The second I mentioned I was launching a podcast, my husband Mike immediately began to research audio equipment. In part, this was to be helpful, but it also provided an excuse to geek out on tech gear. He even asked Doug Berman, famed producer of NPR’s Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell for his thoughts. (They became friends in the 1990s when Mike convinced the Car Talk team to partner with MSN.com; early listeners may remember my husband as “Mike from Microsoft.”)
Audiophiles may roll their eyes as some of my selections but our goal was to find the most cost-effective way to record a good quality podcast. I’m sharing this information here to show, in part, that you don’t have to spend a fortune to create good audio. Please note this page contains affiliate links.
Zoom ZH1 H1 Handy Portable Digital Recorder ($70)
This was my first recorder and I still use it regularly. It’s small and light yet it’s X/Y mic configuration captures terrific stereo sound. It has one line jack which means you can plug in a small microphone such as a clip-on lapel type known as a lavalier mic. I use this mic when I record the cooking segment of my show, or when I’m out on location since it’s so small. As a journalist, I got in the habit of recording interviews to assure that I got quotes and information exactly right, and I am still in this habit when I do research for stories or books and I use the Zoom H1 for those recordings. It takes a single battery, and with a 32 gig micro SD, it can records hours of content. If you’re starting out with a podcast in which it’s primarily just you talking (as opposed to recording guests) or you just want to improve sound for YouTube-style videos, this is probably all you need.
Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder ($269)
This is my primary system for recording interviews. This powerful handheld device allows you to record up to four tracks simultaneously. Like the H1, the X/Y mics at the top allow stereo recording even when you’re not using an additional mic. However, what ups the game on the H5 is the inclusion of a built-in audio mixer and two mic inputs with XLR/TRS combo connectors which means you can plug in professional quality microphones as well. The X/Y portion of the system is removable and can be swapped out for other types of microphones, including a module that allows for two extra XLR/TRS mic inputs — which means you can record up to four professional mics at once. Like the H1, this unit can also be mounted on top of a video camera to provide a higher quality sound recording than most built-in mic systems.
There are two other possible Zoom models to consider. One is the Zoom H4 Pro, which retails for about $200 which has four-track recording ability and two microphone inputs. Many people use the H4 and love it, and if you’re primarily recording yourself and/or one other person, it’s a solid choice and I know NPR contributors who use H4 units.
I also considered the Zoom H6 which allows for up to six tracks of recording. Since I knew that I would be doing primarily one-on-one or one-on-two interviews, I didn’t feel that I needed six inputs. The H6 is also significantly bulkier; it’s not something you walk around with in your hand. I preferred the lighter, handheld format of the H5.
In the end, I chose the H5 because it had the option of expanding to four mic inputs by swapping out the X/Y mic with a dual input module, an option I did end up using.
(For the H5) Sennheiser e835 Dynamic Cardiod Vocal Mic ($100)
You can spend a lot of microphones, and cheap mics are always a good value. Mike settled on Sennheiser mics; we have both an e835 and an e935. They’re solidly built and can accommodate a wide range of sound without distortion. They use an XLR connection cable which is compatible with the Zoom H5 but not the H1 which has only a standard audio plug-in. Mike discovered that live performers typically use Shure mics, but the Sennheisers have a warmer NPR-style tonality which is what we preferred for Hungry for Words.
(For the H1/lapel mic) Sony ECME23 Clip-On Mic ($20): The Sony clip-on mic is handy if you’re walking around or doing something while recording audio and has a standard audio plug-in which makes it compatible with the Zoom H1 as well. It’s an omni-directional mic which means it picks up everything, but the nice thing about this Sony mic is that you can direct it where it’s pointing to more accurately capture the sound you want.
Bose Quiet Comfort 3 Noise-Canceling Headsets ($160): It’s critical that you use headsets when recording. It’s the only way to tell what the mic is actually recording. We purchased these Bose headsets years ago to wear while flying. When I lost them for awhile during an office move, I used Sony earbuds and they worked fine, too. However, I strongly recommend headsets that cover your ears to help isolate the sound coming through the mics. It’s worth heading into a store to try on headsets to see what feels the most comfortable on you head, and to hear the sound for yourself, then pick out the ones you like best in your price range. If you’re interviewing guests, it’s always a good idea to have a set of headsets for them, too.
Zoom H1 Accessory Pack ($25) Since I recommend getting a case, a stand and an AC plug-in, it’s worth getting the H1 accessory pack as it includes all that plus a mic clip adapter and a decent foam windscreen. Price wise, I’ve seems cheaper to buy the H1 and the accessory pack separately even though that seems counter intuitive.
AC plug-in for the Zoom H5 ($12) The H5 doesn’t come with a plug-in. Nothing sucks more than having your batteries die in the middle of an interview, so I recommend getting a power cord. The H5 comes with a hard case, so you don’t need to purchase one. If you’re going to use the H5 with a video camera, the standard Zoom H5 accessory pack might be worthwhile as it comes with a remote and a “dead kitty” windshield. However, I don’t really use either for podcast work, so I just bought an AC adapter plug-in.
Male to Female XLR Cables ($6 to $15 each, depending on length).
These standard studio cable allow you to connect microphones to an input device, such as the Zoom H5. This kind of connection allows for a more optimal sound connection than a standard audio plug-in, such as the input on the H1. I have a few cables: a pair of three-foot cables for when I’m conducting a face-to-face interview in my kitchen, and then a six-foot and a 10-foot cable when I use a mic with a PA system.
SD Cards and SD Card Reader ($15) The Zoom records take micro SD cards. The H5 takes a micro-SD card with an SD adapter. The price of these storage cards has come down dramatically in years, so a 32-gig will run you as little as $12. I mainly use Sandisk brand SD cards. If your laptop or computer doesn’t have an SD card reader built-in, you’ll need an SD card reader to plug into your USB port. Kingston is a reliable brand. It’s worth adding that micro SD cards are fragile and you should upload audio regularly. It’s always a good idea to keep a backup, too.
Octopus Device Wrangler: I’m a big fan of bendy “octopus-style” device holders. They’re great because you can bend them to your will and they can do multiple duty as a holder for your recorder, or a cell phone, a go pro or camera. Since I record while cooking, I end up wrapping mine around weird places to capture ambient sounds. However, if you just need a stand to hold your recorder, you can use one of the inexpensive folding stands below and just take off the mic cap.
Mic stands: What types of stand(s) you need depends on how you’re planning to use them, whether it will be you recording yourself at home, interviewing other people, etc. I recommend getting small folding stands if you’re going to travel at all with your gear. If your recording area will be static, it’s worth getting heavier stands with flexible arms so that you can get the mic as close to your guest as possible. I have two sets of stands, an inexpensive folding desktop set from Bearstar ($15 for two) and two Gator heavy based arm-style stands ($30 each). Make sure whatever stand you get comes with a mic clip.
Pop filter: When people talk, they tend to “pop” sound letters, such as Ps. You can buy inexpensive covers to place in front of a directional mic to reduce this effect. I use Aokeo pop filters ($7 each) but it was less about the brand than just getting filters that work with your mic stands. You can also purchase foam mic covers which help cut down on extraneous sound but they don’t necessary stop popping sounds.
Moving blankets ($25 for six) If you’re going to record in an open space, say your dining room, cover your table with a layer of moving blankets, an extra quilt or even towels to absorb the sound that would otherwise ricochet off that hard surface. I also often hang a moving blanket from the back of my oven’s vent hood to help deaden sound. The rafters in my basement office are stuffed with recycled denim insulation to help retain heat but it works to absorb noise, too. Evaluate your space and see what hard surfaces you can cover with soft material to mimic a studio. One NPR contributor I know goes into his closet to record material. It works like a charm thanks to all those sound-absorbing clothes.