Monday, May 7, 2007

5 gadgets for producing radio (or podcasts) on the cheap

Darren Rowse has given me a good excuse to write a post I've been meaning to get around to for months. He's asking bloggers to write up "Top 5" posts as part of a group writing project. So I'm going to write that how to set up a home studio on the cheap post I've been meaning to write.

Here are the 5 items that let me quit my full-time job and become a freelance radio producer:

1. Alesis Multimix 8USB Mixer

Technically all you need to record sound as a podcaster or radio producers is a cheap device (like a minidisc recorder) with a microphone input and a line output. You can run audio from that line output to the line input on most desktop computers. But not all laptops have line inputs. And more importantly, you can get a lot of signal interference.

The best solution is to find a high quality audio interface. At first, I'd thought about picking up a Digidesign MBox. The Mbox has a pretty good reputation and comes with Pro Tools software for audio editing.

But I already had a copy of Cool Edit, which I'd been using for years so I didn't need Pro Tools. And I wasn't sure I wanted to spend $400 or more on an audio input. Then I found the Alesis Multimix 8USB.

This 8-track mixer includes four decent microphone inputs and 2 stereo line inputs. The left and right channels are counted separately which is why this is considered an 8-track mixer, but if you're not mixing music, you might think of it more like a 6 track mixer.

Anyway, as the name suggests, the 8USB plugs into your computer via a USB port and sends any audio signals to your PC or Mac (it also works with Linux PC, although I'm not sure that's an officially supported option). It acts like an external soundcard, allowing you to play audio back through the mixer as well.

The quality of my home studio recordings quadrupled when I picked up this mixer. And it only runs about $150. For about twice the price you can pick up the firewire version, which can send audio from each track to your computer separately. Although you can plug up to 8 audio sources into the USB version, the sound will be mixed down to 2-track stereo on your PC.

2. AKG Perception 100 Microphone

As it turns out, having a decent mixer isn't much good if you don't have a good microphone. One of the first items I'd purchased as a freelancer was an Electro-Voice RE-50 dynamic microphone for recording interviews in the field. It's a workhorse of a microphone with good shock-mounting to prevent handling noise. But it's not really a great studio mic.

A friend suggested the AKG Perception 100. It's a studio-style condenser microphone. Generally condenser mics sound much better than dynamic mics in the same price range. For under $100, the Perception 100 has a nice full sound that rivals the $400 EV RE-20 I'd used at the radio station.

The only problem with condenser microphones is that they require phantom power, so you need to make sure you have a powered mixer or digital audio recorder if you want to use them on the go. But in my studio, the Perception 100 works great for voicing stories or recording telephone or Skype interviews.

3. Zoom H4 Handy Recorder

I won't spend too much time waxing poetic about the Zoom H-4 Handy Recorder, because I've already written up a pretty extensive review of my new best friend.

For $250, the Zoom H-4 is a steal. It's cheaper than most of the other flash-based digital recorders I've tried and sounds better. You can record more than 3 hours of WAV audio on a single 2GB SD card or far more than that if you're satisfied with MP3 compression.

The only downsides are that you tend to get a little handling noise if you're using the built-in microphones and I haven't found any external microphone that sounds quite as good as the internal stereo mics.

4. iRiver IFP-795 MP3 player/recorder

About the time I quit my day job I became a paranoid journalist. If my equipment fails, I can't do my job. And if I can't do my job, I don't get paid. There's no large institution to eat my costs. Not that I've let equipment problems stop me from getting any stories in the past, but paranoia isn't based on reality, is it?

So I picked up a cheap MP3 recorder on eBay. I went with the discontinued iRiver IFP-795 because it gets rave reviews from podcasters, and because I could get one for under $30 on eBay.

The IFP 790/890 series includes a line/mic input. Switching between line and mic inputs takes quite a few button presses, but it's possible. I was hoping I could use the recorder as a backup in case my Zoom or other primary recorder broke down in the field. No such luck. My RE-50 microphone sounds pretty bad with the iRiver IFP-795, so I keep an old minidisc recorder in my bag in case the Zoom H-4 breaks.

But the iRiver works perfectly as backup recorder. Here's what I do:
  • Set it to record from the line input
  • Run a mini cable from the line out on my Zoom H-4 to the line input on the iRiver
Now I can make two recordings of every interview. One in WAV audio on the Zoom, and another in MP3 on the iRiver

5. Skype

My last item isn't a piece of hardware, but rather software that's saved my neck. I picked up a cheap telephone interface from Radio Shack to record telephone interviews from home. I knew the quality wouldn't be great for $15, but I wasn't prepared to shell out $500 for a JK Audio Broadcast Host.

Well, it turns out the wiring in my apartment was funny and there was no way to avoid getting a loud buzzing noise on the line. Verizon sent somebody to fix the problem, and they say the identified the source of the noise and corrected it, but I beg to differ.

So I bought some SkypeOut time and registered a SkypeIn phone number and cancelled my land line. Now I conduct all of my telephone interviews over Skype. For the most part if someone needs to reach me, I give them my cellphone number. Thats' what's printed on my business cards. But when I'm requesting or conducting interviews, I give out my SkypeIn number.

The connection from my broadband-connected PC to a telephone line sounds about as good as a decent cellphone connection, and the recordings sound as good as the conversations, which I can't say about recordings I made using audio interfaces on traditional telephone lines.

I've filed a number of stories for national news networks using sound recorded over Skype and nobody's complained yet. Occasionally you will get an audio glitch, but all you have to do is tell the person you're interviewing that you had a technical issue, could they just repeat what they'd last said? People are used to cellphone calls dropping out, so this shouldn't be an issue.


There you go, for about $600, you can put together a perfectly serviceable home studio. That's not counting the PC, headphones and speakers, but I'm assuming you've already got those. I also have a mic stand, and an array of cables that I used for recording press conferences and other events, but I find I don't cover those sort of breaking news events as often as I did when I was a station-based reporter.


dpeach said...

That is a great Top 5 list. I am building up my podcasting equipment slowly. I just wished I had $600 to throw at it all at once.

I also wrote a Top 5 for the group writing project. Mine was a list of 5 Podcast Categories along with some recommended podcasts. Since it fits your theme, I hope you don't mind me posting a link to the story.

Brad Linder said...

Well, if I was going to recommend one item, it would probably be the Zoom H-4 (or the cheaper Zoom H-2 that's just been released). It acts as a digital audio input for your laptop or PC, letting you plug in external mics or audio equipment. Or you can plug it right into your computer and use the high quality internal microphones.

Of course, the biggest benefit is that it's a mobile flash recorder, allowing you to record interviews, musical performances, or other events on the go. If you produce your podcast in the comfort of your home studio (or bedroom), the Alesis Multimix 8USB might be a better bet, but you'll need to get a good microphone to plug in.

If all else fails, one can produce a perfectly serviceable podcast with a cheap headset you can pick up at Best Buy or Radio Shack for $20. But you get what you pay for, and your product will sound a whole lot better with higher end equipment. My point is that you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on vocal strips, compressors, preamps and the like.

Jack said...

If I had $600 I would probably have a nice little set up like you. If only I had the $600.

Todd Dolce' said...

The only problem I see with the Alesis Multimix 8USB, is that it cannot be used for recording the calls directly. That is why JK Broadcast is 3 times the proce I guess. I need a box that allows the phone line to be connected. I did not see that input on the Alesis. I was sure hoping it would! Skype is not an option for me as it has proven unreliable way too many times!


Todd Dolce' said...

The only problem I see with the Alesis Multimix 8USB, is that it cannot be used for recording the calls directly. That is why JK Broadcast is 3 times the proce I guess. I need a box that allows the phone line to be connected. I did not see that input on the Alesis. I was sure hoping it would! Skype is not an option for me as it has proven unreliable way too many times!


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