep each of the tracks as clean as possible with regards to the other voices.

    Thanks again.

    1. Heya Dave, happy to do so. For podcasting I don’t worry about it. The mics I use, despite being cheap as chips condensers (Audio Technica AT2020s), are only active on one side, and actually have pretty good fall off. Cross talk isn’t really an issue, even sitting a couple of feet from the other presenter(s).

      For commercial voice overs and radio work, I record my links on a Rode-NT1A in a quieter room, and it seems good enough for broadcast (certainly better than the muffled dynamic studio mics that RTE seem to prefer).

      If I were doing more radio drama work from home it might be an issue – but I’d probably just boom a mono shotgun mic for that anyway. Again I use a very cheap but effective mic – the Rode NTG-2.

      If you have the money for baffles, go for it, I’m sure they reduce cross mic interference. Hasn’t been an issue for me really. Bigger problem is getting four or five people to stay on mic, the few times we’ve done guests on one of my podcasts. Monitoring the levels on untrained folks who move around a lot, speak off mic etc is a bit of a nightmare!

      All that said, if I was buying equipment again – and it was just for podcast, rather than radio, I’d probably look into some reasonably high end headset mics instead. Easier for non-professionals to use, and podcasts that use them seem to get great sound.

  2. Hey Gareth,

    Really enjoyed this, some great information. I was just wondering if you have any experience with the zoom H6? I recently upgraded to it and it is a far more sophisticated beast than I was expecting.

    Using it to record a podcast with 3-4 people, all on individual mics with the xy mic for ambiance. The only problem I am having is the H6 constantly tells me it us unable to create project whenever I try to record directly to the SD card. I’m getting around this at the moment by using the H6 as an audio interface and recording directly to my laptop with Audacity.

    Any ideas on getting the most out of the H6?

    1. Hi Danny, I’m using the H6 myself these days. I haven’t heard of the error you mention. I wonder have you tried using a different SD card? Maybe the card is damaged or formatted incorrectly. It’s so much easier (and more reliable) just to record the show directly to the device. Incidentally, what’s your show?

      1. Hey Gareth,

        Thanks for getting back to me, you were dead right, SD card was the issue, replaced and H6 is back to being a dream boat! The show is called “What’s the Story?” we’re in the process of recording a few episodes and uploading in a batch. hoping to have it up on itunes in the next week or so.

  3. Hi Gareth,

    I was just wondering which microphone(s) you would recommend for recording radio sketch comedy (i.e. recording multiple people speaking/acting at once). There seems to be a lot of advice published online about the best equipment to use for podcasting, but relatively little for radio drama.

    Also, would I need more than one mic? Or would it suffice to have a single mic positioned centrally?

    Thanks in advance!

    Simon

    1. Hey Simon, very much depends on whether you’re planning on doing ‘studio’ or ‘on location’ recording. Assuming you’re recording inside, and you have a very quiet space available, I’d recommend getting two moderately priced condensers and simple table stands and pop shields. E.g.: audio techica at2020. If you don’t have quite as good control over your sound environment (say heating or AC in the room where you’re recording), a shotgun mic or two might be better – e.g: rode ntg2, but these are a good bit more expensive. Re: 1 mic or 2, I’d strongly recommend two. I’ve tried a bunch of ways of recording, but I’ve never found a mic setup that doesn’t get in the way of performance with just one mic for two people. Location recording is different, as you’ve got a boom operator to manually direct the mic between two or more people. But I’m no expert – I’d recommend asking on some of the forums for folks recording movie sound – which tends to be a lot better quality than radio stuff, their recommendations are likely to be a lot different – e.g.: DPA omni microphones.

  4. Really useful, Gareth – thanks! Re. studio or location recording, I had intended to record the voice stuff inside and then just set the scene with some wild track. Would you recommend the zoom or the rode model for the outdoor/ambient bit? What do you use your zoom h4n for?

    S

  5. I use the Zoom H6 now, but either way – I use it as a hardware recorder, rather than as a mic, plugging in external mics. If you’re just using the external mics for ambient recordings they should be fine, I’ve done a lot of ambi / atmos recordings with the H4 and if you’re careful to avoid handling noise (which is a bit of a hassle) it can get great results. You will definitely need the optional ‘dead cat’ though, to reduce wind noise.

  6. thanks for sharing such a useful information. I am building a recording studio also and I have just parchased an H5 ZOOM. Still a long way but with such information I am sure I will make it soon.

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