Up First by NPR

The Up First podcast from NPR is a morning briefing show that’s about ten minutes long; meant to catch you up on the most important news of the previous day. I’ve just started listening to it after having it recommended to me, and think it’s great. The episodes are the perfect length to listen to in the shower and pretty information dense.

How to Sound Good on a Podcast

If you read this blog, you know that I do a weekly interview podcast called The Run Loop. The show (generally) has remote guests with different audio setups and level of comfort in front of a microphone, so I wanted to write a short tutorial I could send to future guests to prepare them to be on the show and get the best audio quality. I then realized it made a lot more sense to make that a blog post so that other people could use it as a resource as well. So, here it is. Following this should help anyone sound good on a podcast regardless of previous experience.

Getting a Microphone

If you already have a microphone you can use for recording, great! A lot of people have a Blue Yeti, which can give you pretty good sound quality if you’ve got a good environment, or a Rode Podcaster which is really easy to set up for beginners to get a good enough sound. If you already have one of those two, great. I’m going to tell you how to get the best audio quality out of them. Otherwise, I’m going to tell you what to buy and how to use it. If you don’t, and you are preparing to be on a podcast, the one I’m going to recommend is the Audio Technica ATR2100 . You’ll also want to get one of these windscreens for it to block out plosives (p sounds) and a stand for it. This stand attaches to your desk. All together you’re looking at about $85.

Why do I recommend the ATR2100? A few reasons. First, it’s a dynamic cardioid microphone. Dynamic means it’s going to be more forgiving to an untreated room than what’s called a condenser microphone. It’s not important the differences between the two types of microphone, but generally speaking, a condenser is going to pick up a lot more (mouth sounds, cars outside, room echo, etc). That’s great if you’re recording an acoustic guitar or in a professional recording setting, but not so much for a beginning podcaster. The Yeti is a condenser. The ATR2100 is a dynamic. Cardioid means it’s going to pick up mostly what’s in front of it and not other directions.

Secondly, it’s a USB mic, but it also has an XLR plug. XLR is what “professional” audio interfaces and microphones use. So if you decide you want to graduate to a standalone audio interface or you need a mic that can plug into a mixer or whatever, you have room to grow.

The last reason is that it sounds really good for a $70 mic. If you want to hear an example of this, listen to this episode of The Run Loop with Laura Savino. She used the ATR2100 and required very little editing or tweaking to make sound good.

Headphones

You’re also going to want a set of headphones. In a pinch, anything will do, but ideally, you want some big over the ear headphones that block out external sound. If you already have something that fits that description you should be okay, but if you want to get some recording specific headphones, these Sony ones are great for about $100. I haven’t used these $40 Sennheiser ones, but they look like they would be good and I’ve seen them recommended elsewhere.

You’ll want to plug them directly into your microphone/interface for low-latency monitoring of your own voice. It’s important to hear yourself so that you don’t drift away from the microphone without realizing it. When you’re recording, keep it at a comfortable, but not too loud volume, or even with closed headphones you’ll get some bleed from the people you’re talking with.

Setting Levels

If your microphone/interface doesn’t have a knob for setting levels, you’re set. The Rode Podcaster is like this. If it does, you need to turn up the level on your microphone to get a good signal. Load up GarageBand, create a new audio track, and select your microphone as the input. Now talk into it at a normal speaking volume and adjust the gain knob on your microphone. If you look at the track volume indicator, you want it to be averaging in about the 40-50% range on that slider (-15 to -12 dBFS if you’re using a different app that shows you the numbers). The reason you want it to be in this range is to give yourself what’s called headroom. If you go above 0 dB, you’re going to clip and distort the recording.

If you’ve been around audio at all, you might have heard that you want to peak around 0 dB. The reason for that is that on analog gear, it wouldn’t actually distort until something like +18 dB, so at 0 dB you still had a bunch of headroom. On digital gear you will distort at 0, so recording at around -12 to -15 is the same as recording at 0 on analog gear.

Preparing Your Environment

Before you go on the podcast, you should record some tests with your mic in the room you’ll be recording in. Put on your headphones, turn up the volume, and listen to your room through your mic. Everything you hear is going to come through on the recording. Turn off fans, air conditioning, anything like that which is getting picked up. I turn off my refrigerator when I record.

Now, get close to your microphone (2-4”), hit record, and speak into it. What does it sound like? If you’re getting echo, try hanging a blanket behind the mic to catch some of those reflections.

If you hear electronic interference, you’re going to need to get rid of that. Often, it’s some kind of grounding or power issue. Try changing what your computer is plugged into. If you’re on a laptop and using the two prong adapter, try the three prong one, or vice versa. If you’re plugged in, try recording on battery and see if it goes away. If all else fails, do a Google search.

Mic Technique

If you’re looking for a video on what good mic technique looks like, this video by Dan Benjamin will show you.

If you’re wondering how far you should be away from your microphone and what looks like, my tip is this: put your four fingers together minus your thumb like a karate chop. Put your pinky on the microphone, and place your lips on your index finger. Now stay exactly there. If you move left, right, forward, or backwards, the sound is going to suffer.

The other important thing to remember is that anything that happens in front of the mic is going to get picked up. If you scratch your face while talking, that’s going to show up on the recording, and there’s no way to remove it later. Same for bumping your desk, fiddling with your AirPods case, etc.

Wrap Up

This probably all sounds like a lot to adsorb, and it is, but if you can follow it, you’re going to sound way better than most people who go on a podcast. The main points to keep in mind are:

  • Get a microphone that’s forgiving and sounds good. I recommend this one.
  • Set your levels properly.
  • Get rid of as much room noise as you can.
  • Talk directly into the mic.
  • Don’t make any noise you don’t want to be recorded.

I hope this all helps, and if you have any other questions, please get in touch via Twitter.

Help Manton Hit His Indie Microblogging Stretch Goal

Manton Reece has four days to go on his “Indie Microblogging” Kickstarter, and he still needs our help. He’s trying to create an ad-free open platform for microblogging where people own their own data and can take it where they please. Right now he’s at $68,620 of his original $10,000 goal — which is fantastic. Manton has built safety into the platform with a feature he calls “Safe Replies” to fight abuse, but if he reaches his stretch goal of $80,000 he can hire community manager to make the service even better:

If the Kickstarter reaches $80,000, I will use some of the money to make my very first part-time hire for Micro.blog: a community manager. The community manager will help set the tone for the service, work on documentation and best practices, and be responsible for curation when Safe Replies fails to automatically catch emerging problems.

I’m going to up the amount that I’m in for. If you haven’t already pledged to help — and you can — you should.

Stupid Rice Cooker Tricks

A few weeks ago, I heard Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discussing rice cookers and how great they are on episode 294 of their Back to Work program. Because I am a ridiculous person who buys things on impulse, and because I am a vegan who eats a lot of rice and vegetables, I loaded up Amazon Prime Now and the next morning was the proud owner of a Zojirushi NS-TSC10. It wasn’t the least costly option, but I chose the Zojirushi because I wanted one that would be useful for doing things besides just cooking rice. Also it having a cute elephant on it, being from Japan, and playing “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” when it finishes cooking, might have had something to do with it. Hard to say.

I’ve used it a lot. I’m sure the thing I’ve cooked the most in it is rice, but that’s not the only thing by any stretch. I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve made.

Chocolate Cake

The weirdest thing I’ve cooked in my rice cooker was a chocolate cake. It’s not actually that weird. The rice cooker I bought has a “cake” setting on it and if you search Google for rice cooker cake recipes you will find many. I used this recipe for the chocolate cake and it turned out great. It was a bit less mess and cleanup than when I’ve made similar cakes in the oven came out at least as well, or possibly better. It was moist chocolaty, and delicious.

Steel Cut Oatmeal

Ever since I saw the episode of Good Eats about oatmeal, I’ve preferred steel cut to the regular mushy kind. The problem is that when you make it on the stove it takes about 45 minutes to cook with semi-regular stirring involved. It’s sort of a pain in the butt. If you follow this recipe from Zojirushi’s own website, you’ll let the oats soak overnight and use the timer function to have the oatmeal be ready when you wake up. Steel cut oats way easier than cooking them on a stovetop and just about as good.

If you don’t wake up when you thought you would, the rice cooker can keep your oatmeal warm for a really long time, so it’s no problem.

Rice Porridge

My mom used to make something like this sweet rice porridge when I was a kid with left over rice from Chinese food, and I’ve made it a ton. It’s super easy to make.

Combine a cup of cooked rice (brown or white is fine) with one cup of soy/rice/cow milk, a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, two tablespoons of brown sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and heat the whole thing up in a pot until it’s hot. Then you eat it. It takes a few minutes to make and is delicious. I’m not going to say it’s good for you, but, it’s got to be better than a pint of ice cream.

You can adjust the ratio of rice to milk to taste. I like it kind of thick, but you can also make it so it’s almost more like a hot beverage.

What I’ve Learned in Four Months of Aikido

I mentioned previously that one of the reasons I neglected to post here the last few months is possibly because I’ve been getting into other things and just haven’t thought about it. More than that, I think it’s that while I’ve thought a lot about the things I’ve been doing, I don’t really feel like I know enough about them to feel super comfortable speaking publicly about it. That’s probably a stupid reason not to write, but it’s mine.

The main thing that I’ve been obsessed with the last few months is studying Aikido. I try to go four days a week, sometimes three, but not less than that unless something unexpected happens. I’d like to get up to five or six days a week, but I’m trying to moderate myself a little. Anyway — I’m pretty into it.

Before I go on let me put a big disclaimer here that I’ve only been studying for a little less than four months, and so anything I’m about to say is from the perspective of a beginner who hasn’t even taken his first test yet.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art which is primarily defensive. It was first created by a man named Morihei Ueshiba (also known as Ōsensei) starting in the 20s and 30s and was developed into what it is today in the couple of decades after World War II. Instead of trying getting into a position where you can strike an opponent or do a technique you had in mind on them on them, you’re seeing the direction their own energy taking them and working with that. At least that’s how I understand it so far. Like I said: I’m a beginner.

There’s also what the call the “spiritual side” of Aikido. A lot of time in class is spent relating Aikido philosophy of blending with an opponent and not engaging energy head on to other parts of life. I find those parts pretty interesting and giving myself a framework that helps me be a little more disciplined and aware has been nice. If nothing else, getting out of the house and doing something physical with other people a few days a week is a positive development.

The biggest thing for me, so far, has been to do something where in order to succeed I need to focus on the process instead of worrying where I’ll be in the future. I don’t feel like that’s always natural for me, but I’d like to make it that way. If I can just do the best I can every day whether it’s day ten or day ten-thousand, I’ll make progress in the time it’s going to take, and probably more of it too. I think if I could apply that elsewhere it would be really helpful for me. Something one of my teachers has said before is that they’re not just trying to make us better martial artists, they’re trying to make us better people.

Whether or not I’m actually able to use any of what I learn to defend myself physically against a person who might try to harm me (I’m nowhere close to that) anytime soon is sort of the less important part to me if I can become a more focused, disciplined person. Being someone whose able to deal with conflict better and maybe also be a little less hard on themselves when trying something new is a pretty applicable life skill for me. I’d also like to get really good at the techniques, but, like I said, that’s sort of secondary.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to the last few months. Like I said, I’m totally a beginner, and I will be for a long time. Mine probably isn’t the best description of what this whole thing is about, but it’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far.

It’s been a good thing for me.

Also I’ve been told my shoulders are looking pretty buff, so that’s sweet.

Breaking the Blogging Seal

For no particular reason I haven’t kept up blogging the last few months, even though it’s been kind of a huge three months for me. Maybe because it’s been a big three months, I’ve had other things on my mind, and that’s why I haven’t posted. Anyway — I need to stop that momentum and get back to posting. So here it is. I’m breaking the seal. More soon.

Stanley Kubrick Exhibition

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to check out the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition currently at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco. I’m a big Kubrick fan and seeing the props, correspondence, and equipment presented as sort of a journey through his career was really interesting.

If you’re in the area and at all interested in Kubrick’s work, you have until October 30th to go, and you definitely should. In the meantime, you can check out the Flickr album I created with some of the photos I took of the exhibit.

Stanley Kubrick Exhibition