I’m a professional podcaster with over a hundred episodes of multiple podcasts under my belt. I am a podcast consultant who has helped tweak or launch high-profile podcasts. In both of these capacities, I’ve gotten rave reviews of my shows’ sound quality from untrained listeners and professional radio producers alike. To do all of that, I must have some pretty snazzy gear, right?

Nope!

For Boston Behind the Scenes (my personal podcast), I use a $90 iRiver iFP-799 and a $15 Giant Squid Audio Lab Mini Gold-Plated Omni Mic shown in the picture. I record my intro and outro with a USB microphone and edit my show with the GarageBand software that came free with my computer.

For the award-winning Current Science & Technology Podcast (my professional show), I use two microphones scrounged out of the Museum of Science’s closets and plugged into an inexpensive mixer/interface from Alesis. When I go into the field, I use another iRiver that I bought on eBay for $45.

Why don’t I have a fancy digital recorder like the M-Audio Microtrack 24/96 or the Marantz PMD671? Because what I have is the best setup for what I do. I’ve tried the Microtrack — I was very unhappy with the interface, the loooong startup time, and the non-replaceable battery. The Marantz (and the far less expensive Zoom H4) has XLR inputs with phantom power, but lacks a 1/8″ mic jack for use with my trusty “hat mics.” In any case, these recorders are beyond what the average podcaster needs.

So, what does the average podcaster need? A simple, reliable, and decent-sounding setup that doesn’t break the bank. My iRiver and one-inch mic provide exactly that. Because the two together weigh only a few ounces, I can carry them everywhere and always be ready to record. And because the recorder will run all day on one AA battery, I never have to wonder if I’ll have the power I need for a session — a 40-hour backup system is available at the convenience store across the street for $2.49. Oh, and contrary to the argument I’ve heard that “You’ll be seen as a fool showing up to an interview with a tiny iRiver,” everyone I’ve ever interviewed has seen it as more advanced and impressive because of its size.

Inexpensive gear may not have all the bells and whistles of its more pricey cousins, but it can produce high-quality work. I don’t need XLR inputs for most of my recordings, and level meters are secondary to monitoring with headphones. These things would be conveniences, but I would lose the instant startup time, one-button recording, and long battery life I’m used to — all while spending $300-$1000. Anyway, the sound quality of an interview depends far more on proper microphone placement and background noise than on fancy compressors or 96 kHz sampling — especially when the output is a 64 kbps MP3!

One last important point: low price can have another advantage — peace of mind. I recently advised an explorer interested in recording audio at the North Pole (on a $500 budget) to pick up a few iRivers from eBay rather than buying an expensive recorder. This was due to the harsh conditions he’d be using them in. If he dropped a Microtrack in a snowdrift or froze its non-replaceable battery, he wouldn’t have any way to make recordings. In some cases, four or five $75 devices are a much better idea than one $400 one.

I believe that when starting out, you should get equipment that is good enough to do the job, but not so expensive or complex that it gets in the way. If you start to feel limited by the equipment — and are sure you can’t leapfrog those feelings with improved technique — maybe then it is time to get some new gear. When you do, you can still use the old gear as a backup.

For podcasting, what do you think the best gear/technique mix is?

iRiver