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HOW WE RECORD “the best-sounding podcast in the world.”

A lot of people comment on how great the Freedom Feens podcast sounds. Some have even dubbed it “the best sounding podcast in the world” (their words, not ours). We’re honored, especially for something done by cats who aren’t in the same state, let alone the same room. And we do work pretty hard at it.

I’m in Casper, Wyoming. Neema’s in Eastern Washington State. Neema used to live in Casper, he did when we made our movie, Guns and Weed: The Road to Freedom , but he moved, and we now do the podcast over the internet.

We do a lot of research during the week and take notes on current events and random thoughts, and compile a list and each print it out. But it’s just a list of what to talk about, it’s not a script. We riff on the spot with what we say on the podcast.

We record what’s called a “double-ender podcast.” We talk on the phone, but don’t record the phone call. I use a land line with a headset, Neema uses an iPhone held in place and acoustically isolated by using his “gun ears”, the hearing protection he uses while shooting. These eliminate echo and feedback of me from his phone. We each record our part only, with microphones on stands in front of us. We record in sections of approximately 27 minutes, stop, save the file, and do this four times for each cast. We record about 110 minutes for each 90-minute cast, and I edit it down, removing, “ums”, “ahs”, coughs, repetition and things that I just don’t think should make the final edit. It takes me about 8 hours to properly edit each 90-minute cast, and it’s a very intensive process.

Michael Dean podcasts with the Zoom H2

I record on a self-contained recording device called the Zoom H2, which I call “the studio on a stick.” I use a mic stand with a sock as a shock-mount to cut out vibration from the floor if a cat runs into the stand or if a truck goes by outside. I keep a flashlight handy to check the readout on the H2, because I have the H2 display set to turn off after one minute to conserve batteries so I don’t run out during a cast and lose a file.

Neema’s set up. Note the pillow acoustically isolating the external fan cooling the computer in front of the left monitor.

Neema records on his end into an old Dell Inspiron B130 laptop from 2006. (They don’t make that model anymore, here’s a newer, better one.) It’s hooked up to a second monitor because he cracked the screen trying to set it up for a drunk freestyle rap session in college. Here are its stats: 40 GB Hard Drive, 512 MB RAM Intel Celeron M Processor, Bus Speed 400Mhz. His DAW is Cubase SX.

Cubase with one track of mono

For the cast he just records one track of mono.

Voxformer

Before sending me the file, he masters with a plugin called Voxengo’s Voxformer. Neema says, “It makes my voice sound more clean and clear. I get great EQ and Compression all at once. For podcasting I use the Nice and Transparent preset.”

M-Audio Fast Track Pro External Audio Interface

Neema Vedadi Podcasts with the AKG Perception Mic

Neema uses a AKG Perception large diaphragm condenser microphone into an M-Audio Fast Track Pro external audio interface . This provides phantom power for the mic, processes audio, acts like a pre-amp and converts to a digital signal for the computer, which is delivered via USB. When podcasting he uses only one of its two XLR inputs.

Overall, Neema’s voice is a little brighter in timber and a little higher in pitch than my voice. My voice is slightly lower, deeper and fuller. (And overall, Neema’s outlook on life is a little brighter and mine is a little darker. Probably because I’ve been on this earth 19 years longer than him. lol.) Also, Neema likes to record vocals a little brighter and I like to record vocals with a little more bass. I like the way our two speaking voices mix. Neema’s voice is kind of like the soaring melodic lead guitar and mine is like the full, tight rhythm guitar.

I usually nap before podcasting, then drink a lot of coffee right before and during. Neema says “I drink an energy drink before the first segment and a beer or whiskey on the rocks after the second segment. When it’s all done I export MP3s and then e-mail them to Michael to edit all night. Then I go to bed with my wife.”

We make the rooms we record in as quiet as possible: turn off the AC, close windows, don’t record near refrigerators, etc. But while we do record with microphones relativly close to our mouths, we don’t record in a “dead” room. I do have a acoustically dead recording booth in my basement that I use for recording voiceover, but for podcasting, I prefer a slightly “live” sound (a living room with a mixture lots of rugs and curtians that absorb echos, but some wooden surfaces that are more acoustically reflective.) I think this sounds better and more natural than a lot of podcasts and talk radio, which go for an “NPR, isolated windowless recording studio” sound. Whereas Neema and I intentionally go for more of a “two buddies in the same room, yacking about freedom” feel, while still maintaining high-quality recording and production.

The reason we take breaks and do four 27-minute sections rather than one 110-minute session is to allow us to stretch, get beverages, and pee out all that coffee, energy drink, beer and whiskey, but also to keep the file from crashing on Neema’s computer or on my Zoom H2.

We usually record on Wednesday night, I stay up all night editing it and release it Thursday afternoon when I get up, or Thursday evening if I go to bed without finishing the editing.

I record my end as 16-bit stereo 44.1 kHz WAV files. Neema e-mails me his end as 128kbs 44.1 kHz Mono MP3 files. If we go over 27 minutes in a section and it’s too big to e-mail, Neema sends it to me via U-Send-It.

I edit using a fast ET1831 eMachines 64-bit PC with 4 gigs of RAM, a 700-gig hard drive, running Windows 7 Professional. Its processor is a Dual-Core Pentium 2.6 Ghz. This is the same computer we edited the movie on (using a $500 Vixia camera, Adobe Premiere and two external 1-terabyte eSATA hard drives. Information how we made the film is here and here.)

Neema and I both mix using the Logitech Speaker System Z523 with Subwoofer, an AMAZING system that sounds FAR BETTER than you’d imagine for the paltry price. I got mine on Amazon for 60 dollars post paid.

Mixing the audio in Sony Vegas Video 8

I pull Neema’s file and my file from the first 27-minutes into Sony Vegas Video 8. I started using Sonic Foundry Vegas 1.3 way back in 1997, before Sony bought it, back when it was only a multi-track audio program with no video support. There are better multi-track audio programs, but it’s what I’m used to and comfortable with.

I synch my and Neema’s tracks by scrubbing one left and right in the time line until they match, then go through and mute coughs and some places we talk over each other by adding points in the volume envelope. I pan Neema 18% to one side and me 18% to the other side. I check the overall volume mix of the two tracks to make sure they’re close, and render out as a mixed 16-bit stereo 44.1k stereo WAV file. Then I do this with the other three sections.

Before normalizing in SoundForge

Normalizing in SoundForge

After normalizing in SoundForge

Next I import each section into Sony SoundForge 9 and apply a “Normalize” filter (set to “speech”), to raise and even out the volumes a bit more.

Selecting an “um” to edit in SoundForge

After an edit in SoundForge

Then I listen to the file and edit out more coughs, burps, false starts, dead air and repetitions. This removes up to ten percent off the length of each section, and makes it sound a lot more snappy. This involves a lot of skill and experience to make it sound natural, especially with intuitively editing at the zero crossings to avoid glitches, and not over-editing which would make it sound unnatural. This is a very important part of how we make these episodes sound great.

During this process, I also add in any music, censor beeps (an A-440 sine wave generated from the “Synthesis” menu in SoundForge), and intros, like for our “Tyranny Today” and “Freedom Fix” segments. I save the file often, about once for every minute of program time….

Neema adds: “This is my music gear, used in the making of the Freedom Fix jingle and any other Neema hip-hop played in the cast or produced for the movie: Two Stanton C304 CDJs (basically CD players that act like Vinyl Turntables and a sampler/FX pad all in one), Numark DXM06 Mixer, Akai MPC500 Sampler/Drum Machine/Sequencer, and a Korg microKorg Synthesizer/Vocoder.”

Michael’s gear for DJ’s voiceover for the podcast and the movie (and for paid jobs we do on the side):

I use a Rode NT1A condenser microphone with a shock mount and pop filter. It’s housed permanently in a vocal booth I built out of an unused closet in the basement, using blankets and pillows as sound conditioning. There is a door on the booth. It’s the thing on the right covered with green fabric (the fabric is on the inside of the door when closed). We record in the basement because there is no external street noise down there.

The illumination I have in the vocal booth is an LED light, because an incandescent light would add both signal noise as well as slight actual audible humming that would be picked up by this highly sensitive microphone.

The microphone is powered by an SM Audio TB-202 rack-mount phantom-power two-channel tube-preamp, EQ and compressor, a unit that isn’t made anymore. (Here’s the single-channel equivalent, which still is made.)

I replaced the stock 12AX7 tube with this gold-pin Tungsol variant, which is made to sound exactly like the 1950s models, but better, due to the high-conduction gold pins.

I use a VERY small amount of compression with this unit, you can see my settings in the above photo of the face of the unit. Not enough compression to be noticeable and sound unnatural, but enough to make the recordings smoother.

Mic cables, you’ll need at least three. These are cheap and good. XLR male to XLR female Microphone Cable. Here’s a good microphone stand: On Stage Spotlight Tripod Microphone Boom Stand.

UPDATE: I no longer always use a mic stand, I have set up a permanent gooseneck tabletop mic mount, as in the photo above. For info on how to set on up, please see this blog post.

The TB-202 goes into an ALESIS MultiMix 8USB Audio Mixer/computer interface.

The Alesis mixer connects via USB to a Toshiba Satellite laptop which is not online and is dedicated to audio recording and editing. The headphones I use are Sony MDR-7506, the best you can find for under 100 dollars. (And if you’re a gun person, keep your gun nearby while you make freedom media. Because the Right to Bear Arms protects the Right to Free Speech!)

I record into SoundForge and edit & normalize as above. If I’m producing a multi-track project with music and sound effects, I edit in Vegas, as above.

I power all of this gear with a Furman H-8D rack-mount power conditioner to minimize hum in the signal. This unit is no longer made, but here is a comparable model, albeit without the nifty LED voltage readout. I have only two pieces of rack-mount gear, so I don’t bother mounting them in a rack. Fuzzy likes sitting on this unit because it’s warm.

For recording audio while filming video, I use a large condenser mic, the MXL M-3B silicon valve microphone. This is a prototype that was never put into production. It was given to me by the company. But they have a comparable model, here.

…I repeat my editing and chopping process for the other three sections. Then I add the podcast intro and outro and save as a single 16-bit stereo 44.1k WAV file. The reason I make an intermediate WAV file rather than just saving directly as an MP3 is so I can archive the WAV files, in case I ever have to edit anything and re-upload later. Editing an MP3 and re-saving again as another MP3 would degrade the fidelity.

I convert the WAV file to a 128k 16-bit joint-stereo 44.1k MP3 file. (For our very short bits, like our commercials, I convert to a 320k 16-bit joint-stereo 44.1k MP3 file for better fidelity. 320k would make too large a file for the full-length episodes.)

Many podcasters only encode at 64k rather than 128k to save file size, but this makes for a crappy sounding file, more like AM radio, whereas 128k Mp3s sound more like FM radio. The standard of 64k came about years ago when bandwidth was at a premium. But now that throughput is much cheaper, and almost everyone has DSL, I think it’s silly to compromise sound quality that much. Some podcasters claim “the average person can’t tell the difference”, but Neema and I are not “the average person”, and neither are our fans!

AudioCatalyst

For MP3 conversion, I use an old freeware utility that isn’t made anymore, called AudioCatalyst. Again, I use it because I’m used to it, but mainly because it’s good. I see no reason to discard old good tools just because something newer comes out.

TagScanner

I tag the MP3 files with meta info and add the Freedom Feens logo image using a freeware utility called TagScanner.

Next, I upload (using WS_FTP) the tagged MP3 to our website (hosted on the wonderful and inexpensive DreamHost), add the show notes, photos and video links, and release.

We run the Freedom Feens blog on the free publishing system WordPress with the free PodPress plugin (and for stats we use the WordPress plugin WassUp).

PodPress automatically updates the RSS file and then pings iTunes and Google. Then the episode goes swimming out automatically to your iPod or computer for your dancing and dining pleasure.

All of this is a hell of a lot of work for something that doesn’t really make any money. But we love using our skills and time to make something great for liberty.

Feel free to make a donation if you’d like, and please rate & review on iTunes and TELL TWO FRIENDS!

By Michael W. Dean

Note: before you go out and buy any equipment, especially if you’re new to recording, please also read my short article, “Microphone And Mixer Suggestions For Podcasting And Low-Power Radio.”

And if you work with editing files across the miles, please read this article.

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