The biggest names in podcasting may have the luxury of flying guests into their studios for an afternoon of recording, with an audio engineer and producer on hand to ensure that things run smoothly.
The rest of us will interview guests either remotely using something like Skype or we will be the ones doing the travelling, the interviewing, the sound checks, the audio monitoring then once back home, the editing. For many, that’s what podcasting is all about.
How then do you ensure that regardless of where you’re recording, you get consistently good audio with minimal setup time and stress?
In this article we’ll explore the different options for taking your show on the road. Different setups will be covered to help you build the perfect portable podcasting studio. We’ll recommend specific items and how to get the best from them
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Considerations When Building a Mobile Podcast Setup
Good audio equipment can be expensive so before investing, you should think carefully about the different scenarios you might encounter when recording on location.
The setup you end up with may not be the one you start with, but by being deliberate with your purchases, the setup can grow with you and the additions you make along the way will compliment what you already have.
Below you’ll find a list of what we recommend you consider before jumping in. We’ll then get onto recommending some gear and how to construct each setup.
Number of People
Are you a single host and only ever interviewing a single guest on location? If so, you’ll have more options available to you at the budget end of each setup.
When I started podcasting, this is exactly the camp I was in. Things quickly evolved though and I soon had a co-host and now regularly interview multiple guests which means that the requirements of my gear changed and I could have saved myself some money if I’d have planned properly. By anticipating how your show will evolve you can make smarter choices when it comes to the equipment you buy.
The main consideration when it comes to the number of people you need to record is the number of tracks available to you. Where at all possible you should aim to have each person recorded onto a separate track as this gives you the most amount of flexibility in post-production. Where that’s not possible, I always try to have at least each guest on a separate track.
Another consideration when it comes to the number of people being recorded is the management of microphone placement. The more people you have, the harder is it to make sure that everyone is the correct distance away from their microphone to achieve the best audio quality. If you regularly record with 3+ people, a headset mic setup can be really helpful.
You should be prepared to invest more in your portable podcast equipment if multiple people are involved. Mixers with more channels, digital recorders and audio interfaces with more inputs cost more, and of course the more microphones you need, the more the setup will cost.
The reality is that it’s really hard to plan for this. I’ve found myself interviewing guests in such a diverse range of locations including hotel rooms, noisy bars, busy shops, cafés and offices.
Each one has different levels of background noise and challenges in terms of frequencies that need removing in post. The trick is to plan for all eventualities and build a setup which can cope with everything that’s thrown at it.
When I first started podcasting, I interviewed a really interesting guy about a passion project of his and the information he shared was priceless for my listeners. The only place we could record though was in a city centre bar and as I was new to audio recording and didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, I used a pair of omnidirectional condenser lavalier mics, a terrible choice for the situation and one which picked up so much of the background noise that it took hours and hours of editing just to get it to the point where you could just about hear what the guest was saying.
That mistake was the trigger for me doing my own research into portable setups and my setup now is very different and I’m confident taking it anywhere, regardless of the location. Of course, I’ll always try to record in the most optimal locations and regularly ask bar owners to turn specific speakers off which most are willing to do, especially if you’ve told them in advance that you’ll be recording a podcast.
Another consideration when it comes to the location you’re recording in is the space you have available. Small round café tables were not designed for housing a 12-track mixer! If you tend to record in locations like this, a digital recorder might be a better option.
It’s amazing how your setup will evolve and the number of individual pieces of equipment expands over time so it’s important to think about how it will all be organised and transported.
First, it’s important that you have an organized luggage system. This could be as simple as a bag with dividers and external pockets which will allow you to find the gear you need quickly. I know exactly which pocket my spare batteries are in, where the wireless setup is, where my cables are and everything else I might need to set up and make changes quickly. Make sure your cables are wrapped properly too. See our article on the best way to store XLR cables for more information.
Depending on how you travel, you may also want to think about protection of your equipment to make sure it doesn’t get damaged in transit.
This all might sound trivial and nowhere near as fun as selecting microphones and mixers, but it will become a fundamental part of your portable setup and something that you should devote some time into considering.
You should always be respectful of your guests’ time and they won’t thank you for using it to fumble around trying to work out which cable goes where.
Whatever setup you end up with, make sure that you get to know it inside out. In a permanent studio setting, it’s more straightforward in that a lot of the equipment will be setup and ready to go. That’s of course not the case when you’re recording on the road.
Keep your setup minimal and as simple as possible. Don’t skimp on spare cables and don’t sacrifice important components of the setup just to achieve minimalism and simplicity but remember that you can always have a separate ‘spares’ or ‘just in case’ bag for those items you use less regularly.
Keep your staple pieces lean where possible.
Durability of Equipment
Recording on location is more stressful on your equipment than it is when recording in a studio or home setting. This doesn’t mean that you should discount any pieces of equipment that aren’t made of die-cast steel of course but it is worth paying close attention to the materials used to manufacture the products. Also, do your research and seek out long-term reviews online.
Even when certain pieces are made with plastic or materials which aren’t particularly hard wearing, you’ll extend the life of them by looking after them properly (see above under ‘logistics’).
Power is a huge consideration. All the setups we recommend below are powered by batteries for maximum versatility. However, battery powered devices only function correctly with charged batteries so make sure you get into a good charging routine when preparing for recording sessions on location. A suite of spares is also a good idea.
Some locations will have wall power which you can use and do so if you can to save your batteries but never rely on a location having power or you could find yourself in an embarrassing and stressful situation, dragging your guest from location to location looking for power to record.
This isn’t unique to a portable podcast setup. You should record a backup wherever you record but it’s something that you need to factor in when designing your portable podcasting studio.
Even if you can’t backup each track individually, make sure you at least record a stereo mix backup of the whole recording in case something goes wrong with your main recording. It is rare that you’ll need it but when you do, you’ll be thankful that you took the time to do it.
I take a belt and braces approach to this and have a feed going from my main recorder to my backup recorder and then also have a separate digital recorder with in-built mics to capture a second backup. This will of course be lower quality but if it ever gets to a choice between using it and not getting a podcast episode out because of recording issues, I know which I’d choose.
If your guest has given you their time to appear on your show, you also owe it to them to make sure the episode ends up being released.
What Portable Podcast Setup Options are Available?
So, let’s get into some recommendations in terms of equipment and how you can start to build your setup.
There aren’t budget, mid-range and high-end options but instead options using different types of equipment to give you an overview of the pros and cons of each one.
Of course, specific items are recommended throughout where relevant.
Affiliate notice: If you use any of the links to the products we recommend below, we may earn a small commission from the retailer at no additional cost to you.
Podcasting on Location with a Laptop and Audio Interface
A lot of one and two channel audio interfaces are powered by your computer’s USB port meaning that when recording on location, your laptop’s battery can power both your laptop and your interface.
If your interface can provide 48v phantom power to your microphones, this also does away with needing separate batteries for those condensers with dual power options. Dynamic mics of course don’t need power so if you are using dynamic mics, this isn’t a consideration. You can read more about these two types of microphone in our article Condenser vs Dynamic Mic for Podcasting: Head to Head.
With this setup, you need to make sure that you have a reliable and long-lasting laptop battery. For a setup like this, I use my early 2015 MacBook Pro and although now starting to show its age, the battery is very good, and I wouldn’t be concerned about recording an hour-long interview with it.
You would of course record the audio directly into your DAW of choice. For a backup, you can take a feed from the line outputs of your audio interface into your digital recorder. The downside with this setup is that as soon as you need to record more than two channels, most audio interfaces with more than two XLR inputs require external power.
Recommended products and setup
Audio interface – Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (Amazon)
For the price, this is a very reliable and solidly build two channel audio interface. It can supply 48v phantom power if you want to use condenser mics with it and it has stereo line outputs you can use for your backup. Setup with either a Windows PC or Mac is also very straightforward.
Microphones – Shure SM57 (Amazon)
A low sensitivity instrument mic, for podcasting? Although Shure designed the SM57 as a tool to capture loud instruments such as bass drums and saxophones, it actually sounds great when recording voice with it too. Some even believe it’s comparable to the much more expensive Shure SM7B which was designed first and foremost as a vocal microphone.
The SM57 is also built like a tank so will be able to withstand all that comes with being ‘on the road’. Because the price point is low comparative to other dynamic mics which perform well when recording voice into them, this makes our recommended list because you’ll need to buy at least two for your portable podcast setup so it keeps costs down. You’ll really feel it if you need 3 or 4 mics.
Being a dynamic mic, the SM57 will also help to cut out background noise if where you’re recording is less than ideal on this front. One thing to note though is that it’s quite a gain hungry mic so you’ll likely have to crank up the Scarlett’s preamps but if that is an issue for you then you could also introduce an inline gain booster like a Cloudlifter (or an alternative to it).
Headphones – Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (Amazon)
A brilliant mid-range option, the HD 280 Pro’s from Sennheiser can be found inside the bags of many audio producers. They’re well built and are great for audio monitoring.
The full setup is shown below (albeit with just the one microphone but the Scarlett 2i2 will take another for your guest). The only addition is the tabletop mic stand with pop filter for the mic. These can be found on Amazon.
Podcasting on Location with a Digital Recorder
This is actually my preferred option for a number of reasons:
- The batteries which power digital recorders normally last longer at powering them than laptop batteries do when powering both a laptop and an audio interface (and potentially a number of condenser mics with 48v phantom power)
- It’s a more compact setup – the laptop isn’t needed, and the digital recorder is the central piece of equipment which manages all the inputs and outputs
- If you choose the right model, the preamps on digital recorders can be superb
- Digital recorders are designed and built to be used on location so have the durability and features to reflect that
- They’re versatile – I use mine for a range of things including the recording of Skype interviews from home and also in video work
For a two-person setup, I use a Tascam DR-60Dii. If you need more inputs then look at the Tascam DR-70D or the Zoom H6.
The Shure SM57 mic and the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones mentioned earlier will work fine with this setup but another option (and one which I prefer) is to use headset mics. This means that you need to worry less about poor mic placement as each mic is attached to the headset.
For more detail about how I setup the Tascam DR-60Dii to record three people, see our article on how to build a three person podcast setup.
Recommended products and setup
The DR-60Dii has been a great purchase for me. It’s very versatile as described above, the preamps are good, it’s easy to use, it allows me to easily take a backup and as a bonus can be used with a DSLR video setup so I can use it on other projects outside of podcasting.
As well as the two XLR inputs, it also has a 3.5mm input which can be used to feed in either an additional 3.5mm jack microphone or what I use it for is to take a feed from the headphone socket of my laptop and plug it into this input on the recorder to record Skype interviews. My mic then just plugs directly into the Tascam. It works well, I can take a backup by having a stereo feed from the Tascam to a Zoom H1 and I don’t need to worry about the computer crashing while I’m recording an important interview.
If you need more than two XLR inputs, the Tascam or Zoom models linked to above are great options.
Microphones – Audio-Technica BPHS1 Broadcast Stereo Headset (Amazon)
This headset is popular with sports commentators who record from noisy stadiums. Why? Because the cardioid pickup pattern dynamic mic rejects off axis sounds meaning that background noise becomes much less of an issue. If it works well in a sports stadium, the background noise in a bar or café when you’re recording a podcast interview won’t be an issue either.
You do still get background noise of course but this is probably the best option for minimising it.
These headsets are also built well, sound great and are easy to use. One tip to get the best sound from them is to slightly increase the 110 Hz frequency in post. This adds a little more low end and makes the sound a bit more full.
Podcasting on Location with a Mixer
In recent years, affordable mixers have come onto the market which are really well suited to podcasting on location.
The problem with most mixers is that they require wall power and you only get a stereo recording of the mix which means little flexibility in post as you’ll only have the left and right channel to work with meaning that if you recorded more than two microphone, some will be on the same channel.
Now though, there are products on the market such as the Zoom LiveTrak L-8 which is a mixer that can be powered with either AA batteries or a USB power supply (recommended) and can record each input on a separate track directly onto an SD card. This is a gamechanger when it comes to recording your podcast on location. No longer do you need to compromise on channels, power or versatility.
The Zoom has many other great features such as sound pads, an input for a phone feed with in-built mix minus functionality and it can also be used as an audio interface (still allowing separate tracks to be recorded in your DAW). For the podcaster, it’s a truly awesome bit of kit.
The microphone and headphone options recommended in previous setups will also work well with the Zoom.
You can read more about the Zoom LiveTrak L-8 here on Amazon.
So, there we have it, three options to take your show on the road. We’ve recommended our favourite bits of portable podcast equipment to help you build a great setup.
All options come in at different price points and some bits of kit are more versatile than others. Which is the ‘closest to perfect’ setup though? In our opinion, a combination of the Zoom LiveTrak L-8 with however many sets of the Audio-Technica BPHS1 you need should give you everything you’ll ever want.
With whatever you choose though remember that you must have a backup option at all times and you need to match your setup to the environment in which you’ll be recording the most.