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I'm helping a non-profit set up a podcast and want to make sure I pick out the right types of equipment. The podcast will usually have 2 people talking. I'd like to put together two different proposals; one for a cheap setup with decent quality, and a second for a more expensive setup with better quality. The budget is about $150 for the cheap setup and $400 for the "expensive" setup.

I have a little experience running sound for live bands, but nothing in a studio. I know the quality isn't going to be great because of the limited budget and my inexperience, but I want it to be good enough so that it sounds like a good amateur recording and listeners aren't distracted by the lack of quality.

Right now I'm concentrating on the recording aspect, and I want to make sure I buy the right equipment. Here are my ideas so far, can you please tell me if these setups will work, if anything is missing or redundant, and offer any advice about improvements? I'll link to example equipment to help avoid any confusion, but I'm not looking at specific products yet, I just want general advice about the right types of equipment.

  • Cheap proposal: two USB mics --> audio interface with USB inputs? --> laptop usb port --> record in Audacity

You can't record two USB mics directly on the laptop at the same time (without some ugly hacks), so there needs to be some kind of device to merge their signals before it goes into the laptop.

  • Expensive proposal 1: two lapel mics with wireless receiver --> 4 channel mixer --> laptop mic-in jack (1/4" cable with miniplug adapter) --> record in Audacity
  • Expensive proposal 2: two lapel mics with wireless reciever --> 4 channel mixer --> audio interface with 1/4" input --> laptop usb port --> record in Audacity
  • Expensive proposal 3: two lapel mics with wireless receiver --> 4 channel mixer --> portable recorder with minplug input (1/4" from board with adapter)

In "Expensive proposal 1", will going directly from the board to my laptop cause problems? I think I've heard about the sound card being damaged in some situations.

Obviously I'll also need cables and miscellaneous accessories, but I'm just focusing on the major components right now.


Update: I'm now thinking that the best setup would be 2 lapel mics going into a combined mixer/interface and then into the laptop.

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A slight modification for Expensive proposal 2 could be running the lapel mics directly into the audio interface. (requires an audio interface with at least 2 inputs) –  Friend Of George Sep 22 '11 at 14:04
    
Yeah, but wouldn't it be good to have the mixer to EQ and level the voices before they're combined to a single track? Plus, it'd be nice to have 4 channels in case we want to have multiple guests at some point. It seems like it's much easier to find boards with 4-8 XLR inputs than audio interfaces. –  Ian Dunn Sep 22 '11 at 19:51
    
The audio interface could record multi-track to Audacity and then you could process each of the tracks separately, adding any EQ and effects to the individual tracks as necessary. This gives you the advantage of being able to change the EQ, Effects and levels of the tracks in post production. –  Friend Of George Sep 23 '11 at 17:28
    
Ah, ok, I was thinking that audio interfaces were passive hardware devices, I didn't realize they converted to digital and kept the tracks separate. Connecting the mics to the interface and the interface to the laptop sounds like a good solution. –  Ian Dunn Sep 24 '11 at 18:18
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@IanDunn From the features list on the Zzounds page you linked, "Built-in stereo USB/Audio Interface to connect directly to your computer." So no, the 1204USB does not record "multitrack" in the traditional sense, just stereo, for the main mix. It's a mixer with a 2-channel interface built in. This is maybe okay if you only have 2 mics, and you pan them hard left and right. The "multitrack" they're referring to is in their software. –  Warrior Bob Sep 26 '11 at 15:30
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1 Answer

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You are definitely on the right basic track with the setups you have suggested! I have a few more suggestions that will hopefully be enough to narrow down your choices and get the best sound for your money.

Regarding your cheap proposal: A "USB mic" is just a mic with a USB audio interface built into it. So if you're already going to have a separate interface, there's no reason not to just get two inexpensive "ordinary" mics (make sure they use the connectors are compatible - probably XLR) and run them into this interface, which probably connects to the computer through USB.

It's worth noting that, on OSX at least, you can get around the "ugly" part of the multiple-USB-interfaces hack by using an Aggregate Audio Device, which is a feature of OSX and works pretty well in my experience. There are likely solutions for Windows/Linux as well, but I am not familiar with them.

Regarding your expensive proposals: As Friend of George points out in his comment, you actually don't have to mix the audio signals before recording them, so you can save yourself the cost of a mixer if you like. You can record the signals separately but simultaneously (using an interface with two inputs), then and mix/process them afterwards on the computer.

The choice of whether to mix in hardware or software ("in or out of the box") is largely up to how you prefer to work and whether you prefer the sound of whatever mixing hardware you're using. You may prefer having only one waveform coming out of a mixer to record, if that suits your workflow better. Personally, I like to record the two mics through separate interface inputs and mix/eq/process later in the computer, since I can fix my mixing mistakes more easily, but both approaches are legitimate.

I'd recommend giving whoever is going to be running this show two "expensive" options:

  • Two lapel mics --> [optional] mixer --> USB/Firewire audio interface --> record in Audacity
  • Two lapel mics --> mixer --> record on portable recorder

The major advantage to the recorder is that you don't have to deal with laptop software, interface latency, or audio drivers. It cuts the computer out of it entirely. The downside is that it's harder to edit afterwards, since you don't have this nice mouse and keyboard and giant screen to work with.

Other suggestions: If you're looking for "good amateur recording" sound then the first place I'd look to improve the sound is a good preamplifier, either external (goes after the mic and before the mixer/interface) or built into a mixer or interface. The quality of these can be very subjective, and there are lots of good ones out there.

I personally use (and love the sound of) an ART Tube MP Studio v3, even when the interface I use to record its output is, in my opinion, not very good. I feel that it makes my voice sound much more "full", "produced" and "studio-like." However, it is mono, so you'll need one for each mic, which can get expensive quickly. A bit of compression can also help create this "intimate radio voice" effect, if you have access to it. Some interfaces and mixers have compressors on their microphone channels, or you can add it after recording in a program like Audacity. Your wireless lapel mic receiver may have a compressor or preamp option on it - check to see what your options are.

And best of luck!

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Thanks for the answer :) I think I'm going to forget about the USB mics altogether. Can I send the multi-track output of the audio interface to a dedicated recorder, or does it only accept the combined signal from the board? I think recording on my laptop may introduce stability issues, but if that's they only way to record multi-track then I think I'll just have to deal with it. –  Ian Dunn Sep 25 '11 at 18:52
    
Er, nevermind, it looks like there are both multi-track and regular recorders available. I'd like to be able to do all EQ, leveling, etc in post, but I think it'd also be nice to do some while recording. A combined mixer/interface like the Behringer XENYX 1204USB looks like it may be the best of both worlds. –  Ian Dunn Sep 25 '11 at 19:26
    
@IanDunn An audio interface generally connotes something that connects to a computer, so you won't generally have a hardware recorder after that. However, if you have a mutitrack recorder, you could just plug the mics directly into that, if it has preamps (it probably does). –  Warrior Bob Sep 26 '11 at 15:32
    
It looks like all the multi-track recorders that have enough XLR inputs are going to be out of my price range for now, so I'll stick with recording to the computer for now. –  Ian Dunn Sep 27 '11 at 16:04
    
It turns out that they're already got mics, so I just needed the main piece. I ended up proposing a PreSonus AudioBox USB Recording Interface for the cheap version, and a Zoom H4n for the "expensive" version. Thanks for all your help :) –  Ian Dunn Oct 6 '11 at 3:12
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