This article describes the audio equipment used by YSDC to produce our magazine-style podcasts (up to 2015, after that we radically changed). The different equipment used for both mobile and game recordings are the subject of another article.
In the Beginning
Before detailing our 2013 set-up it may be useful to provide a little context as to how we started back in 2004/5. During this earliest time in podcasting it was easiest to make use of what was immediately to hand, in this case an iRiver iFP-790. Holding a then hefty 256 MB of solid state storage this little device had the ability to record and hardware encode directly to MP3 as well as play back files like any normal MP3 player. The simplest and most unobtrusive method of production?; hanging the device from the light fitting above our heads and editing the resulting audio in the freeware program, Audacity. It was a while yet before moving onto the heady heights of an old baked bean can and a lapel mic stuck on the end of a pencil...
Fast Forward Nine Years
During the intervening decade many equipment configurations have been used, sometimes changing from show to show, however of more immediate interest may be the system we use (as of writing), to produce shows such as The Silver Lodge.
The following describes the hardware, software and workflow used in 2013. I'm deliberately not using the term "today" as experience has taught that its use can become outdated relatively quickly (though the set-up described here is quite stable).
I'm going to start with probably one of the most important pieces of equipment and it's likely not what you think it might be. Many articles about podcasting start with microphones, however here I'm going to talk about room treatment, i.e. the use of acoustic panels.
In The Silver Lodge (and other "in studio" recordings) hanging on the walls at strategic points are a series of portable panels covered in Auralex acoustic foam. The pyramid-shaped foam helps dampen acoustic reflections from nearby flat wall surfaces (that is, it cuts down on the hollow echoey sound you often hear when recording in small rooms). Without some sort of treatment, even a great microphone will pick up the hollowness of the room (although with wonderful clarity).
As mentioned, our own sound absorbing foam is mounted as movable panels which can be put up and taken down when needed. The panels run as a discontinuous strip (c. 0.25m high) at about head-height (when sat down) around the perimeter of the room. The difference between using the panels and not can be dramatic. The effort in using them has proven worthwhile.
An alternative to sound treating a room is to move somewhere that already has some echo dampening qualities (such as a clothes closet) or perhaps recording under a duvet (yes, we've done that - never again). Neither are ideal, but certainly feasible for single host shows. Another popular approach is to use a dynamic microphone (limited range sensitivity) and simply get in close to the mic, but this does require more "mic discipline" and can lock you in to speaking in a certain posture.
However, moving on to the microphones used at YSDC...
The Lodge uses Rode NT1-A microphones for each host. These are high quality condenser microphones with XLR (analogue) connector outputs. This mic is often a favourite of singers & musicians on a budget. It has very low self-noise (noise produced by the electronics in the equipment itself) and high sensitivity. The latter of which may be a boon or a bane depending on circumstance.
The NT1-A mics were chosen primarily for their high fidelity. Condenser mics require power to operate ("Phantom Power", typically designated as +48V) and their sensitivity means that hosts don't have to be so close as to "eat the microphone" to be heard clearly. Often this does mean that additional sounds from the surrounding environment may be picked up as well, but that can sometimes be an advantage, to help put the recording in context (it depends on your show). It certainly allows our show hosts a greater degree of physical freedom.
Besides the NT1-A mics, there is also a Heil PR40 dynamic microphone sat in an SM-2 shockmount that provides a different vocal timbre which is useful when doing "X+1" shows where having one of the hosts sounding a little different can be useful (such as for a quiz show host as we have in QuizziQal - 4 contestants +1 game show host).
Don't skimp on the cables. That's the primary advice I have here. Again you can have fantastic equipment but it can all be for naught if you've got cheap and "noisy" cables connecting it all together. To connect our devices I use Van Damme Neutrik XLR cables at the minimum length required to reach where they need to go. Get decent cables, and like the rest of your equipment, look after them.
You can get away without using headphones, but virtually everyone who records uses them for good reason; it's highly advantageous to monitor your own sound to check if there are any issues. If you do a show that includes audio clips, then you'll need headphones to hear them anyway.
Any decent set of headphones will do for monitoring purposes. I settled on Sennheiser RS120 headphones, primarily because 1) I already had one set as a birthday gift, 2) Being wireless they free up hosts to be able to move around (even walk away from the table) as necessary. The trick is you've got to remember to charge the batteries beforehand...
Many people use a mixer (of various sorts) to get the audio from their microphones into their recording device (computer or other hardware) which is something we did for a long time before moving to a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 interface. This magic box can in theory take up to 40 inputs (hence the number in its name) but more importantly for our purposes, it provides a high quality connection for up to 8 XLR inputs (though we rarely use more than four or five at once). The Saffire Pro 40 connects via FireWire to an Apple iMac computer and is managed by its own software on the Mac (Saffire Mix Control) that allows independent management and routing of the outputs from the audio interface. This is a versatile piece of kit, especially for adding in new sound sources.
Computer & Software
I've used Apple Macs on and off for over 20 years (mostly "on") and one of their strengths has always been their audiovisual capabilities.
The Apple iMac used for producing our shows takes the FireWire output from the Saffire interface and puts each independent input (each mic) into its own track in Apple GarageBand. GarageBand is free with Mac computers and remarkably this program has recorded everything, every time for us (not that it's our sole reliance - see below).
The end result of the recording is a set of tracks each carrying the primary output from one host (due to the nature of the recording location co-hosts are invariably picked up to some faint degree on the other tracks), giving each person their own track means that audio levels can be adjusted individually in the edit if required.
For our recordings there is another track; one for audio clips. For the playing of clips during shows I've found Ambrosia's Soundboard to be the most effective and easy to use. Sounds loaded into Ambrosia's sound cart are fed into the Saffire Pro 40 interface and then from the Saffire into GarageBand. Why not feed the Soundboard output directly into GarageBand?; simply because what the hosts themselves hear is the output from the Saffire hardware interface, not the output from the GarageBand software (this eliminates any possible monitoring delays into the hosts' headphones).
In 2013 The Silver Lodge began regularly transmitting live shows (having done so on a casual basis previously). Live transmission adds an extra kink into the mix (so to speak). The way we've implemented it is as follows: The output from GarageBand is fed into Rogue Amoeba's Nicecast broadcasting software which then flows into an Icecast 2 streaming audio server as a 128 Kbps MP3 stereo feed. The audio stream provided by Icecast can then be picked up by anyone who knows the URL and can be listened to via computer, phone or tablet.
It's also worth mentioning how we deal with chat room interaction. The short answer is we don't too much (at least during the show itself). YSDC has a chat room for members and during the live shows we encourage people to join in. (We usually advertise about a week before that a live show will be happening). The chat room is a great place for live listeners to interact with each other but we've learnt from experience that it's often better for the show hosts to primarily "focus on the show" and not be too distracted by online comments. The chat room is however, monitored during any event and that's handled in two different ways, depending on circumstance.
Chat Room Monitor 1
In this scenario we have a non-mic'ed guest moderator in the studio, using a laptop behind a card screen/baffle (to minimise keyboard noise). They can interact with listeners in the chat room and provide selected feedback to the hosts during the show. The moderator just raising their hand is a simple and effective way of letting the hosts know they wish to share a comment. This setup does mean that someone must be willing to act as a moderator in this fashion. Occasionally that is the case (thank you, Helen).
Chat Room Monitor 2
In this more common scenario the chat room is displayed on an iPad which is then projected onto a flat white screen by means of an Optoma PK320 Pico Projector mounted on a Joby Gorillapod. The projector is small, battery powered and most importantly, silent. The "screen" is actually a large ink blotter board that is held in place vertically on a shelf using paperclips formed into a chain and hooks (simple, cheap and effective).
The show hosts can glance across quickly at the large scrolling screen to occasionally check on comments or to see if a question they've posed has been answered in the chat room.
Live broadcasting coupled with a chat room is a great way to provide extra interactivity in your show.
While GarageBand is used for the recording of audio tracks, for actual editing another program is employed, Hindenburg Journalist. Each recorded track in GarageBand is exported as an AIFF file and then imported into Hindenburg Journalist, a dedicated program aimed at "audio storytellers" which provides editing tools for that purpose (rather than the many other programs often used for podcasting that are designed for musicians and simply repurposed). On import into HJ each track is automatically levelled (an overall increase or decrease in gain) to match our requested audio profile (such as EBU R128 or -23 LUFS or similar). Any additional audio brought into Hindenburg Journalist is also automatically adjusted to the specified standard. What this provides is a consistency in loudness both in the show itself (e.g. clips aren't too quiet or too loud compared to the hosts' voices) and also between different shows.
Rather than using headphones, freestanding Alesis M1 Active 520 Studio Monitors are used to edit the mix. The monitors provide a flat frequency response and mean you don't have to have a "pair of cans" clamped to your head for hours at a time. The longer the show, the longer the editing process. Typically this factors to be about 6x the final show length. For ease, the final production is delivered as a 128 Kbps Joint Stereo file with ID3 tags and album art before going into the podcast feed.
Belt & Braces
While GarageBand has yet to fail us, having a back-up recording never hurts. For The Silver Lodge a Zoom H4n Handy Recorder is connected to an output from the Saffire Pro 40 that carries only the hosts' voices (no audio clips). The Zoom records the additional audio to an uncompressed 44.1 KHz stereo WAV file. As of writing the backup hasn't proven necessary but it's nice to know it's there.
The above marks the result of almost a decade of software and hardware evolution in the recording of podcasts from YSDC. I hope these details have proven of interest. What I haven't covered here (besides the specialist cases of game and mobile recordings) is the use of webcams (stills & video) as an adjunct to the process. These are covered in a separate article.