Podcasting on a Budget

The original version of this post, which was uploaded as a separate html page, had the lofty distinction of having been the first to use the phrases, “Podcasting on a Budget” and “Podcasting for Dummies.” It’s been revised because it was getting more hits than any post on Steel White Table — except it wasn’t on Steel White Table.

Topics covered in this article:

— How to pick a good microphone and a mixer.
— How get by without a good microphone or a mixer.
— Basic microphone technique.
— What cables and adapters to use.
— How to hook all this junk up to your computer.
— Recording audio magazines (or podcasts) with free audio software.
— Reducing noise and removing hiss.
— Encoding audio to MP3 format with free software.
— Tagging (or labeling) MP3s with free software.

There are several ways to go about recording podcasts. This is simply what was easiest for me at the time. And if you’re reading this in 2010, most of the information presented here is probably already out of date.

So here’s how I used to record my occasional podcasts (or audio magazines), and how I did it without much money.

When I took my first shot at recording podcasts, I fooled around forever with PC microphones — headset designs, clip-ons, table tops, everything I could get my hands on. Although they may work well enough with voice messengers such as Yahoo Messenger and Skype, for recording good audio, PC microphones are garbage. You will never get good quality if you have to plug your microphone directly into your PC through a 3.5mm plug. (Update: Who cares? If you’re happy with a crappy mic, then use it!)

OLD TAPE DECKWhat you need is a half-decent microphone and an external mixer, or a reasonable facsimile. If you don’t have a mixer, you can even get by with an old tape deck that has 1/4-inch microphone plugs. Just plug your mics into the tape deck; stick a tape in and hit RECORD; make sure the levels aren’t too high; then plug the output from the tape deck into the line-in port of your PC. (When recording on your PC, make sure you have LINE-IN and/or STEREO MIX selected as your input. Hopefully, you can figure that part out yourself, because it’s too involved to get into here.)

Now, to connect the output from a mixer (or from an old tape deck) you will most likely need a stereo Y-adapter cable with two RCA plugs on one end leading into a single 3.5mm stereo plug on the other end (i.e., 2 plugs on one end with a single walkman-size plug on the other end, which plugs into the back of your PC). I bought one of these cables for a $1.50 at a dollar store. (Note: If the soundcard on your PC has 1/4-inch or XLR inputs, which is fantastic, then you’ll want to use them. Though it’s very unlikely that anyone with that kind of equipment is concerned with recording anything on a budget.)

As for the microphones, you’ll probably want to use what’s called an XLR microphone — which means they’re good but they’re not cheap. The Shure 58 is the standard for XLR microphones, but the JTS PDM-3 is cheaper and just as good. I have a JTS and an even cheaper Audio-Technica mic, and both sound great. In Canadian dollars, these two microphones (and their cables) cost me at least $250 — and that’s cheap. It’s kind of expensive in my book, but when I bought them a few years ago, I was able to afford them.

(Update: Forget about it. Don’t let a lack of expensive equipment get in your way of having fun. The most fun I ever had podcasting was when I was working with cheap equipment. The sound quality was crap and the levels were off, but it was a good time — and of all the podcasts I posted to Steel White Table, those initial ones are my favorites. The great thing about cheap gear is you don’t have to worry about it. You know it’s crap, so you can forget about having to fine-tuning the equipment. Just plug it in and go, and have fun.)

On the other hand, if you’re just going use your old tape deck as a mixer (more as a pre-amp than a mixer, but don’t worry about that), you don’t need XLR mics. You can go for your basic no-fills microphone. These babies use a standard 1/4-inch plug, and you can plug them into any old tape deck, or even a cheap mixer that doesn’t have XLR inputs. They won’t sound as good as XLR mics, but as long as you don’t scream and yell into them all the time, they’ll do the job. The key to using cheap mics is don’t touch the damn things. They pick up every vibration and click that runs up the cable. So it’s best to position the microphone and the cable and then not touch them or move them again. If you also happen to record your podcast on a portable device such as a minidisc recorder, it’s a good idea to wind your microphone cable into a loop and then hold the cable by the loop while recording; this will cut down on vibration noise.

Which reminds me… You might hear some people talk about microphone technique. Learn it. It’s not rocket science — in fact, of all the stuff involved in recording, this is the easiest thing to do. Once you’ve set your recording levels so your voice doesn’t come in too high or too low, there’s one golden rule:

Whenever you make any sound louder than your normal speaking voice, TURN AWAY FROM THE MIC!

That’s it. So if you’re going to yell or scream, or shout out some revelation, or cough or laugh or sneeze, just turn your head a couple inches away from the microphone. The microphone will still pick up the sound, but it won’t blow out the ear drums of anyone unfortunate enough to be wearing headphones at the time — and not as many listeners to your final recording will tune out. (It’s also helpful to get a foam windscreen for your mic. I got one for $2 on sale at an electronics store.)

Another good thing to have is a microphone stand. I bought a small mic stand for $15. It sits in front of me on my computer desk. This is essential if you have to mix in other sounds or adjust your levels while you’re recording, and it helps cut down on vibration noise. It’s also very handy if you want to record your own music. Trying to prop up a microphone on a pile of books so it doesn’t come crashing down any second — I did that for years. It is no fun. In this regard, microphone stands are a beautiful thing.

And something I forgot to mention is this basic rule for determining microphone quality: LOOK AT THE PLUG. People who are into microphones would say that’s ridiculous, but if you don’t care about becoming an expert on microphones, this rule should do you just fine. Here’s how it works: If the microphone has a tiny 3.5mm plug, it’s garbage. If it has a 1/4-inch plug, it’s not great but will do the job if you don’t want to spend much money. Finally, if it has what’s called an XLR plug or cable, you’re good to go. (And don’t quote me on this, but I think on/off switches tend to indicate a lower-end microphone, even in XLRs.)

So if you want to go cheap, you can get by with a no-frills microphone and an old tape deck. If you have more money to spend, go for the XLR microphones and a mixer. And remember, a less pricey JTS microphone is usually just as a good as a Shure mic.

Furthermore, you can save money on a cheap mixer. If all you’re recording is you and one other person talking (or maybe you and your guitar if you want to record music), then a mixer with only 2 XLR inputs will do the job. It usually works out like this: The more XLR inputs there are, the more money you have to spend. I paid $100 Canadian for an Alto AMX-100, which is thee most basic mixer on the planet. But it works just fine for me. I could have spent another $50 on a model that had 4 XLR inputs, but even that was too much for my tight budget. I do have inputs for mixing in an electric guitar and other things, but I’ll probably never use them. The most I’ve done so far is mix in background music from a cassette deck and a CD player while recording my audio, but for the most part, I’m only using two audio sources: my two XLR microphones.

So… with my set up, using my low-end mixer and my two moderately-priced XLR microphones, including the price of cables, the mic stand, etc., the total comes to about $400 Canadian. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to spend that much money just to record podcasts (or audio magazines) — and I wouldn’t have if I didn’t already own two XLR microphones. However, you can go even cheaper than that if you’re recording solo and you only need a single microphone. And then of course there’s the ole tape deck and cheap microphone route. Which is great if you have an old tape deck laying around somewhere and you don’t want to spend much money (you can probably get all the cheap gear for less than $200; or ask around to friends and relatives who might be willing to give it away for nothing).

Whatever equipment you use, as long as it provides a clear signal that isn’t full of hiss, it’ll probably work out fine.

Of course, you can skip the mixer and good mics if you want to. Take your cheap microphone and plug it into the mic port on the back of your PC. You can boost the mic level under volume control in Windows XP. Then record your audio with whatever audio recorder you have, and you’re off to the races. The sound quality won’t be so hot, but if you have no choice but to go el-cheapo, this will do the job. Muting the volume while recording will reduce the noise on the line, as will turning off your monitor. (An external mixer makes everything much easier though.)

Now, once you’ve got everything set up and you want to record to your PC, you don’t need to spend a dime on recording software. You can spend good money on programs like Cool Edit Pro, which are excellent, but, again, if you’re on a budget, why not do it for free? (You can also get just about any software through various torrents, but that’s illegal, so I can’t recommend it.)

I use a program called GoldWave to record my audio (though you can probably get by with a program like Audacity if you have to, which is completely free). (Update: Check out this free software list. It’s pretty sweet.)

I have the latest version of GoldWave, which I paid for, but there’s an earlier 4.26 version you can download for free. It’s a trial version, but it never actually expires, so you can use it forever. It’s a basic, easy-to-understand program which, if you’re on a budget, should do you just fine. I used it for several years before I finally bought the latest version. (Such programs are also convenient for mixing in background music after you’ve recorded your main audio, especially if you’re having trouble gauging the levels while recording. They also have noise filters for removing some of the hiss.)

GoldWave will allow you to record your audio as a WAV file. The next step is encoding it to an MP3 file. (Goldwave and other audio programs can save as MP3, but it can get complicated if you’re new to this stuff.) I use a program called LAME (or RazarLame), which very easily converts from WAV to MP3 and MP3 to WAV. And it’s free. (If it looks complicated, you can probably find something easier on the free software list.) Most MP3 encoders are fairly straightforward; it doesn’t take long to figure out how to adjust the settings.

When encoding voice recordings, I recommend encoding in mono at around 48 kbps and 22.05 kHz (a 1-minute recording would come to about 350 KB). Anything more than that is a waste of your and users’ bandwidth. If you want to provide high quality music podcasts, the standard is stereo, 128 kbps, 44.1 kHz (a 1-minute recording would come to about 940 KB).

The last thing you need to do is tag (or label) your MP3 files. If you only need to tag one file at a time, WinAmp, which is free, should do you just fine. Open your MP3 file, press stop, go under “View file info” in the WinAmp drop-down menu, and then just fill in the blanks. Nothing to it.

And that’s it. (Update: That’s not completely it. You still have to find a way to FTP or upload your audio magazines to a website where people can download them. You can then assign RRS feeds and all that junk. To which I say, you’re on your own.) So that’s the poor man’s version of recording a podcast. I used to use this basic set up for making two-track home recordings of me and my guitar, and it was actually very easy to overdub additional instrumentation through the mixer onto the recorded file if I had to. I just played the WAV file through WinAmp or jetAudio and then played the additional track through the mixer — all this while recording back to GoldWave. It’s a cheap version of a multi-track recorder, but worked out fine for me. Maybe it’ll work for you too. (Cool Edit has multitrack abilities built right into it, but that’s another story.)

Have fun.

About Phillip

Phillip Cairns is a beekeeper in St. John’s, Newfoundland, who writes about beekeeping at mudsongs.org.

2 Replies to “Podcasting on a Budget”

  1. Hey, I tried to look into that mixer you recommended, but it seems to be discontinued.

    1) Is there an equivilent model?

    2) Is this something you can buy at Best Buy or Radio Shack, or am I going to have to go online for this?

    3) Thanks for the article, this helped immensely, as we could not figure out if it was possible to remove the background hiss with just the 3.5mm mic directly into a SB Live.

    We’re gonna seek out a tape deck tomorrow, one with a 1/4inch mic input to put our cheap mic in. Thanks.

  2. Andy, I’m sure there are comparable models available all over the place. I got mixer at a music store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, called Music Stop. They sell professional equipment but affordable stuff too. I’d look for that kind of store before I’d go to Radio Shack. My mixer is super el cheapo, but it’s fair quaility (it still works); something from Radio Shack is liable to crap out on you by this time next year if you actually make regular use of it. There are online stores too, but I’ve never looked.

    NOTE: There are likely other methods for making podcasts with even cheaper eqiupment. This just happens to be the way I did it. Keep in mind, too, that your soundcard settings can make a huge difference to the quality of the signal you’re recording. I don’t think I went into this in the article because there are just too many variations for all the soundcards out there. Figuring out the best soundcard settings can be a huge, huge headache. Some settings will allow you to record only from your mic, but not a music source. Some will allow you to do both at the same time, but then there’s hiss on the line. Etc. And none of it makes any damn sense to me, and it’s much more complicated than it should be. But I might just have a really crappy soundcard. Most people probably won’t have any problems with that stuff.

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