My Podcast Setup and Signal Flow
If you’re looking to start a podcast, one of the first things on your mind is how to make it sound good. There’s a quite a bit to that question, but I’ll start by telling you everything in my signal flow.
What you’ll need, generally speaking, is a microphone, pre-amp, audio interface, mic stand, and headphones. I’ll give you my setup, then make some recommendations for you.
My Podcasting Equipment
Microphone: Shure SM7B
I love this microphone. It’s a famed mic for some of your favorite music artists, and you’ll also see it frequently used on radio shows and prominent podcasts. It needs a lot of gain – meaning it’s pretty quiet – which also means it doesn’t pick up a whole lot of background noise. The room I record in is untreated, and the mic does a pretty good job of rejecting the natural reverb in the room. I keep my windows open and there’s plenty of street noise, and that doesn’t make it to the final recording either. It’s about $400, and I highly recommend it.
Pre-Amp 1: dbx 286s
This is a new addition to my setup, and it adds a little dynamism to my voice. For whatever reason, this pre-amp introduces a lot of background noise (often called “hiss”), though it’s not too noticeable. For about $200, it’s about as good as I’d expect it to be.
I’m still looking for the optimal settings to reduce the background, but overall I’m pretty happy with it. It’s a channel strip, so it has lots of onboard processing to alter the character of your voice and recording signal, including a compressor, a gate, low and high sweetening, and a de-esser.
Pre-Amp 2: Universal Audio Solo 610
This is the main pre-amp I’ve been using for the last 2 years. It’s excellent, and a well-known piece of studio gear you’d see in the top recording studios in the world. It comes at a cost though: $1,100 new, or about $700 used. It sounds fantastic, quite warm, and has plenty of gain to power the SM7B. Just to be clear, you only need one pre-amp, so I only use one at a time. And in fact, depending on the mic and audio interface you choose, you may not need a pre-amp at all. Generally a pre-amp will help you sound a little better.
You’re probably wondering if the UA Solo 610 is worth it. That really depends on you. For me, I’ve really enjoyed the sound of it, but it’s hard to justify the cost given that I’m only using it for podcasting. I’ll probably sell it and stick with the dbx, but it’s been a nice piece of kit while I’ve had it.
Audio Interface: Focusrite Scarlett Solo
If you want something that’s dead simple plug and play (on Mac, at least), I’ve really loved the Focusrite Scarlett Solo. It has one instrument and one microphone input, phantom power if you need it, and two stereo outputs on the back. That’s it.
The latency is very low, meaning you get accurate timing on your recordings if you ever track vocals to music, which I do occasionally. It also has a live monitoring throw switch that allows you to hear yourself in headphones when you’re speaking into the mic. This is really useful if you record interviews.
At $110, I highly recommend it.
Boom Arm: Heil PL-2
I typically sit at a desk when I record, and I like to have a desk-mounted arm for my mic. I’ve bought everything from $20 booms up to $200+, and there’s a definite difference. The Heil PL-2 isn’t cheap, but it’s quiet, stays wherever you move it, and is super quality. It also extends to accommodate a standing position, which is especially useful (and surprising, because I’m 6’5”).
Headphones: Whatever You Choose, Go Wired
When I record solo podcast episodes, I don’t use any headphones. I just press record and speak into the mic. When I’m recording interviews, I use these cheap $9 earbuds with a 3.5mm plug. The reason I use them is because they’re small and unobtrusive – they don’t mess up my hair, and when I’m recording an interview I’m not wearing a giant pair of headphones. You can hardly notice them, and that’s what I wanted.
Unless you’re doing field recordings, I don’t think your headphones make any difference. Choose whatever you like, just make sure they’re wired. This removes any and all latency, whereas bluetooth will introduce a delay.
I didn’t buy all of this equipment at once, I mostly bought it one piece at a time over months and years. If you’re looking to invest in or upgrade your podcast setup now and don’t want to spend $800 to $2,000, there are plenty of alternatives. And I’ll tell you this: if you have nothing but your laptop microphone right now, you don’t need to spend much to sound dramatically better.
Use What You Have, $0
If you don’t want to invest any money in a setup at all, just use what you have. You can hook up the wired headphones that came with your phone, plug them into your phone, record yourself, then save the file to Dropbox or Google Drive and do your edits on a computer. If you record in quiet place, you can get a good-enough recording this way. If you’re not sure how committed you are to podcasting, or just want to try it out, this’ll get you recording in the next two minutes.
Minimal, Under $100 Set Up
If all you can spend is $100 or less, I highly recommend grabbing the ATR2100. You plug it in via USB and it just works – no audio interface needed. That’s because it has the audio interface built right into the mic, including a headphone jack. The mic comes with a desktop stand, which is usable, and a USB cable. Grab yourself a windscreen to put on the mic, and you’ll be ready to record.
Much Better, Under $500
If you’re not willing to spend around $500, stick with the ATR2100 because spending a little more won’t make a noticeable difference. Once you get to the $500 price point though, you can improve your sound a lot. For that, you can pick up the SM7B, Focusrite Scarlett Solo, and a cheap arm for right around $500. If you’re willing to take your chances and buy used on eBay, you can probably get the whole kit for around $400. My experience is that the Scarlett Solo has enough gain to power the mic, but many people add a Cloudlifter for $150 to boost the gain of the mic. If budget is a factor, you can get away without it.