Professional audio advice for podcasters (rookies and vets)

Earlier this year, Dan Bricklin called me up to say that he had attended a BoomersTV party in Boston and that he took the opportunity to interview John Osborne,  a Boston area-based video and audio production professional who has been doing on-location recording for reality shows and documentaries for more than 20 years.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive on

Earlier this year, Dan Bricklin called me up to say that he had attended a BoomersTV party in Boston and that he took the opportunity to interview John Osborne,  a Boston area-based video and audio production professional who has been doing on-location recording for reality shows and documentaries for more than 20 years. 

While there are plenty of podcasters that prefer the raw appeal of unprofessional recordings, Dan and I are both "old schoolers" who like to believe that listeners appreciate the extra measures that can be taken to deliver a better than average audio experience.  For example, if you're in a noisy environment and people have to yell into the microphones (often causing distortion) in order for the recording device to register their voices over the ambient noise, the resulting recording can become tiresome -- even headache-causing -- for listeners to hear what's being said. 

Minor changes to the recording gear -- for example switching from an omnidirectional microphone to a cardioid (directional) or hypercardioid microphone -- can make all the difference in the world.  A lavalier microphone (the kind that you pin to your interviewees' clothing) can also make a lot of difference if the interviewees have mic fright (a condition where they back away from a handheld microphone everytime you point it at them thereby causing a noticeable loss in pickup).  With a lavalier, they can't back away.  Also, some handheld mics are better than others for interviewing people. 

Those who know me also know that I'm constantly in search of the best podcasting gear.  For me that means a "rig" that I can use in the studio as well as on the run (which means it has to be battery operated). Using battery operated wireless gear also appeals to me.  It's a way to disentangle the interviewee from any wires should you decide to put a lavalier on them.  That way, if they move, your recording gear doesn't get yanked off a table onto the floor wear it smashes into smitherines.  

So, in my continued quest for the Holy Grail of podcasting gear, I used some of my recent back surgery recovery time to click around the Web, research more gear, and listen to Dan's podcast with John Osborne. Osborne has a lot of great tips in this interview.  You can tell he's a real pro. What follows is a transcription of the interview (published here with Dan Bricklin's permission).  Where Osborne refers to specific gear, I do my best to hyperlink to a resource that can get you more information if you're interested:

Bricklin: Hey, this is Dan here and I'm at a BoomersTV party and I'm standing here with John...

Osborne: Osborne....O-s-b-o-r-n-e, no "u" like Ozzie.    

Bricklin: and John is a sound person and as a podcaster, I figured I'd ask a lot of questions that might be interesting to other podcasters. You've been in sound for a long time?

Osborne: Sound for film, and TV, and also music for 25 years.  

Bricklin: Wow.

Osborne: Yeah. And I have my own production company but I do a lot of sound, so...

Bricklin: So, to do stuff like what I'm doing now, I'm standing here...

Osborne: You're standing hear in a noisy bar with an omnidirectional or is that a cardioid mic (microphone) I guess?  (Osborne points to Dan's microphone which is a Sennheiser MD 46 handheld microphone that's designed specifically for doing interviews.  The MD 46 competes with what many believe to be the ENG [Electronic News Gathering] standard for interviews: Electrovoice's omnidirectional RE50N/D-B).

Bricklin: Ya. (cardioid)

Osborne: Well, you could do worse.  You're doing the right thing. Basically.

Bricklin: What should people use if they want to do stuff like this?  If you were going to do two people, do you want two mics or...?

Osborne: Well, if were really high ambient noise, what you can do is use lavalier mics on radios and tape them to their chest which I do very often. Sometimes like cops.... cops that are running around and stuff. If you don't have a camera to worry about and the frame line, just stick the mic right into someone's mouth like you're doing now.  That's fine. Very often, I'm working with one, two, or seven cameras so I have to hide the microphones so that I'm not part of the issue of framing. In that case, I'm using usually four to seven radio mics for a reality show.

Bricklin: Wow.  So what radio mic would you use?  

Osborne: I have a combination of 100 milliwatt Lectrosonic mics which are UHF. And I have some lower-powered 30 milliwatt Sennheiser [radios] called G2s.  The Lectrosonics are called 190s, 195s, 201s, 210s, 211s, and 400s. They're all within about 100 milliwatts. The problem is that if you put too much RF (radio frequency) in your bag and run around, you're going to have conflicts.. comb filtering and conflicts like that.  I'm receiving and sending all the time. So, let's say four people are wired, I'm receiving their signal, deciding how to split it and send it to seven cameras maybe. So, that's a lot of RF. So, I like the Sennheisers because they're only 30 milliwatts each.  So, if I can lower the amount of RF in my bag, I'm ahead of the game.

Bricklin: The thing about using low power is that it's legal everywhere.

Osborne: I think up to 250 milliwatts is pretty standard legal and Electrosonics has become the defacto standard for radio mic stuff except for surveillance and espionage work.

Bricklin: What is Electronsonics?

Electronsonics is a company in Rio Rancho, Nevada.  It's been around for about 20 years. They make some of the best radio gear on the planet. Micron in England previously made the standard stuff and Vega which is a company -- I think in California -- used to big too. [David B's Note: Vega Wireless was acquired by Clear-Com and judging by the Web site, the last of its wireless microphone gear was discontinued in June 2005]. But Electrosonics has set the standard for quality, range, and power.

Bricklin: The expensive powerful ones? The Sennheisers?

Osborne: We're talking about systems that go for a couple thousand bucks. The Electrosonics, or the Micron.. more than that.  Then Sennheiser systems -- you can get a whole system for $500.

Bricklin: Which is, ..the whole system would be....?

Osborne: Would be a bodypack transmitter which you wear, and a receiver which looks very similar, and maybe a little plug you can put on the end of a mic like this (points to Dan's Sennheiser MD46 cardioid microphone) and use that as sort of an announcer mic. You can get that whole thing for five or six hundred bucks.  [David B's Note: Osborne is referring to Sennheiser's ew 100-ENG G2. It also includes Sennheiser's ME-2: an omnidirectional lavalier mic.]

Do you put it into a mixer? Here's the thing I know people are running into. They're doing a couple of mics. So, they like to do mixing. But they're battery powered, stuff like that.

So it's got to be low power. My favorite thing when I shoot on my own is I use a small camera and I have a Sound Devices 302; 3 in, 2 out (3 inputs, two outputs) on my hip. So, if I need three inputs -- if I need three people running around with radios like in a hospital -- I did a translator series; cultural sensitivity and translator ethics in hospitals.  I had doctors and traslators and patients on radios on my hip. So, 3 in and just split that however it made sense into the two channels on the camera. Sound Devices 302; about a thousand bucks.

Bricklin: That's a little thing, it's made out of metal?

Osborne: Yeah. Very sturdy. It's got peak hold meters so you can just glance down and see what you're doing.

Bricklin: Is there anything less expensive?

Osborne: Less expensive?

Bricklin: Yeah.

They make a two-channel mixer (the MixPre) which is probably $700 and then there's a company called Rolls which makes a whole bunch of gear and I don't know what it's like because I haven't used it. But it's popular: R-O-L-L-S. They make all sorts of two, three, and four-channel mixers in the $500 range. All of them have to take XLR inputs because you don't want to be worried about grounding problems or 1/8th inch jacks and things like that.  

Bricklin: So that means a lot of our cables are real thick and stuff like that.

Osborne: Well, you can get combined cables. You can get a cable which runs up to the camera -- one cable which has two XLRs at the end so you can plug into a camera with less stuff to foot around.

Bricklin: Well, in podcasting, we're just going into a recorder of some sort.

Osborne: Yeah, what are the inputs here (points to Dan's Edirol R-1).

Bricklin: This thing is just 1/8th inch in to the Edirol. [David B's Note: Since the Edirol R-1 is a stereo recorder, it's actually a two-channel recorder.  From a podcasting perspective, you could adapt one professional microphone to each of the channels to "mic-up" two people.]

You can get adapters so you can get something that sits on there that's 1/8th inch that has adapters to come out into... RCAs are great.

Bricklin: Keeps your hum out and all.


Bricklin: What else do you do to make the sound sound good. Right now, we've got a lot of ambient noise. So using the cardioid [microphones] helps. Using a lav?

Osborne: In this environment -- a high ambient environment -- it's very hard to be creative in terms of making a statement about how it really sounds here. Just to get away with clarity is good. But it's so high ambient, you just get that feeling no matter what you do. For lower ambient.. I've been in a church all day with 24 kids running around trying to become a chorus with two and sometimes three cameras. And I have a bunch of German mics that I use in addition to the radio mics that I described. They're made by Neumann, and Schoeps, and Sanken which is a Japanese company which has mics that are very close to the Germans.  The Germans just somehow know how to make very good musical types of mics. The Russians also have mics and they cost considerably less and the name is Oktava. The Oktava 0012 series. And if you go on a [Web] site called RAMPS which you can access from TrewAudio.com.. if you can get on the site (RAMPS).. you can ask any question. You'll get the opinions of Hollywood mixers or guys in LA or London, or whatever and me [David B's note: "RAMPS" is actually the NNTP-based  newsgroup rec.arts.movies.production.sound.  TrewAudio.com links to Google's version of it].

Would you talk to plain old podcasters?

Yeah. Anybody can get on there. A lot of people are novices and they say "Well, I'm going to make my first movie and I have this challenging audio thing; I'm going to be in a canyon or under water or something" and you get some really good feedback.

I'm frequently at meetings and I'm trying to do a meeting where there are a lot of people at the meeting.

On your own?

Bricklin: Yeah. On my own. So, I've been doing a thing with using a wireless mic and passing it around. But any other [advice]? Using shotguns or something? What works in a meeting?

And it's not being filmed at the same time?

Bricklin: No.

I would say a couple of handheld mics passed around would be the best.  How many people?

They all vary. Sometimes it's 20. Sometimes it's 50 or 200.  

That's really the best way. Can you edit? No it's all live stuff. This "casting" stuff (referring to podcasting).

Bricklin: We don't mind editing.  We don't mind not editing. The listener can always move ahead.

Osborne: I think in terms of getting it out there and clarity, passing around a mic which is wireless is great. Just have a couple of them.

Bricklin: Right now, I'm holding the mic under (positioned under the mouth), like this. Is this the way to do it rather than talking into it?

Osborne: I'd have to figure out the proximity effect. Physics comes into it.

Bricklin: Explain.

Osborne: Well, if you're too close to somebody, the bass response might be more proportional to the midrange and the high. It's basically the relationship between the low and the midrange that you have to work with. Some mics will overreact to the low frequencies if you're too close to the body. So, you sometimes have to work with that, just by listening. If two people are yakking at the same time and they both have proximity effect -- this bass thing -- it can be a disaster.  So you don't want to do that.  I don't object to having two people speaking at the same time as long as they're on the same frequency and mixing to the same thing, you know. That sounds sort of cool.  I like that quick back and forth.

Bricklin: What's the bad sound? How does it sound? What things sound bad?  

If things sound bad, they sound muddy. If the low frequencies start to build up to some comb filtering and some muddiness that starts to affect the midrange and that's intelligibility.

So the good sound makes it easier? More understandable?

Yah.  Speech.  Most of the speech I have now is between 80 Hz and 4K [Hz]. Unless I start whistling, or getting lisp -- sort of "SSSssy" -- that's it.  You're concerened about the 80Hz to 200KHz range being muddied up because that's where things start to sound weird. The high-end, you don't have to worry about.

What about how a lot of us just use the mics built into this stuff like this (Dan's R1) has a couple of mics built into it and just leave it on the table? Now that has a certain sound. [David B's Note: Edirol's R-1 has a built-in stereo condenser microphone which is supposedly very good in certain situations].

Why couldn't you use a mic like this because this is a different kind of a capsule. But you can use mics that take advantage of a pressure zone. It could be a lavalier mic which is seated in a little holder which has a piece of plastic very near the element. There's a pressure zone that builds up within that little plate, that little space which tends to make the mic more omnidirectional and more sensitive.

Bricklin: So, if you put an omni[directional] mic down...

I very often in a restaurant put an omni mic in its own holder or tape it to a surface. Wood is great or anything that resonates well. But it could be an aluminum holder for a napkin thing and have it so that it's in the middle somewhere and hide the cable, it'll pick up a pretty good representation of what's being said if it's three or four people. It's pretty good.

You get all that extra...

Osborne: You tend to get the voices pretty well like that. Unless somebody starts thumping on the table or if the waitress starts spilling a lot of stuff, your good.

Bricklin: So, is that the way you'd go? What would you do?

Osborne: Most of my stuff is for film.  So, I have a boom operator and I have these German microphones that I was talking about. And there very good at rejecting sound but not making the rejected sound bad. So you get a good on-axis sound and the off-axis sound falls off naturally, musically. So, you're left with a very nice situation. Like in a diner.

Bricklin: Unlike this thing which really drops off fast. The booms are those things they hold over your head or underneath?

Osborne: Yeah. They're held above the frame or on the side of the frame or below the frame. And very often now, it's multitrack for film. It's multitrack so all that stuff is on a separate track and everybody is wired so there's several tracks going down and the you have to decide what to give the people to listen to the next day to say "how was it?" You sort of mix that down and make a guess. It's all pulled out in "post" (post production).  Hours and days and weeks and months of post.

Anything you would tell somebody who is recording for the first time?

Osborne: You need a microphone. Go get these Russian mics which are called Octavas.  I think it's 0012 [David B's Note: It's the MK012]. If you dial-in Octava on the RAMPS site, they'll tell you like pages of stuff about it. And there's a black one. Supposedly the Black Mariah or something like that which is out now which is supposed to be better than the predecessors. [David B's Note: It's the MK012 Bello Nero].  And they're $200. You get an amplifier or a preamp and you get three or four capsules with it. Or you can order it just with one hypercardiod capsule.  [David B's Note: The MK012's usually come with three capsules:  omnidirectional, a cardioid, and hypercardiod.  The $200 price generally applies to a single capsule version of the MK012.  The more common three-capsule version costs a bit more.  Check www.oktavausa.com for a sampling of configurations and prices.]

Bricklin: So, it's a mic like I'm holding but it's has a pre-amp in it?

Osborne: I think it's a 48-volt preamp and you screw capsules into it depending on your needs. It's a hypercardioid which I would use for almost everything.  But if you get two of them, you can match them and use them for music with two omnis for example.  [David B's note: Microphones like the Oktavas can be purchased in "matched" pairs where the frequency responses of the two mics are identical.  There's a risk of phasing and distortion with unmatched pairs, particularly in stereo recordings.]  So it's a great way to get into it. But you have to watch out. There's a lot grey market mics out there.  You have to stay away from them. So, go onto RAMPS and link yourself to what they supply. [David B's Note: It's a soap opera that involves lawsuits and Chinese manufactured Oktava counterfeits.  Novice buyers beware.  Do your homework. OktavaUSA.com is indeed the authorized distributor of authentic Oktava microphones.  But the outfit works with many dealers.  If you're not sure about someone who claims to be an Oktava dealer, check with OktavaUSA and they'll verify. They did for me when I checked up on Red Square Audio which has some pretty good deals. Tell them I sent you if you go.]

Bricklin: What would a bad mic sound like? How would you know?

Osborne: You'd have all sorts of weird transient responses. You'd be able to hear it in the midrange. In other words you'd listen to the person before you mic them and then all of the sudden you say "that doesn't sound like that person very much" you know.  That's one way to tell.  I listen a lot before I start.

Bricklin: Thanks an awful lot.  Take care.


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