Setting up a home studio for podcasting

For a few years now I have been thinking of doing something with audio. It was Isabel Curdes on Twitter that set the right example by making audio versions of her blog posts as a trial that triggered me to actually start doing it. I want to set up a podcast / audio blog about things that interest me. There will probably not be an overarching topic other than that. 

Thinking of good topics is one thing, getting the right guests another. But I wouldn’t be me, if I did not take the technical side seriously, or wanted to bring it to a level of good production value. Below you will find a description of the gear I got and the changes to the room I made to get started, and also a list of things I might want to get in the future. 

Microphone

Every recording starts with a talent (in that case, me) in front of a microphone. Some models plug directly into your PC even, and you are set to go. The selection of models is very limited though, and with upgrades in the future in mind, I opted for a microphone with XLR connector and a separate recorder / interface. 

A good friend of mine, Michael Schuijff, lend me two of his microphones. The Rode Procaster and the Samson C03. The former is a dynamic microphone aimed at broadcast applications, which is reflected by its ‘character’, the way it ‘colors’ the sound. The latter is a multipurpose condensor microphone, which can be used in a cardioid pick-up pattern that is primarily sensitive in the front, a figure-eight pick-up pattern that is sensitive in the front and the back, but not to the sides, and an omnidirectional pattern. I also had the microphone included with the Zoom H5 recorder (spoilers!) and I bought a Rode NT-1 (2014 edition), that I could return within 30 days if I did not like it. 

I compared them all and recorded myself over and over reading the first pages of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama” and H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. I then got some friends to listen to the recordings without telling them which microphone goes with what recording, in the hope they would unanimously pick one as the best sounding option. Funnily enough, they couldn’t agree on which one sounded best and all had their own favorite for varying reasons.

To my ears, the Zoom H5 sounded adequate on its own. If you don’t want to spend any more money on a dedicated microphone, this is definitely a good option to start with. The Samson C03 sounded okay, but a bit too sharp for my taste, especially with the bass roll-off enabled on microphone itself. The Rode Procaster sounded very good too, and has a more typical radio sound to it, especially if you lever the proximity effect for that added bass. As Michael put it, you can probably make them all sound very much alike if you do some equalization and multiband compression after recording.

In the end, I ended up keeping the Rode NT-1 that I bought already. It is a large diaphragm condensor microphone and has a flatter frequency response than the Procaster. This takes away the character that the Procaster gives you, but is more suitable for singing too. As I am taking singing lessons from 25 September onwards it is the more versatile choice for me. If I want to have a character similar to the Procaster, it seems easier to me to add the character of the Procaster in the recording from the NT-1, than it is to subtract it if I don’t want it. The NT-1 is very sensitive though, and picks up the sound of my computer fans easily. I may have to orient my computer differently to improve airflow, or find a more silent cooling solution.

To mount the microphone, I got the Konig & Meyer 26085 microphone stand. It has a one handed adjustment mechanism and a round base to take less floor space. At its lowest setting it is the right height for me when seated, and it is more than tall enough for me when standing up right.

Field recorder and audio interface

We need some way or recording the signal that comes from the microphone. Because I want to be able to record on location, I opted for a field recorder over a fixed audio interface. For this, I require at least two XLR inputs and phantom power, so that I can hook up two quality microphones and can be use it to power condensor microphones.

In the consumer/prosumer market, two major players continuously pop up: ZOOM and TASCAM. There are many other options, but those demand higher prices or are aimed at different type of users. For the home user that wants an entry into recording, these options tend to be overkill and I won’t consider them here.

The ‘affordable’ field recorders by ZOOM and TASCAM can be coarsely split into 3 categories. In the first category, we find the ZOOM H1n & H2n and the TASCAM DR-05 & DR-22 WL. These models have a fixed microphone and only a simple 3.5 mm microphone jack for plugging in external microphones and can be bought for €90 – €125 new. These work great for recording speech, where the microphone can be close to the speaker, or as a light weight and cheap recorder for lavelier microphones.

One class up, we have the ZOOM H4n & H5 and the TASCAM DR-40 & DR-44WL. These models are quite a bit more expensive at €162 – €258 new, but offer better integrated microphones and pre-amplifiers, as well as two XLR/combo jack inputs and phantom power for using more professional and dedicated microphones. The H5 also allows the included microphone to be interchanged with for example a shotgun microphone, or a port extender that brings two more XLR ports to the recorder. Especially for videographers, the interchangable, recorder-mounted microphones can be good budget-friendly solution. 

The flagship models, the ZOOM H6 and the TASCAM DR-100MK III hover between €285 and €344 new, but accept 4 XLR plugs and allow the highest recording rates and resolutions. The DR-100MK III for example, even goes up to 192 kHz sampling rate, while most other models do not get further than 96 kHz.

The human ear allows us to hear frequencies from 20 Hz to 20 kHz (typical). Nyquist sampling theorem teaches us that we need a sampling frequency at least twice the maximum frequency we want to capture and reconstruct. In practice, we take a 10% extra to be on the safe side. This makes that we need a sampling frequency of 44 kHz or higher, a requirement that is met by all the recorders I briefly mentioned above. If you want to record music that includes brass or cymbals, sampling at 96 kHz is helpful in preventing aliasing (an effect where frequencies above our sampling frequency are picked up in frequencies below our sampling frequency). I couldn’t find any application that I am interested in, that requires anything higher than that.

The number of steps we use to discretize the signals that come from the pre-amplifiers, also known as the bit depth, determines the dynamic range of the recording: the difference between the smallest and biggest signals we can pick up. The good old CD recordings are in 16 bits, while DVDs and online streaming can go up to 24 bits. All recorders listed above can record in both bit depths, albeit not always at all sampling frequencies or with all channels at the same time.

With these requirements in mind, I eventually settled on the Zoom H5. The H4n would have sufficed, but the H5 appears to feature the better pre-amplifiers from the flagship model H6, allows to be powered over USB to safe battery and offers exchangeable microphones including an expansion for two more XLR ports. Moreover, it can be used as a capable audio interface that with the right drivers can be used to record directly to the PC too. 

Acoustic treatment of the room

I will make most of the recordings at home in our home office. Unfortunately, this room has a lot of reflecting surfaces and isn’t very big at roughly 2.5 m wide x 4 m long and 2.6 m high. One of the walls is largely occupied by book cases, the two short walls by a door to the hallway and one to the balcony. That left me with one big wall and a few smaller ones. This is not going to be a music studio, so I don’t want to go all-out. I did, however, want to take away most of the room reflections. For this, I ended up hanging acoustic panels on the wall.

The final result. In total there are 12 panels on the walls. Two of which are behind me in this photograph and two are out of the frame to the left. 

I bought the foam from Big Block, who had a discount on their 48 piece 30 cm x 30 cm x 5 cm wedge panels. The panels are made of polyether and seem to be very similar to the ones you can buy elsewhere. They make them in-house and say that is the reason they can offer them at a cheaper price. I noticed that the specified dimension of 30 cm along each edge has a tolerance of roughly -0.5 cm. Some of the panels I got were 29.5 cm along one side and 30.0 along the other. In practice, this will rarely be a problem.

It is commonly suggested that these foam panels can be mounted to the wall with double sided tape. Because the idea of having to peel ~250 pieces of tape off the walls if we ever move was not appealing, I mounted the panels on plywood panels of 60 cm x 60 cm. Because the panels are not exactly 30 cm x 30, I sanded the edges and painted those dark gray to match to color of the foam. 

On the backside of the wooden panels I mounted 4 rubber stand-offs that are normally used for furniture, and a metal wire to hang them on the wall. 

The bonding of the foam to the wood turned out to be more troublesome than I had imagined. I initially tried with broad strips of TESA PowerBond double sided tape. This did not bond very well to the wood and not to the foam either. From this, I moved on to Bison spray glue. I applied a single coating to the wood, and pressed the foam directly on to this. This is suggested on the packaging if you need a good adhesion, but want to be able to re-position the panels in the first few minutes. This did not work either. After drying and hanging, the foam came down the next morning. Perhaps, I should have coated both foam and wood, but this is definitely not a guaranteed solution. The spray glue is thin and leaks into the foam when sprayed on. Some people suggested 3M Super 77 as a good spray on alternative, but I could not source that from our local hardware stores. 

The Bison website suggested Bison Tix as the ideal solution from their product line for bonding polyether to wood. It is a gel and can be applied with a stiff brush or a glue spreader. Working outside or in a well ventilated room is very much adviced, as is working with gloves and safety goggles. I applied it to both the foam and the wood, and let it dry before bonding. It bonds instantly, and you need to apply pressure to improve the bonding strength. This seems to work really well. I used a can of 750 ml for eight panels, but if I had known how to apply it properly to the foam from the start, I think I could have managed to do all twelve. 

If we do not consider the expense of my failed attempts with spray-on glue and double-sided tape, the total cost adds up to 13.78 euro per wall-mounted panel, which is not that bad at all.

ItemPrice (euro)
Foam (48 panels, 30 cm x 30 cm x 5 cm)79.00
Plywood panels cut down to 12 panels of 60 cm x 60 cm32.77
Primer and gray paint15.48
Rubber stand-offs5.38
Bison Tex (750 ml) and Glue spreader20.78
Other bits and pieces12.00
Total165.41
Price per panel (12 panels)13.78

When recording, I hang an old comforter in front of the book cases to dampen the reflections even more.

Does it work? Below you will find the recording of me clapping in the room without and with the panels on the wall. You be the judge.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

To record and edit on the PC, you need a digital audio workstation. The Zoom H5 comes with licences for Steinberg WaveLab LE and Cubase LE. These programs seem to be really dialed towards music recording and production. I found them to be unintuitive and overkill for my needs. 

After watching (almost all) videos by ‘Booth Junkie’ Mike Delgaudio on Youtube and his excellent tutorials, I settled on Reaper. With Mike’s settings it makes sense to me, and offers everything I need for voice-over and podcast recording. It comes with plenty plugins for post-processing including a good compressor, noise gate and equalizer.

At 60 USD for a home user / small company license, it really cannot be beaten. 

Future expansions

Of course, there is always more to be bought that can improve audio quality, production value or just make life a bit easier. Already, I have run into a few things that might be nice to add in the future. I am not planning on getting these any time soon, but perhaps they are important to you.

Mixer

A mixer will allow you to balance and process the signals from your microphones before they go into the recorder. They typically offer better pre-amplifiers, a multiband equalizer, a compressor, and some effects. The latter may be nice for small bands or live venues, but are not required for home recording of speech. What is nice to have though, are several auxiliary outputs or sends. This allows you to ‘mix minus’, in which each speaker can hear the entire mix, i.e. the sounds effects and all other speakers, except themselves. This is especially useful when you have guests calling in remotely via Skype or phone. If you were to send them the entire mix, including their own signal, this might lead to unwanted interference. 

The Allen & Heath ZED 14 is a mixer I am very much interested in. At roughly 350 euro, it is still considered an entry level model, but it offers good pre-amplifiers, plenty of inputs (probably more than you will ever need for a podcast), 4 auxiliary sends and has 100 mm faders. In comparison to other offers in this price range from Behringer (XENYX series), Soundcraft (Signature series), Yamaha (MG series) and Mackie (ProFX v2 series), this seems to offer the best bang for your bucks. At least, if we have to go off the opinions of online reviewers and the audio nerds over on GearSlutz.com.

If you want to spend less money, but still have a very capable mixer, I suggest you look at the Mackie ProFX8v2. It is well regarded and considered very good given its price point of roughly 185 euro. The ProFX12v2 and ProFX16v2 are more or less the same model, but with more inputs in case you need that.

Voice chain

Post-processing offers a lot of versatility and options for compression, EQ, noise reduction etc, but some there is a convenience in doing it in hardware right away. Therefore, it is interesting to consider adding hardware to the voice chain between the microphone and the recorder.

Popular voice processors are the DBX 286s and the ART Voice Channel. The 286s costs only 155 euro, and offers a phantom powered connector, a pre-amp, de-esser, enhancer, compressor and an expander/gate that can be used in any combination. At 544 euro the ART Voice Channel is significantly more expensive, but that money will get you an analog processor that utilizes vacuum tubes which bring a certain analog character to the processed sound. It brings a pre-amp, compressor, de-esser, expander/gate, EQ and an analog-to-digital converter to the table.

Other microphones

I have to admit that my gear-acquisition syndrome is not limited to camera gear. It extends to audio equipment equally well and reading about recording online makes you feel you can never have enough microphones. And there are always better sounding ones than the ones you already own.

The Rode NT1 will be my main microphone for voice-over, especially in the ‘controlled’ environment of my home office. For recordings on location, I might want to throw in a few extra microphones. Especially for locations where there can be a lot of room noise, a microphone that is less sensitive than your average 1″ condensor, or has a tighter pick-up pattern may come in handy. For this, there are several options.

For outside recordings, a shotgun microphone would be a good option. Popular models to consider are the Rode NTG1/2/3/4 or Sennheiser MKE 600 / K6 / MKH 416. Their design with phase cancellation tubes makes them good to isolate sound from the environmental noise, but makes them less ideal in echo-y locations indoors. For this, a hypercardioid microphone is typically a better option. A model that often comes up is the Audio Technica AT4053b. A more budget friendly option is the Oktava MK012 with its interchangeable capsules. That being said, there are plenty of documentary makers that just use their shotgun mics indoors and just pay a little more attention to where the mic is placed.

Or what about a regular dynamic microphone that you place right in front of your interviewee? A Shure SM58 might work well for that, or its much cheaper knock-off, the Behringer XM8500.

Or maybe also an omnidirectional microphone to capture entire groups or ambient sounds to mix in as background audio.

There are lots of application specific mics, in an even greater range of prices to choose from. I definitely haven’t made up my mind yet on which I really need, which I really want and which I should actually buy. If any at all.

Headsets and monitor speakers

It is good practice to monitor the recording and listen it back using clear sounding, non-coloring head phones. I currently use the Sony WH-1000X II for this. I got them as a birthday present and have been happily using them for listening to music at work and on my commute ever since. The head set contains an internal EQ, however, that I can manipulate using the accompanying app, but which I often forget to set to neutral. A dedicated pair for recording would be nice-to-have. For example, the Audio Technica ATH M40x. If you want to go one step further, a good pair of monitor speakers might also be worth it. 

The aside

Something to keep in mind – and what I also have to keep in mind – when it comes to audio quality for podcasts, is that most of it you are doing for yourself and a handful of listeners that use quality equipment for playback. Your listeners will be listening on their laptops or phones using cheap in-ear plugs, or over their car stereo. The differences between 3 microphones, for example, are almost inaudible when listening to the recordings on your phone speakers or with in ear plugs. Invest in proper equipment, but don’t go overboard with it.