Equipping Your Mobile Podcast

Updated 24 March 2016

After describing this information countless times to prospective Ottoman History Podcast contributors and various other inquirers, I decided that it would be best to write something up for easy and organized viewing.

Whether you're looking to join the Ottoman History Podcast team or simply start a podcast of your own, one of the most important considerations from the outset is that of equipment. What do you want your podcast to sound like? How much patience and forgiveness do you expect from your audience? Conversely, how much are you willing to spend? How much time do you want to devote to editing? And how portable do you want your equipment to be?

The wrong setup for your podcast, March 2011 (Photo credit: Fatih Çalışır)
These are questions that we did not consider when we started recording conversations on a Sony handheld recorder lodged into the bottom of a Styrofoam cup (above) in 2011. But thanks to feedback from our audience (special thanks to Dorothée Kellou) and through constant trial and error, we've arrived at a setup that works for us and is easy for anyone to implement. This page offers a short summary of our current setup as well as an explanation of what to expect from your equipment.

The Mobile OHP Setup

A full podcasting equipment setup, which is as follows below, will cost you under $500. 

Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder$250
Zoom EXH-6 Dual XLR Capsule$70
4 Behringer Ultravoice XM8500 Microphones$80
4 Cable Matters Gold Plated XLR Cables$40
5 Ball Type Microphone Windscreens$6
2 32gb SD Cards$25
Headphones$15
USB Power Wall Adapter$8
Total$494

Ottoman History Podcast is an interview-style program with a very particular format. Most podcasts either operate out of a home studio or are conducted on a laptop via Skype. Our setup is somewhat unique in that all of our podcasts are recorded in person using a mobile setup that allows us to speak with scholars wherever we go and wherever they may be found.

This means that each one of us has a bag of equipment that is ideal for carting to someone's office or a neutral location to record a face-to-face interview with minimal setup time or burden.

Ottoman History Podcast contributors recording on an Istanbul rooftop using our typical setup, July 2013.
Each participant in the conversation has their own microphone, ideally held while speaking very much as does the gentleman on the left. (Photo credit: Chris Gratien)
This format means we need to be portable, accommodate a varying number of guests, and prepare for less-than-ideal aural environments over which we have limited control. We also have to be frugal. As a non-commercial, independent podcast, it is especially important that our main contributors, who are usually graduate students, can afford to buy the equipment. Our current setup employs a multi-track recorder with external cardioid microphones, such as the type that might be used for singing or karaoke. This setup results in individual mono tracks for each participants voice that can then be edited for flow and sound quality.

Listen to a typical episode and you'll hear the audio experience one can expect from such a setup. Minimal background noise and clear speaking voices that are not recorded at professional radio level but with a more appealing sound that what you would get from a laptop microphone or iPhone. If you're starting your own podcast, you'll want to consider different options, including how important it is to be mobile. If you are building a studio, the information below probably won't be of much help. You might in that case go for a set of higher-quality studio mics with stands/mounts that will get you a better sound and save trouble on editing. If you're going to be conducting interviews via Skype, all you need is one really awesome USB microphone and of course the right software.

But if you're going to work with us, the setup described below represents the only combination of equipment that is currently acceptable for our format. While we are always experimenting and tweaking our process, for new contributors, these items are absolutely required.

Our setup is eminently portable. The bag on the right, the dimensions of which may be understood from the 15" laptop on the left, contains everything you need to record a podcast with up to 4 participants: Zoom H6 w/accessories in case, Zoom Dual XLR Capsule, 4 Behringer Ultravoice Dynamic Cardioid Microphones, 5 XLR cables, collapsible over-the-ear headphones, spare batteries, a small notepad, and a number of miscellaneous items. (Photo credit: Chris Gratien)
Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder
~$250

The multi-track recorder is the fundamental component of our portable setup. Since we made our first upgrades in 2012, we have been very loyal to the Zoom series of multi-track recorders. They are easy to use, reliable, and durable. I have done hundreds of recordings with Zoom mics, many longer than an hour, and never has the device once crashed. Even if the battery runs out in the middle, you won't lose your recording. Also, the head stereo microphone produces unbelievable sound quality for the price, so you'll be able to use your Zoom not just for recording podcasts but for capturing other things such as field recordings, live musical performances, or your dad's sonorous mid-afternoon naps. If you are really in a pinch or are doing live "man on the street" style interviews and the like, this mic is also acceptable for impromptu recordings involving two people. 
The Zoom H5 Handy Recorder (Photo source: Gizmodo)
The current Zoom H5 model records up to 4 tracks at a time (the head is two tracks of left and right audio). This means that you'll be able to have up to four participants each with their own mic using a special attachment (see below). But good luck getting four people in a room at the same time.

What you need to know

The Zoom H5 has individual volume dials and a levels meter so that you can track the audio levels of the mics throughout the recording. Each person speaks at a different volume and will tend to use the mic in a different way, so being able to quickly adjust those levels while recording is a huge bonus.

The Zoom H5 also has a detachable head to expand the setup so that it can accommodate 4 external mics. 

Also, the Zoom H5 accepts both XLR and TRS connections, meaning that it can accept a wider variety of mic cables.

The Zoom H5 can run off batteries, but you will want to use a power supply while recording. The Zoom H5 and H6 are powered by USB, so ideally, you should keep a USB power source converter on hand to plug in the device while recording. Going off the battery will eat a lot of batteries, and if you're recording for a long time, it will result in a podcast getting cut short sooner or later. But always keep batteries inside the device, just in case you can't plug in for some reason or in case the device gets unplugged in the middle of recording. That will happen, but if you've got batteries, the recording will continue without a hitch. If you've got some money to spend, you could invest in a rechargeable portable USB power supply so that you'll never be constrained by access to a plug.

Most importantly, the Zoom H5 and its siblings do not require a laptop or other device to record. Of course, you will probably need a laptop to edit the final product, but there's no need to carry a laptop to the recording.

There are other multi-track recorders, but for new contributors, we insist that they obtain an unopened (not used) Zoom H5. Trying to save $50 by buying a different device or used item seems like a good idea, but when you consider the number of recordings you will (hopefully) make on your Zoom H5, you will realize that savings may come at a high price. Keep in mind that each episode of Ottoman History Podcast is played and downloaded by thousands of people within the first week, and a lot of them will be people that know you.

Two acceptable alternatives are the Zoom H6 (six-track equivalent) and the Zoom Q8 (an HD camera with Zoom H5 embedded). For institutions or groups looking to invest long-term, the Zoom H6 (and the appropriate number of mics) might be the better fit.

Zoom EXH-6 Dual XLR Capsule
~$70

This add-on for the Zoom H5, H6, and Q8 is essential for adding more microphones to your setup. It snaps on at the top where the default mic is attached. Note that the older Zoom H4n does not have such capabilities, but this capsule is completely interchangeable with all the current products in the Zoom line. This add-on is a little pricey, and almost makes it worth just buying the Zoom H6 up front with or without this capsule, but either way, it is absolutely necessary to keep in mind that each participant needs their own mic for this setup to work well.

The detachable capsules on the Zoom H5 and H6 are a major improvement on the H4n, but they are not that cheap
Behringer Ultravoice XM8500 Microphones (three to four)
~$20 apiece ($80 for set of 4)

As I mentioned above, we use cardioid microphones to record our podcasts. Cardioid mics pick up less background noise and are more ideal for recording a single sound source (like a person's face) from up close. With our setup, the person holds the mic near their mouth as if they are singing karaoke or an audience member on a daytime television program and the host adjusts the volume levels accordingly. This gets a pretty good sound most of the time, but make sure to tell the guest not to nervously play with the cables or connections while recording. It's a little awkward, but very effective, and actually gets a better sound that putting the mic on a stand, as the guest will inevitably move around in their seat.

There are a lot of options out there in terms of cardioid microphones, but the best balance I've found is the Behringer Ultravoice XM8500. At $20 apiece, you can certainly afford to buy a whole set, and the product is heavy, sturdy, and most importantly, sufficiently loud without amplification when plugged into the XLR connection. 

The inside of a Behringer Ultravoice Cardioid Dynamic microphone (Photo credit: Chris Gratien)
You need a minimum of three of these, as each episode usually has at least one guest and often includes a co-host or a second guest. Since the Zoom H5 can take up to four mics, one might consider having up to four.

*Update* I recently invested in a Shure SM58 microphone, an industry standard cardioid mic that will cost you almost $100 out of the box. When compared with the Behringer Ultravoice using identical microphone cables, the sound quality of the Shure SM58 is slightly better, although the Ultravoice is slightly louder and this could be a factor when trying to control for human error. The difference with regard to warmness of the spoken voice is noticeable but overall marginal, and I have not determined if the Shure SM58 is in any way less noisy. If you're just getting started, I cannot justify the extra cost for the Shure SM58,, but it is important to point out that better mics will yield overall better results, however minor the improvement may be.

It is very important to have a set of identical mics. Mix and matching will result in an awkward sound. Two of the same $10 mics will probably produce a more listenable recording than a $10 mic paired with a $50 mic. Don't lose your mics. Also beware that microphone heads come unscrewed and that sometimes either by playing with them or through jostling during transport the heads come a little loose, causing sounds issues.

Cable Matters Gold Plated XLR Cables (four, comes in pack of two)
~$20 for pack of two (~$40 for set of four)

Within this setup, the XLR cables are probably the most flexible and also the most risky. I have used numerous cables over the years, and sometimes you get a cable that just doesn't sound right or produces interference. Interference isn't just about the cable but it is also about the environment. If you are recording in a room that is full of electronic devices that have radio transmitters working and what not, you never know what will happen. For a full explanation of the finer points of XLR cables, see this article.

Recently, I have been using the Cable Matters 2-packs of cables and have not experienced any issues. They are pretty much as cheap as you can get. They will plug right into the Behringer mic and directly into the Zoom H5's XLR port without any additional connector. At around $20 per box ($10 per cable), depending on the length, they are a great deal. However, there are a lot of better cables out there if you're looking to invest more money.

Note that the particular size and connection combination you need is an XLR Male-to-Female cable.

It's not completely intuitive, but this is how your XLR microphone cable will connect to your Zoom H6, H5, or H4n 
One of the problems we have encountered is that many of our contributors have destroyed their mics or cables during transport. The equipment isn't super fragile but a hit at the right angle, an odd twist, or just putting a lot of weight on the connection points (don't lean on the microphone while recording!) can cause the cables to develop a short or stop working altogether. Therefore, it's often good to carry an extra cable, and this is actually further justification in my opinion for buying cheap cables, which are easy to lose as well.

When selecting the length of your cables, consider getting cables of different lengths. The best bet is the 6ft cable; 10ft can come in handy in group settings. 3ft is also fine for the host who is at the device, but 2-3 people all on 3ft cables is not the recipe for a good recording. Just keep in mind that you'll have to carry these cables, so don't invest in anything unnecessarily long, unless you plan to use them for live performances or instruments (in which case I would go for a higher quality altogether).

Ball Type Microphone Windscreen (one for each mic)
~$5-10

Of all the necessary items, the one most frequently lost or forgotten by podcasters is the windscreen. You don't need a windscreen for everything, but you do need it for recording your guests' voices with the setup we have. When you edit the recording, you'll hear a lot of weird, human noises that you'll have to edit out, and the last thing you want is to get more of those (some of which you can't remove) by forgetting your windscreen.

These windscreens are cheap and usually come in a pack. If you like, get a multi-color pack as a useful way of keeping the mics straight. 

32gb SD Card
~$10-15

When it comes to SD Cards, pretty much any kind will work for the purposes of using the Zoom H5. That does not necessarily apply with video or photography.

Each recording will be saved in a folder, with each track (i.e. each microphone) saved as a separate file. 

You want a big memory card, because podcasts take up a good amount of space (each episode around 500mb-1gb or more), and you don't want to have to constantly delete things, especially before the episode has been released. The worst thing ever is to accidentally lose the files (it's happened to us once or twice) because you were freeing up space on your card.

A 32gb SD Card is only $10-15. If you've got the budget, consider keeping a spare card with your equipment, just in case you actually head out to record only to find that you've left the SD card in your laptop or on your desk.

Headphones
~$10-20

Basically any set of headphones will work, but it is really important to always bring headphones to the recording. This is because before recording you must absolutely do a sound check to make sure nothing is wrong with the mics and that everything will sound OK. This also provides the opportunity for the guest to become acquainted with the microphone before recording. 

Bearing this in mind, you might want to invest in a pair of earbuds or collapsible headphones, nothing too fancy, but something compact to keep with your equipment. 

Optionally, you could buy a 5-way microphone splitter and have a set of headphones so that each participant can hear themselves while recording. This might result in a better sound and help you work on your radio voice, but most guests will probably consider this an encumbrance and not want to listen in. 

USB Power Wall Adapter
~$5-10

You'll need a USB Power adapter to plug in the Zoom H5. Most of us have one of these around the house or in our bag because of our cell phones, but it's strongly recommended to obtain a separate one intended solely for podcasting and meant to be kept with the equipment at all times. It's easy to misplace or forget these things.

For plugging in the Zoom H5's USB cable, a small but essential item 

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