Podcasts are back in style, and anyone with a decent mic and a good story can reach wide audiences. Although recording in a studio is the best way to get high-quality professional-sounding results, a good setup can be expensive and challenging to maintain. Podcast recording service Zencastr simplifies the process. In addition to making it easy to coordinate sessions with multiple people, Zencastr’s mixes sound great in our tests. However, Zencastr does not provide tools for hosting or publishing your podcast, which is a major limitation. For a true all-in-one option, however, aspiring and professional podcasters should take a look at our Editors’ Choice, Cast.
Plans and Platforms
For infrequent podcasters or those just getting started, Zencastr offers a permanently free Hobbyist account. With this account, you can host up to two guests and can record a total of eight hours per month. For Hobbyist accounts, Zencastr records tracks as 128Kbps MP3 files and charges per use of its Automatic Postproduction option, which starts at $3 per hour. Users who sign up for a Hobbyist account get a 14-day trial of the Professional account.
The next account tier, Professional, costs $20 per month, though the price goes down to $18 per month if you pay annually. In addition to offering an unlimited number of guests and recordings, the Professional account level also introduces a Live Editing Soundboard, 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV recordings, and 10 hours of automatic postproduction per month.
Although it’s not yet available, Zencastr also has a Commercial plan in the works. For a whopping starting price of $250 per month ($225 per month if paid annually) subscribers get everything in the professional account, plus the ability to manage multiple shows. You need to contact Zencastr directly for specific rates.
For comparison, Cast does not offer a free account. Cast’s entry-level option costs $10 per month. With this plan, you get 10 hours of recording time per month, unlimited editing and mixing, unlimited podcast hosting, and one RSS Feed. Cast’s $30 per month account increases the recording limit to 100 hours per month and removes the RSS Feed limit. Anchor, on the other hand, is completely free and does not impose any recording or processing limitations.
Zencastr officially works on both Chrome and Firefox, though the company recommends using Chrome. Zencastr supports devices on macOS (10.10 and later) and Windows (8.1 and later). In terms of hardware, Zencastr recommends you have at least 20GB of free space on your hard drive and 4GB of RAM for sufficient performance. For comparison, Cast only works via a Chrome desktop browser but it does support Linux devices. Anchor is the only service I’ve reviewed with mobile apps.
Prepare to Podcast
Before you even consider starting a podcast, you first need to define your topic, create a clear outline, and rehearse your lines. The more comfortable and organized you are as you go into your recording, the more natural and inviting the resultant podcast will sound. Remember, your voice is the only thing that comes through, so do whatever you need to feel relaxed and confident. If you need inspiration, take a look at PCMag’s roundup of our favorite podcasts.
Podcasting generally breaks down into five stages: planning, recording, mixing, hosting, and publishing. For recording your own audio (and the tracks of any other participants) you can use audio editing software like Audacity or Apple Logic Pro X, but Zencastr (and others) offer browser-based VoIP solutions, which are much easier for collaborative projects. As with other options, Zencastr creates separate audio tracks for each participant. Mixing audio simply entails combining all the individual tracks, while post-processing is for enhancing and cleaning up audio. Zencastr does both of these things.
In order to publish and distribute your podcast, you need to host your final mix somewhere, just as website owners need a web hosting service. Unfortunately, Zencastr does not help with any of these tasks–for that, you’re better off with Cast. To submit your podcast to any of the podcast stores or apps, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Castbox, you need to generate an RSS feed. Essentially, your podcast’s RSS feeds supplies services such as Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts with the information they need to add your podcast to their library. You need to find a different service for these steps if you choose Zencastr. For example, after you record and mix everything with Zencastr, you can upload the file to Anchor and publish and host your podcast for free.
Sign Up and Dashboard
To sign up for a Zencastr account, all you need is a username, email address, and password. I like that Zencastr does not require you to provide a payment method when you sign up for the Hobbyist account. Notably, Zencastr does not offer users anything in the way of two-factor authentication. Once you verify your account email, you arrive at the Zencastr Dashboard.
I like the Dashboard’s clean design and light purple accents, but I think a dark mode would also be great for late night podcasting sessions. In the middle of the screen, Zencastr displays a prominent Create New Episode button with a list of all previously recorded episodes listed below. You can archive your recordings at any point, but there aren’t any tools in place for organizing files into folders or sorting by any kind of metrics, such as name or date. The archive button simply removes the episode from the main list, though it is still accessible from the Show Archives list. You can see the details of your current plan in a menu on the right-hand side of the page.
Zencastr’s account settings are basic. You can edit your payment details, upgrade your plan, and change your email address or username.
Time to Record
When you hit the Create New Episode button, the first step is to type in a name for the episode. Keep in mind that the podcast name cannot be changed later. This is not necessarily a major issue, since, as I discuss later, you can’t actually publish your podcast from Zencastr and you can rename the final mix during external workflow steps. Next, Zencastr launches its podcast recording interface. Before playing with any of the controls, you need to give Zencastr permission to use your microphone, whether that be your computer’s internal mic or an external one. That’s pretty much all you have to do on your end. If your mic is set up correctly, the main waveform track (the one labeled with your profile name) should start fluctuating in response to any noises in your environment.
As for the rest of the interface, Zencastr places a prominent, purple Start Recording button in the upper right. Across the top of the screen, a large stopwatch timer sits to the right of up a small dashboard with up to four custom or preset audio clips (for an intro or transition, for example) you can play during your podcast. From the menu on the far right of the screen, you can access more detailed audio settings. For example, you can select what microphone you want to use and choose a VoIP service—either Zencastr’s default VoIP or Skype’s or Google Hangout’s. Users can also toggle the options for Monitor, which allows you to hear your own voice in real time, and Echo Cancellation,which gets rid of feedback noises.
The podcast-sharing link sits right below the top menu bar alongside a Timeline Footnote button for marking specific points of the podcast with important notes. One annoyance is that you can’t remove a timestamp note once you create it. If you accidentally click on the Footnote button, just don’t type anything in the name field and click away from the prompt. The waveform bar shows two icons to the left, a hand, for getting other contributor’s attention (presumably to avoid cross talk), and a Microphone button, for muting and unmuting your audio . Zencastr does give the host better control over the podcast then Cast. With Zencastr, you can mute participants or even kick them off the recording, but Cast does not let hosts do either.
Directly underneath the waveform bar, you can click on a tab to pull down more technical details on current system storage levels and the Health Check. The Health Check is a series of system tests pertaining to audio specs, computer resources, and storage space that Zencastr runs to make sure you are ready to record your podcast, broken down into Critical Checks and Warnings. If you are lucky, a green Passed note will show alongside each line, but Zencastr provides a support link next to each category if you do need to troubleshoot anything. For example, when testing in Firefox, initially the Health Check showed me an error next to the “It is recommended that access to local storage should be persistent” line. A quick dive into Firefox’s permissions and a page refresh solved this issue. Any issues you encounter should be simple to resolve.
The last element on the page is a chat module for communicating with all the other participants. The chat has basic functionality; it doesn’t support markdown editing or attachments, for example. That said, I still prefer Zencastr’s interface to Cast’s. Zencastr’s module looks more like a proper recording dashboard then Cast’s more utilitarian affair, though both are highly usable. Anchor’s desktop interface lags behind both. One particularly useful feature is that Zencastr lets you do several recordings under each episode, which prevents you from having to re-add participants or reconfigure mics.
You should get familiar with Zencastr’s tools and interface before recording for real, so you can keep track of the audio action as it unfolds. Also, try recording a dry run of a podcast episode to identify any potential technical issues. Once you are all set, go ahead and hit the Start Recording button.
Postproduction in Zencastr
After you finish recording your episode, it’s time to work on post-processing. Zencastr does offer a built-in processing tool and export options, but remember that Zencastr does not include publishing or hosting capabilities. Therefore, you need to download the final mix at some point and find a host.
To get started, click the Automatic Postproduction button in the middle of the screen. The pop-up window lets you can select which tracks you want to include in the final mix. Most people should select one track per speaker and ideally the highest-quality one available (a 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV for paid accounts).
Before you hit the Run Postproduction button, take a look at the Advanced Options. By default, Zencastr enables the Leveler (corrects volume differences between tracks) and Noise Gate (blocks background sounds during pauses) options. Aside from those, users can toggle the Cross Gate (analyze who is talking and decreases the other tracks) and Separate WAV Audio (processes each track individually) settings. The last tool is the Loudness Target, measured in LUFS (Loudness units relative to full scale). Leave this at the default value unless you have a specific need for a different target.
Zencastr limits the use of its automatic postproduction to 10 hours per month for the paid accounts, so make sure to use this resource wisely. Zencastr shows you your remaining allotment each time you submit a file. Processing only takes a couple of minutes at most and the download appears directly on the screen for easy access.
How Do Zencastr Recordings Sound?
To test podcast software’s audio quality, I set up two scenarios. For the first, I record a short vocal segment using my Chromebook’s built-in microphone to all the services under test at the same time to ensure identical conditions. I use the default post-processing tools for each service and download the final mix for listening. In this batch of tests, I had Zencastr, Cast, and Anchor (as well as the Anchor mobile app) all running simultaneously.
I also run a test with dedicated mics (the Razer Seiren and Turtle Beach Streaming Mic) alongside a colleague; we simulate a podcast episode by reading alternating paragraphs from a script. I can only run this test with Zencastr and Cast, since Anchor does not allow you to host multiple people on recordings from the desktop (our test mics connect via USB A). As with the first test, I record to Zencastr and Cast at the same time.
Most people have a different idea of what sounds best to them, so it is often difficult to pick an undisputed winner. From a technical standpoint, Zencastr produces 112Kbps MP3 files (you can download individual tracks in the 16-bit 44.1kHz WAV format), Cast’s final mixes are in 128Kbps MP3 format, and Anchor recorded a 127Kbps M4A File (69Kbps M4A from the mobile recording). All of these are fairly equivalent—except for Anchor’s mobile effort, of course. Despite the similar specs, I noticed clear differences in the final mixes. To evaluate audio quality, I consider a couple of factors: clarity, consistent (and sufficiently loud) volume levels, the absence of background noise, and naturalness of vocal tones. I listen to the recordings using industry standard Sony MDR 7506 over-the-ear headphones, which are known for their neutral sound signature.
For the first test (with my Chromebook’s built-in mic), Zencastr sounded the best. My voice sounded loud and clear, despite a slightly robotic tone. Cast’s recording had a consistent background hum throughout that was not present in Anchor or Zencastr’s mixes. The audio also sounded a bit muddy. Anchor’s desktop recording fell somewhere between the two, again not reaching Zencastr’s level of clarity. The recording with Anchor I took from my phone sounded worse than Cast’s. All services produced mostly usable results, but this test underscores the importance of using high-quality recording equipment.
For the second test with dedicated mics, Zencastr’s recording improved, as expected. The slightly harsh tones of the first recording mostly disappeared and the mix retained its clarity. Cast’s final mix also sounded cleaner, but the persistent background hum was still present. Again, this hum did not manifest in either of Zencastr’s voice tracks or the final fix. While a background hum can usually be eliminated with a bit of editing, this is just an extra step.
What’s Zencastr Missing?
It’s important to know that Zencastr is only a podcast creation tool; it is not a publishing or hosting solution. At some point, if you want to reach a podcast audience, you will need to do both of these things, so this is a significant limitation of Zencastr due to the extra costs associated with hosting your podcast and the hassle of transferring files to another account. Both Cast and Anchor have built-in publishing and analytics tools.
Unlike Anchor, Zencastr and Cast do not offer any mobile apps for recording. That’s fine, since you need to use desktop platforms to get the best recordings anyway. Still, the lack of a mobile presence may be a limitation for creators who work in the field instead of a studio or who tend to publish more ad-hoc podcast episodes. The best setup for your needs depends on your podcast’s content, style, and audience.
Excellent Recordings, Limited Features
Zencastr is an excellent and simple solution for recording podcasts. It solves the troubles of coordination, recording, and post-processing with an elegant workflow solution. Zencastr also produced the best-sounding mix of the services we tested. However, for the price, we wish Zencastr included hosting, editing, and publishing tools. Editors’ Choice Cast includes all of these missing features and is cheaper too; just be prepared to do some extra editing to bring it up to par with Zencastr’s audio quality.