Whether you've got an elf on your shelf or a menorah on your window sill, the holidays are a good time to ask for — or treat yourself to — some new toys. During this time of the year, I often stock up on technology that will help me find new creative outlets and help me develop new skillsets. If you're shopping for that special DJ in your life who's broadcasting from home or wants to create digital content outside of the station, here are some ideas:
1. A decent microphone
Prior to 2020, broadcasters only needed to own their own microphones if they were creating podcasts. But now that we're spending so much time on Zoom, it's become a crucial tool. After all, we're audio professionals; we need to send good under any circumstance.
For an inexpensive microphone that will give you decent sound, take a look at AudioTechnica's ATR2100 and ATR2005 (which are basically the same mic with a slightly different look), as well as Samson's Q2U. These are the mics that most podcasters start on, and they're what I use in the mobile rig that I use to record at CES and the Worldwide Radio Summit. They can be connected with USB or XLR cables, so they can hook up to a computer, a mixer, or a dedicated audio recorder. They'll run you less than $100 apiece.
If you're looking to level up your game, there are several more expensive mics that you should consider, including the Shure SM7B, the Electro-Voice RE20, the Heil PR 40, and the R0DE Procaster. Do some googling and you'll find audiophiles offering detailed comparisons. They may even lead you to other alternatives, but start by researching these stalwarts. If you have access to a broadcasting engineer, ask for advice.
2. Audio editing software
Every on-air personality should own audio editing software, even if they only use to produce an aircheck demo. If you are a Mac user, you can download Audacity for free. If you use it often enough, you'll inevitably run into its biggest limitation: the lack of realtime processing. On Audacity, if you make a bunch of edits to your audio, then apply some FX (compression, noise reduction, reverb, etc.), then make some more edits, and then decide you want to change the processing, you need to undo all of the edits you've made since you added the FX. Other audio editors lay the processing over the track so you can adjust it at any time without it affecting your edits. Sooner or later, this will be the reason you move beyond Audacity.
When you do, you have several options: Adobe Audition is the standard audio editing software in many radio stations these days, but it can be pricey. Reaper is a less expensive alternative. Also, look into Hindenburg, which is an audio editor that was created specifically for podcast creation.
Whichever you choose, I recommend supplementing your software with a scrub wheel. After spending years in a radio station studio cutting up phone calls on the fly with a VoxPro, I decided I wanted a scrub wheel of my own. I bought a ShuttlePRO v2 and mapped the keys that I use most when editing. It's not a smooth as the VoxPro's scrub wheel, but it has sped up my editing considerably.
3. A camera built for livestreaming
At this point, if you want to be an on-air personality, you need to get serious about video. That starts with a decent camera. If you're using a high end smartphone to stream, you may already be set; but if you're using whatever camera came built in to your computer, you can do better. The Logitech c920s is a camera that many YouTubers start their careers with. It costs less than $100.
Taking the next step up in stationary cameras will lead you to DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. The Canon EOS M50 is a popular but affordable place to start.
If you're willing to spend more, you can look into “Point Tilt Zoom” (or “PTZ”) cameras which enable you to capture multiple angles from the same device. Some, like the Mevo Start, achieve this digitally, while others, like the PTZOptics livestreaming cameras, physically move.
4. Video streaming software
While you can “go native” by streaming from directly within apps like Facebook and YouTube, you can raise your production values by using third-party software. While Zoom can be used to stream to social media platforms, it's really designed for meetings and webinars; there are better tools for broadcasts. Start with a browser-based application like StreamYard or BeLive. These will enable you to feature multiple guests, add video and text overlays to your stream, and respond to social media comments during your broadcast.
Ready for more? Consider dedicated broadcasting software such as eCamm Live (for Macs), vMix (for Windows machines), or OBS Studio (for both operating systems). Pair this with an Elgato Stream Deck and you can control your broadcast from a dedicated piece of hardware instead of your computer's keyboard.
If you want to look good on camera, lighting is crucial. If you're using your phone to record video, a simple selfie lighting ring may get the job done. Look for one that allows you to adjust the brightness as well as the warmth of the light. Selfie rings come in a variety of different sizes, from small rings that clip on to your phone or laptop to large rings that have a tripod and can hold your phone. If you're recording videos while you're out and about, you may also want to purchase as USB battery pack to power your ring on the go.
To take things even further, you'll want to learn about 3-point lighting. This method is the industry standard and a quick Google or YouTube search will provide plenty of tutorials. There are a number of different lighting kits that will enable you to light yourself this way. I'm Zooming from my home computer so often that I finally bought these wall-mounts to install simple LED light panels on either side of my computer screen. For larger productions, I purchased this portable setup from Neweer.
6. A wired internet connection
You're livestreaming on wifi? Or worse, using phone data? C'mon. Get serious.
7. Sound panels
If you're recording from home often enough, you'll want to take steps to ensure the best sound quality — including soundproofing a dedicated space. There are two types of sound treatment: “Soundproofing” prevents outside noises from getting into a room, while “sound absorption” or “deadening” prevents sound from bouncing around inside a room. Ask your broadcasting engineer for advice here, but the bottom line is this: Soundproofing is expensive — probably prohibitively expensive — while sound absorption costs considerably less. You can deaden a room by gluing foam panels on the wall or, for an even slicker look, you can build your own sound panels by following this tutorial from podcaster Ray Ortega:
8. R0DEcaster Pro
When I launched my most recent podcast, I wanted a recording rig that emulated a radio station studio. Unfortunately, there was no elegant solution at the time, so I was forced to cobble together a mixer, an audio recorder, a headphone splitter with an amp, and various other bits and pieces. Then R0DE introduced the R0DEcaster Pro, which was the all-in-one solution I had been craving. Podcasters can't stop raving about it, and I wholeheartedly agree. (If you want something to compare it to, you can also check out the Zoom LiveTrak L-8.) This piece of gear is unnecessary if you're simply conducting one-on-one interviews over the internet, but if you're looking to recreate the “morning zoo” format of radio, this is your Holy Grail.
9. A green screen
For months, I have relied on Zoom's virtual background feature to hide the clutter of my home office from colleagues. While it gets the job done and it has allowed me to join staff meeting from Greendale Community College and the Tardis, I would like a solution that looks more professional. Enter the green screen. I wish I had enough room in my house to make one a permanent fixture, but I don't, so I'm purchasing the Elgato green screen with a collapsable stand.
10. Adobe After Effects
I'm a professional radio broadcasters, and my perfectionism doesn't take a backseat when I cross into the world of video even though I have much less experience there. So just as I admire a radio station with great imaging production, I want my video streams to feature slick production, too. For a long time, I've fudged it using Powerpoint and iMovie, but I've decided it's time to sit down and do it proper using Adobe After Effects.
In addition to the software subscription, I also purchased an inexpensive online training course to teach myself how to use it. Courses like these can be an invaluable way to broaden your skillset. Don't be shy about asking Santa for one.
What's on your wish list this hear?