How to Record a Podcast: a Brief History of MNmaxed
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
When we first set out to create the MNmaxed Podcast it was 2013. In our friend Craig's basement I setup what music recording gear I had at the time. I put a large diaphragm condenser microphone at each end of a long table.
The walls and floor were all concrete, I brought in a large throw-rug I had which made zero difference. The mics I had, a Rode NT1A and Blue Spark, were great for their intended purposes (I recorded an album in a concert hall that sounded pretty good on that equipment) and I used them to record my voice in my little makeshift homes studio.
However, in the echo-y basement the sound quality was... poor. Everyone sounded thin, there was no consistency in volume (guess who was the loudest (hint: it was me)) and the sound of dice hitting the table was ear piercing on the recording.
I ran the group through a fun little module called Broken Chains and we ended up with nine episodes. Maybe someday, if our listeners indicate they're feeling bored and masochistic enough, I might remaster them a bit and release them to the public.
In the end I was just no where near happy enough with the end product and realized I would need a whole different recording setup to make this free-form group podcast work.
Fast forward some six years and many adventures later, and we learn of the release of Pathfinder Second Edition. As is the tendency of many tabletop RPG groups, some of our members had moved or moved on (in the Broken Chains recording we had six players and we hadn't even yet met Ted) leaving us with a smaller but dedicated and focused group.
We got excited to take another look into this podcast thing, using the launch of Pathfinder 2e as a catalyst for our plans.
Then I moved to Georgia.
It was around then that we took our gaming sessions totally online. Tyler had already moved about an hour away from the rest of us some months previous and had been DMing as a face on a laptop for a while. With me flying south we decided to run our games exclusively through online chat programs, thus avoiding the need for late night drives through Minnesotan snow storms to get our TTRPG fix.
We also knew this meant we'd need some kind of online gaming platform. I thought back to my college days, playing online with my old group over some terrible program or other, and shuddered.
Tyler dove headfirst into researching what was available and spent untold hours coming to the conclusion that Fantasy Grounds was the way for us to go. Fantasy Grounds IS great, even if I'm a bit of a curmudgeon and drag my feat on wanting to use its full suite of automation; automatically handling all calculations and applying all effects and whatnot.
Learning to fully utilize Fantasy Grounds has been an ongoing challenge that everyone in MNmaxed except for me has embraced. Really it's not hard, there's just so much it can do. We can't recomend Fantasy Grounds enough if you're in a similar situation of remote gameplay. For me, more stuck in the old school, the system in no way gets in the way of our fun; and that's what's most important to me. When we log into Fantasy Grounds we're having fun playing TTRPGs right away, you don't have to use all the automated stuff and Tyler even lets me get away with doing so every now and then.
So we'd figured out how to play online, so how were we going to record it? Now this is my jurisdiction so I started looking into options.
At the time we were video conferencing through Google Hangouts, which worked well enough. The challenge came when trying to record the conversation at a reasonable quality. I tried a lot of things with virtual cables and even a second computer but I just was never happy with the result, so I looked into other programs.
I started by looking at podcast specific programs but quickly ran into a couple problems. Our group is five people, and even group specific programs like Squadcast only allowed for four (at least at the time I was researching). Plus, we knew from the start we would eventually want to bring in listeners to play and record with us. Even now, as we still feel like we're just getting started, we've had recordings for All on the Table with five players, the DM, and two rules lookup people.
So what program allowed us to do this? It's called Zoom and it's targeted at corporate meetings.
Zoom not only transmits pretty high quality audio, but has push button recording which makes the whole process of recording the MNmaxed podcast a breeze. Zoom has been perfect for us, even if the Zoom rep I initially talked to didn't seem to quite get the concept of an actual play podcast (he was nice and helpful but I began to run out of ways to explain that it wasn't any kind of panel discussion).
If you are looking at recording a large group podcast we can definitely recommend Zoom as an excellent piece of software. It also records video, can record separate audio tracks for each participant, and does a bunch of business related shit that all of us at MNmaxed ignore for fear of feeling too much like we're at work.
If you've listened to the MNmaxed Podcast from our earliest episodes, which analytics would seem to show is likely the case, you will probably have noticed some changes in audio quality. As we've gone we've done our best to make it sound as good as we can. A big part of that is mic choice.
Podcasters are spoiled for mic choice these days and I'm not going to try and go through all your options. I do want to give a little bit of my opinion, though, and because this is our blog you can't stop me.
If you're just looking for a USB mic, then I can't recommend highly enough the Blue Yeti. It's plug and play and will work well in just about any environment. This is the mic I recommended to Swany and what he's used since about the middle of Fall of Plaguestone. But that info is easy to find with any Google search.
If you're looking for that next step up in audio quality here's what I suggest. You'll want to get yourself an audio interface and I've always used the Scarlett series by Focusrite. I have an 18i8 I use for music recording, and a 2i2 at my desk for podcasting and some other light audio work. If podcasting is all you're looking for then even the Solo, the lowest price point of the series, will suffice just fine. Whatever you get make sure it has phantom power, which all Focusrite Scarlett interfaces do.
From there you're looking at mics. Now most people don't have a sound dampening space in their homes. I made one by creating a PVC frame (5ft by 5ft) and draping the sides and top with specialized sound dampening blankets. However, I still have yet to set that up after my move, so how does one avoid all that splashback echo present in most normal rooms?
The answer is a shotgun mic. The granddaddy is the Sennheiser MKH 416, but I use the more affordable and unbelievably versatile Audio-Technica AT875R. Shotgun mics are small diaphragm condenser mics specifically designed to have a very directional pickup pattern. I run my mic at a medium gain level and get right up on the thing. I have it pointing down toward my mouth from just above my nose so my plosives and breathing aren't right into it.
Because it's so directional it really helps to eliminate splashback echo and can let a podcaster on a low to moderate budget (about $150 US for the interface, and about the same for the mic) get a really great and professional near studio sound.
Sorry that was a little long winded, but I like recording stuff, have experimented with a lot of things, and personally wish I would have known about the AT875R years ago.
So now we've got the raw MNmaxed track recorded, what then?
From there I throw the audio file into my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). There's a lot of good DAWs, I started out on Reaper and have just continued to use it. It's great, it's cheap, it's not hard to learn. There's even ways to program in macros of a sort that can automatically cut out all dead air for you. I don't bother with that, but I know it can be done.
In Reaper I edit things down to try and give everything a coherent and engaging flow. I also add our sound effects and background music. At this point I'm using primarily stuff I've recorded (check out the MNmaxed YouTube channel) and a great website called tabletopaudio.com.
From there it's into a mastering program that I mostly just use to crank up the overall volume of the mix; I use T-RackS 5. Its pre-loaded master templates are great and super simple to apply.
Once the track is mastered it gets uploaded to our hosting site, which is Buzzsprout. When I first setup our hosting with Buzzsprout I went through and linked the RSS feed to all the major podcast distribution platforms, a process which Buzzsprout made pretty easy, and now everything just automatically posts everywhere once I upload an episode to our host. Buzzsprout provides nice stats and I feel its price is very reasonable.
And that's about it! That's how we make our little podcast here at MNmaxed. If anyone is looking to do something like what we do then maybe this will have been helpful. If not, you were probably bored out of your mind and I can't believe you've now read the whole thing.
But anyway, take care everyone, go out there and have many great adventures of your own!