THE other week, the allmediascotland Media Clinic posed a question for Scotland’s media community to help answer.
One question was posed and five answers were received.
The question was: I am wanting to do podcasts for my website, comprising one-to-one interviews. What kit will get me the best audio quality results?
The answers offered – for information purposes only and should not be regarded as binding or legal advice – are from (1) freelance video camera operator and sound engineer, Ian Cowie, (2) David Boyes, director of WordMediaCo, (3) Matthew Magee, editor of legal news service, Out-Law.com, (4) Dave Rattray, managing director of WellContented.com and (5) Steve Tracy, audio supervisor at BBC Scotland.
(1) I personally use a digital sound recorder, the Tascam DR 100 Mk ll, which has standard, professional three-pin XLR inputs for a microphone and other inputs. It costs around £300.
It features four on-board mics; in other words, microphones built into it. But I’d recommend purchasing two external tie-clip microphones that you plug into it. One microphone for the interviewer, the other for the interviewee.
Its decent size make all the functions relatively easy to operate. It has the option of using the internal, re-chargeable lithium ion battery or AA batteries.
The quality of recording is excellent. Of the recording formats available – MP3 or WAV, I’d go for WAV, because it is uncompressed whereas MP3 is compressed. On a 2GB SD memory card, using WAV, at 24 bits, gets you about two hours’ worth of recording.
It might take a little time to familiarise oneself with scrolling menu and the size and quality of the display.
Of the tie-clip mics available, there is the Audio Technica PRO 70 (at about £100 each) or the Tram TR50BPS (at about £300 each). Both are good, with the latter truly broadcast standard. Both have power packs which you run (as so-called ‘phantom power’) by plugging them into the Tascam.
To ensure you get the best quality from whatever mics are used, it is essential to monitor as you record, with a quality set of headphones. For me, there is only one option when it comes to performance, comfort and sufficient noise isolation: Senheisser HD25-1-ll, costing around £140.
To upload the recording onto whatever device you are going to edit it on, the SD memory card can be removed and popped into a card reader. Or there is the option of connecting the Tascam to your editing device – your computer/laptop – via an USB cable.
Recording in stereo mode enables you to do any necessary corrections to the tracks independently.
(2) The absolute cheapest, and most basic, way to get started recording sound for podcasting is to purchase a USB microphone (costs from about £50), which, as its name suggests, plugs straight into your USB socket.
Cheaper ones utilise the sound card on your computer, dearer ones have an in-built digital converter, which takes over the soundcard role and provides superior audio results.
The Rode Podcaster is probably the pick of the bunch and retails for between £199 and £270 or thereabouts, depending on how you mount it, including in a cradle or on a moveable arm. These mics are of the condenser type and draw power through the USB connection on your computer. You hook it up to your computer and open up whichever recording software you have on it, such as GarageBand on Macs or Audacity (which is a free downloadable programme) on PCs.
It’s that straightforward. This set-up is basic but portable.
However, recording two voices into one mic has potentially practical repercussions, not least trying to equalise the inevitably different volumes of the interviewer and interviewee when it comes to editing/post-production.
If you wish to increase quality and control, then you’ll have two consider a fundamentally different set-up. So let’s start with mics. You’ll need two – one for the interviewer and the other for the interviewee – and you want also to aspire for as good a sound as a reasonable budget can get. Then the choice is between dynamic and condenser-type ones. Dynamic ones are cheaper and more robust when on the move. But condenser, fragile things that they are, are better, in audio terms.
You set your mics on a stand or stands and then plug them into a digital audio interface, which doubles as a mixer and which will convert the analogue signals from the microphones into a format that can be used on your computer and therefore its editing package.
You can get analogue mixers and USB ones too. But for your mixer to easily ‘speak’ to your computer, I’d go for a digital mixer/audio interface, such as the M-Audio Fast Track Pro (at about £70). This then links to your computer by USB 2.0 or by Firewire, which are both pretty fast and secure connections.
To make the recording actually happen, you need software on your computer. There is a blizzard of programmes out there, some of which come in ‘lite’ form, as a free gift when you purchase a digital audio interface.
If you have a Mac, you’re laughing. Seriously. Macs come with GarageBand software (if not, buy it in the App Store for about £15). Garageband is a cut-down version of Logic Pro – one of the recording industry standards. It is fast, stable, sophisticated and able to handle all sorts of projects, including podcasting, for which a recording template is in-built. It links direct to iTunes, where, ultimately, your podcast will reside.
However, for those with PCs, life can be more complex. Cakewalk, Propellerhead, Reason and Pro Tools are just some of the recording software programmes vying for your attention. But they cost. The free Audacity gets good reviews. I have used it. It’s okay, but it can crash now and again (as can any project on a PC-based set-up) and that can be a living hell. The most important thing to know about PC-based recording is this: save your project regularly. Macs and GarageBand tend not to crash. Trust me. I know.
Almost finally, you will need to be able to hear what you are recording while you are recording. That means headphones or studio monitors.
By hooking up your mixer to your computer, you disable your computer’s sound card. But anyway, why would you want to judge the sound of your recording through your tiny computer speakers?
So, choice one is listen in via headphones that are plugged into your computer. Or listen via ‘studio monitors’, which are basically speakers each with their own little amplifiers, to power the sound.
Studio monitors will cost upwards of about £250 and of course pre-suppose that all your interviews will be taking place in the one location, because they are quite bulky things to carry around.
That’s it. Well almost. You’re now ready to do anything you want, at a premium quality, with good solid control and decent equipment.
The next step is to get your podcast out there. The thing about podcasting is it’s supposed to be a series of episodes. I admit my ignorance at this point. Some of the questions I don’t know the answer to are: Where is it hosted? Does it have to be search engine-optimised? What about artwork to go with it? Is it just a case of hit the ‘share’ dropdown and that’s you? Does the podcast have to be managed or refreshed in any way?
Maybe the basis for a future question for your Media Clinic?
(3) I have produced podcasts for Out-Law.com for four years and these are some thoughts on how to do this on absolutely the lowest possible budget. It can be done really cheaply. Here’s how.
You need a microphone, something to record into and something to edit your material on.
You could spend as little as £21 on a pretty decent microphone (for instance, a Behringer XM8500 Ultravoice dynamic cardioid vocal microphone).
Digital recorders are commonly used now but if you need your system to be very cheap then pick up a second hand mini-disc recorder and record straight into it, moving the microphone back and forward between you, the interviewer, and the interviewee. Second-hand mini-discs are cheap to purchase.
When you press the ‘record’ button on the recorder, you need to be careful not to rely on any ‘auto-level’ function. Always set your own audio levels and, before recording for real, do a little test, so that you get as much sound in as you can without it distorting.
Like digital recorders, mini-disc recorders are portable. The drawback compared to hard disk digital recorders is that transferring your recording into your computer is done in real time; if the interview is an hour long, it takes an hour for the recording to be transferred to your computer.
You connect the two devices with a cable, with a headphone-sized jack at either end. You record the material into your computer using whatever recording software you have, such as Audacity which is free, works on PCs and is good enough for pretty much any speech-only application. If you already have a Mac then the included GarageBand software is probably even easier to use.
(4) Creating quality podcasts can be a great way to generate new business, build your reputation as an expert, or get your message out to a global audience.
Podcasting is not technically hard to do and achieving professional results should be well within the reach of most people who know how to work a computer.
To get a quality recording you should carefully select a quiet room away from passing traffic, barking dogs, telephones and other distractions. Try to avoid using a large uncarpeted room, as your voice will create an echo that will be heard in your recording.
You could, of course, the microphone built into your computer but it is unlikely to be of a decent quality.
I use a digital recorder, a Blue Yeti USB microphone for podcasting because it is easy to use, versatile and produces a quality recording. I have used Zoom H4 recorders and Shure microphones in the past but believe that the Yeti is the best USB microphone available for under £100.
I work on Apple Mac computers and use their GarageBand software for capturing and editing podcasts. GarageBand has a special template for making podcasts and the user interface is intuitive and easy to master. If I were recording a podcast on a PC, I might use Audacity, or Adobe Audition.
In general terms, when recording, try to maintain a constant distance between your mouth and the microphone; this will ensure that you don’t get large fluctuations in the sound level during your recording.
If possible you should adjust the settings so that your recording is being sampled at a rate of 44.1 KHz with 16 bit resolution in either mono or stereo channels.
Keep an eye on your volume level during recording and make sure that you don’t let it go into the red, as this will spoil your podcast.
If you are using jingles or music to enhance your podcast, ensure that you have permission from the copyright holders, or alternatively use some royalty-free music, if you don’t want to land in a spot of legal bother.
It goes without saying that – during post-production – you will want to remove coughs, pauses and ums.
(5) The digital recorder, the Nagra ARES M, is an impressive piece of kit.
It comes with a clip-on microphone and windshield, with the option of adding a hand-held mic.
It has an integral, 4GB memory (that’s about five hours’ worth of recording time) and a USB for download on to a computer for post-production – say on GarageBand – to then turn your recording into a podcast.
It also comes with the options PCM 16 (linear record) and also compressed MP2/3 formats.
Other options are Marantz PMD 671 and the Fostex FR2 LE, which are similar in terms of audio quality to the Nagra, and both with removable memory cards. These both require external hand-held mics.
As for hand-held mic options, try the Audio Technica AT8033 or the Beyer M58 or the AKG D230.
For kit, check out our allmediascotland.com STORE.
Our next question for the Media Clinic is: What can be done to prevent my company’s online activity ending up as legal action?
If you would like to suggest an answer – in the spirit of camaraderie – please do send it to us, here, for possible publication on January 8.