Do’s and Don’ts of Buying Podcasting Gear

Gear Essentials, Illustration by Michelle Kondrich
Gear Essentials, Illustration by Michelle Kondrich

Two pros explain what you need, and how to get it without spending a fortune.

Podcasting can be as simple as hitting record and lightly editing the audio of a conversation via your laptop—or as sophisticated as recording an episode in a studio with top-of-the-line equipment. And there’s plenty of room in between to put together a recording rig to create great-sounding podcasts, without breaking the bank or amassing a huge amount of audio equipment.

Two pro podcasters shared tips with us on what gear they found crucial when starting out, and what aspiring podcasters should also take into account when purchasing gear.

Do: Invest in a digital recorder

Steven Ray Morris, the lead audio engineer at the Exactly Right podcast network—meaning he's a producer for podcasts such as My Favorite Murder and The Murder Squad—considers a dedicated, stand-alone digital recorder the best investment he made when he first got into podcasting. "It's a little bit more reliable than a computer," he says, while pointing out that machine malfunction or failure is always a possibility when depending on a laptop alone.

His recommended starter digital recorder is a Zoom H4N, which retails for a little over $200 new. If you don’t have the cash for that, there are other, more affordable devices you can use to record and store your podcast audio files, which is the most important feature of a digital recorder. Naturally, there are trade-offs with less expensive options; for example, the Zoom H1N (which can be found online for less than $100) doesn't allow people to plug in external microphones, meaning your audio quality can vary depending on your recording environment.

Freelance producer Megan Tan—who created and hosted the award-winning podcast The Millennial and has also done production work on Gimlet Media’s The Habitat and NPR’s Planet Money—also considers digital recorders a must. With a background in photojournalism and documentary filmmaking, she has experience using devices such as the Tascam DR-100MKII and Zoom H5.

For those on a budget, many online platforms (including eBay, NewEgg, or Amazon) sell used or refurbished digital recorders at far less than retail price.

Do: Pick a high-quality microphone

Morris stresses that the quality of a podcast's sound is directly tied back to the quality of the microphone. Luckily, a three-pack of Behringer XM1800S microphones runs for less than $50 and is perfectly suitable for starters and veterans alike. In fact, Morris says many well-known podcasts still use them since they’re so durable and offer stellar audio output—as do $40-a-pop Shure SM48-LC Dynamic mics.

Tan uses a RØDE NTG4 shotgun microphone and also pairs it with a mic grip, which she views as a must for better-quality audio. "Then you can point it in any direction that you need to, and you won't hear the muffle that your hands will make in the recording," she says.

Do: Choose software and apps carefully

Audio production and editing software are key to producing professional-sounding podcasts. Luckily, free programs such as Audacity and GarageBand are robust enough to be suitable for new podcasters.

More advanced paid options (known as Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs) offer more editing capabilities and tools in post-production—for example, better noise removal, more precise cutting options, and more ways to organize audio edits. Tan started off using Reaper (whose license is either $60 or $225, depending on your usage); other options include ProTools (subscriptions start at $29.99/month), and Adobe Audition ($20.99/month for individuals)

There are also apps for recording; Tan sometimes uses her phone to record conversations on the go. There are quite a few apps on the market to choose from, but some of the most popular are TapeACall (the pro version is $10.99) or Ecamm's Call Recorder for Skype (which has both free and paid tiers).

Don't: Forget the basic accessories

In addition to the essential equipment—a computer with the appropriate software, digital recorder, and microphones—you need to make sure you have auxiliary accessories, including XLR cables to connect recording equipment to computers, as well as headphones and SD cards to store audio files. More advanced podcasters may want to invest in a multichannel mixer, which gives you more control over sound levels—a helpful feature, especially during roundtable discussions.

Do: Tailor your gear to your podcast approach

A conversation-based podcast format is different than a reported, episodic podcast—which, in turn, is different from a podcast with a first-person perspective.Your gear should reflect and respect these differences, Tan says. "The whole premise [of The Millennial was] that I'm recording my life as it unfolds in real time. It's not [that] I'm sitting in a studio interviewing guests."

For her, using small digital recorders made the most sense, since they were portable, easy to set up (and tear down) on the fly, and versatile. "[With the Zoom] H5, I can also set up two microphones and do a sit-down interview if I wanted to, and have the same control."

Morris adds that your recording method also dictates what gear is best, although this can complicate things. For example, if you prefer to create your podcast directly through your computer using a program such as Audacity—rather than recording audio into a digital recorder, which stores files offline—you might also need an audio interface, which costs in the $100-$150 range, to facilitate recording. (Morris says a more affordable option is to get a USB microphone, which plugs directly into the computer.)

Do: Consider your recording environment

Having great gear can only do so much to ensure a quality recording. Equally important is your environment, which goes a long way toward determining sound quality. Tan says that the best advice she ever received from a podcaster was to unplug the refrigerator before recording, so there wasn't ambient buzz picked up in the background.

To mitigate echoing audio, Morris says people might have to hang blankets or pillows in a room, or record in a closet. (When Tan started recording The Millennial, that's where she set up her studio.)

Morris has also become adept at clever troubleshooting while serving as the engineer of the podcast Do You Need a Ride?, where My Favorite Murder co-host Karen Kilgariff and comedian Chris Fairbanks interview comedians while riding in a car to or from an airport.

"It was constantly getting feedback, evolving my set-up in real time, because every week starts with discovering something new that was challenging," he says. For example, to account for equipment instability in a moving vehicle, Morris bought a lap table (like you'd use for a laptop) and strapped his gear to that.

Don't: Feel compelled to buy a ton of equipment right away

Above all, before even diving in and making equipment purchases, Morris suggests aspiring podcasters try recording an interview to see if they even enjoy the process. If they do, then there's no shortage of gear or software available to buy—eventually.

"How I found my way into this career and invested in it, in a sense, was not feeling like I needed to get everything at once—but instead being like, 'All right, I'm feeling this is not working. What can I do?'" he says. "And then [realizing], 'Oh, cool, if I buy this thing—or if I invest in this thing—this'll make my life a lot easier.'"

Tan, meanwhile, stresses that creating a podcast about which you're passionate is the most important part of the process. "People should make something that they really love," she says. "Podcasting is a lot harder than people think. And if you're going to be in the dark editing, or running around with any kind of equipment or investing in anything, make something that you genuinely really love, and try to make it something that you feel like other people would really love."

—Annie Zaleski