We recently covered the ins and outs of how to record an audio drama. But what equipment do you actually need to do this?
Just like any other podcast equipment question, that depends on what you’re looking to achieve, your budget, and your level of experience.
I’ve broken up this roundup post into four parts: beginner, intermediate, advanced, and additional equipment. I’ve recommended equipment I think fits nicely into each category based on my own personal experience and the recommendations of some of the medium’s top pros.
Beginner Level – Starting Out
If you want to keep your costs to a minimum, you can still make quality audio drama using a single USB mic. You can record your actors individually, find ‘remote’ actors online, or even play all the characters yourself. Here are two options worthy of your consideration. We also have a roundup of the best USB mics on the market if you’re interested in shopping around some more.
The Samson Q2U is one of my favourite (and most recommended) mics. There are a few reasons why this mic might be ideal for you: it’s very well priced; it can also operate as an XLR mic if you upgrade your equipment later on; and it has a really decent sound quality.
The Q2U is a dynamic mic with a cardioid pickup pattern. These are two features you will need in a mic if you have to record in less-than-ideal conditions.
The Blue Yeti is a popular option with ‘solo’ audio dramatists and remote voice actors. It’s bit more expensive than the Q2U, and you can’t use it as an XLR mic. Arguably, it sounds a bit better when used correctly (with its cardioid polar pattern), but with it being a condenser mic you’ll need good recording conditions free from background noise to get the best from it. I’d always opt for the Q2U over the Yeti, but some may disagree.
The Zoom H1 is very small and light and has a pair of decent quality X/Y stereo mics built in. You can have multiple actors ‘act around’ a recorder such as the H1, but it can take a bit of trial and error to get the levels and mic technique right. Consistency of sound levels will always be a battle when you’re recording more than one person onto a single audio track.
The Zoom H2 has slightly better-sounding built-in mics, but this particular model has been discontinued and can be harder to find. A great example of a premium quality audio drama being recorded around a single Zoom H2 is Campfire Radio Theater’s Hungry Hollow.
Both of these recorders are prone to picking up a lot of wind distortion if you’re recording outside (even if it isn’t very windy), so choose recording locations carefully and always monitor the conditions. Be sure to use a foam pop filter or furry windjammer to cover the mics too when recording outdoors.
With both the Zoom H1 and H2 you can plug in external microphones through a 3.5mm (standard headphone jack) port. This gives you the option to plug in lavalier mics that you have pinned on each of your actors. You can use multiple lav mics through a splitter for extra recording flexibility. Always experiment with these setups before diving into the recording of your actual drama.
Intermediate Level – Upgrading Your Kit
The Shure SM58 is a great ‘all rounder’ mic to look into if you’re skipping the USB stage and going straight to working with XLR mics. Like the Samson Q2U, the SM58 is dynamic/cardioid, and it’s a good option for someone who doesn’t have access to pro-level recording conditions.
It’s also practically indestructible. That doesn’t mean you should hammer nails in with it (although, you could!), but it takes the stress out of hastily arranged location recordings where there’s a long list of things that have the potential to break your gear. Audio drama production legend Dirk Maggs is a big fan of the SM58.
Audio Technica ATR 3350
The ATR 3350 is a lavalier (lapel, collar, or clip-on) mic with a very long cable. That makes it well suited to pinning to an actor who’s going to be doing a bit of moving around during a scene. As lav mics go, this isn’t the quality you’ll find on a big-budget film set, but it has a thoroughly decent sound and a very low price.
Working with a couple of ATR 3350s for a year or two will give you a great introduction to the world of lav mic recording.
I use the AKG C214 for my in-studio work. It’s a mic with pristine audio quality, but it’s totally unforgiving when it comes to unwanted background noise.
Highly sensitive condenser mics like these can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your recording conditions. If you’re able to sound-treat a room and don’t have a lot of external noise in your building or street, then a couple of these will provide you with pro-level audio quality at a not-too-outrageous price.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
I’ve been using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for a few years now. It’s a brilliant little USB preamp which lets you connect one or two XLR mics and record directly into your computer. This gives you the ability to put two mics/actors on two independent audio tracks, giving you greater flexibility and control. The 2i2 is an excellent piece of gear, especially if you are on a budget.
The Zoom H5 is a step up from the H1 and H2. It has two XLR/1/4″ combo ports which allow you to record two mics/actors independently at the same time. On top of this, it also has really decent quality built-in X/Y stereo mics which are also perfect for recording sound effects and ambience.
In the previous section I talked about the ATR 3350 lav mics – they make a great portable setup with the Zoom H5, connecting into the combo ports via two 3.5mm /1/4″ mono adapters.
Advanced Level – Top Tier Gear
Audio Technica BP4073
The Audio Technica BP4073 is the shotgun mic used to record one of the best audio dramas in the world: We’re Alive. Shotgun mics enable you to focus your recording on a very specific sound, while isolating much of what’s going on around it.
They are the ultimate directional mic. We’re Alive Creator Kc Wayland explains that “Some audio recordists say that more “broadcast/radio mics” are better for their vocal range, but I prefer shotgun mics because the frequency response and sound quality is similar to that of any feature film.”
The Shure VP88 is a really high-end mic that you can use in a variety of scenarios. It has two condenser cartridges which create a stereo image of your sound source, and it works just as well out in the field as it does in the studio. It’s used in the recording of one of the best-sounding audio dramas around: The Truth.
The Neumann U87 has something of a ‘Holy Grail’ aura about it in the microphone world! It’s a popular mic across the board in music production, voice-over work, and traditional radio drama.
Used in the right conditions the sound quality is immaculate, and no part of any performance will be lost. However, there’s really no benefit to be had by using it in poor, or even average, conditions. Especially when you’ll need to sacrifice your next family summer holiday to buy one!
Covet this mic only after you’ve perfected all other aspects of your recording setup. You absolutely do not need to spend a four-figure sum on a single microphone to make top-quality audio drama.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i8
The Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 is the big brother of the Scarlett 2i2, the preamp listed in our intermediate section. It works in the same way, meaning you can plug it in (via its USB connection) to record XLR mics directly into your computer. The big upgrade with the 18i8 is that you can use four XLR mics, as opposed to two with the 2i2. Just like its smaller counterpart, though, the sound quality is premium, and it’s an incredibly simple, uncluttered piece of gear to set up and operate.
The Zoom H6 is ideal if you’re looking at working with three or more mics but don’t want to be tied to a computer. The H6 has four XLR/combo ports on it, all of which allow you to record independent audio tracks. As with the Zoom’s earlier models, these recorders are perfect for going out to record sound effects and ambience with their built-in X/Y stereo mics, too.
I’ve mainly focused on mics and recorders in this post, but those aren’t the be-all and end-all of the audio dramatist’s kitbag.
Here’s some of the other equipment that can take your audio quality from good to great, regardless of whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro.
Attaching a pop filter to your mic stand before recording is essential.
You can pick up a pop filter for next to nothing online, but cheap pop filters are often false economy. Their clamps tend to wear and loosen off, and their necks start to droop.
It doesn’t cost a fortune to get a decent pop filter, and this Auphonix model is good value for money. Aside from having a better build than its budget counterparts, it has a double layer of mesh which means more protection from plosives during the recording process.
Some producers spend a lot of money on a top of the range microphone only to attach it to a flimsy $5 mic stand.
As well as being a potential danger to your mic, going ultra-cheap with your mic stand is a false economy. They tend to break and need replaced fairly quickly.
You don’t need to break the bank to get a quality mic stand, and the Samson MK-10 is a solid workhorse.
A good audio drama producer needs a good pair of headphones for monitoring and mixing.
I’ve been using the Audio-Technica ATH-M20Xs regularly for over 3 years now, and I swear by them. They’re very similar in build to Audio -Technica’s premium-level M50X headphones – but a lot cheaper!
There’s no use connecting a great interface with a top of the range mic using a low budget cable. A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, and a bad cable can have a serious impact on your audio quality.
I mainly use these Planet Waves cables in my recording setups nowadays. They don’t cost the Earth, offer a great sound quality, and are very affordable. On top of that they seem to be pretty durable and long-living too.
Mogami are arguably the premier cable manufacturers on the market. Certainly overkill if you’re just starting out and working with lower-end gear, but worth aspiring to own a couple eventually. These cables will actually work to cancel noise caused by signals and interference in your recording chain. Most professional studios will be cabled up with Mogami Gold.
When you buy a mic it’ll almost always come with its own foam cover. But you can reinforce those with a furry windjammer when you plan to do some of your recordings outdoors.
The Enjoytone EN-16 is designed to cover the built in mics on a Zoom H5 or H6, but they have a range of sizes designed for other specific kit too.
It’s a wise move to keep a few furry windjammers in the kit bag at all time, and these will do a good job without breaking the bank.
KRK’s Rokit studio monitor series comes highly recommended in the audio production world. I use the 5s, and so far these have been more than enough for my needs, but they do come in bigger and smaller sizes.
I’ve traditionally mixed audio using headphones, which is great for subtle dialogue editing. But for the overall production, when you’re looking to bring in multiple elements like music and sound effects whilst keeping consistent volume levels, then monitors are the way to go. I’ve been really impressed with my Rokits so far, and my productions have really benefited from using them.
A splitter will take two 3.5mm plugged mics and feed them into one recording. Conventional splitters treat this setup as one single mic, meaning there’s no differentiation between either of them in the recording, even if you record on your device’s stereo setting.
The HosaTech YMM-261 splitter lets you record your two mics into a genuine stereo recording, however. This means you can split both sides of the conversation in post-production and do some tweaking with the levels independently.
Dynamic Mic Gain Booster
There are many instances where the use of a dynamic mic (like the SM58) is preferential to using a condenser mic. A dynamic will tend to perform better in less than ideal conditions because it offers more rejection of background noise. However, many preamps struggle to power dynamic mics properly, meaning you need to turn the gain up pretty high, which then offsets all that noise rejection you were using it for in the first place.
The Cloudlifter CL-1 is a little device that takes power from your main preamp or recorder and boosts it, before sending it on to your dynamic mic. The result is simple – a stronger and cleaner signal, without all that extra background noise.
On the one hand, equipment is important when it comes to making quality audio drama and, generally, the more you spend, the better things will sound.
On the other hand, good mic technique and know-how trumps quality equipment every time. Instead of obsessing on spending and upgrading in the early days, focus instead on learning how to use the tools available to you in your price range.
Don’t procrastinate because you don’t feel your kit is ‘good enough’ yet either, and end up not actually making stuff. A single $60 Samson Q2U is more than good enough to get you started.
Learning the ropes on the lower-end gear will also make you really appreciate your first premium-level purchase further down the line. Keep that there as a reward or incentive – don’t make it your starting point.
Now that you have a better idea of what to record your show with, what about all the other things that are involved?
That’s where our series on how to make a fiction podcast comes in.
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Fiction Podcast Weekly is an email newsletter, bringing you the latest from the world of audio fiction, audio drama, and sound storytelling.
Are you involved in the medium in any way? Whether that’s as a writer, producer, voice actor, curator, or even just a hardcore listener who loves the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. Whoever you are, whatever you do, this is a great way of staying up-to-date with the latest happenings and opportunities in the fiction podcasting realm!