July 9, 2013

How we record the Light Grey Art Lab podcast

LGAL Podcast How To
When we decided to start the Light Grey Art Lab podcast, it fell on me to figure out how we were going to record it. Recording with four people in the same room is a actually more complicated than recording over Skype, surprisingly. I found it shockingly difficult to find a good online resource for how to podcast locally (ie, not over the internet) and not have the luxury of a studio/soundbooth.

Finding recommendations for a good USB mic or two is easy, but that's about where it ends. Finding any truly helpful information for quality (and affordable) solutions to recording with multiple mics in one room was bizarrely difficult. So after a ton of research and testing, I promised myself that once I got the podcast up and running I would share my solutions. And I didn't want to just put together a list of model numbers, I also wanted to explain why I chose those pieces and how I've liked them since, to help anyone perspective podcasters decide if my needs are truly the same as theirs.

Hopefully someone in a similar boat will find this list and save themselves a few weeks of research and hand-wringing. Although I do have some experience with A/V professionally, I do not claim to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I am a stickler for quality and I'm also conscience of cost, so I think this list is a good, affordable starting point for anyone looking to do a professional-esque podcast on the cheap.

MIXER-
Mackie 1202-VLZ3 Mixer - This might be the most important item, but also a fairly easy choice for me. The mixer is the heart of the operation; it determines how you handle your inputs and levels, and sends them into the computer. The Mackie is a great board which I felt comfortable with putting the largest portion of cash into. I was familiar with the style of board from my days working at a TV station, so I felt good just picking it up. You can also get a fancier version with more inputs, but that wasn't necessary for our needs.

And so far it's worked great. Thumbs up. Sure, it might look a little intimidating with all it's knobs, inputs, and buttons, but it's actually quite simple and straightforward. Plug mics into the Mackie, plug the Mackie into your computer. That's about it. It's a very solid and hearty piece of equipment, and I have zero complaints.

MICROPHONES-
First off, maybe I should talk about the difference between Condenser VS Dynamic: Condenser Mics are good for recording the sound in a room. Like, all the sound. Dynamic Mics are good for recording a single item (like a voice for a podcast). If you try to set up one Condenser Mic for multiple people to talk at, it's probably going to sound echo-y and chaotic (unless you're in a padded cell), and you can't adjust levels on a per-person basis. You are probably going to want Dynamic Mics for recording a podcast, especially if you have multiple people recording in the same room.

Behringer XM1800S Dynamic Cardioid Vocal Microphones, 3-Pack - These Behringer mics are very similar to the iconic stage mic, the Shure M58. They might not be as durable, but we're not exactly rocking the crowd or anything. Plus they are cheap. And they sound great, too. This particular set comes with a handy little 3-mic hard plastic carrying case with molded foam.

For my money, they sound darn near perfect. Clear and clean. You do have to stay close to the mic, which is good and bad. Good because it doesn't pick up other voices/sounds in the room. Bad because you have to remind people to stay on the mic.

I have a couple mottos I repeat again and again when using these mics. First of all, think of an ice cream cone... and always be eating the ice cream. People have a tendency to turn their heads to look people in the face while talking, but you need to keep your voice pointed at these mics. So pivot around the mic.

Second, closer than comfortable. People new to the podcast always want to back off the mic because it feels to close to their face. So when they ask about how close they should be to the mic, I say "closer than is comfortable" as a general rule.

Behringer XM8500 Dynamic Cardioid Microphone - I needed 4 mics total. This one seems to be a bit higher quality then the XM1800S, and doesn't have an on/off switch, and I believe that's because it doesn't require phantom power (which is power supplied from a source it's plugged into) but you'd be hard-pressed to notice a difference otherwise. I guess I prefer this one to the other 3, but only because I like how the handle feels (which I never touch apart from set up). This one also comes with a single-mic carrying case, just like the 3-mic version.

CAD U37 USB Studio Condenser Microphone - I actually don't recommend this microphone. I have two, and have had problems with both. I might blame the USB interface over the mic itself, but I have no proof one way or the other. Both these mics have been the cause of some serious headaches before I finally found an alternative. Besides being condenser mics (which record ALL sound in a room, and are therefore bad for podcasting), these specific mics are prone to SERIOUS distortion that fades in and out if you record for a long-ish amount of time (like say, an hour or two for a podcast). I thought I had a defective unit until it happened with both of them. Consistently. I use them now to record audience participation and applause during a lecture, which I try to mix in later. But for the most part I avoid using them.

Given all that, the mic works for what my needs, but be warned. It's given me a fair share of headaches. Thankfully, I don't need this mic often, and if you're doing a normal podcast you probably don't need one at all.

HEADPHONES - 
Audio-Technica ATH-M30 Stereo Headphones - Really, any headphones will do, and you probably already have some. And those will work just fine. But mine were recently stolen so I needed new ones and I chose these. I use them to check levels pre-show, and for editing after the fact. These were pretty darn cheap with pretty great sound quality, so I am completely satisfied.

CABLES -
Hosa CMP159 Stereo Breakout - An easy component to overlook when building your setup; this cable allows you to get the signal out of the mixer and into your computer (via the line-in audio port on your computer). It's simple and cheap.

20 Foot XLR Microphone Cables (x4) - Another important but overlooked item; an XLR cable attaches each mic to the mixer. Cheap and hearty, XLR cables are durable and at 20 feet, they're long enough to allow for a lot of flexibility. You can use them to sit around a large conference table to chat, but they also allow a guest speaker to walk freely and move while giving a presentation.

MIC ACCESSORIES -
Foam Mic Windscreen - I chose these ball-type windscreens over a regular pop-screen just because it's less bulky and cumbersome. It can be arguable if you really need either, and I've recorded using my mics with no protection and it worked just fine. But a windscreen can't hurt, especially if you tend to have harsh P's and K's, or are particularly breath-y when you talk.

Tripod Boom Microphone Stand - For our first podcast, we used table mic stands and quickly found that wasn't going to work. With a table mic stand you can easily hear typing, paper rustling, fidgeting, and drinks being picked up and set down. These boom mic stands are probably bulkier than I might have liked, but they sit a good distance away from you and lean inwards, so it manages to stay out of the way of people adjusting thier feet or swinging their legs. Also, you can share a mic between two people by swinging the arm between two seats. They work great, although they take up more space than I'd like.

PROGRAMS-
Audacity - Used to record, edit, and export the podcast, I can't recommend Audacity enough. It is FREE, works wonderfully, and is super logical and easy to use. A cheap and effective alternative to ProTools, Audacity was first recommended to me by a sound production teacher back in my college days. When we started to do the podcast, I was trying to use GarageBand because it was installed on my MacBook Pro and was probably easy to use, right? Wrong. GarageBand has an unintuitive interface and I find it's a very inefficient way to record, edit and organize projects. I struggled for days to make GarageBand do what I wanted to do, and finally remembered Audacity as an option. I downloaded it, jumped straight in and quickly finished everything I had been trying to do in a matter of hours. Audacity is dope, you guys. I would gladly pay money for this program. Seriously. (if you want to export an MP3, though, you have to download a free plug-in)

Skype - Although most of podcast in done in the gallery, face-to-face. But we do talk to an out of town or oversees artist on occasion. And for that we use Skype. Chances are good you have skype installed on your computer already. It's free, it's amazing and it's a part of most people's lives in some way, anyway. But if you're going to record a podcast and you DON'T happen to live/work with amazing people with whom to record it, you're probably going to need Skype. But I guess if that was the case, you could have also just grabbed a USB mic and skipped this post entirely...

Audio Hijack Pro - Audio Hijack allows you to record a skype conversation as an mp3 file. I normally instruct a podcast guest to download Audacity and record their audio locally on their end, which they send to me and I lay it on top of our local recording. But if that fails (which has been known to happen) Audio Hijack saves the day. It's got more uses than just recording Skype, but that's where it counts for my purposes. At 30 dollars for a license, there's probably a cheaper alternative somewhere. But I've been pleased with it's ease of use and it's been worth every penny.

Long Distance Guests -
Since I mentioned how I have long-distance guests record locally on thier end and mix the tracks in post, here's a link to my handy-dandy Check List that I send our guest before a podcast. It's a fairly lightweight walkthrough to help get the best audio from their end, and walks them through everything they need to do and what to expect from the podcast experience. The checklist has some very Light Grey Art Lab specific things on it, but feel free to take it and adapt it to your needs.

The End -
So there you have it. All you need (and more, probably) to get up and running. If you have any questions, feel free ask on on twitter or email me at podcast@lightgreyartlab.com.

And if you are reading this and haven't heard of our podcast before, you can find all the episodes here or subscribe via iTunes!

Good luck!

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