Why I use “Cheap Gear”

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?


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?








4 responses to “Why I use “Cheap Gear””

  1. JohnC Avatar

    I totally agree with your theories on gear.

    Through my day job, I have access to some pretty rad gear to use on my own projects, but could just as easily use any old DV camera, and in fact I use about 32% of the capabilities that the camera provides. (Most notably and egregiously misused are the sound capabilities.)

    I think the most important thing with any gear is that you are comfortable with it. The second most important thing is to go just go out and do it, and don’t let the cost of the newest, fastest, shiniest thing keep you out of the game.

  2. Tom Gosse Avatar

    Hi Adam,

    I’m impressed with and inspired by your site. My question is: when using the iriver how to you prevent “hand noise” while holding the recorder? Do you put the recorder on the table between you and the interviewee?

    Thanks for a great site,

  3. Adam Avatar


    One thing I really like about the iRiver/Giant Squid combo is that the handling noise is really not an issue. Don’t go rubbing the recorder on stuff or compulsively pet it while doing an interview, and it should be fine.


  4. David Fisher Avatar

    I have to honestly disagree on the “cheap gear” thing. I worked in a professional recording studio for three years (and still do a bit on occasion). I have also worked designing gear. I have also worked on several low budget films, as well as two large hollywood feature films.

    I will agree that with the average delivery format and listening platform, you can easily go overkill. I am hoping for the day soon that podcasts are delivered in a lossless format. There is no worse sound to my ears than the sound of a low-bitrate mp3.

    The advantages of better gear however, regardless of delivery format, can be huge still. Nothing beats having a good room to edit and mix in. Working in from there, high quality speakers to make sound judgements on are paramount. Maybe it’s not so important for podcasts, but I have also found that using a high quality D/A converter like a Benchmark DAC-1 can reveal a lot of stuff in your mix that you would otherwise not hear.

    Asides from simply being able to make better judgements, on the front end and in the field higher quality gear simply holds up better generally. Obviously there’s a few poorly made things that are still expensive, but in general it will hold up better and take a beating. The argument could of course be made that you’d simply buy two of the cheaper item for less than the expensive one costs and save but I really dislike doing it that way. You end up chasing your tail quite often in finding out what is broken.

    All of that being said, for podcasting, music, and film… you can get some great results from inexpensive gear. I just feel that as a professional you can get even higher quality results from higher quality gear. I personally like to know what op-amps are in my gear (if any), so maybe I’m a little picky.

    I think that the standard for Podcasts is simply not there yet. We have been looking it at from a perspective of a low standard that radio set for us. Overcompressed, over eq’d, and really lacking any quality. Still, not all podcasts exceed this. Oftentimes being noisy and having various other problems. Once we get past the point that radio is or was at… we still have a lot more room to grow qualitywise.

    My goal is to be able to sit down in my studio, and imagine that the speakers or people being interviewed are right there standing in front of me when I close my eyes.