November 2, 2019

Gearing Up: Podcasting for Filmmakers

Illustration of Shure SM7B by Susan Q Yin

Ready to venture into the world of podcasting?

Well, the good news is, there is a low barrier to entry, meaning you don’t need much in the way of equipment to set up shop: a digital recorder, microphone, headphones, editing software and a few peripherals are about what it takes.

Remember, It’s the Story That Matters.

Of course, having top-of-the-line equipment would be nice, but it’s all in the way you use it—how you position the mic, how close you get the mic to the subject (which is different for film vs. audio). And of course, how comfortable you make the subject feel is key.

First, you’re going to need a way to record your audio. For this you have two options: Recording directly into a computer, or recording with field gear.

Let’s assume that you’re going to get out of the studio and record with field gear.

Field Recorders

We’ve reached a point where you can get relatively affordable field recorders that are versatile enough to be used in a lot of circumstances and get good sound.

  • Zoom H5 $280—The Zoom H5 is a step up from the H4N. For many years it was unusual not to see a Zoom H4N on set (remember the days when DSLRs like the Canon 5D first came out and audio was a big issue?). The H4N got the job done but it was a bit noisy and clunky to use. The H5 is a significant improvement over the H4N because it is quieter and the controls are better. Battery life is also improved as the H5 can last up to 15 hours on a pair of AA batteries. The H4N, on the other hand, lasts from six to ten hours. The H5 has nice built-in stereo microphones that are really good for picking up vivid stereo ambiences—i.e. a protest, a parade or music—but for interviews you will very likely want to use a microphone. To that end, the H5 has two XLR inputs (rather than minijacks). This allows you to use condenser microphones, which need phantom power.

  • Tascam DR 100 Mark III $400—On the Tascam side, the DR 100 Mark III is the equivalent to the Zoom H5. With two XLR inputs and built-in stereo mics, it is similar to the Zoom H5. Overall, the sound quality is outstanding, especially when using external microphones. One of the big differences between the H5 and this recorder is that the DR 100 Mark 3 has a built-in rechargeable battery. Yes, the battery needs to be charged up by USB, but once it’s charged, it will run for six to seven hours. If you get in the habit of leaving the DR 100 Mark 3 charged up, you can just go out and not worry about swapping AA batteries. Plus, the DR 100 Mark III has a little port for AA batteries, so if your rechargeable battery has died out in the field, you can still swap in a couple of AAs. The AA batteries may last only a couple of hours, but this may be your saving grace out in the field.  At $400, it's not the cheapest recorder in the world, but you are getting excellent sound quality.

  • Sony PCM D-100/PCM D-10 $780

    —For many years the Sony standard bearer in digital recorders has been the PCM D-100. It is a top-of-the-line recorder with excellent sound quality and battery life. But, it only has minijack inputs. This is not a huge problem as you can adapt a lot of standard microphones to minijack, but the jack itself isn’t as reliable as an XLR input. Plus, certain microphones require phantom power, and you cannot provide that from a minijack. Earlier this year Sony came out with a newer model, the PCM D-10. The big change is it has two XLR inputs. If you are looking for a Sony product, this new recorder may be your choice.

Rode NT1

Microphones

Before getting into mics, a bit of Audio Production 101:

Dynamic vs. condenser has to do with the microphone’s sensitivity. Dynamic mics work better to record loud sounds, whereas condenser mics pick up sound with greater detail and accuracy but are more fragile (they’re more often used in studios).

Large diaphragm vs. small diaphragm has to do with the size of the capsule. Large diaphragm microphones are usually used for narration and voiceover, which can make it kind of impractical for field use (although using a boom stand/mic stand is one solution).

If you already have a good shotgun mic, you can use that for voiceover, interviews, etc., but whatever mic you do use, learn the microphone. You will also want to get used to being a little closer than you would be for shooting film.

Here are a few mics to consider. Prices are approximate.

  • Shure (SM7)/SM7B $400—This “legendary” broadcast-quality microphone is an all-around great mic— excellent for radio and podcasting and built to last. With a cardiod pickup pattern, it comes with a built-in pop filter and an internal shock mount. Because it is a dynamic mic, it is less fragile and a great alternative to larger condenser mics. But, it is a big heavy mic, so you probably wouldn't use it out in the field too often. Another option would be to sit down and put it on a mic stand.

  • Electrovoice RE 20 $450—Another excellent microphone. The Electrovoice RE 20 is similar to the Shure SM7B. They are both heavy-end address microphones that give you that real “DJ sound.” The downside to these microphones is they don’t have particularly loud outputs. Sometimes it is a little tricky to get the best levels without high-end mixers or preamps.

  • Studio Projects B1 $100—The Studio Projects B1 is a large diaphragm condenser microphone in the style of  its more expensive counterparts (Shure SM7B and Electrovoice RE 20), but at a  remarkable price. It may not sound as good as the other two microphones, but for the price it sounds amazingly good. The package includes the microphone, a basic shock mount and a little foam cover (for “p” pops).

  • Rode NT1 $225-250—Rode (out of Australia) may be familiar to many doc filmmakers, as it makes a lot of high-quality equipment that is very good value. The NT1 is a large diaphragm condenser mic with excellent sound, especially for voices, and a favorite for many audio producers.

  • Rode Procaster $200—Another good quality mic.

  • Rode Podmic $100—The podmic is another broadcast-quality mic designed for podcasts. The podmic can be used with any XLR interface and field recorder, but is made specifically for use with the Rodecaster Pro (a fully integrated podcast studio).

  • Neumann U87 $3,000—The Neumann U87 is used by NPR studios, as well as some of the really big-time podcasts. You’re not likely to casually throw this mic into a home studio, but you can get amazing sound quality with this microphone.

Digital Audio Workstations

When it comes to digital editing systems and digital audio workstations, the general idea is familiar, although the specifics are different. If you have a little bit of experience with editing, you’ll likely be able to figure out almost any of these programs pretty quickly. 

  • Hindenburg ($100; also available by subscription)—Hindenburg is meant to be a radio production tool. This is for the radio journalist/audio producer. For your basic kind of podcast/audio story with voice, actuality, music bed and ambience, Hindenburg is efficient and quick. A nice feature of Hindenburg is the built-in audio-leveling algorithm: As you bring in a clip, Hindenburg automatically sets everything to the “correct loudness” or gain. This is an incredible time-saver. Plus, Hindenburg is very cost-effective.

  • ProTools (Monthly subscription starts at $29.99 a month; ProTools can also be purchased outright)—An industry standard, ProTools is a powerful program and a great skill to have as it is used in film as well. If you are going to be doing a sophisticated sound design, you will want to use something like ProTools.

  • Reaper ($60 discounted license if you're using it for personal use—or making less than $20,000 a year with it commercially)—Reaper has all the power of ProTools but is cheaper. Like ProTools, there is a learning curve, but it is indeed a very robust program.

  • Adobe Audition ($75.00 for the monthly subscription; $49.99 for the full year. The plan includes the entire Adobe suite)—If you are already working in Adobe Premiere, it might make sense to learn Adobe Audition. It’s built to trade audio back and forth between Adobe projects. One of the nice features is a built-in noise reduction function, so if you have problems with your audio, Audition can be very effective helping clean it up.

Peripherals:

  • Dead Cat Wind Screen

  • Pistol Grip

  • SD Cards

  • Headphones

  • Mic Stand/Boom Stand

  • Splitters (for editing)

  • XLR Cables

  • USB Cables

  • Mini Jack Connector

  • Batteries

  • Battery Pack/Power Banks

  • Recording Phone Calls (Rodecaster Pro0; Jk Audio; Skype

Zoom H5

Now, What Should I Get?

If you’re still wondering what to get, I consulted Jeff Towne, the Tech & Tools Guru at Transom, a nonprofit dedicated to public media education and training. I asked him what kind of package he would put together for a storyteller who wants to make a foray into podcasting on a budget. He recommends the following:

Recorder: Zoom H5—This is a good field recorder (see spec above) that can also operate as a USB interface into a computer. That’s a versatile capability that not all field recorders can do. It is the field recorder used at the Transom workshops.

Microphone: Rode NT1A or Studio Projects B1—You'd have a really high-quality narration microphone that you can plug straight into the Zoom H5.

Boom Stand—A boom stand is going to be very helpful to position the mic correctly.

Headphones: Sony MDR 7506s—This is a good, cost-effective pair of headphones because you can hear what’s going on without feeding back into your microphone. And as in filmmaking, you want to monitor your sound!

Pop Filter—This comes with both the Rode NT1 and the Studio Projects B1.

Editing Software: Hindenberg.

All told, this comes to less than $800—and this is if you are starting from scratch.

So get out there and start collecting some sound!


All prices are approximate. A special thanks to Jeff Towne at Transom, an incredible resource for audio storytelling. Transom runs workshops and has a terrific website, including reviews of equipment and how-tos for podcasting. Administered by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media, the website is an incredible resource.

Laura Almo oversees the Film Department at El Camino College, where she teaches Audio Production and is piloting the podcast Dispatches from El Camino. She is a contributing editor at Documentary magazine.

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